As is now frustrating tradition, ESPN has completed yet another round of ranking NBA players in advance of the coming 2019-20 season. Well, actually, they haven’t quite finished it yet — the top 10 will be presented tomorrow — but for our intents and purposes, which overlap with that of the Raptors, the list is done.
Which means all there is left to do is to comment on the decisions that went into placing each Raptor on the list, and the complaining about or praising said placement. This too is another annual tradition of NBA rankings and the one we take the most delight (or, yes, frustration) in.
Here’s the start of the full list from ESPN (#100-51), with links to the subsequent sections. And here’s where the Raptors ended up:
[First, a comically huge edit — we have to add Fred VanVleet!]
88. Fred VanVleet
Previous rank: 74
Projected RPM wins: 5.1
Tim Bontemps on VanVleet’s 2019 playoffs: VanVleet might be Toronto’s backup point guard, but he was a crucial part of the team’s run to the title. He got hot from 3-point range over the final three games of the Eastern Conference finals against the Bucks to help the Raptors make the NBA Finals, and he played tremendous defense on Warriors star Stephen Curry in their matchups.
We discounted Fred and have now no doubt drawn his ire. We have not bet on him to put together any even better season than last year. We have failed.
Or have we? Perhaps this is just the latest chapter in VanVleet’s fabled quest to prove each and every doubter wrong. We’re happy to have helped in that mission. Now then, as you were.
61. Marc Gasol
Previous rank: 51
Projected RPM wins: 2.5
Windhorst on Gasol’s summer: He took only one week off between the NBA Finals and reporting to the national team, making his strong play even more impressive. He played 39 minutes and scored 33 points in a double-overtime win in the semifinals against Australia — one of his best performances in a long career for Spain — in what turned out to be the vital one in securing the gold.
By jumping here to number 61 with Gasol, you’ve probably surmised that Serge Ibaka did not make the list. Unlike their counterpart SI’s ranking, ESPN did not feel Ibaka constitutes a top 100 players anymore. For the most part, they’re right. Ibaka was underratedly huge in the Raptors run to the title — re-watch some of the footage from the Philly and Golden State series if you doubt this — but he’s mainly just a back-up centre now, the big man equivalent to a microwave/heat check guy off the bench. What’s more: it feels like Serge’s decline could come at any moment, as sad as that is to write.
That said, Gasol at 61 feels about right. He’s no longer the signature dominate defensive centre in the league and his offensive game has dried up (other than his long-range shooting). But Gasol still knows how to play basketball at a high level, and always seems to be around to make winning plays when his team needs them most (see: his history in Memphis, Toronto, and Spain).
(Still, it is quite funny to see him lower than, say, Nikola Vucevic, whose lunch he housed back in last year’s playoffs. Ah well, time comes for us all, I guess.)
39. Kyle Lowry
Previous rank: 21
Projected RPM wins: 8.5
Bontemps on Lowry: Kyle Lowry is listed at 6-foot-1. He is oddly shaped. He’ll never be seen as the quickest or most athletic player on the court. And yet, despite all that, he constantly finds himself making winning plays.
Sigh. We will never be done fighting about Kyle Lowry. Look, I appreciate what Bontemps has to say there, even if it reads as damning with faint praise (or worse; I mean, is any other player criticized these days for being “oddly shaped”?). But the truth is, much like Ibaka, Lowry’s decline could come at any moment — especially now that he’s won a title and approaches his 34th birthday in early 2020.
Still, an 18-spot decline after playing a significant part in helping the Raptors win said title? What’s going on here? For what it’s worth, I do like that ESPN has decided to create a little mid-tier group of aging and semi-relevant players — Aldridge, Vucevic, Green, Horford, and Lowry — and then put them all behind Khris Middleton. That just feels particularly on brand.
In short, we will never be done fighting about Kyle Lowry.
22. Pascal Siakam
Previous rank: NR
Projected RPM wins: 6.0
One big question: What is Siakam’s ceiling? Last year, he blossomed into a star next to Kawhi Leonard, helping the Raptors win their first title while earning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Now that Leonard is gone from Toronto, this has become Siakam’s team. If Toronto is going to remain a factor in the East, it needs Siakam to take another step and become an All-Star and All-NBA candidate this season. -- Tim Bontemps
Ah, now we arrive at the main event! Peep that previous rank entry — nothing! Nada! Zero! Siakam has gone from being an exciting unknown in Toronto to one of the 25 best players in the league. He has transformed from a player with an endless motor and not much else into the league’s most improved player and a star-in-the-making who has figured out how to continue to adapt and grow his game. The mind boggles!
Last season, as Bontemps points out above, Siakam was playing in the shadow of an established superstar, one of the top three players in the league. This meant that the existing holes in Siakam’s game — his off-the-dribble shooting, his three-point shot — could be hidden by the sheer force of the talent around him. Now, he is definitely Toronto’s man.
And if you ask any Raptors fan they’ll tell you the truth: we couldn’t be happier.