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.
After looking that the worst-case last week, lets take a look at the best-case.
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.
Despite having offseason surgery, Siakam shows that he was still able to polish his skills and looks well-prepared for the season. He misses only 1-2 weeks and comes out looking fresh. His three-point shot returns to mid-high 30’s, his touch around the rim returns to form, and his play making takes another leap. Essentially, Siakam looks like the early 2019-20 version of himself where he is All-Star and All-NBA level with added playmaking. He makes the All-Star team and the 3rd All-NBA team while averaging around 24 points, 7.5 rebounds, and between 4-5 assists. Additionally, he is able to maintain a high level of defensive play where he gets consideration for an All-defense selection..
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.
Anunoby shows that he can be another on-ball scoring threat to take pressure off of Siakam. His ball handling takes the biggest leap of any skills set allowing him to create more for himself. He becomes a legitimate secondary scoring option who can break zone-defenses when teams inevitably take this strategy against the Raptors. Anunoby only needs to average 18-21 points due to his importance of focusing on the defensive end. There will be some big scoring outputs, and some nights where he only scores 10-12 points. The NBA voters will finally notice Anunoby as his status grows, leading to consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year award as well as being an All-Defensive selection (which is already overdue).
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.
Since Siakam and Anunoby are able to score and create, the pressure comes off Vanvleet to do so. He can play more off-ball and focus on relocating and catch and shooting on offense. The the scoring will drop but the efficiency will go up. Due to more focus on the wings, Vanvleet has more space to operate in the pick-and-roll. He improves his playmaking when he is on-ball and develops chemistry with the Raptors big men. The elite defense leadership stays intact, and Vanvleet has a Kyle Lowry esque ability to drive wins.
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.
Barring any major leaps for Trent, the best case doesn’t involve much more than consistency. Ideally, Trent will average 15-18 points on close to 40% from three-point range. Instead of having 40 point games and 5 point games, he stays in the 10-25 point range in the majority of games. It would be a bonus is he can improve on his shot creation and play making as well. The improvement only need to be minor, as the Raptors don’t need Trent to be a primary on-ball threat but a bit of improvement will make life easier for the whole team.
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 best-case from Birch is to replicate his play from last season. He isn’t a young guy at the age of 28, so its unfair to expect too much growth. The Raptors starting lineup has a lot of scoring already so for Birch he can focus on defense to provide switch-ability and rim protection. Offensively, if he can develop his shot to space the floor that would be a bonus too.
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.
Given the role that Barnes will have, it is unlikely to see him in the Rookie of the Year race. Unlike Trent, it would be very much OK to see volatility in his play. Some nights the shot will struggle but as long as he keeps taking them and shows signs of improvement that’s a win. If he can average 10-12 points, keep the turnovers to a minimum, and shoot over 30% from the three – it will be a fantastic start. The defense will almost certainly be outstanding and he will have some signature moments on that end of the court. Its easy to hope for more, but its about the long game 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.
Health and buy-in is the best case for Dragic. If he can play similarly to last season (but remain healthy) he can be a leader off of the bench and will even get to close some games. Whether this leads to Dragic helping the Raptors during the stretch-run and playoffs, or brings them a late first round pick via a trade – it will make the Lowry package look much stronger.
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.
For Boucher only two things need to come to fruition to see his best (realistic) season. The three-point shot remains a weapon and the defensive IQ takes a leap. Boucher will surely crash the glass, take his shots, and block many shots on the defensive end. It is crucial that the Raptors centres stay healthy to allow Boucher to play perimeter defense and not post defense. It is not likely to expect Boucher to become elite as a team defender. If the miscues can become more infrequent, it will be very helpful in this team returning to a top 5 defense in the league.
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 does not need to develop new skills but rather enhance his current skills. If Flynn can show why he was regarded as the best pick and roll player in his draft class, shoots mid 30s from distance, and continue to be a pest on the defensive end – it will be a great season. The Raptors only need Flynn to be a role player who is able to step up and fill in when others are out of the lineup.
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 best case for Achiuwa could see him taking over as the starting centre by the seasons end. Since we are assuming the best for Birch however, he only needs to serve as a high energy bench player who can spark the team. If the ball handling and shooting that he displayed at summer league are transferred to the NBA there will be a lot to look forward to in the future. This season is about growth and hopefully more consistency for Achiuwa.
What would this mean for the Raptors?
After an extremely frustrating season in 2020-21, the Raptors are due for some good fortunes. This organization has built an elite culture and development system over the past decade. It’s time to forget about the Tampa Bay season and move on. It feels like a new era in Toronto but its still Masai Ujuri’s team and he isn’t going anywhere soon.
If all or most of these outcomes are achieved, the Raptors are most certainly a playoff team. They will finish in the 4-6 range in the Eastern conference regular season and maybe win a round or two if they get the right matchups. It is next to impossible that they can outclass the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks in a playoff series, but any other team in the East could be defeated if the Raptors can reach their full potential. This would be if everything goes near perfect – and even then the Raptors do not have a realistic shot at a championship this season. The best outcome of this scenario is that the Raptors will have an extremely bright future will plenty of assets to develop or trade as they look to assemble their next championship core.