So here it is. Before the 2019 championship run by the Toronto Raptors, we talked about what made the Toronto Raptors so special. Back then, it was the combination of elite defence, and three point shooting that boosted the Raptors into playoff contending status, and ultimately, their first ever championship. That 2019 team boasted NBA All-Defense caliber players at every starting position on the court, and arguably every player in the rotation from 1-15 could hit the three point shot reliably. Kawhi Leonard was inarguably the centerpiece of that team, carrying them through every crucial moment, however there was so much talent surrounding him both in the starting lineup and on the bench, and every bit of that talent was needed. We can ask “What if?” constantly, like “What if two of Golden State’s best players don’t get injured? Would the Raptors still have won a championship?”. Maybe, maybe not, but they did. “What if Kawhi Leonard had stayed in Toronto? Would they have won again?” Maybe, maybe not, but he didn’t, and they didn’t. Regardless, the 2018-2019 Raptors were a near perfect team. The eventual championship run required consistent success for several years prior, countless shrewd moves from managers Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster along the way, as well as excellent coaching and constant adjustments from first year head coach Nick Nurse. The ring had a cost, however. Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka… all integral pieces of that team, an entire starting lineup’s worth of talent, left Toronto in quick succession after the championship. Three years later, the Raptors are a very different team.
The 2021-2022 Toronto Raptors rank in the bottom half of three point shooting teams in the NBA. This is typically a death sentence in the modern NBA. The math says that the three point shot is a better overall shot to shoot, so many, if not most, teams revolve their entire strategy around creating open three point shots for their best shooters. This is a very successful strategy for many teams. According to NBA Stats – NBA Team Three Point % | TeamRankings.com, 10 of the top 18 teams in the NBA in three point shooting percentage are in playoff spots, and 7 of those remaining 8 teams are in play-in spots. The Raptors stand at 19th. It is a similar story when you look at three-point shooting attempts, where the Raptors stand 19th. This paints the picture of a team that does not quite dismiss the importance of the three-point shot, but is rather indifferent to it. Still, the Raptors have succeeded as a team this season and made the playoffs. So what is it that is driving this success?
After seeing their three point shooting numbers, one might assume that this is a team built of giants that live in the paint, also known as the traditional approach to NBA success. This is not the case, however. According to Comparativa de datos entre equipos de la NBA – Hispanosnba.com the Raptors are the 21st-most tall team in the NBA. They do not have one player on the roster taller than 7’0, and when it comes to scoring in the paint, they rank 15th according to NBA Stats – NBA Team Points in Paint per Game | TeamRankings.com.
According to the metrics I’ve just presented, you might think the Raptors grade out as an average team. This narrative might continue when you consider the other metrics, such as defensive rating (8th – 109.8), points per game (20th – 109.4), rebounds per game (9th – 45.5), assists per game (29th – 22.0), and turnovers per game (4th – 12.5). They rank 11th in point differential (2.4), and boast the 11th best record in the league at 46-33.
So, again, what is it that has driven this team to the playoffs, if not for any one thing? I would argue that it is exactly that, that there is no one thing this team excels at or depends on that makes them competitive. Their identity is their versatility, and it is their versatility that makes the Toronto Raptors an interesting matchup for whoever they play on any given night.
This is a testament to Masai Ujiri’s curation of players to play for this team, the development staff who work with the players to develop their all-around games, and without a doubt a credit to Nick Nurse’s adjustment-focused attitude. I have been critical of Nurse at times this year for how many minutes the starting lineup has played, and for his courtside theatrics with the refs any time a call does not go his way, however it is undeniable that he has adjusted time and time again to create a path for his team to be successful. Whereas most coaches seem to have a consistent system that follows them around from each team they coach, Nick Nurse’s career both in the NBA and abroad is hallmarked by the ability to coach any team to play in any fashion. One stretch he’ll coach a bruising, paint-scoring team like in the G-League (formerly D-League) with the Iowa Energy in 2010-2011. Another year he’ll coach the most trigger-happy three-point shooting team in the league, like with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers from 2011-2013. For the Raptors, not only is the 2022 roster itself drastically different than the one that won it all in 2019, their tendencies are almost unrecognizable, and I think Nick Nurse has changed his system to match the roster, and he will likely change his scheme again in the future as the roster evolves. The team’s assists per game has gone from 13th in the NBA in 2018-2019 to 29th in 2021-2022, their three-pointers attempted from 11th to 19th, and their isolation frequency from 9th to 2nd. The ability to find success while changing on the fly is rare to see in a coach, and yet Nick Nurse has done it while making the playoffs three times in his first four years as a NBA head coach all while balancing a wildly fluctuating roster.
