Last year’s Raptors team knew exactly what the hell it was. Roles were understood and accepted, the goal defined and non-negotiable. Based on who walked the ball up the floor, you could guess with some confidence what each Raptors possession would look like; on the other end you could count on Toronto to destroy opponent’s worlds. Everything and everyone moved in one direction.
Part of the charm of this year’s team comes from a sort of refreshing utter lack of clarity. Ask any Raptors player and they’ll sure as shit tell you their objective is clear — this is a team that wants to repeat, duh. But the formula by which they’ll pull off a successful title defense doesn’t exist without Kawhi Leonard. Or at the very least, it doesn’t yet. This season’s about finding the rigid shape that the title team assumed to such great effect. For now, though, the Raptors a touch globular.
Between Pascal Siakam’s burgeoning leap, Fred VanVleet’s new dad powers still coursing about his frigid veins, a spry-looking OG Anunoby, and a still maniacal Kyle Lowry, there’s something cooking here. Toronto should be good, as their 130-122 OT win in spite of plenty of poor play on Tuesday suggests. But the formula for their success hasn’t yet been hashed out. As the Raptors search for it, there will be growing pains and lesson-teaching screw-ups snugly paired next to pops of brilliance and rays of long-term hope, sometimes even on the same play.
One sequence from the opener against the Pelicans stood out as a brief encapsulation of what could be in store for the Raptors as they poke and prod in search of the purpose they had last season. Let’s watch.
Pascal Siakam’s second triple of the night took sixteen seconds to form, and in that time we saw the year to come just about in full. Even the subtle note of Fred VanVleet walking the ball up the floor in place of Kyle Lowry hints at a budding trend. In a season where the playoffs will be hard to miss, and during which Lowry will turn 34, why not give Fred the keys a little more often, even in crunch time? The answer to the question of VanVLeet’s long term status with the team lies in how he’s able to run the offense from the conductor’s spot. It’ll still be Lowry’s team when it matters most, but with a career high scoring total to go along with a team-best seven assists on the third most touches of any Raptor, the early returns on leading man Freddie Melons are looking damn promising.
From VanVleet’s walk-up we get into the meat of the possession. Pascal Siakam is on an odyssey of learning this season. Through much of last season he was the league’s most dangerous opportunist, leveraging the gravity of Leonard and the genius of the savants playing around him to walk into easy buckets with a little bit of help. No longer can Siakam subsist solely as an elite scavenger. Freshly signed to a max deal, and newly indoctrinated as the team’s top option, Siakam’s gotta hunt on his own this season.
The new gig means Siakam’s now in the Kawhi role, asked to leverage his own threat into easy pickins for everyone else. Distribution is now part of the deal for Siakam, and that in includes dribble hand-offs — something that seems simple until Josh Hart’s careening your way to blow it up out of fear of what it might produce.
Siakam’s near possession-nuking miscue on the dish, and subsequent three canned seconds later were emblematic of what the Pascal experience is sure to be all year. Mistake, recovery, payoff, and hopefully a lesson learned for next time.
It wasn’t just on this play in which Siakam’s experimentation was on display. His work from the post was something to watch, for reasons both good and bad. For every time he tossed JJ Redick or Brandon Ingram into a wok with a killer spin, there was a matching instance of over-zealousness. That’s not a bad thing, though. The Dirk-looking one-foot turnaround he attempted at one point in the second half hit short rim, sure, but it’s damn cool that Siakam was at liberty to even try something like that out. As Nick Nurse alluded to after the win, he’s got the green light to expand his horizons. Toronto’s upside as a team depends on it.
“I thought everything going forward was great and thought his little turnarounds and fade-aways were not so good,” Nurse said after the win. “But he’s got that in his game. That’s something he’s gonna have to add and you know he just, there’s times where you’ve gotta take the one going over the top going away ... you just can’t take the pounding all the time, and you’re not gonna get all the body calls ... So, you know, just kinda played relentless, wasn’t pretty ... but he put some work behind it and made it pretty dominating.”
If 34-18-5 with a pair of threes on only medium efficiency is the starting point for this year of Siakam, perhaps the sharp edges the Raptors are searching for will form sooner than expected.
The connective tissue between the botched Siakam hand-off and his lead-expanding three also foreshadowed what’s to come for the supporting Raptors this season.
It wasn’t a banner night for Norman Powell by any means. In the battle for the starting two-guard spot, Fred VanVleet made a pretty damn compelling case to hold the job. Powell, meanwhile, didn’t find many of the defensive soft spots he so deftly carves against the disciplined and lengthy Pelicans. Powell’s at his best when he’s not testing his limits. Hanging out as a fourth or fifth option, and driving into rotating, out-of-position defenses has been his bread and butter for years; his stomach can’t handle much more in the way of flavour profile. But with every member of Nurse’s hallowed Top-7 sliding up the responsibility ladder a notch or two, Powell’s going to have to step out of his comfort zone a bit.
After saving the ball like it was a Raptors ass against the Bucks in the playoffs, Powell scaled up the difficulty on the play in question, taking a Marc Gasol bounce pass — which by the way will also be another delicious staple of this year’s team — and charging headlong into three waiting Pelicans defenders. A greener version of Powell might have tried, against the odds, to finish through that heavy traffic. In fact I can recall an instance against that very team in which he crammed on Anthony Davis doing just that. His one track mindedness on drives has produced many a loud jam, but also plenty of missed bunnies over the years. Instead, this time Norm worked his seldom-used playmaking muscles, spotting and finding VanVleet in the corner, leading to the wide open look for Siakam.
For the Raptors wheels to be greasy this year, that’s the type of growth Powell and others will have to show across more than just a single play. This isn’t the Kawhi season where one dude charging shoulder-first into a defense constitutes a decent offensive possession. For these Raptors, the founding the principles of the Culture Reset team of two years ago will have to be re-adopted and expanded upon. Seizing the opportunity presented by three collapsing defenders will have to be — I’m sorry —the norm.
Powell will surely miss those windows at times this season, same as Siakam will bobble basic creation duties once in a while. VanVleet won’t always drain 12 of 18 shots, probably...
As the Raptors trim the fat, the hope is those missteps will become more scarce, with the leftover components looking like something more cohesive than we saw during the home opener. Whether they’ll actually regain the form of a title-contender in this more wide open version of the NBA, we won’t find out for months. But as we saw at least once on Tuesday, Toronto’s got the juice to overcome a mishap or two en route to a tasty end result.