The Toronto Raptors are back! They’re back in Toronto, playing in front of full-capacity crowds at Scotiabank Arena. They’re back for a full 82-game regular season, not a shortened one like the previous two have been. And after a disastrous campaign abroad in which they went 27-45 and finished 12th in the Eastern Conference, they hope to be back in the playoffs.
But with a youthful roster averaging 25 years of age and 3.1 years of NBA experience, with the fourth fewest minutes played in the league, a lot has to go right for the Raptors to bounce back. From OG Anunoby’s star upside to a revamped centre rotation, here are the five most interesting storylines ahead of the Raptors' 2021-22 season:
1. Who’s gonna pop?
More often than not, it takes a superstar to win in the NBA. The Raptors, unfortunately, don’t have an era-defining player they can count on to power them through the season. But in Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Anunoby, they do have three core players that could each be all-stars. The question becomes: who is going to break out and provide the consistent level of scoring needed to raise the team’s ceiling this year and going forward?
Anunoby is the most popular answer. Every time his usage has been bumped up, his efficiency has held steady, including in the preseason, where he shot a 69.1 true shooting percentage on 23.8 usage. He also showcased a budding off-the-dribble game — including a confident pull-up three — that should allow him to demand late-game reps.
But it’s not easy for a player to go from a fourth or fifth option for their entire career to the first option, as Anunoby will do to start the season; in fact, it’s probably the hardest thing one can do in the NBA. But that’s why Anunoby is so intriguing: he showcases these flashes of brute strength and smooth shooting that are so unstoppable you think, can he be the guy? This season, he will finally get the opportunity to answer that question.
Siakam is expected to return from a torn labrum in his left shoulder in early November, when he will alleviate some of the scoring and playmaking load from Anunoby and attempt to get back to his 2019-20 All-NBA Second Team self. Last season, Siakam improved as a foul-drawer and playmaker, but his three-point shooting and transition scoring both regressed dramatically, making him an inefficient No. 1 option.
His season was full of ups and downs, making it difficult to predict what he would bring to the team on a nightly basis. But with the roster better suited to showcase his talents and Anunoby available to relieve some of the pressure defences put on him, Siakam is primed for a bounce-back year.
2. Half-court offence
We know the Raptors are going to play with pace and try to get out in transition as much as possible this season, but they still need to score in the half court if they want to be any good, especially against smart teams that dictate pace and toward the end of games and in the playoffs when things slow down. Last season, the Raptors' half-court offence ranked 20th in the league, scoring 95.6 points per 100 possessions. Can they improve on that mark despite losing maestro Kyle Lowry?
This is where VanVleet comes into the picture. I left him out of the “who’s gonna pop” section partly because he was already an all-star-calibre player last season and because unlike Anunoby and Siakam, who each have really high scoring upsides, VanVleet’s potential to take a leap depends more on his ability to improve as a playmaker than it has to do with his own scoring. And judging by the preseason, which VanVleet spent as a facilitator instead of hunting for his own shot, it seems like he would agree.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 19, 2021
For the Raptors to be successful in the half court, VanVleet needs to do a little bit of everything: organize the team when things get chaotic, run the right sets at the right times, create easy looks for his teammates from beyond the arc and at the rim — where it’s imperative that he develops a two-man game with one of the team’s roll threats, because even though the Raptors are hesitant to rely on the pick-and-roll, it's a staple of NBA offences for a reason — as well as score himself both as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and as an off-ball option running around screens.
With Goran Dragic, Malachi Flynn, and Dalano Banton the only other point guards on the roster, VanVleet has a huge load on his shoulders, and his ability to carry it will help determine the fate of the half-court offence.
There’s also the matter of clutch-time offence, an area the Raptors ranked second-last in the league in last season with a -16.9 net rating in the final five minutes of close games, which they finished with an 11-28 record. And again, it was Lowry who was their steadiest option at the end of games, with a 59.2 true shooting percentage compared to Siakam’s 45.3, which included some very memorable misses at the buzzer.
It should come down to Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby to determine the Raptors’ fate at the end of games, and if they are able to develop some pet plays together rather than taking turns isolating opponents — or if Anunoby is able to knock down pull-up threes like he did in the preseason — they should be fine.
3. Three-point shooting
Sam Dekker won the final roster spot on the Raptors after shooting 4-of-5 from beyond the arc in their final preseason game. Coincidence? I think not!
