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Tracking how the Raptors can still contend in the Eastern Conference

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With Kawhi saying his final goodbyes to Toronto, hope has dwindled for the Raptors. But there are a variety of factors that indicate the team will still be a contender this upcoming season.

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Kawhi Leonard has officially been crowned in Los Angeles, the Raptors prepare for a new era. While it is certainly a shame that he (and Danny Green) did not return to defend the title, there is evidence that the Raptors will still contend in the East this year. Lest we forget, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol were all integral pieces in the championship run. And while a few of them are entering their twilight years in the NBA, they certainly still have the wherewithal and tenacity to hold their own in the league.

The Raptors do not have the perfect roster construction, but it is still competitive — perhaps more than people realize. With that said, let’s explore what the Raptors have lost with the departure of Kawhi and Green, and what’s likely to happen next for 2019-20.

What Have the Raptors Lost?

This is a tough pill to swallow. Kawhi averaged 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game on .496/.371/.854 shooting splits over 60 games. In addition, Green averaged 10.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game on .465/.455/.841 shooting splits over 80 games. Kawhi nearly averaged 10 more points than the next leading scorer, Pascal Siakam, at 16.9 points per game.

Moreover, Kawhi was an emphatic defensive player for the Raptors. Throughout the season, he produced a 105.0 defensive rating per 100 possessions to coincide with his 119.0 offensive rating per 100 possessions, which leaves him at a plus-14 for the season. The differential is astounding. What’s more, Kawhi ballooned his averages for the playoffs to 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game while retaining nearly identical shooting splits. He also dropped his defensive rating down to 103.0, which left him as a plus-16 for the 24 total games.

Simply put, Kawhi’s machine-like decimation of the opponents throughout the playoffs was beyond imaginable. His ability to navigate the court and choose his offensive spots while maintaining a truly stifling defensive effort was a massive headache for opponents. Furthermore, his cool and calm demeanour kept the Raptors balanced despite having to navigate numerous series deficits in the postseason. Those intangible abilities cannot be tracked like on-court skills, but they are an undeniable necessity regardless.

It’s easy to grant these intangible gifts to Kawhi Leonard, sure, but, other players fought the playoff battles alongside him and reaped the benefits too. Kawhi certainly helped lead the team to the promised land, but he did not do so without help. It’ll be up to these players to lead the team in the new season.

Who Will Step Up For the Raptors?

Kawhi played 60 regular season games for the Raptors last year. In the 22 games that Kawhi took off, the Raptors sustained a 17–5 record, which equates to a 77.2 win percentage. Extrapolating that over 82 games, the Raptors would have conjured approximately 63 wins, which would have topped the NBA last year.

Admittedly, it is absurd to believe the Raptors are just as good without Leonard. And, notably, Danny Green participated in most of the 22 games without Kawhi. But, said record shows that there was much more to the team other than Kawhi and the boys; it shows that there was a system in place that produced wins with an ample team-first approach. But who will make the leap into the Kawhi role next year for the Raptors?

Pascal Siakam

Last season, by far, Pascal Siakam made the best case for being the central figure on the Raptors. The newly crowned Most Improved Player was worthy of his accolade. But it will take further development from Spicy P for the Raptors to stay in contention in the East. Fortunately, Siakam has the statistics to back up this optimistic projection.

According to Cleaning the Glass, in 2,075 possessions without Kawhi Leonard on the floor, Siakam lineups averaged a point differential of plus-11.1, which is in the 96th percentile. Moreover, the team’s defense maintained a 103.9 defensive rating, which was good for the 95th percentile. Some of these lineups include Green, but his season averages are more replaceable among the aggregate players left on the roster compared to Kawhi’s.

Siakam averaged 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game on .549/.369/.785 shooting splits over 80 regular season games. In the playoffs, Siakam bumped his averages to 19.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, and narrowly dropped his assists to 2.8. Yet, while doing so, his averages fell off a cliff (.470/.279/.759 shooting splits) and his effective field goal percentage dropped from 59.1 to 50.8 percent.

To continue his positive trajectory, he is going to need to maintain higher levels of scoring without diminished percentages. Siakam has tipped past age 25, but he may still reach a higher ceiling with time. To do so, he will need to have a reliable 3-point shot from anywhere on the floor. Last season, Siakam attempted 22.6 percent of his shots from three. He’ll either need to raise that percentage or hit them closer to 39 or 40 percent on average to increase his scoring. Siakam’s shot mechanics on the three ball seem slow and a quicker release could help bolster this percentage. Coupled with an increasing comfort in the mid-range could make Siakam deadly from everywhere on the floor.

With this change and another season of developing a defensive identity, Siakam has the chance to be the star on a seemingly starless team. These tweaks may encounter some growing pains — we saw it a bit last season — but Siakam has always maintained the ability to elevate his game. We should believe that he will continue to grow.

Fred VanVleet

VanVleet is an interesting player, but a proven one if nothing else. Undersized and undrafted, VanVleet has made his money by never giving up despite the circumstances, a trait that perhaps is galvanized by another undersized guard, Kyle Lowry. VanVleet made incredible shot after incredible shot to close out Golden State in Game 6 of the Finals and he showed sheer toughness bouncing back from tough hits.

Meanwhile, VanVleet’s defense in the box-and-one scheme was a difference maker in gobbling up Steph Curry’s breathing room. The tactic itself wouldn’t work throughout a whole season or for all teams, but it shows his spirit on that end of the floor in extreme circumstances.

