Blink and you’ll miss it, but the Toronto Raptors’ season officially begins tonight at 7:30 PM ET. That’s right, after a swift, three-ish month offseason, NBA basketball is back in a pandemic-ridden world.
With the annual pre-season matches done and over with, avid fans have a clearer image of the current iteration of the Toronto Raptors and how they may fare in this upcoming 72-game season. Pre-season basketball samples aren’t reliable, but it gives a glimpse at how physically ready players may be and what the coaching staff may lean on during an unprecedented year.
Before the season kicks off, I ask seven questions regarding the Toronto Raptors in their quest for success in the 2020-2021 season.
- Kyle Lowry Mania Will Last Forever… Right?
If the Raptors’ recent pre-season matchup against the Miami Heat is an indicator of this inquiry, it’s safe to say that Kyle Lowry will be in peak form for the next decade or two. The 15-year veteran look liked he was in mid-season shape as he recorded 25 points and 3 assists while shooting 6/10 from the three-point arc against the Heat. Lowry kicked off his pre-season debut with a bang by attempting a charge at half court as he harped on officials all night long.
Keep in mind, Lowry will enter this season as a 34-year-old, 6’0” guard who will turn 35 years old on March 25, 2021. *cue brain explosion noises*
As mentioned before, this is one meaningless, pre-season game and there are valid questions concerning how Lowry will hold up in a condensed season. According to FiveThirtyEight’s player projections, Kyle Lowry will maintain his usual All-Star level performances in the regular season. Once the playoffs roll around, the mileage on his body consumes him as his overall production nosedives.
Looking back at NBA history, Kyle Lowry is in a category of his own, as there isn’t a precedent regarding his circumstances. There’s been a handful of guards with a similar skill-set to Lowry’s who have aged gracefully, but none of them strike enough resemblance to his situation. Someone like Chauncey Billups and Sam Cassell are examples of guards in their mid-30s who recorded All-Star/near All-Star level numbers. Despite this, Billups tore his Achilles tendon when he was 35 years old, while Cassell’s numbers dropped off a cliff after his 2004 All-Star appearance where he was 34 years old.
It seems like Kyle Lowry will be the good ‘ol, lovable bear he has been for the past few seasons. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the coaching staff sits him on the odd back-to-back game or two, since the schedule is tightly compact. After all, Nick Nurse mentioned to the public that the coaching staff would watch Lowry’s minutes, especially at the beginning of the year.
One thing is for certain, appreciate Kyle Lowry before it is too late.
2. Can Fred VanVleet Improve His Skills as a Pick and Roll Ball Handler? What About Efficiency in Finishing at the Rim?
Fred VanVleet is at his best as an ancillary guard; moving off the ball, shooting off the catch and making plays as the secondary ball handler. He’s one of the peskiest point of attack defenders in the league, sticking onto his man like white on rice. What he’s not so terrific in is his ability to generate offence as a ball-handler in the pick and roll. In the 2020 postseason, VanVleet ranked in the 11th percentile in scoring efficiency as a pick and roll ball handler, per NBA.com.
When an NBA offence is bogged down, the pick and roll is the go-to play type to carve out scoring avenues. It is a staple in offensive systems and this won’t change for the foreseeable future. In a subpar half-court offence, Fred VanVleet cannot create advantages through the pick and roll. It’s one of the few deficiencies that holds him back from growing into a reliable main ball handler. If VanVleet can at least turn into an average – above average pick and roll ball-handler, he may see himself within the All-Star conversation.
Another weakness to watch for this season is Fred VanVleet’s inability to finish at the rim at an efficient rate. At a generous 6’1” frame, weighing in at 197 lbs, VanVleet is at an unfair advantage when he is tasked to finish over the towering trees of the NBA. To his credit, he garners an inordinate amount of drives to the rims per game, but his lack of efficiency in this range is underwhelming. Unlike Kyle Lowry, VanVleet cannot use his stature as an advantage and instead uses magnificent touch to finish the play. These beautiful finishes are flashy and attract the eyes of the average fan, but it doesn’t draw many advantages compared to Lowry’s rim finishing tendencies.
