After an extremely difficult 2020-21 season the Toronto Raptors are coming back to Canada. The team looks much different than the last time they played at Scotiabank Arena. Only Pascal Siakam, Fred Vanvleet, OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are still on the roster. The team appears to be in a rebuilding phase, focusing on player development. Despite this, they still have plenty of talent. Of all the teams in the NBA the Raptors may have the highest variance to where they could finish in the standings.
In this two part feature, we are going to take a look at the best case and worst case scenario for this season. The primary 10 players in the rotation will be individually analyzed and given realistic outcomes on most pessimistic and optimistic possibilities. There won’t be anything that accounts for unexpected injuries or unexplainable growths/regressions. Based on this, we will establish a floor and a ceiling for how the 2021-22 Raptors could finish.
Lets start with the worst case scenario before looking at the best case next week.
Pascal Siakam is known for making big leaps in the offseason. We saw this after his first season – and especially after his second season leading to 2018-19 where he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. In 2019-20 Siakam came out looking like a top 15 player in the league. When the season paused, Siakam did not have access to proper training and the rust showed. He struggled mightily in the bubble in particularly in the series vs the Boston Celtics. Last season, with a short turnaround in the offseason he was solid but unspectacular.
With offseason shoulder surgery, Pascal Siakam misses 4+ weeks of the regular season and shows rust upon his return. The floor is still very high for Siakam but in this scenario he has not had time to develop any new skills, his three point shot remains broken, and he expresses more frustration as the losses pile up.
The expectations have never been higher for Anunoby. He has already established himself as one of the best and most versatile defenders in the entire league and has taken major strides offensively. Last season Anunoby averaged 15.9 points, on 48% shooting and 39.8% from distance. More impressively he showed improvement in his aggression, ball handling, and an ability to create in the mid range. These skills are far from mastered, but at the age of 24 there is reason to believe that he can improve further.
With great power comes great responsibility. Nurse runs too much offence through Anunoby which sees him improve his points per game at the expense of his efficiency. Further, the ball handling is not good enough for him to be an All-star ‘go to’ scoring option. With the added pressure on offence, his defense takes a minor slide. He will still be a very good defender, but proves unable to play at an All-defense level with too much energy exuded on offence.
Fred Vanvleet has arrived as a fringe All-star level point guard. He is an elite guard defender, a good (not great) playmaker, and a three point marksman. His leadership and presence in the locker room has been evident – and that will undoubtedly continue. Unless Vanvleet continues to follow Kyle Lowry’s path as a late bloomer, it is likely that he is what he is. Any team would love to have exactly what Vanvleet is. For Vanvleet, it is less about growth and more about playing the perfect role as the leader on and off of the court.
Without a primary ball handler alongside, Vanvleet struggles to create for others. His assists stagnate, his turnovers go up, and he is forced to take too many shots. He still averages around 20 points per game but not efficiently. This would mean that the young players won’t get the chance to grow like they would with Lowry as the floor general due to Vanvleet taking too many shots.
Gary Trent Jr.
Acquired last year in the Normal Powell trade, Trent had a lot of ups and downs in just 17 games with the Raptors. He was a plus 54 in his fifth game as a Raptor, hit a game winner in his sixth game, and in his ninth game he dropped 44 points. In contrast, Trent also shot 40% or lower on 10 plus shot attempts in 9 of his 17 games. A career 39.3% three-point shooter by itself is an asset. Trent has shown some minor signs of shot creation. Currently he is well below average in terms of play-making for a guard, but some potential is there.
Trent does not show any growth in his shot creation or playmaking. His defense takes no major steps forward. He continues to be a streaky shooter with slightly worse efficiency on similar volume to depreciate his trade value too. Essentially, Trent becomes a below-average defensive version of Danny Green.
After watching Aron Baynes and Alex Len, replacing them with Khem Birch felt like the Raptors added a prime Wilt Chamberlain. Birch set career numbers (in a limited sample size) while playing with the Raptors. His 11.9 points per game, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.9 assists were far and away above expectations for a player who was fighting for minutes with the lowley Orlando Magic. At 6’9, he isn’t a large ‘big man’. Birch compensates by playing strong and fast which plays perfectly in the Raptors offensive and defensive schemes.