Regarding the minutes that the 2022 Raptors starting lineup has played, which is by far the most in the NBA, it is interesting to note how drastically this tendency differs from the championship team in 2019, where the starting lineup cumulatively played some of the fewest minutes in the NBA among all starting lineups. Nick Nurse is not trying to replicate a formula, but is instead constantly experimenting. It is certainly an interesting method, and in my opinion, makes Raptors playoff basketball a must-watch event as he goes toe-to-toe with another coach in a seven game series. It is difficult for opposing teams to game-plan for a team that is constantly changing the way it plays.
As far as the players themselves are concerned, they are far younger than the championship team was, and as a result, are largely an unknown on basketball’s largest stage. There are only four players who remain from the 2019 championship team, and the roles of those four players are so dramatically different that it is difficult to project how they will perform.
Who remains from 2019?
Pascal Siakam: 28 years-old, 6’9, 22.5/8.5/5.2
Pascal Siakam, who was in 2019 the Raptors wunderkind, coming out of seemingly nowhere to win Most Improved Player in the NBA, and who delivered 19 playoff points per game as the secondary scorer to Kawhi Leonard’s team-leading 30.5 playoff points per game, is now the Raptors primary scoring option. Siakam is averaging 22.5 points per game in the 2021-2022 regular season and as the Raptors best player has earned the right to be named one of the 15 All-NBA players of the season. He ranks 26th overall in scoring per game, 28th in rebounds per game, and 43rd in assists per game. He is shining in several categories rather than leading the league in any one and his advanced numbers place him 18th in win shares, 34th in PER, 20th in VORP, and the list goes on. He is number one in the league in minutes per game. Put simply, he excels in every facet of the game and is relied upon by his team more than almost any player in the league. His production has improved month by month as he distances himself further from the offseason shoulder surgery he underwent last summer. Averaging 17.9/7.1/3.7 (points/rebounds/assists) in November, 22.5/9.5/4.6 in December, 22.6/8.6/6.4 in January, 21.3/8.8/5.2 in February, 25.9/8.1/5.3 in March, and 25.3/10.7/4.7 so far in April, all while being the Raptors most efficient scorer by field goal percentage (49.4%), and second most efficient scorer by true shooting percentage (56.5%), he has cemented himself as a greater player than he was during his MIP year, but can he be a first option on a championship team?
This upcoming playoffs will be Siakam’s second attempt at being the primary scoring option on a playoff team. He fell apart the first time, falling from a 22.9/7.3/3.7 average to a 17/7.5/3.8 average between the 2019-2020 regular season and playoffs. If he falters similarly this time around, the Toronto Raptors will struggle to get out of the first round. That said, there was an unprecedented world event that preceded the 2020 playoffs where Siakam fell apart, and that was the onset of a global pandemic that halted all sports, and the world at large, for months. The 2022 playoffs are Siakam’s opportunity to not only redeem himself, but to announce himself as a true superstar in the NBA. He is unquestionably the Raptors most important player, and he needs to show up as such for the Raptors to be successful.
Fred VanVleet: 28 years-old, 6’0, 20.3/4.4/6.7
Then, there’s Fred VanVleet, the Raptors only All-Star at the NBA All-Star game this year. His career has been remarkable, an undrafted point guard in a sport of giants that became a bona fide franchise cornerstone. Fred was a backup point guard to Kyle Lowry in 2019 averaging 8.0/1.8/2.6 in the playoffs when Toronto won the championship, and is best remembered for going supernova from three point range the moment he became a father to his second child. “VanVleet’s shot reborn after birth of 2nd child“. In many ways, he has not slowed down since that run. Since then, he has become Toronto’s most valuable three-point shooter. He carried the team early in the 2021-2022 season with Siakam recovering from shoulder surgery and is their second best scorer, posting career marks in every category with 20.3/4.4/6.7. He spaces the floor for the rest of the team to score in the paint and is invaluable to the roster as presently constructed today. He has struggled since the all-star game averaging just 16/3.9/5.7 on 36% field goal percentage and 29% from three-point range, so it is difficult to project how he will perform in the playoffs. Considering a rumoured knee injury, he may very well struggle. Then again, Fred is considered the Raptors’ closer and has throughout his career stepped up in big moments despite any previous struggles, most recently with a three-pointer with one minute remaining against the Atlanta Hawks to essentially seal a playoff spot for the Raptors, despite having only made one of his 11 previous threes.
