The seasons within an off-season are always fascinating.
First, you have the NBA Finals hangover — which was nice and long, thank you for asking — then it’s the manic two weeks of free agency where your favourite player leaves you for Los Angeles and you cry yourself to sleep. Then, muscle watch season begins, as second-year players drain jumpers over the MVP of your rec league while in a vigorous sweat.
Now, we’ve hit the last off-season season before training camps begin: rankings season.
Love it or not, the player rankings are coming hot and heavy, with Sports Illustrated taking the first crack at things. Their Top 100 is coming out bit by bit this week. Lucky for us, we don’t have to wait for the top ten to see all the Raptors in the list (probably because their top ten player left them for Staples Centre).
But forget that guy — what about the current Raptors? Where do they fit in Sports Illustrated’s complex algorithm of basketball skill and upside? Well, let’s take a look.
80. Serge Ibaka
I’m extremely happy to see Serge in this rankings list, if only because his Game 7 performance against Philadelphia — truly one of the most “WTF” games in franchise history and featuring a rip-through three-pointer — earned him a spot. Here’s what SI had to say:
Last season was a mild renaissance for Serge Ibaka at age 29, who found the verve in his game after a few sleepy years for the Magic and Raptors. It’s hard to say exactly why. Ibaka played largely the same role for the same team he had previously, though with the benefit of more support—and the ease of reduced pressure. Maybe that was enough. Other bigs could relieve Ibaka on his rougher nights. Kawhi Leonard and the evolving Pascal Siakam could carry Toronto for stretches and take some of the stress out of Ibaka’s contributions. When shielded in that way, Ibaka again became a game-changing player for a championship run. He isn’t a particularly impactful scorer, a high-volume rebounder, or even the shot-blocking force he used to be. Ibaka is simply the kind of adaptive big who can be a significant net-positive in four playoff series against four distinct opponents—among them the Sixers, Bucks, and Warriors.
Serge’s two weeks of championship celebrations aren’t mentioned here, but it continues to be an endearing factor to one of the Raptors’ most memorable characters.
42. Marc Gasol
Both centres made the list, with the veteran Spaniard coming inside the top 50. Gasol is a top three reason for me to watch the Raptors this upcoming year, given his creative passing and ability to open the floor for Toronto’s younger players. Here’s the SI quotation:
Toronto would not have survived three demanding playoff series if not for Marc Gasol. The center position is the battleground of the postseason. Bully-ball teams use it like a cudgel, threatening any opponent that doesn’t match up accordingly with a painful rebounding margin and bucket after bucket in the paint. Small-ball teams turn that idea on its head, making the bruisers into walking liabilities as they space and run the floor. Gasol walks in both worlds. It shouldn’t be possible for the best one-on-one post defender in the league to also hang on the perimeter, yet there Gasol was, thriving in series against Joel Embiid and Stephen Curry alike.
Each of those competitive settings demands a wildly different skill set. What allows Gasol to find a bridge between them is his understanding of what comes next—be it how a drop step builds to a particular move or how to best defend a high screen based on its angle. The Raptors didn’t even rely on a base defense, per se, where Gasol was involved, instead trusting the veteran center to feel out the right coverage and communicate it accordingly. That’s the luxury of Marc Gasol. You work around the limitations of him being 34 years old. You accept the fact that he doesn’t produce like an All-Star anymore, and that he won’t even shoot as often as he should. You do all of this because Gasol is the sort of thinker who can help a great team navigate the long road to a title.
In the moment, much of the Raptors’ playoff run seemed like an endless wait for Marc Gasol to shoot, and make a three-pointer. On second watch, though, it’s kind of remarkable how his good games dictated whether Toronto won or not. When he was confident in himself, the Raptors took everything to the next level. Having him for an entire regular season will be a treat.
28. Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry is someone who will definitely print out this Sports Illustrated article and drop the number 28 into some kind of Media Day quote, and for good reason. Lowry is always better than his ranking dictates, and as such enters the season as one of the league’s most enticing mid-season trade prospects.
Trade or not, he’ll once again be the glue that holds the Raptors together. Pascal Siakam is the focal point, but Lowry is now and will always be Toronto’s most important player. I still haven’t got over the enormity of his balls in Game 6 of the Finals.
If you were designing the ideal point guard to play next to a superstar, his game would probably look a lot like Kyle Lowry’s. For starters, he would be able to score but not insistent upon it, striking the delicate balance that holds the attention of an opposing defense. You would want a pragmatic playmaker who reads the game without feeling the need to control it—like, say, the Raptors point guard who ranked second in the league in assists per game but 29th in time of possession. It would be best if this tailor-made guard were dynamic without the ball, given the way NBA offenses orient around their single best player. That requires not only three-point shooting (like you’d get from Lowry, a 37% long-range shooter for his career) but a sense of when and how to move. The last thing you’d want is some over-eager sidekick getting in the way, so this guard would also need Lowry’s particular combination of motor and discretion.
To fully fit the bill, they would need to be a stout individual defender who can adapt along with the team concept, and a disciple of the hustle play with natural competitive instincts. Check and check. They would have championship experience. It would help if they could hold their own in switch situations, like Lowry does, and even box out bigs here and there to bolster a team’s rebounding. Unselfishness would be non-negotiable. The guard in question would need to facilitate a transition game to build out the offense, just as Lowry does with his hit-ahead passes. You could dedicate countless resources and lean on some hideous science to try to Frankenstein together such a player. Or, you could just trade for Kyle Lowry.
I hope nobody trades for Kyle Lowry.
24. Pascal Siakam
The NBA’s Most Improved Player will get an offence centred around his skills in 2019-20. Will the Raptors take a step back in the process? Probably. Will having a player like that with a higher usage rate be entertaining as hell? Absolutely.
Siakam is the only player to crack SI’s top 25 and his one-on-one game is appropriately cited:
Playing against Pascal Siakam requires a different level of attention—a constant, dialed-in, head-on-a-swivel investment that is mentally exhausting. Tracking him seems like a full-time job. When an opponent would attempt to rotate on defense, they might move too late for fear of how Siakam might cut. If a potential offensive rebound ricochets into open space, opponents might not even be able to pursue it because chasing Siakam in transition takes a higher priority. It’s a tough lot, keeping tabs on a player who seems to be everywhere. And even if all goes perfectly, the reward is then dealing with one of the most surprising shot creators in the game. What earned Siakam the Most Improved Player award last season wasn’t his energy or his defense. It was the emergence of a viable one-on-one game from a puff of smoke. Last season, Siakam was only slightly less efficient in isolation than Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, per Synergy Sports. He was more efficient working from the post (on far lighter usage) than Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić. If Siakam is really this damn good at attacking creating for himself—revelations which vaulted him from outside our Top 100 last year all the way to 24 this year—who’s to say what he can’t do next?
So what are your takes on the Raptors in the Sports Illustrated Top 100? Appropriate or not? Let us know in the comments.