NBA

Toronto Raptors 2022-23 NBA preview: Can Pascal Siakam take the next step and become one of the game’s elite?

This was a rather low-key offseason for Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors. Aside from signing Otto Porter Jr. in free agency, the only other noteworthy item from the summer was that they sniffed around in the Kevin Durant trade market before the superstar forward returned to the Brooklyn Nets.  

Durant was never traded in part because no team was willing to pay the price the Nets were demanding. For the Raptors, that meant keeping reigning Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes off the table. Once they reportedly told the Nets that asking for Barnes was a “non-starter,” there was never any hope of a deal. 

Their faith in Barnes is well-placed after an excellent rookie season in which he put up 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game while making an impact on the defensive end that is rarely seen from players his age. More broadly, though, it reaffirms the belief they have in their organizational ability to get the best out of everyone who walks through the door. 

Whether it’s Barnes, Pascal Siakam, or Fred VanVleet, players get better in Toronto and the team often exceeds expectations under head coach Nick Nurse. They did so last season and will have to do so once again if they want to compete at the top of this loaded Eastern Conference. 

Key changes

  • Signed Otto Porter Jr. in free agency

  • Drafted Christian Koloko with the No. 33 overall pick

Roster

Top of the key: The experiment continues

A team consisting entirely of interchangeable wings was just an interesting thought experiment until the Raptors brought it to life last season. Save for Fred VanVleet, every player that was a significant part of the rotation was between 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-9. It was fitting, then, that their only significant free agent acquisition was the 6-foot-8 Otto Porter Jr.

They do have a 7-footer on the roster now in second-round pick Christian Koloko, but it’s hard to imagine him earning a major role any time soon. And so, the experiment will continue this season. But to what end?

Last season proved that it’s possible to build a viable playoff team this way. The Raptors’ toughness, athleticism and versatility gave them a number of advantages and made them difficult to beat. But last season also showed that there’s a ceiling to this approach, especially when you come up against an elite big in the playoffs — and there are plenty of them in the Eastern Conference. 

Porter is a solid player who will improve their depth, but he’s no star and he has a long history of injury problems. Barnes is awesome and will continue to improve, but you can only ask so much from a second-year guy. Precious Achiuwa has a lot of promise, but we need to see more of a sample size. How, then, do the Raptors get to the next level? We know the floor is quite high and they’ll be a playoff team, but can this group ever be more than that?

Next up: Top-five Siakam?

Amid a busy and dramatic media day, it was understandable that Pascal Siakam’s personal goal went under the radar: “I’ve been All-NBA, I’ve been an All-Star. I want to be a top-5 player in the league,” Siakam said. “I want to be one of the best, and I’ll do everything I can to work towards that.”

That’s a lofty goal — as well as being an unrealistic one — given the talent at the top of the league these days, but Siakam has quietly been All-NBA in two of the last three seasons and has had some dominant stretches along the way. Over 16 games last March, for example, he averaged 25.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 52.2 percent from the field and 42.6 percent from 3-point land, while playing strong defense. 

He’ll need to play at that level — particularly the 3-point shooting department — on a consistent basis this season if he figures to be part of that elite player conversation. But if he’s able to do so, that would be one of the pathways to the Raptors improving overall as a team. 

One more thing: Do they have the offense?

There are very few questions about the Raptors’ defense. They have the athleticism, versatility and coaching to be one of the best teams in the league on that side of the ball. But whether they have the offensive firepower to trade blows with those squads on the championship track — especially come playoff time — remains to be seen. 

Last season, they finished 15th in offensive rating, scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions, and really struggled shooting the ball. They were 19th in 3-pointers attempted at 34.2 per game, 20th in 3-point percentage at 34.9 percent and 27th in true shooting percentage at 54.3 percent. All of those numbers fell in the playoffs. 

With Porter as their only notable offseason acquisition, it’s hard to see how they make any significant improvements in those areas. They can rise up via more consistent play from Siakam and a Barnes leap, but is slightly better than average going to be enough?

Key games

  • Oct. 19 vs. Cavaliers: The Raptors’ home opener comes against the new-look Cavaliers who will be eager to show they belong as a top-six team — perhaps one that will knock the Raptors down to the play-in.

  • Oct. 26 and 28 vs. Sixers: Philadelphia will come to Toronto for two games in the span of three days. The early-season mini series, which is a rematch of last season’s first-round series, could be a statement if the Raptors manufacture a sweep. 

  • Jan. 4 vs. Bucks: This is the Raptors’ first ESPN game of the season, and it will come at home against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Any time the best player in the world comes to town it’s a key game.



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