It’s unlikely he will be fully healthy for these playoffs, but it’s also unlikely that he will shy away from the moment. Beyond his offensive output, he is a dog defensively, ranking 6th in the NBA in steals per game, 2nd in deflections per game, and tied for 2nd in loose balls recovered per game.
OG Anunoby: 24 years-old, 6’7, 17.3/5.4/2.6
OG Anunoby missed the entire championship run due to a burst appendix the week before the playoffs. OG has also expanded his role significantly in the past three years since. He has been the Raptors’ best defensive player since the moment he joined the team as a rookie, and has upped his scoring from 5.9 points per game as a 20 year-old rookie to 17.3 as a 24 year-old veteran. He’s had a string of injuries throughout his career and the team has seen a significant downfall every time he’s been off the court (excluding the championship run), especially in the past two seasons where they have 24 wins and 37 losses when Anunoby does not play (9-20 last season, 15-17 this season). His defensive impact is noticeable each game. While the Raptors tend to play a switch-heavy defence where they constantly switch defenders onto the opposing ball-handler, it is Anunoby who they tend to throw at the other team’s best players, regardless of whether that player is 6’0 Trae Young or 7’1 Joel Embiid. Like Siakam and VanVleet, Anunoby is in somewhat of a new role going into these playoffs, with isolation scoring being more of a priority for OG than it has ever been, although his main responsibilities remain the same: defend as well as humanly possible and shoot corner threes. He’s stepped up big in previous playoffs having defended Lebron James as well as anyone could possibly hope to in 2018, and made a very memorable three-point buzzer beater against the Boston Celtics in 2020.
Ever since being drafted, and even before Kawhi joined the team, OG has been compared to Kawhi Leonard in his playstyle and demeanour. By OG’s current age, Kawhi was beginning to take over his team, especially in the playoffs, and the Raptors will need a leap from OG in order for the team to compete this postseason. They will also need him to be healthy.
Chris Boucher: 29 years-old, 6’9, 9.4/6.2/0.3
Chris Boucher was a prospect who saw just four minutes of playoff game-time in the championship run. For Boucher, he has never really taken part in a serious playoff run despite being the third oldest player on the team. He had a late start to his career, and made a name for himself coming off the bench in 2020-2021. He is a sparkplug off the bench and one of Nick Nurse’s go-to guys when the team needs rebounding. His numbers are down across the board compared to last season largely because his three-point shot has not been kind to him this season, but he does not hesitate to shoot them at any opportunity. He is a crucial energy player.
And that’s it… Those four players are the only four who remain in Toronto from the Raptors 2019 championship team. Only two of them were even on the court in the postseason of 2019. So… how did the Raptors’ front office manage to launch this team back into the playoffs so quickly after losing almost their entire roster?
The Rest of the Team
Scottie Barnes: 20 years-old, 6’9(?), 15.5/7.6/3.5
I would argue that the Raptors front office launched the team back into the playoffs by quite literally winning the lottery. The Toronto Raptors entered the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery with a 31.9% chance of landing a top-four pick… and they did just that, moving up from seventh pick to land the fourth overall pick, and with that pick, brought Scottie Barnes to Toronto. There was some skill involved from management, of course. Point guard Jalen Suggs was the projected fourth overall pick, and the Raptors front office passed on him in favour of point guard Scottie Barnes. By no means a traditional point guard, Barnes is huge on the court, much like Ben Simmons. Unlike Simmons, though, Scottie has not shied away from shooting from range and has shown a tenacity that is very rare for any player, much less a rookie. He is absolutely in the conversation for rookie of the year, and in my biased opinion, has earned the award by outplaying the rest of the field. If the theme of this year’s Raptors is versatility, it is in no small part because they have a rookie who does everything. He is top five in just about every statistical category for rookies including points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He is graded as the most versatile defender in the NBA, according to Don’t count Raptors’ Scottie Barnes out of the Rookie of the Year race just yet | Sporting News, in terms of the percentage of different positions he guards. Toronto has lined him up as a center in some matchups, and a point guard in others, and he has flourished wherever he’s lined up. The hype for Toronto’s highest draft pick since Bargnani in 2006 is very real and the organization could not have expected better results.