If Fred VanVleet could noticeably improve on one of these departments, his four years, $85 million deal looks like a bargain. If he refines both blemishes, that would exceed all expectations as he’d mail in an interesting case as an All-Star candidate.
3. How Much Impact Will Chris Finch Make On The Middling Half-Court Offence?
Nick Nurse’s great British buddy, Chris Finch, was welcomed to the Toronto Raptors’ coaching staff when Nate Bjorkgren left to spearhead the Indiana Pacers. Finch is renowned as one of the greatest offensive gurus in the NBA, making a name for himself in his stints in New Orleans, Denver and Houston.
Ever since Kawhi Leonard left for the bright lights of Los Angeles, the Toronto Raptors have struggled to stir offensive opportunities in the half-court. This was the case during their playoff matchup against the Boston Celtics. The Celtics did a fantastic job in limiting the Raptors’ elite transition attack, leaving them to rely more upon their half-court creation abilities. This sometimes led to broken plays and chaos, resulting in an inefficient shot. Pascal Siakam struggled to get a rhythm going and did not look like his All-NBA 2nd Team self. Kyle Lowry was relied upon to carry the team night in and night out while Fred VanVleet was on and off. Norman Powell revealed his streaky side throughout the postseason, and O.G. Anunoby was the only consistent figure on the floor for the Toronto Raptors.
A coach in the NBA can only do so much for their team, as Finch’s impact on the game will be limited. Despite this, Chris Finch has gone on the record to say that he desires to create unpredictability on the offensive end and that he sought to work on the team’s cutting abilities. On top of this, Finch has mentioned that he wants to work in some plays for Pascal Siakam, which would help offload the defensive attention he gets when it’s postseason time.
Time will tell how Chris Finch will affect the Toronto Raptors’ half-court offence who lost two key cogs in their connector (Marc Gasol) and floor spacer (Serge Ibaka).
4. Is Chris Boucher Ready To Step Up?
Blake Murphy of The Athletic put it best on the Dunc’d On Basketball NBA Podcast when he described Chris Boucher as a “high-event player”. Whenever Boucher is on the floor, something notable will happen, whether or not it benefits the team.
Taking it back to the Toronto Raptors’ first pre-season match against the Charlotte Hornets, Chris Boucher followed two impressive blocks with one poor shot attempt and a travel. Two games later, he torched the Miami Heat from the three-point line by making all but one of his four three-point attempts.
As of today, Chris Boucher is arguably the streakiest player on the team. On both sides of the floor, Boucher gives the team sparks of energy as a lanky forward. He’s willing to let it fly from downtown with an unorthodox jumper, and he’s able to put back missed shots at a high level. On defence, Boucher is at his best as a back-line defender, somebody who acts as a weakside rim protector. Boucher can’t be relied upon to anchor an effective defence as he’ll get bullied by opposing big men/burly forwards. Not to mention, he has a penchant for jumping at anything that resembles a shot attempt.
The losses of big men Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have opened a gaping hole within the Raptors’ frontcourt. While the additions of Aron Baynes and Alex Len help patch this opening, the frontcourt minutes are still a toss-up as Baynes is the only big man with a solidified role on the team. This leaves Boucher and Len duking it out for the backup big man minutes.
Is Chris Boucher good enough to stamp his name on the Raptors Rotation? Or will he be nothing more than a situational chess piece?
5. Will We See A Trade Before The Trade Deadline?
Look away Norman Powell because any sort of trade talks would involve the 27-year-old guard. Powell is currently under contract for this year, earning around $11.6 million with the option to opt-out of his deal in the 2021 offseason. This makes Norman Powell an expendable asset as he’s a fantastic regular season player who can lead offensive units off the bench. His contract is hefty enough to garner a notable name in the trade market while maintaining its status as a team-friendly deal.
