When a child is given their first cookie after dinner, it’s very rare that you see them satisfied upon gobbling it down: they always want more. Even after accomplishing the original goal of having a lingering sweet taste in their mouth, they’re unfulfilled.
When an NBA fanbase is given their first NBA Championship, there’s much of the same. While the child may only wait a few hours prior to earning their next treat, Toronto Raptors fans had been out of commission for 131 days before they could even get a sniff of theirs.
The NBA is finally back, so henceforth, so are its Champions. The eagerly-awaited 2019-2020 NBA Season tipped off on Tuesday night at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto as the Raptors squared off against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Rightfully so, the team with the rings was victorious in an overtime thriller where Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet joined elite company as teammates to both score 30+ points on opening night. A couple days afterwards, the Raptors took a loss at the hands of Jaylen Brown and the Boston Celtics due to some poor 4th quarter performance, but finally managed to bounce back on Saturday night in Chicago against the Bulls with a convincing 24-point win, to wrap up the first week of basketball.
Had the team lost on Saturday night, which was also Kyle Lowry’s 500th game as a Raptor, it would have been their first time with a losing mark in the regular season since 2014, when the team’s roster included the likes of Chuck Hayes, Tyler Hansbrough, and Lou Williams.
Though we’re still only three games into the season, Nick Nurse has already begun experimenting with his lineups, and some of the team’s strengths and weaknesses are revealing themselves. Here are 5 storylines for Raptors fans to keep an eye on for the remaining 79 games of the regular season.
- Go long on OG Anunoby, short on Marc Gasol
In investing terms, this is the way of saying that OG is on his way up to the top floor, while Gasol resembles a less tragic version of the Titanic. Coming into the season, fans had unreasonable expectations of Anunoby, hoping for him to ascend to the top of the NBA’s ranks like Pascal Siakam did last year. Now, that expectation looks a little bit more reasonable. We knew from the preseason that OG’s offensive game had evolved radically, however the application of those skills to tighter schemes and stronger defenses through the first three regular season games has been seamless. In 33.0 minutes per game, he’s putting up 12.3 points and pulling down 7.0 rebounds per game on career-high effective field goal and true shooting percentages, in addition to being a stud on the defensive end, allowing opponents to shoot only 34.8% when guarded by him.
On the other hand, the Raptors’ defensive anchor during last year’s playoffs, Marc Gasol, has struggled mightily through the first three contests. Perhaps, forecasting that his career is dwindling down is harsh. Potentially, his 34-year-old legs just need a bit of a break after leading Spain to the FIBA gold medal this summer, but he’s been underwhelming thus far to say the least. He appears to be a step slower on defense, and while his greatest asset on that end of the floor was never his ability to stay in front of guards on the perimeter, that lag is negatively affecting his interior defense too. Against the Celtics, he was a liability on both ends of the floor, which forced Nick Nurse to turn to Serge Ibaka down the stretch of the game. Besides his slower feet, Gasol needs to do a better job of rebounding the basketball. Right now, he’s averaging a career-low 6.3 rebounds per game, and had he been able to dominate on the glass against smaller matchups in Boston, he would have provided valuable opportunities to score second chance points, or get out in transition. Rather, Toronto lost the battle on the glass by 10, and will have to wait until Christmas to even the season series with their division rivals.
- Rookies in the rotation
For the first time since OG Anunoby dazzled in the 2017-2018 season, Raptors fans are in for an opportunity to root for their own rookies. Throughout the first three games of the season, Matt Thomas and Terence Davis Jr. have combined to average 18.7 minutes per game off the bench, and that figure should only climb as the season progresses. Given Nick Nurse’s discontent with Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, it seems as though the bench minutes on the wing are wide open. While Patrick McCaw is set to return to the lineup soon after suffering a knee injury during pre-season, he’ll likely eat into more of Kyle Lowry’s and Fred VanVleet’s court-time, who are both currently seeing over 39 minutes per game.
With how Thomas and Davis have capitalized in their roles thus far, they could independently find themselves as a part of Nurse’s core rotation going forward. Davis has been a coach’s favourite since the start of training camp, and flashed his potential during the preseason when he capped an 8 point outing with this monster dunk. He plays within his role to a high degree, showing that he can be one of the best perimeter defenders on the roster, while serving as a floor-spacer and lethal cutter on offense – a quintessential complimentary piece to someone like Marc Gasol.