That said, the playoffs are a different beast altogether, and it remains to be seen how Scottie will perform. Scottie was a bench player in his only year in college and he is now expected to contribute to his NBA team’s playoff hopes as a starter. It’s the nature of an athlete’s career that the goalposts keep moving, and Scottie will have to step up to the task once again.
Gary Trent Jr: 23 years-old, 6’5, 18.1/2.7/2.0
Gary Trent Jr. is the final player in Toronto’s five-man starting lineup that I have yet to list. He is a very interesting player to think about in terms of where he fits in Toronto’s future. I think Trent Jr’s impact gets kind of undersold at times. There are stretches of games where he appears to be Toronto’s brightest star. Trent Jr’s scoring output relative to his age is incredible, especially when considering he is a second round pick. And he has also proven to be quite the tenacious defender, averaging 1.8 steals per game, the third-most in the NBA. His offensive play-style is that of a flamethrower, moving very quickly all the time and launching shots from all over the court. I mainly question his future in Toronto because the Raptors already have Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby, and Barnes locked in long-term, and most pundits seem to believe that the team still needs a center, which Trent Jr is not. I think Trent Jr. is a quality NBA starter, and any attempt by the team to move him to the bench to accommodate a new starting center would probably result in Trent Jr. wanting to leave for a starting spot elsewhere. That’s just my speculation, though, and a lot of things could change between now and Trent’s contract negotiation in 2023-2024. The main point I want to get across with this line of thinking is that the 2022 playoffs will go a long way in demonstrating how well the Toronto Raptors current starting lineup can work together. Toronto’s true starting lineup of VanVleet-Trent Jr-Anunoby-Barnes-Siakam have only played in 21 games together in the 2021-2022 season, as a result of injuries and COVID-related absences, so they are largely untested. Most of the time, one or more of those five have been replaced by Boucher, Achiuwa, or Birch off the bench, all backup centers, so we’ve not really had to worry about who is truly the center of the starting lineup. As the playoffs round closer, though, it seems that all five starters will be available to play in round 1. Trent Jr, though battling a toe injury recently, is one of those starters and will be seeking to make an impact in his first ever playoffs as a Raptor and NBA starter.
Precious Achiuwa: 22 years-old, 6’9, 9.0/6.6/1.1
Precious Achiuwa is the last-standing trade piece received from Miami in the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade. Precious has come a long way since the start of the season. His efficiency has improved tremendously and his three-point shot, which was unusable to begin this season, just about carried the team post-all-star break. Given that he is only 22 and possesses perhaps the most athletic frame and hops of anyone on the team, the Raptors development team has to believe that his potential is sky-high at both ends of the court. His free throw shooting percentage is concerning at 58.7%, however a significant improvement from last year’s 50.9% in Miami. Several of the best dunks of the year for the Raptors belong to Achiuwa.
Khem Birch: 29 years-old, 6’9, 4.5/4.3/1.0
Khem Birch is one of three Canadians on the squad, alongside Boucher and Dalano Banton, and has earned several starts this year in relief of injured players. His stats do not jump off the page however he is reliable defensively, does not take the ball out of the hands of the other starters, and it is clear that Nick Nurse trusts him, given that he played Birch as a starter in several of the Raptors game down the stretch of the regular season. He is somewhat of a favourite for VanVleet as an assist mate with a signature touch floater in the paint.
Thaddeus Young: 33 years-old, 6’9, 6.0/4.5/1.6
Thaddeus Young is the veteran of the team. He has appeared in the most playoff games of anyone on the Raptors with 51 playoff games and 33 playoff starts in his career. Thaddeus Young was acquired at the trade deadline for Goran Dragic and a conditional first round pick and has provided much needed size off the bench. He has also provided some ball-handling, ironically a role that Goran Dragic could potentially have thrived in. Young’s career averages in the playoffs are 10.2/6.1/1.6 and he fits the description of a switchable athletic forward on defence.
