The Toronto Raptors kick off the season tonight and the team is not predicted to finish dead last this season. But with the loss of Fred VanVleet and a pocketful of question marks, the team is facing an uncertain journey back to the NBA’s promised land.
But, now is a time for faith and a prayer to the basketball gods that every single star in the Raptors’ sky not only aligns but shines bright to enable the team to not just meet the low bar but surpass it.
Here’s what needs to happen for the team to shine this season.
Scottie becomes an all-star
Yes, the Raptors season probably boils down to whether or not the team’s star-in-waiting Scottie Barnes takes the next step to superstardom. Of course, he did roll his ankle in the last pre-season game, but up until that very scary point, he was showing some improvement in his game, especially his outside shooting. We knew he was a handful to deal with running the floor, scoring and passing around the basketball when he can use his natural ability. But the shooting has always been the thing that could either make Barnes an NBA all-star or just a very good player. If it’s the former, and it happens this season, the Raptors could make some noise.
O.G. for Three
O.G. Anunoby is one of the most uniquely gifted players on the team, and a top defender in the NBA. But when he gets the ball near the basket and is confronted with options and decisions need to be made, Raptors fans across the city could be heard bracing themselves for what might happen next. It could be an embarrassing move in the post that ends up with O.G. being stripped of the ball, landing on his rear-end, or worse. Or, it could be a decisive move following by a dunk or a pass-off to a teammate for an easy score. This year, O.G. needs to concentrate on being the league’s best three-and-D player, which is definitely in his wheelhouse, and limiting his forays into the lane to fast breaks where he can use his serious strength as well as the very occasional post-up. The team’s defence is also different this year, and more positional with less switching so O.G. needs to control when he attempts to jump the lane and snag errant passes. If he misses, there might not be anyone there to cover for him and will mean an easy basket for the other team. If O.G. is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year and has a solid three-point shooting average above 40 per cent (he was 38.5 per cent last year), the Raptors will be in business.
The Bench Mob returns
When the Toronto Raptors were most successful, the team had a deep bench that not only held leads in close games but actually expanded them. That particular mob included the team’s current starting centre Jakob Poetl along with a young Fred VanVleet. The bench has not been the same since. But that could change, and if it does it will start with Precious Achiuwa. During the pre-season, Achiuwa was hampered by an injury but when he finally got in a run during the final game, he was impressive. There is no doubting his natural ability as a big man who can run the floor and finish at the basket in addition to hitting the occasional three-pointer. But he is also a ferocious defender when he is into a game and it would mean a lot to the team if he develops the mentality that when he gets in the game, he makes an impact on both ends of the floor. If Precious is the first big man off the bench and plays with energy and under control every game, it would be a huge lift. We think this is his breakout year.
What’s the point?
Okay, we like Dennis Schroder and especially loved watching him during the recent World Cup last summer. He’s got skills, loves to run and is a solid defender. His job this season is to get every player in the starting unit the ball where they want it to make them successful. That, and scoring a few baskets when needed. If he plays under control, does his job in distributing first and shooting second or fourth, it will be a huge win. It will be interesting to see who the Raptors play during the final minutes of close games as opposed to who starts. Our bet is that Gary Trent Jr. finishes close games with Scottie playing point and Schroder on the bench. But, if Schroder steps up his game another notch this season and that choice becomes more difficult, that will mean the Raptors are moving in the right direction.
Every team needs a sixth man that can come in and change the flow, making his presence known immediately. During the pre-season, Gary Trent Jr. already showed that he is relishing the opportunity. His shot was falling, but not only that, he also demonstrated a great passing touch, something we haven’t seen much in recent years. It’s one thing to heat up fast like a microwave, shoot the lights out and demand the ball, it’s another when you shoot lights out, know the attention from other defences is coming, and make the right passes in close games. We know he can score, but it’s the other aspects of his game that will be more telling this season. If he is in the running for Sixth Man of the Year, which is entirely possible, it could mean big things for the Raptors.
Last year, there was more hype surrounding the Raptors. They were a playoff team and they’d added a piece or two during the off-season to shore up their floundering bench. One of those players was Otto Porter Jr. Those following the team know how poorly this team shoots the three-point shot, which is one of the top keys to success for any NBA team. Porter Jr. shoots 39.7 per cent for his career. He’s older and he’s beat up, but if he comes almost all the way back from the injury that made him miss most of last season, he could still have an impact. It might not be every night. It might be just the coach putting him in the game off the bench to see if he’s making his shots. If he is feeling it, he can change games. If Porter Jr. ends up a regular off the bench keeping to his career three-point average or close to it, he could be a difference-maker.
Every year, Pascal Siakam has to deal with the haters, and it might be wearing on him. You can’t blame him. But, as they say in sports, winning cures everything. If Siakam is in all-NBA form at the start of the season and the team strings together a few wins, it could stem the trade-talk tide and allow Spicy P to concentrate on playing basketball and having fun with his teammates. When playing well, Siakam is a force and an all-NBA talent and his impact cannot be underestimated. In the pre-season, we saw something that, if it plays out, could be huge. We saw Siakam and Barnes working very well together. If the Barnes-Siakam connection becomes a serious thing, the Raptors will be good. Period.
Flynn for three
During the pre-season, new coach Darko Rajakovic was turning to Malachi Flynn as backup point guard every game. More so than in previous years under Nick Nurse when Flynn never had the opportunity to flourish. The young point guard did respond by playing well, running the team adequately, shooting threes and generally not messing it up. That being said, the bench did give up leads more often than not. He has a ways to go to quiet the doubters, but it looks like he’s going to get a shot this season, especially since the team cut Jeff Dowtin and allowed fellow point guard and Toronto native Dalano Banton to sign with the Boston Celtics. If Flynn manages to keep his job and keep the turnovers to a minimum that’s a win. If he actually thrives in his new role, well, watch out.
When speaking with Chris Boucher recently, we asked the Raptors big man about his new coach. And he responded with what could be described as unabashed enthusiasm, letting us know first and foremost that the biggest difference between now and then is that coach cares. He cares about his players. Now, that’s easy to say now, and that tune could change quickly if the team hits a rough patch right out of the gate and hard decisions need to be made. But right now, we dig what Coach Darko Rajakovic is cooking by fostering a caring environment that is putting fundamentals and hard work ahead of fancy defensive schemes and analytics. If Darko is the real deal, it could be the biggest difference-maker this team has had in years.
All of us
One of the best things about the city is how passionate the fans are. For the Raptors, we show up. And playing at Scotiabank Arena has always given the team an advantage over other teams because of that support. Now that the team is younger and predicted by most to not make the playoffs, will the fans continue to show that love? We hope so. Just that edge, especially when nurturing younger players such as rookie Gradey Dick, and even third-year player Scottie Barnes, is huge. Prop them up, don’t tear them down. You never know what might happen.
So there are the stars that need to align. It’s asking a lot, but if it happens, expect good things this season. Go Raptors.