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Evaluating preseason concerns on the Raptors Legitimacy Metre

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Going into the 2019-2020 season, Raptors fans came up with a handful of reasons as to why this would not be a rebuilding year. Halfway through the season, just how legitimate have these reasons been?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors entered the 2019-20 season with about as many question marks as any team in the NBA. The Raptors had a dream run to the 2019 NBA Championship, buoyed by a preseason trade by James Dolan’s nightmare Masai Ujiri that brought current occupant of the Best Player in the World belt Kawhi Leonard and three-and-D maestro Danny Green to the team.

The offseason, however, saw both of these players leave in free agency, and the bulk of non-Torontonians saw that as enough reason to write the team off this season. Even Sam Mitchell was a non-believer.

Et tu, Brute? An eight seed?

Had they retained Leonard, the Raptors would have been among the favourites for the 2020 Championship. Instead, no team saw a wider variety of outcomes being predicted this preseason. Should they run it back with an aging but talented core and see if they can make any noise? Should they look to move some of those older pieces like Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Kyle Lowry, signalling a reconstruction of the team? Or should they be patient, and base this decision on where the team sits as the February trade deadline nears?

North of the 49th parallel, We The Optimistic searched for ways to justify sustained contention for the Dinos. Leading up to the season, Raptors fans hung their hats on a few key arguments as to why this team would be successful in the 2019-2020 season. To monitor the legitimacy of these arguments, I have decided to rank the main points of rationale for continued success for the Toronto Raptors in the Raptors Preseason Optimism Legitimacy Meter.

Based on the performances in the first half of the season, the various takes will be assessed in terms of how they have panned out up to this point. They will range from 1 (Andrea Bargnani is the Franchise Saviour) to 10 (The Additions of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green Will Lead to the First NBA Championship for the Raptors).

Pascak Siakam is a legitimate #1 option: 8/10

A breakout year stacked upon a breakout year for Pascal Siakam was perhaps the biggest reason for optimism in Toronto. Siakam, a player who averaged 4.2 points per game in his rookie year and spent time in the G-League has shown marked year-to-year improvement, and a predicted continuation of this trend would put Siakam among the league’s elite.

In the 2018-19 season, he showed signs that he could succeed in a #1 role, averaging an efficient 18.9 points per game in games that Kawhi sat. In the playoffs, some breakout games, especially against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, led some to believe his ceiling was even higher than his non-Kawhi games forecasted.

At roughly the halfway point of the season, Siakam has been as spicy as advertised. He has established himself as the clear alpha of the Toronto Raptors, justifying every penny of the max extension that he signed this offseason. Siakam is averaging 23.8 points and 3.6 assists, numbers of a legitimate star player. He has even dipped his toes into the MVP talk at various points this season.

Yes, the numbers are impressive, and team success reinforces that they are not just empty stats. It is the manner in which he has accumulated these numbers, however, that makes Siakam’s star turn feel real. The addition of the above-the-break three has opened up his offensive game entirely, and he has hit 39% of those shots. Many of them have come off the dribble as well, further adding to the degree of difficulty. In addition to expanding his three-point shooting portfolio, Siakam has enough moves in his repertoire to be a wildly unpredictable cover.

For a player whose only source of offense initially was “run harder and faster than everyone else in transition,” the diversity of his game is jaw-dropping. He has shown off a blossoming midrange game, made strides as a playmaker, and has continued to be unstoppable on his whirling dervish drives. Just watch these highlights, Siakam scores in just about every way possible here.

This season has not been without lumps for Siakam, as a few minor things have kept this category from being ranked a 10/10. His overall shooting efficiency has dipped, although that can be easily explained by the increase in usage. He also struggled early this season with offensive fouls and turnovers, something that he appears to have straightened out.

Big, athletic defenders like Jonathan Isaac and Bam Adebayo have given him trouble. Spicy P preys on physical edges — he is typically quicker than the bigger bodies placed on him and can use his length and size against smaller defenders. Isaac and Adebayo are both enormous, and do not sacrifice athleticism. It is necessary for Siakam to remain creative and stay in attack-mode against these guys — being aggressive and getting to the line can give Siakam the edge back in these matchups.

In a similar vein, some games have seen him defer too much, and hang back offensively. To be a true star and MVP candidate, Siakam can’t take nights off. Since returning from a groin injury, Siakam looks to be still shaking off some rust, but it is still too small a sample to take anything from it.

The fact remains, however, that Siakam has established himself as a legitimate #1 option, one that Raptors can feel confident in for the foreseeable future. In this regard, Raptors fans were right to be optimistic.

