Last week I bummed everyone out with my sobering five reasons to be pessimistic about the 2019-20 Raptors. But, I promised that there were things to be optimistic about too!
I’ve got five thoughts below (of course), but to be honest I could written eight or nine — while getting to five negative things was tough. In other words I think there are way more things to be excited about going into next season than reasons to be miserable.
As always, it’s best to be realistic about this stuff, so I’m not holding out hope for a repeat title run or 60 wins or anything like that. But only one team can win it all; for everyone else, it’s about finding the other things to look forward to in a given season.
Things like these:
Nick Nurse Unleashed
Taking over the Raptors in June 2018 must have been one of the oddest situations a first-time NBA coach could find himself in. After all, the team was coming off its best regular season ever, and the greatest five-year run in franchise history... and was bringing back the exact same roster. How was Nick Nurse supposed to improve on what Dwane Casey did?
And then they traded for Kawhi Leonard! So now it wasn’t just high expectations, it was championship or bust.
Obviously coach Nurse did just fine. But with that championship (and its equity) under his belt, and virtually no expectations heading into 2019-20, I can’t wait to see what Nick Nurse has up his sleeve.
This is a guy who billed himself as a mad scientist, and I don’t think we saw that much of it last year. Sure, he ran out a lot of different lineups, but that was mostly due to injury, trades and load management. We did see the box-and-one in the Finals, but that was a hyper-specific situation.
So this year? How “mad” might he get? There are a bunch of guys on the roster that need minutes so the team can evaluate them (more on this soon); how might Nurse divide those minutes up? How does he maximize the playing time of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet? Of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol? How does he put Pascal Siakam in position to succeed, knowing defenses will key in on him more than ever? How can he help OG Anunoby make a Siakam-esque leap?
Perhaps most importantly, what kind of offense will he deploy without Kawhi Leonard there as an emergency valve? This team looks like it can defend; can they take advantage of their defensive potential to generate scoring opportunities?
We should learn a lot about Nick Nurse this season, and I’m really looking forward to that.
The Kyle Lowry Victory Lap
This one is pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? The best moments from the team’s title run were Kyle Lowry’s giant smiles as the seconds ticked away in Game 6 of the Conference Finals and Game 6 of the Finals. He’s the greatest Raptor of all time and — assuming he’s not traded in the next three months — we get to see him bring that NBA Champion smile to the whole league next season.
Not that we’ll actually see this on court, of course — I don’t imagine competitive bulldog Kyle Lowry has gone anywhere. But knowing that our guy is a champion is pretty sweet. No one deserves a victory lap more than he does; Lowry is perpetually underappreciated in the media and by too many fans, and even by his peers (he tied for third as “most overrated player” in last year’s The Athletic player survey).
So while I don’t think he needed to flip the script, clearly some people did... and if winning the title didn’t do it for those people, well we need to set those scripts on fire and throw ‘em at those people.
In addition, doesn’t a numbers jump seem likely for Kyle? He deferred to Kawhi Leonard last year; clearly, it was Leonard’s team, and Lowry’s scoring and shot attempts dipped (while his assists went up). This year, it’s Lowry’s team; he’s the undisputed veteran leader, he’ll need to be more aggressive, and they’ll really need his long-range shooting. Is 18.5 points on 13.5 FGA per game, eight assists and 4.5 rebounds attainable? And another All-Star nod?
Return of the OG
If there was anything about the Raptors’ title season that was depressing, it was the season of OG Anunoby. Injuries and personal absences kept him out of the lineup for stretches, and when he did get in, he was clearly rusty, and was never able to develop chemistry with the newly structured Raptors. And then he missed the entire postseason after his appendix burst.
But, as his inclusion on this list indicates, that means 2019-20 is full of potential for the third-year player. Seems to me he’s a favourite to start at the other forward spot alongside Pascal Siakam (though I’m sure he’ll have to earn it in camp); even just getting that starting spot back might help put him back on track. Either way a healthy summer, and a full training camp, should put him in a good position for a breakout season.
So what does a breakout season look like? Certainly a jump to double-figures in scoring would be nice, and getting back to his rookie TS% (58.7%) would be great. A player his size should definitely be getting more than 2.7 rebounds per game, and improvements in his playmaking and ballhandling would also be nice to see — he’s very tentative with the ball above the break.
The sky still seems to be the limit with Anunoby, and he should have plenty of opportunity to show what he’s got this season.
Which Marc Gasol Are We Gonna Get?
Joel Embiid Stopper Marc Gasol was critical. Championship Parade Marc Gasol is iconic. But every other Marc Gasol we saw last year — Tentative Marc Gasol, Over-Passing Marc Gasol, Firing Wraparound Passes off the Backboard in the Conference Finals Marc Gasol — was frustrating, at best.
What kind of Marc Gasol will we get with a full season, and lessened (non-Championship) expectations? Gasol seemed deeply concerned about being a disruption last year; he clearly just wanted to fit in to a very good team that he joined in midseason. But now he’s one of only three returning starters. He was the fifth scoring option in last year’s starting lineup; this year he’s likely the third. He and Nick Nurse will have a training camp to solidify his role and maximize his effectiveness, and I really want to see what that looks like.
We’ll never see 2013 DPOY Marc Gasol, or 2015 All-NBA First Team Marc Gasol, or 2017 19.5 ppg on 26.4% Usage Marc Gasol, here in Toronto. But I firmly believe there’s a better Marc Gasol than what he showed us last year.
Let’s see what Toronto Marc Gasol has to give!
The Raptors have a clear-cut top seven (Lowry, Gasol, Ibaka, Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby, Powell), but after that? Flyers, baby.
This has been the summer of “let’s pick this guy up and see what he can do” for the Raptors. From their lone draft pick (Dewan Hernandez, who missed his last year of school) to their UFA pick-up (Terence Davis, who pulled a VanVleet and bet on himself), to former first-round picks on the scrap heap (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Cameron Payne, Stanley Johnson), not to mention all of their own returning youngsters (Chris Boucher, Malcolm Miller, Jordan Loyd, Patrick McCaw) the Raptors have a ton of guys who are looking to make a mark — and in some cases, fighting for their NBA futures.
While that can often lead to horrifying basketball on bad teams, as guys fight to “get theirs,” a team like this — that’s still good, and has veterans (and champions!) like Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka, and good young players who’ve “made it” like Siakam and VanVleet — can temper that aggression and fuel it in the right ways. And that can be exciting! These guys should all give a damn, they should all want to make the best impression possible, they should all be looking to grow their games and take advantage of this opportunity.
With no expectations and a Championship afterglow, why shouldn’t Toronto throw these guys out there and see if anyone sticks? I look forward to seeing what the Mad Scientist can do with a bunch of guys with shaky jump shots and high defensive intensity.
Again, no illusions here: This isn’t a championship team, and there is the possibility of a trade (or two or three) shipping out the veterans and hastening a full-on rebuild. But as it stands today? From where I sit, I think this season has the potential to be a blast.