Prior to last year's championship run, Toronto Raptors fans had become accustomed to a familiar pattern. Starting in the 2013-14 season, regular season success became customary for Toronto. That season and the next, the excitement of real competition and playoff games were enough for Raptors fans. Sure, it would have been nice to defeat the Nets or the Wizards, but no one really believed the Raptors would make a run at the title. The Lowry-DeRozan core, however, kept winning, and the mindset of fans began to shift in the 2015-16 season. Thoughts like, "Maybe Toronto's continuity would lead to playoff success" and "DeRozan keeps getting better, maybe he will lead the franchise to new heights" crept into the heads of Torontonians. Thus began the vicious cycle of the Toronto Raptors. Optimistic Raptors fans would talk themselves into championship contention. American NBA coverage, however, would discount the regular season success and refuse to take the team seriously. Raptors fans would push back, citing a lack of respect for the team north of the border. Eventually, however, the doubters would be proven right, as three consecutive playoff flameouts at the hands of LeBron James' Cavaliers led to an annual tradition of sadness, doubt, and disillusionment amongst Raptors fans.
In 2018, however, the cycle was finally broken, when Masai Ujiri traded franchise icon DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl for 3-and-D specialist Danny Green and NBA's John Wick - Kawhi Leonard. Cold, methodical, and ruthlessly efficient, Leonard was every bit the man you sent to kill the Boogeyman, putting an end to both the Heatles and the Warriors dynasty. Additionally, Ujiri replaced head coach Dwane Casey with former assistant Nick Nurse. The presence of a top 5 player in Leonard changed the narrative in Toronto, and the trade led directly to the franchise's first NBA championship. With Leonard's departure to the Los Angeles Clippers, however, the Leonard era of the Raptors was over seemingly as quick as it had begun.
This season, the Raptors are off to 15-4 start, which is tied with last year's team as well as the 2014-15 iteration of the squad for the best start in franchise history. The current team ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating and are second in the league in net rating according to Basketball Reference, behind only the Milwaukee Bucks. The team is in the midst of a seven game win streak with quality wins over the Philadelphia 76ers and the Utah Jazz in that stretch. To make the win streak even more impressive, Serge Ibaka returned only for the seventh game of the run, and Kyle Lowry has been out for the entire streak. The numbers thus far resemble those of a championship contender, yet the narrative surrounding the team seems closer to that of the DeRozan Raptors than it does the Leonard Raptors.
Raptors Twitter was sent into an uproar when ESPN's weekly power rankings were released last Monday. The network's Twitter account posted a graphic of the top 10 teams on their list, and the Raptors were nowhere to be found. The Raptors then went out and beat the 76ers that same day, with the team continuing their trend of shutting down the top option of their opposition, entirely snuffing out any offence from Joel Embiid as he successfully achieved the first and most important leg of a "Sam Mitchell." They kept it rolling with a dominant performance over the Knicks and a gritty win in Orlando that will forever be known as the Powell Game. Facing another title contender, the Utah Jazz, the Raptors roared out to a 40-point lead (!) in the first half. Following a very excusable sluggish start to the second half considering the circumstances, the Raptors held on to win by 20. Once again, ESPN churned out their weekly rankings, and the Raptors slotted in at 7th, ending our weeklong national nightmare. That still seems wrong. All things considered, the Raptors have easily been playing like a top five team in the NBA. Regardless of whether or not he had even played a minute of action, if the name Kawhi Leonard was on this roster, the Raptors would likely be ranked in the top 3.
So which version of the Raptors does the current team truly resemble more? The answer rests on the legitimacy of Pascal Siakam's stardom.
The current team has many facets that resemble the DeRozan Era Raptors. They are a balanced, high-energy team that plays hard on a night-to-night basis. Though it did not appear the case initially, the injuries to Ibaka and Lowry have given the current team a chance to showcase its depth, a hallmark of the pre-Kawhi squads. Given full health, the 2019-20 team runs about 10-11 players deep, and all of these players are earning their time, not being played out of necessity. The DeRozan Era Raptors had established a regular season floor. Their depth and culture all but guaranteed roughly 50 wins. They would beat bad teams, defend home court, and steal some wins against real contenders. It was the ceiling that was the problem.
