If there’s anything to be taken away from the Toronto Raptors’ recent three-game losing skid, it’s that this team needs some more time to grow into its newfound identity. And that’s okay. The Raptors and their fans should know by now that this regular season nonsense is all just practice – the real test comes in April.
That doesn’t mean that the Raptors can just coast through the next 65 games. Rather, the primary goal of the next few months is to create a well-oiled machine, a multifaceted organism built from 15 unique, individual cells. To put it more simply; Nick Nurse has to figure out what the ideal expectations – and limits – are for each of his players. There are a lot of talented pieces on this team, make no mistake about it, but talent alone will not be enough to achieve the end goal – a championship. The Raptors are looking to become a great team, and great teams have great identity.
Identity was the biggest difference between the 2013 Golden State Warriors and the ones that have had a stranglehold on the current-day NBA. Yes, they have several of the best basketball players in the world, but more important than that, recent Durant-Green drama aside, is that they have a system that has allowed them all to thrive without getting in each other’s way.
So, as contradictory as it might sound, Toronto’s championship dreams can’t rest on the backs of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Those two will absolutely need to be at their best. But, as LeBron James can tell you; when it comes to the Warriors; there’s only so much that one man, or in this case two, can do. If this is going to be the year that the Raptors exorcise some demons, it will be the result of a full team effort. Multiple players will need to perfectly execute their roles.
The three role players most integral to the Raptors’ championship hopes:
People have been talking about how good Serge Ibaka has looked since the second game of the season. I’m sure you’ve all heard stuff like “Well, Ibaka’s finally living up to that contract!” or “Yeah, he’s been a really pleasant surprise for sure.” Can we please stop beating around the bush?
For just one moment, forget about Kawhi’s MVP-level play, Lowry’s assist numbers, or Siakam’s early emergence – Serge Ibaka has been playing like an all-star this year. He has finally found his identity.
Everything about his game this season has been plain mean. Whether it’s been unguardable hook shots; ferocious rim protection, or embarrassing the Lakers on primetime at Staples Centre, Serge has been near flawless. He’s averaging more points than he ever has, on higher efficiency than he’s ever had, and oh, by the way; he’s only playing 26.8 minutes a night. The last time he averaged less than 27 minutes was in 2009, when he was a rookie.
Shifting over to the center position has allowed a renaissance of Ibaka’s talent, and if what we’re seeing now is the real deal, then his play will be a game-changer. The Raptors won 59 games last year despite lengthy stretches where he was almost unplayable as a stretch-four. Ibaka’s playing a huge role in elevating the ceiling of this team.
The only thing he should look to improve is his rebounding. Set his current role in stone and hope it never cracks.
Forget what I said just now about forgetting Pascal Siakam.
There was an ominous energy around Siakam’s offseason. He kept showing up in highlight videos; dominating Drew League games; Rico Hines workouts; you name it. But the hype only really seemed to peak in mid-October, when ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said “My jaw hit the floor watching Pascal Siakam”, before going on to mention scouts he’d talked to that were comparing Siakam to Golden State’s own Draymond Green.
Well, the hype is being delivered on.
In just over two years, Siakam has gone from “the player the Raptors took instead of Skal Labissiere”, to one of the most exciting young talents in the NBA. He’s always been a special talent in transition, but this year he’s started to figure out how to dominate the game at a stand-still. He’s been a match-up nightmare.
In flashes, Siakam has shown an ability to singlehandedly take over a game. You’ve definitely heard his name. He’s been unbelievably good, the only question is – can he be great? Because as good as he’s been, the mystery of his ceiling remains unsolved. Some believe he’s on an inevitable path to all-stardom. Some aren’t sure that he’ll ever get there.
What he can become in three years is totally irrelevant. The Raptors are trying to win a championship this year, and that means Nick Nurse needs to figure out what Siakam is right now. That means putting the ball in his hands more and giving him more room to express his growth.
If he sinks, he sinks.
If he swims, well. Watch out.
I thought about putting Danny Green in this spot. I also thought about putting OG Anunoby in this spot. Jonas Valanciunas also crossed my mind.
Ultimately, though, I decided that the venerable title of “third most integral role player on the 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors” should go to Fred VanVleet. Here’s why:
When Fred is playing with confidence – the entire team plays better. He’s got that special sauce. Last year, the Raptors were pretty much daring opposing teams to play their bench units, because it was known that Fred VanVleet and the Bench Mob had the power to put games to bed in the blink of an eye.
He’s struggled this year. He needs to wake up. On paper, there is even more talent on the Raptors’ bench now than there was last year. Can you imagine this team’s ceiling if the reserves can even somewhat recapture the magic that last year’s unit had?
Unlike Siakam, VanVleet’s role this season is clear. The problem so far has been that he’s trying to overstep that role. Toronto doesn’t need him taking deep pull-up threes in transition. They also don’t need him to force tough shots at the rim. Fred’s basketball mind is his most valuable attribute. His role isn’t to singlehandedly carry the load – it’s to get everyone on the floor to do their part.
When he figures things out, I expect the rest of the bench to line up behind him. And when that happens, the Raptors will be hard to beat.