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Three Lessons from the Toronto Raptors’ offseason

Just before the official start of the preseason, here’s what we learned about the Raptors this offseason.

Los Angeles Lakers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images

Somehow, someway, we will be seeing NBA preseason action tonight, exactly two months after the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 Championship. The league has moved through the offseason to get to the regular season like a seven-year-old moves through a chicken salad to get to a chocolate cake desert — it’s been messy, rushed, and a bad decision for overall health.

Nevertheless, we are here, and the Toronto (Tampa?) Raptors had an active offseason (and tip-off their preseason tomorrow). That means there are lessons to be learned. So, in what will be a weekly column this season, Three Lessons attempts to glean the major takeaways from what we have observed.

For this week’s iteration, we have a much bigger timeframe, and, as a result, some big picture lessons that have been learned.

1) Masai and Bobby are masters of gradual change

If you’ve been following the general discourse around the Raptors this offseason, you’ve undoubtedly observed a pattern of sorts. This season has been referred to as a transition year, a year in limbo, or in any other manner that denotes change within a franchise. To paint it as a year with an unclear purpose, however, would be a mistake. Toronto’s front office is facilitating a very deliberate torch-passing to a new Raptors core.

Some franchises go through change like a country goes through a revolution. The team is purged and splintered through attempts to rid itself of any remnants of the past. Oftentimes, the destruction created by the upheaval takes years to recover from. Obviously, examples like the Process Philadelphia 76ers and the current Oklahoma City Thunder stand out, but also look at the Los Angeles Clippers. They’ve gotten better, yes, but they look nothing like the upstart squad that pushed the Durant-era Warriors to a six-game series back in 2019. That absolutely impacts them. If the Houston Rockets do indeed trade James Harden, they will try to move so far away from the Moreyball era that defined them for so long that they may even destroy every calculator in the facility.

Toronto, however, reforms like a stable regime slowly implementing necessary change — not enough to alarm, but enough that real shifts occur. Remember: we were in the Lowry-DeRozan era less than three years ago. This team is now remarkably different, and it will be even more transformed come next season. And yet, the soul of the team feels the same. It has not once felt like we have sweeping change and turmoil. Part of that is a product of success, but a lot of it is canny, patient, and purposeful decision-making by Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster.

This offseason is evidence of a clear commitment to a long-term core of Fred VanVleet-Pascal Siakam core, with OG Anunoby likely to be part of it as well. Losing older players in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol further solidified that transfer.

This Raptors have gone through so much change in the past three years, but they are still extremely competitive in the Eastern Conferences. And what’s more: they still feel like our Raptors as opposed to a new team we don’t even recognize.

2) Toronto has a reputation as fertile ground for player growth

The Toronto Raptors’ player development program has long been discussed as one of the best in the league. Now, the players are really taking notice and seeing it as a place where they can maximize themselves. Toronto is still not a true marquee free agent destination, but players still speak highly of the opportunity to join the team, especially those who have not had success elsewhere.

If a player with talent was in a bad situation, or just did not have the opportunity to blossom, playing with the Raptors gives them (a) a chance to win some games and compete in the playoffs and (b) an opportunity to maximize their abilities and further their careers. That is what Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson attempted last season, though neither fully earned a consistent spot in the rotation. And that is now what Alex Len and DeAndre’ Bembry are doing this season.

Len has said that joining Toronto “was not about the money, just the opportunity to play for a top-notch, great organization,” noting that he was content to rejoin the Sacramento Kings until the Toronto opportunity arose. Bembry was succinct, acknowledging that the Raptors “know how to win.”

Perhaps most encouraging was the proclivity for grit displayed by Raptors’ first round pick Malachi Flynn. Right away, he professed his excitement to learn from Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry. He’s expressed no entitlement with his role, only an eagerness to grow in the Raptors organization. Flynn has made it clear that he’s willing to take his lumps because he is in a place that can help him get to where he wants to be.

Toronto makes no secret of it. You won’t simply be handed a spot. You must earn it. If you do, it becomes mutually beneficial for organization and player — the team has a better chance to win, and the player has a better chance for long-term success in the NBA.

3) Pascal Siakam will be back with a vengeance

I never really understood the Pascal Siakam slander. I got frustrated with his Bubble performance as well, but after a solid 30 seconds of rational thought with some perspective, I quickly got over it.

Did we really think the player who was a mere two seasons removed from a “run fast and get layups” offensive arsenal would set the league on fire in the playoffs, particularly against the Boston Celtics, a team with a bevy of excellent wing defenders and a coach who knows how to use them? Oh, and this was in the middle of a freaking pandemic, something that Siakam has since admitted to, just like the rest of us, struggling with mentally! If you took this as predictive of his career going forward, I’m sorry, but you are a fool. I thought it then, and I continue to think it now!

Since the Raptors have began officially talking to the media, we are hearing things that the fans of the team want to hear. After a quiet offseason from Siakam, hearing stories of him grinding away on the court with Paul Watson are as sweet as hearing the guitar solo in Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” for the first time. Nick Nurse, a man with a reputation for telling it like it is, noted Siakam as a bright spot in training camp thus far. Obviously, most players will get their fair share of preseason fluff, but this feels legitimate to me.

It’s not that Siakam has improved every year that makes this season so promising, it’s the way in which he’s done it. Every time a coach or an analyst has prescribed something realistic for Siakam to take another step as a player, he has reached, or more likely, surpassed that goal. Sure, he has some clear problems to work through, but I’m confident he will do so once again. Our guy is going to be filthy this season.

Now then, that closes the book on the first iteration of Three Lessons from the 2020-21 season. Here’s to learning much more this coming year.