The Toronto Raptors are guard-heavy as they lack size/talent within the frontcourt. If the likes of Aron Baynes, Alex Len, and/or Chris Boucher are not playing up to standards, the front office may look to bolster the big man position by dealing away some valuable assets. Perhaps, the Raptors would aim to consolidate a position as rotation players have stepped up to open the possibility of a consolidation move.
Alongside Powell could stand someone like Terence Davis, Chris Boucher, Patrick McCaw and some other bench pieces as potential trade bait. Not to mention, the Raptors hold all of their first-round picks for the foreseeable future.
We’ve all heard about the James Harden rumours and the divide it has caused within the fanbase. Perhaps a more realistic trade would be for someone who’s not an MVP calibre player and instead is an above-average starter who has the potential to grow into an incredibly valuable player (*cough* Myles Turner? *cough*).
Without Giannis Antetokounmpo to drag away from the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 free agency, the Toronto Raptors don’t need to be stingy with salary for this upcoming offseason. This could open up a potential trade during the season as the franchise strives to stay competitive. And who knows, another big-time star could want out of a poor situation. The Raptors have the capital to swoop in trade talks and gun for another title.
6. Will O.G. Anunoby Take The Leap?
Ah, O.G. Anunoby. How can you not adore this man? The guy doesn’t shoot trying to miss, and his robotic-nonchalance is impossible to root for.
In the Bubble, Anunoby showed flashes of offensive scalability as he was dynamic with the ball as a shot creator. Coming into the 2020-2021 season, it seemed as if O.G. Anunoby was primed to take the offensive leap everyone clamoured about. Heck, many were quick to crown Anunoby as their choice as the 2021 Most Improved Player, and others were brave enough to say that he was the player with the highest upside on the roster.
One factor that will determine his offensive growth is the number of touches he gets with the ball. Throughout his three-year career, O.G. Anunoby’s usage percentage floats around 12% – 16%. He is often underutilized in offensive sets, and this could hold him back from reaching his sky-high offensive ceiling.
Sometimes it falls on the shoulders of the coaching staff as they have to trust O.G. Anunoby to be the primary offensive initiator and run more plays around him. Perhaps an increased dosage of post touches for him. On other occasions, it comes down to Anunoby himself as he needs to be confident in his abilities to break down the defence and look to score instead of laying off the ball to a teammate near him.
O.G. Anunoby has the skills and tools to make a name for himself as an offensive initiator. It all comes down to whether or not the 23-year-old forward can put it all together.
7. What’s The Best-Case Scenario For This Team?
Let’s be real for a moment or two. With the current roster the Toronto Raptors possess, their end of season outcome will more than likely be a second-round exit. Perhaps a first-round exit depending on the matchup. The Raptors don’t boast a proven #1 banana on a championship team and are instead littered with perfect supporting players for championship rosters. The Toronto Raptors are good, but not good enough.
Now, let’s say that Siakam is back to his 2nd All-NBA ways and shows that he can be relied upon to be a #1 scoring option. Anunoby evolves into a Super Saiyan, 3-and-D wing who consistently shows offensive pop. Kyle Lowry is his usual self as he doesn’t look a day over 30 years old and Fred VanVleet puts up borderline All-Star numbers. The frontcourt performs okay, but good enough to maintain their elite defensive numbers.
So, where does that take the Toronto Raptors? Are they better than Milwaukee, Brooklyn and other Eastern Conference contenders? Could the team make it to the NBA Finals?
Well, we will never know unless our wildest dreams come to fruition.
The team is spearheaded by a reliable #1 scorer in Siakam while Anunoby, Lowry and VanVleet are capable of self-creation on offence. Not to mention, the squad maintains its elite defensive capabilities despite the departure of Marc Gasol.
I will say that this dream scenario is likely to produce an Eastern Conference Finals berth with an NBA Finals appearance being unlikely. But hey, who knows, anything can happen in crazy times such as today.
(Photo: Chris Carlson / The Associated Press)