So far, the current Raptors have established a similarly high floor. They are undefeated at home, and have not lost to a team that is under .500. In fact, the combined record of the teams that they have lost to is 59-20. This team takes care of business, and will happily beat any team that is unprepared to match the effort and intensity that this team brings every night. The floor is further solidified with a defence that is possibly the best that the Raptors have had altogether. Still, it is evident that the Raptors' status as a true contender is doubted by all but the most optimistic Raptors fans. Seemingly, we have returned to an era in Raptors basketball where a favourite pastime amongst fans is facing southward and demanding that our American neighbours respect our basketball team more.
The NBA is a star-driven league, and history suggests that the most important thing to have on a title-contending team is a true top-five player. Peruse through the title winners of the past 20 years and this will hold up save for the rare outlier (go back even further if you have the time and the same will remain true.) As successful as those Raptors teams were prior to the Leonard trade, they never had this player. Some thought DeRozan was "the guy," but he never truly had a believable case as a franchise player. DeRozan's inability to carry the team when we needed him the most became a theme of the Raptors' playoff runs with him. While everything was great on the outside - quality numbers, thrilling highlights, and a charismatic personality that resonated with Raptors fans - it was clear that he did not stack up well against the highest levels of competition. DeRozan was a very gifted scorer and solid playmaker, but he needed the ball to fully be successful. He did not space the floor, nor did he defend. Kawhi Leonard, however, showed Raptors fans what it truly felt like to have "a guy." Unfortunately, he now resides in southern California.
Enter Pascal Siakam. I cannot speak on the eras prior, as my NBA fandom truly began around 2005, but I cannot ever remember a player having such an unlikely meteoric rise to stardom. The closest comparison would be Giannis, but his potential for greatness became evident early in his career. Siakam averaged 4.2 points per game in his rookie year, and only 7.3 in his second, seemingly getting all of those points by simply running harder and faster than everyone in transition. Then, slowly, but very noticeably, his skill started developing. It started with his ballhandling, as the gangly Cameroonian was suddenly out leading fast breaks. Then the shooting started to develop. This year, few players in the NBA are as complete as Siakam. In the playoffs last season, Siakam succeeded on his trademark careening drives to the rim. When he was guarded by a center who could guard the rim on those drives, he struggled. Siakam took note, and this year, he'll simply shoot the three if given the space, and he's canning them at a 39% clip, an elite number given the frequency and degree of difficulty of the way in which he takes those shots.
Siakam is comfortable and effective running the point, playing off the ball as a cutter or a floor spacer, getting out in transition, or just taking his man straight up in an isolation. Any time a hole in his game has been exploited, Siakam has taken note and worked to eradicate this hole and turn it into a strength. Even as other teams have begun to gameplan against him, Siakam will attack the defence accordingly. In Sunday's game against Utah, the Jazz applied heavy pressure on Siakam early when he had the ball. He made smart, thoughtful reads and successfully utilized his teammates as a playmaker. When the Jazz were forced to ease off, he attacked, amassing 35 points on 14-22 shooting. Though he clearly has taken on a smaller defensive role for Toronto with the emergence of OG Anunoby and an increased offensive burden, his defence remains a strength of his game. His length, quickness, and general effort all make up an effective versatile defender, with opposing players shooting 7% worse from the field with Siakam guarding them, according to NBA.com. Siakam can do it all, and he does it all pretty damn well.
His airtight game clearly resembles that of Kawhi Leonard significantly more than it does DeRozan's. That is not to say he is of the same caliber of player as Leonard yet, but he is much closer than even an ardent Siakam optimist like myself thought he would be this season. The way in which he has improved every year gives cause for optimism about his ceiling, and with it, the ceiling of this Raptors team. I mentioned above that having Leonard gave Raptors fans the feeling of having "a guy." I think I might be getting the same feeling with Siakam.
So, Raptors fans, when you are participating in the tradition of demanding respect from the United States, make sure your argument includes Pascal Siakam.