Dalano Banton: 22 years-old, 6’9, 3.2/1.9/1.5
Dalano Banton, like Barnes, is a 6’9 point guard who possesses all the physical tools to be great. Banton, however, is a second round pick who is still just learning how to use his tools in the professional game. Early in the season he played his way into the rotation with consistent scoring at the rim and had a kind of an impact like Shaun Livingston used to for the Golden State Warriors, albeit in a reduced role that got reduced further as the season went on. Banton remains an important piece of the Toronto Raptors’ future and has played tremendous basketball in the G-League consistently, showing out as their best player in 11 games averaging 25.7/9.1/5.9. Toronto’s track record with successful G-League athletes is very good, and Banton has so much runway left to find a spot in the NBA.
Armoni Brooks: 23 years-old, 6’3, 2.6/1.5/0.9
Armoni Brooks played his way on to the Raptors midseason with consistently stout defence at the guard spot and some timely threes. The averages I listed above are his Raptors averages for the season, his Houston Rockets averages are higher at 6.2/2.0/1.2 and his career average actually hovering around 7 points. He’s still quite young and I’m surprised the Rockets let him go although it must be noted his field goal percentage is low. Still, he’s flashed an ability to shoot threes from further beyond the three point line.
Malachi Flynn: 23 years-old, 6’1, 4.2/1.4/1.5
Malachi Flynn has had multiple genuinely great games when given the opportunity to play over the past two seasons. A late first round pick who was a Defensive Player of the Year in his division as a point guard in college, he has not been given much opportunity to play out of his low ranking in the rotation due to Nurse preferring to run VanVleet, Siakam and Barnes at point, but when the opportunity arose this season due to injury, Malachi delivered his best stretch of games of his career before injuring his hamstring.
Svi Mykhailiuk: 24 years-old, 6’7, 4.5/1.7/0.8
Svi Mykhailiuk is most known as a three point shooter however has shown some ability to score in the paint as well. He also holds the Raptors 905 best mark for points scored in a game this season, scoring 40 points in the one game he played in the G-League. Last season Svi averaged over 10 points per game for the OKC Thunder.
Yuta Watanabe: 27 years-old, 6’9 4.3/2.4/0.5
Watanabe scored his career high in points in a game this season with 26 points to go with 13 rebounds in a loss versus the Cleveland Cavaliers with the team down to just 8 players due to injuries/COVID-related absences, however as the season went on he struggled to get many minutes within a roster that began finding success by leaning heavily on its starters.
Justin Champagnie: 20 years-old, 6’6, 2.2/2.0/0.3
Justin Champagnie is the second youngest player on the Raptors and made the most of his opportunity in the middle of the season with a 14 point game and near game-winner that was called off due to being just past the clock. He performed very well in the G-League, averaging 20/8.0/1.4. Along with David Johnson, he is one of Toronto’s two-way contracts.
Isaac Bonga: 22 years-old, 6’8, 0.8/0.5/0.3
A prospect I’m surprised has not gotten more opportunity on the teams he’s played for, Isaac Bonga is one of the tallest point guards in the world at 6’8, although shorter than teammates Scottie Barnes and Dalano Banton. Bonga averaged 184.108.40.206/3.3 in the G-League.
David Johnson: 21 years-old, 6’5, 0/0/0
David Johnson appeared in just two games for the Raptors this year and did not score. He is their final second round pick of the 2021 draft and made it clear with his play in the G-League that he plans to take many threes throughout his career. He averaged 11.8/3.2/2.4 in the G-League.
Why you should watch the Raptors’ playoff run
Because the Raptors 905 are a top team in the G-League yet again and their playoff run should be really exciting. Oh, you mean the other Raptors playoff run?
Well, what reason are you looking for? Is it from a basketball purist perspective, where you’d like to see how far this strange lineup and coaching scheme can go? Or is it from a “The Goonies” perspective, where you’d like to see a group of kids defeat the establishment? (The Toronto Raptors are the second youngest team to have clinched a playoff spot, after all). Or are you simply Canadian, and you’d like to see Canada’s only NBA team take on 29 other American teams and win, again?
Whatever your reason, it’s valid, and you should be watching the Raptors this spring. They play unpredictably and they defy conventional basketball rules. Traditionally the point guard passes, the shooting guard shoots, the forwards defend, and the center rebounds. The game has evolved a bit since those days, and the Raptors have taken it a step further by requiring their guards to defend, their centers to shoot threes, and have two forwards initiate the majority of their passing offence, and all kinds of other fascinating ideas. It seems to be the start of a new era for the Toronto Raptors and the 2021-2022 playoffs stand as their next test.