The Toronto Raptors are NBA Champions. The title defense is about to begin! But first, we have training camps and exhibition games to get through. The preseason may not be as good as “the real thing,” but with the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors, we have a lot to learn and discover about the team, its players and their roles.
Let’s get to the most interesting preseason storylines:
How Hungover is Marc Gasol?
In the span of four months, Marc Gasol played the most games he’s ever played in an NBA season (regular+postseason, 103), won an NBA title, won the NBA Championship Parade MVP award, won the FIBA World Cup, and won the FIBA World Cup Championship Parade MVP. He went from Oakland to Toronto to Spain to China to Spain. Now he’s coming back to Toronto, then going to Japan and then finally coming back to Toronto for the 2019-20 NBA regular season.
(How many time zones did he cross? All of them? I think that’s all of them.)
Marc Gasol is 34 years old! All of that basketball, all of that travel, and all of that alcohol consumption is going to have an impact on him. How much? That’s what we’ll have to see in the preseason... or, perhaps, we won’t see — I think there’s a pretty good chance that Gasol rests for most of training camp (he certainly deserves it).
Which leads us to my next storyline...
How will the Finals Run and Preseason Travel Impact the Team?
Gasol may have had the busiest summer, but obviously all of the returning Raptors had an extended playoff run and have to make the trip to Japan. Playing 100+ games and going to the other side of the world and back are tough on the body. The NBA has also shortened the preseason competition period; there are fewer games and that makes a difference. We saw it last year: the first two weeks of the regular season gave us some pretty sub-par basketball across the board as players got into shape and teams learned to play with each other.
So how will all of that affect this year’s Raptors as they head into the season? (This team might need pre-season load management!) And perhaps a more pertinent question... does it even matter? Expectations for this team are kinda non-existent, after all; they won the title, then lost the Finals MVP and another starter, so they’re flying totally under the radar. A slow start isn’t going to lead to too many questions. (Although it may lead to trade rumours.)
Which of Masai Ujiri’s Project Pick-Ups will Work Out?
The Raptors didn’t make any splashes this summer with trades or signings, but Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster are bringing plenty of new players coming to camp to see if anyone will stick. Here all the new faces you’ll be seeing over the next couple of weeks, some on real contracts, some with just camp invites:
- Stanley Johnson
- Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
- Matt Thomas
- Terence Davis
- Dewan Hernandez
- Cameron Payne
- Oshae Brissett
- Sagaba Konate
- Isaiah Taylor
- Devin Robinson
There are also three returning players we might define as projects:
- Chris Boucher
- Malcolm Miller
- Patrick McCaw
With seven returning rotation players (Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell), that means at least some of the above players will find a role (and Powell’s role isn’t exactly set in stone). Who will it be? Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson, and Thomas seem the best bets, just based on their pedigree and contracts. But the size and scope of those roles remains to be seen.
I’d say this camp offers up the most intrigue and competition that we’ve seen in a Raptors pre-season in quite some time. It’ll be interesting to see who emerges on the other side.
What’s Toronto’s Starting Lineup?
We can lock Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam in here, right? What about the other three spots?
As the start of the 2018-29 season, the Raptors unleashed their “platoon centre” approach by starting either Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas, depending on the opposition. By the end of last season, Valanciunas had been traded for Gasol and Gasol had emerged as the starter, with Ibaka coming off the bench. That optimized the Raptors roster, which needed to see Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam also start in the frontcourt.
With Leonard gone, Toronto’s three best frontcourt players are Gasol, Ibaka and Siakam... but can you start all three of them? Will Nick Nurse go with a matchup-based approach again? It might make sense to go big against, say, Philly or Orlando. But against smaller teams, does one of the “projects” start at SF? If so, who? Both Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson have shown defensive flashes, but neither has proven themselves on the offensive end.
And if one of them starts at the three, does that leave Norman Powell to start at the two-guard spot? Or will Toronto really roll out it’s two-PG lineup from the tip? (That leaves the whole question of who the backup PG is.) Would Nick Nurse roll out a super-small Powell-VanVleet-Lowry lineup!?
Nurse has a lot of options, and the preseason should give us an opportunity to see him try them all out.
Is This (Finally) Norman Powell’s Year?
Ah, the great mystery of Norm Powell. Last year’s playoff run was certainly a microcosm of his career. Invisible for stretches, nigh-unplayable for stretches, invaluable for stretches, and solidly “OK” for stretches.
Now he’s got the best chance he’s ever had to make his mark and secure a starting role. Can he build off what he did against the Bucks and Warriors, and turn into a consistently productive two-way player?
Given all of the competition in camp, and given that Masai Ujiri is keeping all of his options open, and given that Powell’s contract — while he hasn’t yet lived up to it — is a very tradeable number... I’d say the pressure is on Norm to make an impact in the preseason.
Coming off winning the title, it might be tough to get excited about the upcoming season. But there’s enough intrigue here to make it interesting, and I can’t wait to see what this team looks like in a month.