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The Rap-Up: It’s the most wonderful time of the year for the Raptors!

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Somehow we’re finally here: the first Rap-Up of the 2020-21 season. This week, we’ve got Toronto’s season opener and a showdown with an old friend. Get your picks in now!

NBA: Preseason-Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA season kicks off this week and the Raptors open at home with their 2019 NBA championship banner plus the 2020 Stanley Cup championship banner hanging in the rafters!

Opening the season without Herbie Kuhn introducing players or Mark Strong hyping up the crowd or 4 Corners providing in-game entertainment will be sorely missed.

On the court, though, the Raptors should have a similar feel. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam are still the core four to start and (mostly) end every game. Norm Powell will kick-start his Sixth Man of the Year campaign as the lead point-getter off the pine. Gone is the big, hulking presence of Marc Gasol, replaced by the... big, hulking presence of Aron Baynes. Malachi Flynn is this year’s [redacted], as the non-lottery pick that will provide meaningful minutes, while frustrating fans as to why Nick Nurse doesn’t play him more. DeAndre Bembry’ is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson 2.0. Overall improvements from Matt Thomas and Paul Watson Jr. should replace the offensive void left by Serge Ibaka, while the chaos Chris Boucher and Alex Len (at least in the paint) brings should make up for Ibaka’s defense.

December 23 vs. New Orleans Pelicans

In the seven seasons under Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors have opened the season at home and won. For the second consecutive season, they’ll open up against the Pelicans — only this time with a (temporary) new home arena.

For the first time, the Raptors get to face Zion Williamson. This will be a good early-season test for Baynes, who looked a bit slow picking up the defensive philosophy that has worked for Nurse’s troops. Anunoby also figures to see time against Williamson, a rare defensive assignment of someone stronger and quicker (in bursts). This matchup also pits the last two MIP winners in Siakam and Brandon Ingram against each other. Siakam’s spent this off-season with the famed, Rico Hines — as he does every off-season since joining the league — polishing his game and re-building the confidence and joy he lost in the bubble. Consider yourselves warned, Pelicans!

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Depending on how you look at it, there’s a bit of irony that the last team that had to relocate was New Orleans. The Hornets spent two seasons in Oklahoma City after their arena was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The team would return to New Orleans, but that experiment was the final nail in the Seattle Supersonics’ coffin, as the team would be stolen relocated to OKC.

Prediction

Toronto’s ability to key in on an opposing star and erase him from the game plan offensively became a hallmark of Nurse’s defensive strategy last season. How the Raptors slow down Zion will surely test the rising star’s ability to make quick reads out of double-teams or try to find seams in Toronto’s improved rebounding from Aron Baynes and OG Anunoby. Lowry and VanVleet will frustrate Bledsoe and Ball, while Siakam should look like early 2019 Siakam for enough stretches. Toronto wins another home opener, 112-104.

December 26 @ San Antonio Spurs

Manu Ginobili (57th pick, 1999 draft)

Tony Parker (28th pick, 2001 draft)

Beno Udrih (28th pick, 2004 draft)

Ian Mahinmi (28th pick, 2005 draft)

George Hill (26th pick, 2008 draft), later traded for Kawhi Leonard (you may have heard of him).

R.C. Buford and the San Antonio Spurs turned the early part of this century into a clinic on how to produce championship contenders while continuously finding tremendous value in the draft. Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan would ultimately lead the Spurs to five championships during their NBA record-tying 22-year playoff streak. While that streak came to a pandemic-driven ending last season, the rest of the NBA has begun to take notice of a changing of the guard.

Let’s perform the same drafting exercise for the last five seasons with the Toronto Raptors.

Delon Wright (20th pick, 2015 draft), later included in a trade for Marc Gasol

Pascal Siakam (27th pick, 2016 draft)

Fred VanVleet (Undrafted, 2016)

OG Anunoby (23rd pick, 2017 draft)

Malachi Flynn (29th pick, 2020 draft)

The Spurs have seemingly passed the torch of continued success coupled with excellent drafting. Toronto is in the midst of its most successful run as a franchise — the only team in the NBA with at least one playoff series win in each of the last five seasons — and also sparking excitement every time their low-end first-round pick is up for selection.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Both of these teams have been prepping for the Summer of 2021 with a slew of contracts ending after this season. How much? Combined, the Spurs and Raptors will have approximately $80 million in cap space! Reminder, the salary cap next season is $112 million. That’s almost enough to buy an entire roster’s worth of players since, well, all of the max free agents are now gone.

Prediction

The last time these teams met was unforgettable. Not because Pascal Siakam set a franchise record with 25 points in the first quarter. January 26, 2020, will forever be known as the day Kobe Bryant died. The vibe was subdued. The players didn’t want to play. Each team took turns running out the shot clock, 24 seconds, in memory of Bryant. The Raptors would go on to win, but the game was an afterthought.

With a shortened season kicking off while a global pandemic continues raging on, this game will have similar vibes. How can you stay focused when Basketball seems so secondary at this point in time? In any case, the players will play, albeit in front of little-to-no crowds. Siakam will try to spin his way around former roommate, Jakob Poeltl. DeRozan will make jokes with Lowry in between plays, then try to upstage Anunoby... again.

In the end, the Raptors should prevail. If Nurse starts this season in a similar fashion as last season — sticking to a rotation of players he knows and trusts — Flynn and DeAndre’ Bembry may not get much run, but the starting five, plus Norm Powell, Matt Thomas, and Chris Boucher should be more than enough to upend the Spurs, 106-97.

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Last Season’s Record for Predictions: 50-22