Marc Gasol’s scoring will increase in larger role – 3/10

It is no secret that Gasol’s best days are behind him, but last year’s playoff run made it clear that he is still a valuable piece. He is one of the few big men who can credibly bother Joel Embiid defensively, and is as good as a playmaker from the centre position as there is in the Eastern Conference. Both of those facets of his game have carried over into this season. What has been lacking, however, is his scoring.

You do not have to look too far back to find a Marc Gasol who is an effective scorer. Just last season, in his time with Memphis, he averaged 15.7 points. The season before? 17.2 points per game. He had a ten game stretch in the middle of the season prior to his time in Toronto where he averaged 22.4 points, punctuated by a 27 point performance against the Raptors, a game that Torontonians brought up as an example of what Gasol could do in a larger role. With the opportunity afforded to him because of Leonard’s departure, Gasol would look more like the scorer he was in Memphis, or so the Raptors fans thought.

During his first season in Toronto, Gasol averaged 9.1 points. This year, a combination of the lowest usage rate and field goal percentage of his career have brought that average down to 7.2 points per game. Absolutely frigid shooting to start the season, and another ugly stretch in November had Gasol searching for answers.

Gasol clearly has not finished Space Jam, or else he would know that Michael’s Secret Stuff was a placebo and that the real success comes from belief in oneself. Perhaps, with the time off as a result of a pulled hamstring, Gasol had the time to finish the movie. The first two games back from injury were the best that he has looked as a scorer since coming to Toronto, hanging 20 points, a career high with the Raptors, against the Washington Wizards.

He has shot better in this time and shown hints of a rediscovered post game. Just like Siakam’s performance post-injury, this is not a big enough sample to draw from, but a return to success as a scorer would be a welcome sight for Raptors fans.

The lack of scoring does not mean, however, that he has played poorly. His on/off stats are simply remarkable, even more so given his poor shooting. The Raptors are outscoring teams by 13.1 points (!) per 100 possessions with Gasol on the floor. On offense, they are 5.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, showing the offensive impact that he has regardless of how much he puts the ball in the basket. Stats are courtesy of Cleaning the Glass.

Raptors fans were looking to Gasol to pick up the scoring load, something he has not done. That being said, his effectiveness as a player remains inarguable.

Defense will keep the Raptors in games where their offense struggles - 9/10

Leading up to the season, the Raptors offense was a question mark. A tough defense, however, felt like a certainty. That’s strange to say, considering the team lost perhaps the best perimeter defender of 2000s, and another former All-Defensive player in Danny Green.

The loss of Leonard, however, was always going to be easier to deal with defensively than it may appear on the outside, at least in the regular season. The Raptors were comfortable playing without him, as they did so 22 times last season. Additionally, Leonard was not often deployed as the defensive destroyer of worlds that he had been in the past, another measure taken to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Slotting into Leonard’s vacated position was OG Anunoby, about as good a defensive replacement as possible, and perhaps more suited for night-to-night defensive impact, given his age and health. Beyond that, organizational depth and a culture of defense had fans feeling bullish on this squad’s defensive ceiling. That being said, the results thus far are a pleasant surprise for all but the most optimistic.

The Raptors currently sit second in defensive rating at 105.41 according to basketball reference, behind only the dominant Milwaukee Bucks. In an injury-riddled season, their defense has won them games when the offense was reduced to “Kyle Lowry, go be awesome.” The Raptors regular rotation does not see them trot out a bad defender, and Nurse’s creative scheming has been largely effective.

What really separates this team defensively is their versatility. The Raptors are uniquely suited to take on star players of any position. VanVleet and Lowry defend as well as anybody at the point guard position. The trio of Anunoby, Hollis-Jefferson, and an engaged Siakam can provide 48 minutes of lockdown wing defense. Marc Gasol is an ideal defensive quarterback and specializes in shutting down big men. Serge Ibaka still shows flashes of his Oklahoma City days, where he was a rim-protection extraordinaire.

Nurse deploys these players in varied ways. They can go small and fast. If the matchup calls for it, they can go enormous. Sometimes, it makes most sense to just remain balanced and rely on defensive talent and a commitment to playing hard on that end. Whatever the opponent is doing, the Raptors have a counter.

Occasionally, the Raptors system will fail, and hot shooting nights from opposing role players will make one question Toronto’s tendency to allow corner 3s at such a high rate, as that happened in the Raptors game against Houston, for example. That is an outlier, however, and not the rule. This Raptors defense is legitimate, and fans were right to be excited about it this season.

New additions Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will fit in seamlessly and provide depth – 4/10

While these were not splashy, big-ticket offseason acquisitions, these signings seemed to make sense in the summer. Both players figured to fit in with the Raptors hard-nosed defensive identity, though both left much to be desired offensively. Thus far, it has been the tale of two reserves with Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson.

