The dog days of summer are here! It’s too hot, there’s too much baseball on TV, and the NBA regular season feels like it’s still a year away.
Now, if you’re a Raptors fan, you don’t have much to complain about; you should be enjoying this quiet, basking in the championship afterglow. But surely you, like me, can’t help but a spend a few moments here and there thinking about next season. What does a title defense look like? How do we move on without Kawhi Leonard?
So with that said, I’ve got 10 summer thoughts — five good, five bad — about the 2019-20 Raptors.
Let’s start with the reasons to be pessimistic, and then we’ll do the reasons to be excited next week.
Pascal Siakam Taking a Step Back
I’m about 85 per cent on Pascal Siakam continuing his ascent this coming season, improving his numbers and his play and making the All-Star and having a shot at the All-Defensive team.
I think there’s a 10 percent chance he has a very similar season to his 2018-19 campaign, and about a five percent chance he actually backslides (at least from a statistical perspective). For a few reasons:
- He isn’t surprising anyone. Siakam was good bench player in 2017-18, but no one outside of Toronto saw his leap last year coming. A lot of teams didn’t know how important he was to the Raptors until he was dropping 22 points on ‘em. No one is gonna be surprised this year.
- The blueprint is out on how to guard him. Sure, most teams don’t have a Joel Embiid or Draymond Green to step up and guard Siakam. But, in the playoffs Siakam struggled against mobile big men (and Marc Gasol’s tentativeness didn’t make teams pay for making that switch either). It remains to be seen if Siakam’s outside game and strength develop enough to overcome this.
- Defenses can key in on him. Kawhi Leonard is no longer here to draw all the attention on the offensive end, and Danny Green isn’t here as a release valve. Pascal is likely the top scoring option on this team, meaning defenses will focus in on him completely, and there aren’t many outside shooting threats to relieve the pressure. Will he be able to adapt?
- He’s 25. Siakam has grown — significantly — every year he’s been in the league. But every player has a peak, and a lot of players hit it by 25. Can he add the things to his game to help take him to the next level at age 25 (and beyond)?
If I had to wager, I’d wager on Siakam overcoming these concerns. But I wouldn’t be 100% confident in that wager.
The Seemingly Inevitable Kyle Lowry trade
I don’t want to see Kyle Lowry traded. He’s my favourite Raptor ever and I hope he stays and re-signs next year on a super-cheap deal and retires here and joins the front office or coaching staff in some player development role and his two kids go on to play for Team Canada and he becomes Governor General in 2040 and they build statues of him here in Toronto and all across Canada and he ends up on the 20 dollar bill in 2060.
But I don’t think any of that is happening.* Lowry is a fierce competitor, he’s still got some gas in his tank and I have no doubt he’ll be an excellent piece on a contending team, something this year’s Raptors (and next year’s) are not.
If he’s leaving in free agency anyway, and if there’s a deal to be made between December 15 and the trade deadline, I expect Masai Ujiri to make it, as distasteful as that will be.
I’m going to hate it. I’ll understand it, but I’m going to hate it.
* Maybe the statue here part? Fingers crossed!
The Nightly Meeting of the Bricklayers’ Association
Can this team shoot? The Raptors have exactly two guys on the roster that have career three-point shooting percentages over 36 percent, and that’s Kyle Lowry and the streaky Fred VanVleet.
How many 7-36 from downtown lines are we gonna see? The Raptors should be a great defensive team, sure, but does that mean we’re in for some 82-78 final scores?
I grant that there’s some optimism with the lineup: That Siakam’s shot will continue to develop, that OG Anunoby will build off what he did two seasons ago (37 percent from 3-point range in 2017-18), that Norman Powell (40 percent last season) will find some consistency, that the player development program will work wonders on Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, that Malcolm Miller and Chris Boucher will have real opportunities to show off their skill, that Matt Thomas actually lives up to his shooting god legend. If one or two of those things happen they might be OK.
But it’s a lot of “ifs”. I think we’re gonna be in for some long nights with a whole lotta iron.
Speaking things we’re gonna get a lot of...
Whole Lotta Fred VanVleet
I really like Fred VanVleet, he’s got a great story and the way he’s “got it out the mud” in his parlance is absolutely inspiring. And his play in the final nine playoff games? The stuff of legend.
But I’m not sure he has a future in the NBA as more than a backup, and if the Raptors hand him the keys this year — or at least let him take the car out on a lot of unsupervised joyrides, to continue this terrible analogy — it might lead to some pretty unwatchable basketball.
First, there’s this idea that’s been floated (not by the team at this point, I don’t think, but it’s in the wind) of starting both Lowry and VanVleet together. They’ve had success playing together (at times) and they are the team’s two best deep threats.
But they’re so small. That lineup worked wonders against a hobbled Warriors team, and even a Bucks team featuring a cratering Eric Bledsoe. But it was virtually unplayable against Philadelphia. And who’s the backup point guard in that scenario?
The good thing about that lineup is that there’s potential for VanVleet to play off-ball more, because when he ran the show himself last year, things often got ugly. VanVleet has a bad habit of pounding the ball into the floor, not hitting screeners when they roll, and putting the team in bad late-clock situations.
So whether VanVleet starts or plays extended minutes as a backup PG, I think there’s potential for some long nights.
Everyone Outside of Toronto Downplaying a “Fluky” Title Run
This Raptors team isn’t as good as last year’s, obviously. They might still be a top four team in the East; if things go their way (they stay healthy, other teams need time to gel, etc.) I could even see them finishing second.
But if they have the health problems they faced last year, and if the shooting is as bad as I fear, they could drop as low as seventh. And if they trade Lowry, Gasol and Serge Ibaka, I expect they’ll miss the playoffs.
Regardless, there’s gonna be a lot of poo-pooing the Raptors’ title, because they lost their best player and a critical two-way starter. “They won it because of a rental,” “it’s an anomaly,” “there should be an asterisk,” all that stuff. Because they’re not going to be as good, and might potentially be bad, we’re gonna see a whole lot of “The last time a defending champ didn’t do X, Y, or Z” nuggets.
Basically we’re gonna be seeing a lot of people try and make us feel like this title wasn’t special, and that’s gonna suck. I know it was damn special and so do you, and nothing can actually take it away — but it’s gonna suck to hear people try and take it away.
Those are my fears heading into next season. Hopefully some or all of them are unwarranted! But I’ll be thinking about them until the season kicks off.
On the other hand, I do have a few things I’m looking forward to — which we’ll get into next week.