VanVleet was an essential cog in the machine in 2018–19. With 11.0 points and 4.8 assists per game, he proved to be a quality rotation player. VanVleet has a career average of 39.4 percent from behind the arc as well. The three pointer will need to be his go-to for the upcoming season. Without Green in the backcourt, VanVleet will have to step up. Given his credible percentage from deep, there’s no reason to think he can’t.

VanVleet, for his undersized body, was a relatively good defensive player in the regular season. According to NBA.com/Stats, VanVleet averaged a 105.0 defensive rating over an average of 27.5 minutes per game. With his offense, his net rating equalled a plus-8.1 over the same average playing time. This number can be misinterpreted, though, as he more often played against second units. On the other hand, it provides statistical evidence that he is capable of defending others at a high level whether or not he is a starter or a sixth man.

While we often think of NBA teams from the perspectives of starters, solid second units are essential to the team. Plus, good second units help maintain continuity within a game or provide a spark when the starting unit isn’t producing at a typically high level. VanVleet’s ability will help keep the Raptors flying high throughout the upcoming season.

The Old Dogs

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but don’t tell that to Lowry, Ibaka, or Gasol. While all three are entering the later years of their careers, they all still bring a lot to the table for Toronto.

We’ll start with Gasol. A few years ago, he started launching threes and hitting them at a high clip. With the Raptors, Gasol continued this trajectory. In the 26 regular season games, Gasol hit 44.2 percent of his three point attempts and averaged 2.5 attempts per game. Having Gasol act as the trailer in Toronto’s up-tempo offense allow him to step into a pick-and-pop plays beyond the arc, or set-up dribble-drives, post-up passes, and other pass-happy sequences. To execute plays like that takes a good ball handler and patience. Although Kawhi fits that bill, so do Siakam and Lowry, who can emulate these types of situations next year. In turn, Gasol, who will be turning 35 this season, has the ability to extend his career because of his basketball IQ on both ends of the floor, along with his shooting ability and soft touch.

Of course if there’s anything Gasol will always uphold, it’s his defense. Cleaning the Glass estimates that even without Kawhi, Gasol’s Toronto lineups had a point differential of plus-11.3 and defensive rating of 101.3, good for the 96th and 98th percentile, respectively. Even in his later years, the big Spaniard holds his own on the defensive end of the floor, which will be especially important in the upcoming season with a developing offense.

Meanwhile, Lowry and Ibaka provide continuity for Toronto — we all know what to expect from them. Save for a few blips in the season, Lowry and Ibaka’s play was complementary of each other and their teammates throughout the season. Let’s not forget that Lowry just averaged a career-high in assists and buried some playoff demons of his own. Ibaka continues to produce at a high level and is good at getting to his sweet spots on the floor.

In a league that squandered continuity in the offseason, maintaining these players will help Toronto get off to a good start while other teams figure out their systems. There is still something to be said about pride, determination, and stability that helps invigorate a franchise.

The New Dogs

With the departure of Kawhi, OG Anunoby will have a much bigger role with the Raptors this coming season. He’ll likely be back with the starting lineup, playing under the tutelage of the team’s veterans. The hope is that Anunoby can become a more well-rounded basketball player. He still needs to improve on the defensive end, but he has a large body and wingspan to do so. Moreover, with lower expectations this year, perhaps the pressure will be off Anunoby somewhat, so he can get back to what he does well.

In his rookie year, Anunoby netted a positive point differential of plus-10. In his second season, he netted a minus-1.7. All of his shooting splits dropped in his second year, too. OG is perhaps most identifiable as a microwave-type player; when he’s on, he’s cooking, but when he’s off you might as well unplug him. To improve over the next year, OG will have to work on his consistency on offense, and find ways to be effective as an off-ball threat and shooter.

Then, of course, there are the new additions. The most notable players are Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Terence Davis. All three have their own offensive pitfalls, yet all three also have defensive upside. If there was a clear identity that the Raptors’ front office was chasing in free agency after losing out on Kawhi, then it was grabbing up defensively adept players and hoping to coach them up to quality shooters. Whether or not this happens, it won’t harm the Raptors’ future — these players are all on team-friendly deals.

With middling expectations, the young and new Raptors will have the freedom to work under the veteran leadership on the team. While there is room to grow, there may be no better place than on a tenacious team with lots of pride for the upcoming year.

Staying in Contention

Many are bullish on the Bucks and 76ers in the East, as they likely should be. Both teams remain at the same level from last year and they both were the biggest challenges in the East last season. The Bucks retained the most continuity only losing Malcolm Brogdon in free agency. The 76ers, on the other hand, lost Jimmy Butler, but signed Al Horford. The 76ers are a large, large team, which will be a difficult match-up for the Raptors.

Still, the Raptors have a shot in the East. People have largely forgotten that Gasol is relatively new with the team and he can be used more strategically going forward. They’ve also underestimated VanVleet leading the second unit, or the potential next leap from Siakam, and hold low expectations for the team’s newest players. And of course, it’s hard to bet against Lowry in his role as leader of the Raptors.

With all the noise happening in the NBA, the Raptors have been quiet. But Toronto does tend to do better as a franchise when they come out punching unexpectedly. This upcoming year will be a test to their determination and work ethic, but there is no reason to believe they won’t surpass expectations. There is so much room for the team to grow and remain in contention in the East. With coach Nick Nurse at the helm—who has something to prove, too—the Raptors could come on as a surprise. It’s a spot that fits for their roster. And, ultimately, it’s a position worth exploiting.