The first week of the 2020-2021 NBA season has wrapped up, and the only positive news for the Toronto Raptors is that nobody on the team has contracted COVID-19 yet. With three winnable games coming and going, the Raptors have piled up three disappointing losses. It’s the first time that the Raptors have begun with an 0-3 record since Gold Digger, by Kanye West was the world’s #1 song: 15 years and 2 months, to be exact.
Having owned a double digit lead in all three losses, the Raptors’ winless start also puts them in a category of their own. They are the first team in 20 years to blow a ten point lead in each of their first three games.
Looking at the core group itself, not a grand lot has changed. The obvious departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka were partially cushioned by the signings of Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was let go of, but his minutes and productivity have been unnoticeably replaced by a handful of capable wings. Kyle Lowry got one year older, but that hasn’t seemed to hurt his game. If anything, this team should be just as good as last year’s squad with the internal development of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby… so what exactly has gone wrong for this squad so far?
Siakam’s inability to create
It’s only been three games, which is a minuscule sample size to draw any sort of conclusions that an All-NBA level talent has fallen off, but take it for what it is: Siakam looks like a skeleton of his old self. Coming into the bubble last season, he played objectively horribly. Even he knew it, which he admitted in part 1 of his new YouTube mini series: Humble Hustle.
Through 18 games at Disney World, Siakam averaged 16.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game on 39.5% shooting from the field, and 26.5% from three-point range. If he was even a sliver more efficient, the Raptors probably would have found themselves in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals, but there’s no point in dwelling on the past. To be fair, Siakam had gone four months without touching a basketball, and had no time to regain his rhythm before The Playoffs began.
Now, there are no excuses as to why he’s been playing so horrendously. Through these first three losses, Siakam is shooting a putrid 39.3% from the floor, and his inability to get to the rim is a malefactor of why the Raptors are having so many offensive droughts. If your team’s number one option can’t create their own shot, you’re going to find it hard to put points on the board, and if you’re finding it hard to put points on the board, you’re going to struggle to win games.
The most frustrating part is that everybody knows Siakam is capable of blowing by his primary defender, getting into the paint, and finishing at the basket. We saw him do it for all of last season, which is what earned him his first All-Star appearance, and a spot on the All-NBA Second Team. For whatever reason, he just seems timid now. He is shying away from contact, taking much longer to make decisions, and is relying on his handle as opposed to his elite length and quick first step which are virtually unguardable.
The only difference between last season and now is that opposing teams are coming prepared to deal with Siakam. He is being guarded by the other team’s best defender every night, and whenever he drives the lane, multiple defenders collapse on him. Still, he needs to do a better job of being physical, willing his way to the rim, and earning his points at the free throw line. Through three contests, Siakam has taken a total of six free throw attempts.
Baynes’ unfamiliarity with the offense
Coming into the season, it was obvious that the centre position would be the Raptors’ weakest link. Chris Boucher had a hand in making fans rethink their pre-judgements with his career night against the Spurs, but ultimately the eye test holds true. While each of Baynes, Boucher, and Alex Len offers a polarly different skillset for Nick Nurse to utilize as he chooses, none are above average options who can compete with the likes of Steven Adams or Joel Embiid.
Going back to Siakam’s inability to penetrate opponents’ defense, Baynes’ unfamiliarity with the Raptors’ offense is another culprit of the issue. Whenever Lowry would play in a pick-and-roll setting with Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka, the big would frequently pop out to the three-point line as opposed to rolling to the rim. That would open up opportunities for the wings to cut, or for someone to drive to the rim off a swing pass. Thus far, Baynes has succumbed to his tendency of rolling towards the rim – where understandably he feels most comfortable – but that drags his seven-foot tall defender along with him to the basket, and makes it nearly impossible for any Raptors to score in the paint off cuts or off drives.
To add gasoline on the fire, Baynes’ percentages this season are hardly good enough to keep his defenders honest when he does pop out to shoot the ball. On 3.7 attempts per game thus far, he’s connecting on just 18.2% of his looks.
Baynes’ greatest skill offensively presents itself approximately eight feet away from the basket, in what is called a ‘short roll,’ where he is able to attract defenders from the wings, and find an open teammate for a three, or hoist a floater from the midrange area. Going forward, it’ll be interesting to see whether Chris Finch opts to force Baynes into a similar role as Marc Gasol, or if the Raptors will incorporate the Baynes short roll into the offense a bit more.
Every toddler and their mother knows that NBA basketball is a forty-eight minute game, but so far, the Raptors have not played like it. Last night’s game was a textbook example. With five minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Raptors held a comfortable 76-63 lead, and all they had to do was hang on a little longer until it was garbage time.
Unfortunately, they took their foot off the gas pedal and allowed the Philadelphia 76ers to make a 37-17 run to end the game. This same lack of completeness is reminiscent of Toronto’s pre-Kawhi Leonard era, in which the Raptors would struggle to close games. Once again, they lack a true star who can create their own shot at will, and the post-championship swagger has seemingly worn off.
Ultimately, basketball is a game of runs. “It’s a make or miss league,” as they say, but the Raptors need to tighten their defensive screws down the stretch of games, and likely find a small-ball lineup that can score more easily to keep their figure on top.