While neither saw much run in the early goings of the season, partially due to injuries and partially a lack of trust from Nurse, the first wave (how sad is it that there are multiple waves?) of Raptors injuries gave Rondae Hollis-Jefferson some opportunity. Right away, RHJ showed why he was a fan favourite in Brooklyn. He just plays hard on both ends of the floor.

His energetic defense has created problems for some of the best wing scorers. On offense, he lacks scoring touch, but makes up for it in other areas. He has a keen sense of where to put himself on the floor and is a heat-seeking missile on the offensive glass. Occasionally, he shows off some clever ballhandling and playmaking, an underrated aspect of his game.

In terms of Johnson, a preseason quote from Nick Nurse remains apt.

“Nope. Nope. No. No. Nada. Definitely not. No. No. No. No. Uh-uh. No sir. Not today. No. No. No. Nope. Zero. Zero. Zero. Zero.” – Nick Nurse, I think. And also Sam Mitchell.

The man who once claimed to be in LeBron’s head as a rookie likely does not factor into the psychology of the King or any other star in the league for that matter. Johnson is a skilled defender, and in the few minutes he has gotten that has shown that ability. It is his offense that makes him unplayable.

I recently wrote a piece about the signature moves of some of the Raptors bench players. I had a couple paragraphs written about Stanley Johnson’s signature move being dribbling the ball off his foot before I inevitably left him out of the piece altogether. That should tell you all you need to know.

Both signings were short-term and low risk, so Raptors fans need not be to upset with how the Johnson move panned out. In fact, as long as one of these guys popped, these signings were well worth it. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is certainly a key guy off of the bench, and somebody I would be comfortable with on the floor in a playoff series.

OG will bounce back from a tough sophomore year – 6/10

OG Anunoby’s sophomore year was unfortunately marred by family tragedy and an emergency appendectomy that held him out of the playoffs last year. As a result, it was not the follow-up to a successful rookie campaign that Raptors fans had envisioned, with dips in shooting efficiency and an inability to establish a rhythm with his play. After a challenging season, a forecasted breakout was at the forefront of the minds of Raptors fans.

I have written extensively about OG, and you can check that out if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of his game. If nothing else, Anunoby’s game has been inconsistent. He has had games and stretches where he looks like a solid tertiary scorer but will look inept offensively at other times.

Nonetheless, his offensive numbers across the board are an improvement from his sophomore season. He has largely benefitted from playing with the Raptors top players, a sign that he is less suited to find his own offense. As long as the Raptors remain healthy, he will not necessarily need to. Defensively, he has ranged from solid to dominant, and fans can feel very good about where he is at on that end.

Anunoby’s ceiling is unclear, and he has not had the breakout year that some fans predicted. He remains, however, an extremely valuable young role player. The key for Anunoby is to take the flashes that he has shown and increase their frequency.

Fred VanVleet will carry the momentum from the playoffs into this season – 8/10

An otherworldly second half of the conference finals and NBA finals seemingly has erased the memory of what was a largely disappointing season and start to the playoffs for VanVleet. It was even enough to garner one of the weirder finals MVP votes from Hubie Brown. A continuation of this hot streak into the 2019-20 season was a reason for excitement amongst the Raptors faithful.

With the departure of Danny Green, more minutes would be available for VanVleet, and he has snagged that vacated starting spot when healthy. His playoff performance was mainly about two things – his three-point shooting and his defense, specifically against Steph Curry. Both of those have persisted in this season.

He is shooting a scorching 49% from the corners, and 37% on all other threes, according the Cleaning the Glass. VanVleet always seems to hit a big three when the Raptors need it as well. He is certainly near the top in my mind of guys I want taking big shots in the fourth quarter.

Defensively, he has a preternatural ability to move laterally and stay in front of his man without fouling. His active hands and superb timing have picked many a pocket this season – his steal percentage puts him in the 86th percentile amongst combo guards, per Cleaning the Glass. I was not able to find a stat for this, but it feels like VanVleet gets more steals than any other player by simply taking the ball out their hands, as opposed to jumping passing lanes.

Going back to his offense, his shooting inside the three-point line is ugly. He shoots only 51% at the rim, putting him in the 25th percentile for his position, and a ghastly 20% from the mid range, per Cleaning the Glass once again. His size certainly hurts him on these shots, and his inefficiency inside the arc is the biggest hole in his game.

Poor shooting aside, VanVleet is a steadying presence on offense and a solid playmaker with a propensity for taking care of the ball. Like many a Raptor this season, he has battled injuries, but when healthy, he has been an integral piece of Raptors success. It is clear that his playoff performance did something for his confidence, and VanVleet is having a career year overall.

******

Players like Norman Powell and Terence Davis II have been pleasant surprises as well, but they weren’t part of any major optimistic preseason takes, which is why they were left off this list. Overall, it has been a fun, exciting season for the Raptors, one where much of the preseason optimist has been justified.