Conversely, Matt Thomas had cavernous questions surrounding his ability to defend coming in. It was well-known that he could shoot the basketball as well as anyone, but he didn’t have the size or athleticism to stop NBA-caliber guards, and if defending with him on the floor was a 4-on-5 game, he ultimately wouldn’t provide enough value to crack the rotation. During the preseason, he appeared to answer our question with resounding incapability, however in his regular season debut on Saturday against the Bulls, he posted a plus-minus of +18 in just under 20 minutes, and proved that he’s capable locking in and getting the job done on both ends of the floor. It’s a trivial sample size, however for what it’s worth: among everyone averaging more than 5.0 minutes per game, Matt Thomas is leading the league in defensive rating, at just 61.4. If he is even a fraction as solid defensively moving forward, Nurse will have another real weapon at his disposal.
- No clear-cut second option
Coming into the season, one thing was clear: this is Pascal Siakam’s team. While last year, there was a lot of discussion over who was truly the second scoring option on the team after Kawhi Leonard, we haven’t heard any of those rumblings yet this year. Maybe it’s time to start discussing: in the first game against the Pelicans, Fred VanVleet had a career night with 34 points. Whether he just had the hot hand, or Nurse has decided that he’s the second most offensively gifted player on this team now, he had the second most field goals attempted after Spicy P. On Friday night against Boston, it was Kyle Lowry serving as Siakam’s right-hand man, but then on Saturday against Chicago, it was VanVleet again.
In the grand scheme of things, whoever the team’s second and third options are truly doesn’t matter, however these first few games have at least been an indication that VanVleet is set to play a bigger role than we had originally expected. Based on last season’s rankings, the hierarchy probably had Lowry second and Ibaka third in the pecking order, but if Freddy is ready to take that next step (which he’s showing that he is), then this team could be even better than we originally thought.
- Siakam’s effortless stats
If you had watched all of the games without listening to any commentary, checking box scores, or refreshing your Twitter feed, you would not have guessed that Pascal Siakam ranks 7th in the league in points per game with 28.7, 4th in field goals attempted per game with 21.0, and 18th in rebounds per game with 10.7. Well guess what… he does. With how Siakam has been able to create his offense within the flow of the game, not calling for isolations as we see most high-volume scorers do, it’s hard to believe that his stats are as astounding as they are. I wouldn’t expect him to sustain these numbers for much longer, but if he’s able to continue providing a spark without disrupting or slowing down the offense, he’ll surely be an All-Star, and could make a strong case to be put on one of the All-NBA teams.
- Trades could come sooner rather than later
It’s hard to acknowledge, but if this team doesn’t prove that they’re actually capable of competing for a championship amongst the league’s goliaths, the roster by the end of February could look different from how it does right now. The top trade candidates are the three veterans nearing the end of their deals; Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, and Marc Gasol. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski state in this podcast, Kyle Lowry’s recent extension could make him even more appealing to contending teams hoping to make a push at the trade deadline. The only way that the Raptors would see benefit in having a fire sale is if they truly see no chances of making it back to The Finals, and opt to go full-rebuild mode around the Siakam-Anunoby-VanVleet trio.
The trades that could come earlier in the season would likely revolve around the bottom-of-the-bench pieces, such as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, or Stanley Johnson. They both still have a reputation for being good defenders, and hold positive trade value, both being on the right side of 25. If Nurse is truly disinterested in using them as a part of his rotation, Masai Ujiri might be better off shopping them, and getting a piece in return who can add value to the team right now. An intriguing trade partner to keep an eye on could be the Golden State Warriors, who were previously rumoured to explore trade options for their newly acquired D’Angelo Russell if they were to underperform, and after being deflatingly blown out in their first two outings, that possibility seems like more of a probability. It would take more than a couple of bench pieces to swing a deal like that, but we’ll see where it goes: we’re still less than a week into the season, after all.
But let’s stay optimistic. The Raptors are 2-1, and are coming off a convincing win against the Bulls. There are 7 players on this team who can really hoop, and could probably start for most of the teams in the league. The bench needs a bit of a bolster, but the rookies are showing that they might be just that. Siakam and the squad are back at it on Monday night at 7:30 PM as they welcome the Orlando Magic to the Scotiabank Arena, when we’ll savour another 48 minutes of Raptors basketball, and keep an eye on a few of these themes.