The nineteen game played with the Raptors were just a hot streak. Birch returns to being a below average centre who averagely protects the rim and struggles with post defense against true big men. He is unable establish himself as a stretch five, and the search for a centre continues for the Raptors.
Since being drafted 4th overall by the Raptors in July, Scottie Barnes has endeared himself to the fans. His charming and infectious personality has pulled all of the right strings. In summer league he had some ups and downs, but overall it was promising. Barnes has great size, NBA-ready defense, and solid handles. The shooting is clearly the major area in question for Barnes. The shot looked iffy at best, but the good news is that he clearly isn’t afraid to take his shots.
This might sound funny, but a worst-case season for Barnes would look similar to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s rookie season. A low 40’s shooting percentage on a lack of shooting from distance, less than 10 points per game, and solid but not overwhelming defensive stats. The floor for Barnes should be higher than for Giannis coming out of the draft as a more known commodity. However, since the ceiling isn’t as high, this would not be an ideal start for Barnes.
Coming from Miami in the Lowry sign and trade, Dragic could find a nice role on the Raptors. A veteran playmaker could prove to be very valuable to a young team. He shoots the three well, and will be one of the better players on the team and creating his own shot. He is by no means an elite shot creator, but on this team he helps.
At the age of 35, Dragic shows further regression. He loses a step, suffers minor injuries, and never truly buys into being a Raptor. Not only does he not help the Raptors win games, he also lowers his trade value to potentially interested teams.
In a year of negatives, Boucher sticks out as one of the positive story lines. Tampa Bay was kind to Boucher as he had a career year with almost 14 points and over 38% three-point shooting. Often miscast as a centre, Boucher did struggle on the defensive end of the floor. He is a long, elite shot blocker but is very slender and often gets lost in Nick Nurses defensive tactics. For Boucher it is a matter of his offence remaining better than his defense to be effective.
Boucher continues to struggle with the Raptors system on defense. Additionally, he is forced to play centre as a result of struggles from other big men – to further hurt his defensive numbers. The three-point shot regresses back to the low 30’s – making his offensive value limited to lobs and put-backs.
The 2020-21 season for Flynn did not start well. He struggled to find a role with the Raptors before eventually getting sent to the G-League bubble. At this time he was very hesitant with his decision-making and his shooting was abysmal. After a solid run with the Raptors 905, Flynn came back and looked sharp. The Raptors had embraced the tank and Flynn benefitted from a larger role where he performed relatively well. He is far from showing any All-star potential, but he may have the upside to be a solid NBA level starter in a few years.
Flynn is a very fundamentally solid player so its unlikely that he pulls a Terence Davis and fails completely off the rails. The worst case for Flynn would be the inability to become a solid pick-and-roll floor general and to see his three-point shot remain in the low 30’s.
The second, and more exciting piece in the Lowry sign in trade was Achiuwa. He was drafted 20th by the Miami Heat in the 2020 draft and showed flashes of upside in his rookie season. Despite this, Achiuwa was unable to secure any major role with the Heat playing behind Bam Adebayo. This should not be the case in Toronto. He will have every chance to play his way up the lineup. In the summer league, Achiuwa was arguably the most impressive of all Raptors players as he showcased speed, ball handling, and even some shooting chops.
The floor is low but the ceiling is high for Achiuwa. The worst case could see Achiuwa unable to play any meaningful role on the team. In this case he likely struggles in the defensive system, does not develop his shooting, and is unable to forge any chemistry with the Raptors guards.
What would this mean for the Raptors?
In 2020-21, we witnessed the nightmare season for the Raptors. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. They finished 12th in the Eastern conference with a 27-45 record – and missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They played in a new country, had Covid issues, and even purposefully tanked in order to get to this rock bottom. However, it ended on a positive note with a bit of help from the lottery balls that saw them jump up to pick number four in the draft.
If somehow all (or most) of the outcomes above come true, the floor is not as low as it appears. The Raptors will almost undoubtedly be better than each of the Orlando Magic, the Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite the struggles, they will still compete for a 9th-10th seed and Play-in birth because the proven veteran talent on this team will bring them to that at a minimum. The only chance of them finishing lower involves catastrophic injuries or more purposeful late season tanking. The real worst-case in this scenario is the fact that the players aren’t developing and that the future may not be as optimistic as it appears to be given all of the under 25 talent on the roster.
Part 2: Best Case – To be released Sunday, October 3rd.