The reality is that this Raptors roster is extremely light on outside shooting. Most of the players are defensive-oriented wings. Many of them can handle the ball, and the playmaking is vastly improved from last season with the additions of Scottie Barnes, Banton, and even Svi Mykhailiuk, but only a few guys on the roster are bonafide shooters. VanVleet, Anunoby, and Gary Trent Jr. are lights out from beyond the arc, and Siakam, Chris Boucher, Dragic, Dekker, Mykhailiuk, Yuta Watanabe, and Flynn can all shoot to varying degrees. The rest of the Raptors’ roster has been enrolled in shooting school at the OVO Athletic Centre in the evenings during training camp in an attempt to develop their jump shots.
Last season, the Raptors were right in the middle of the league in three-point percentage at 36.8 percent, but everyone had the green light and the team shot the fourth most per game at 39.3, giving them an extremely high-variance offence. Like it or not, it will likely be similar this season.
4. Is the defence going to be good or great?
In a league trending toward offence, the Raptors have gone the opposite direction. With limited half-court creation and a roster made up of defensive-oriented, wing-sized players with an average height of 6-foot-6.7 and 209.5 pounds with a 6-foot-10.2-inch wingspan, the Raptors should be a menace on the defensive end. But will they just be good? Or will they be great?
A top-five defence is the simplest pathway to a playoff spot for the Raptors. But is that possible? They were projected to be a good defensive team last season and, as much heat as Aron Baynes took for their issues, he was not the only problem.
The Raptors finished the season with a middling defensive rating of 112.0, but their aggressive scheme never clicked the way it needed to, because even though they forced the most turnovers in the league, the blitzing and double-teaming constantly put them in rotations. They fouled everyone in sight, with the league’s worst defensive free-throw rate, and struggled on the defensive boards, with opponents grabbing 27.6 percent of their own misses. Worst of all, the Raptors’ rotations left them susceptible to open three-point looks, with opponents shooting 37.9 percent from behind the arc.
Some of those issues are fixable, and the Raptors getting bigger and improving their centre rotation should certainly help on the glass. But the ceiling of this defence is going to come down to Nick Nurse and his coaching staff getting the scheme right: one that takes advantage of the strengths of their players and creates turnovers to run without being overly complicated to put them in rotations.
Anunoby admitted the team was switching more this season due to the prevalence of like-sized wing players, and Nurse said something really interesting about the defensive scheme after a recent practice.
“I think we've been pretty unique defensively [in the past.] We'll see. I'm not so sure we'll be as unique with this team.”
Maybe the Raptors tone it down a bit, simply switching ball-screens instead of blitzing and double-teaming stars as often, allowing them to be in better positions to grab rebounds, avoid fouling, and defend the three-point line.
5. What to make of the centre rotation?
On a recent episode of “The Game Theory” podcast, The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie said the Raptors “probably still [have] the worst centre situation in the league.” It got me thinking: is this another case of anti-Canada bias, or is it really that bad?
Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa will man the position this season, with Nurse confirming the two will split minutes roughly 50/50, along with a sprinkle of small-ball. Birch is the more reliable two-way player at this point in his career, and he fit in really well with the starters last season, posting a +22.3 net rating in 184 possessions together. But is that just a small sample size ruse or a real consequence of Birch’s play? Birch is the type of mobile big man that plays his role and allows those around him to thrive, making him a perfect fit for the starters.
Unfortunately, he contracted a breakthrough case of COVID-19 when he arrived in Toronto for training camp, forcing him to miss most of training camp and preseason, and he is still working on getting back to game shape.
Achiuwa was one of the biggest revelations of the preseason, leading the Raptors in rebounds and steals and finishing second in points. He also showed an ability to protect the rim and stay in front of guards on the perimeter.
The clear winner of the Lowry trade, Achiuwa has been set free in Toronto. Nurse has allowed him to take the ball up the court and create for himself in the half court, which he has been surprisingly adept at, showcasing a tight handle and array of post moves that he never got to use in Miami, where he exclusively set screens and rolled.
The question is: will the good outweigh the sophomore mistakes? Achiuwa is still only 22 years old and very raw, so it’s unclear if he can put it all together over the course of a full season within a defined role. But there is a lot to like, with Achiuwa representing the next generation of Raptors big men.
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