The Toronto Raptors will tip their pre-season off on the weekend, with a game against the Charlotte Hornets set for this coming Saturday. The Raptors have fared a lot better than the Hornets in recent years and even the most diehard fan would have likely considered a pre-season game against the Michael Jordan-owned side a possible skip. However, the Hornets will look a very different outfit heading into 2021, having drafted a very promising guard in Lamelo Ball as well as their acquisition of Gordon Hayward from the Boston Celtics.
Of course, Toronto will have a very different look about them too. The departures of veterans Marc Gasol have admittedly left them looking less formidable but it’s hoped that the addition of Aron Baynes could help shore things up. That Fred VanVleet was retained was another huge positive.
It’s going to be a very different season for the 2019 NBA champions, who managed to stay very competitive despite losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green last offseason. For one, they won’t be playing their home games in Toronto, with Tampa, Florida set to host them for the time being. And Masai Ujiri’s stalled contract talks has to be worrying for the organization and fans alike.
Saturday’s game could be a massive indicator of the way things could pan out. Nick Nurse’s coaching acumen is highly respected around the league but will really be put to the test under these new circumstances. The Raptors will play another game against the Hornets on Monday before wrapping pre-season affairs up with a game against reigning Eastern Conference champs Miami Heat next Friday.
A season-opening showdown with the New Orleans Pelicans is next and takes place two days prior to Christmas. Fans can take advantage of the +5.0 odds being offered on the Raptors by the well-reviewed Sports Interaction; the Pelicans are currently -5.0. The exciting Christmas-Day slate will have five games for your viewing pleasure, but Toronto won’t play again until the day after the cheery holiday when they play away at San Antonio.
The Raptors aren’t likely to go away quietly this season, despite the improvements being made by their counterparts in the East. There are a few things that will need to go in Toronto’s favor for them to remain a threat in the conference, however. Perhaps the biggest of those: OG Anunoby’s role. The forward made a huge case for his starting spot last season and was responsible for one of the biggest highlights of the last postseason – his game-winning three with 0.5 seconds on the clock to give the Raptors a win over Boston in Game 3 of the semis – but Nurse is going to need a lot more from him going forward.
Typically a very comfortable offensive player, Anunoby’s shot-making ability and athleticism have made him a huge asset for Nurse yet the coach will need him to take more shots and play more aggressively as opposed to simply letting the game come to him as he’s known to do. The 23-year-old only attempted 8.2 shots per game last term, averaging 10.2 points a night while hitting 39 percent of his three-point attempts.
It might seem like a bit too much to ask for given his remarkable and steady improvement over the course of the last few seasons but The Raptors will also need more from Pascal Siakam heading into next year. The Cameroonian came into the league as the 27th overall pick in 2016 and he’s since gone on to make a name for himself. Siakam, 26, played a huge role during the Raptors title-winning push and, following a Most Improved Player win, secured his first All-Star appearance in 2020. Having improved his scoring average from 7.3 ppg to 16.9 ppg to 22.9 ppg over the past three years, the expectations will weigh heavier on Siakam.
Siakam was one of the players who didn’t fare as well in the NBA bubble earlier this year. Being away from competitive basketball from March to July isn’t something every pro is going to handle well and the adjustment took its toll on the first time All-Star. He admitted as much in recent comments, claiming he could not recognize himself after going back to watch the games.
“When I watched the games one of the things that I really pointed out was that I didn’t recognize myself, just in terms of having fun,” he said.
“I’m always somebody that has fun playing the game. I love this game and I don’t ever want play the game without any joy. I think that’s just something that I didn’t see [in] myself. I just want to have fun. I just want to be able to play the game, work hard, have fun, and I think that’s something I want to get back to.”
The Raptors will also need assistant Chris Finch to deliver in a big way. The departure of Nate Bjorkgren, now the head coach of the Indiana Pacers, came as a big blow to the Raptors but can be remedied if Finch steps up.