With the NBA season in limbo and the possibility Toronto won’t get to defend its title growing more real by the day, I thought it was time to look at what the Raptors had going for them to defend that title, and what they might still need.
I’m going to start with the glow-up that comes from becoming a champion. NBA executives and analysts lavish praise on “proven winners” with “championship experience”. It’s accepted that the more players with significant playoff experience a team has, the more likely said team can climb the mountain to a title.
With the Raptors having summited the peak, let’s take a look at how the title might have changed the roster.
Tier 1: Feeling Good About Feeling Good
Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka
Of all the players on the Raptors I think the ones who benefit the most are its emotional engines.
A key part of both Lowry and Ibaka’s games is playing with a chip on their shoulder, but let’s face it: both could deal with the emotion and pressure of the game in an unhealthy manner. Serge would all-too often respond to sticky situations by turning into a member of the mid 2000’s Maple Leafs, and Lowry would sink into these weird self-flagellating holes — while at the same time refusing to admit that he was feeling any pressure at all.
They were both, in their own way, like high-end sports cars. When they were tuned just right, man did they run, but if something was off…
The title provided vindication to both. Lowry shed the unfair label of choker (if losing to LeBron is choking then anyone not on the Spurs, Warriors, or named Dirk Nowitzki choked), and the league remembered that Ibaka had been a piece of some very good OKC Thunder teams. After the win, the need to prove something didn’t seem to be there in the same way for either.
Now, Serge is as loose on the court as he is off if it. He’s become, shockingly, a peace-maker, and as an emotional bellwether for the Raptors, his ability to keep his head, keeps the rest of the team from losing theirs.
As for Kyle, we’ve always heard stories about how his off-court demeanour is so much lighter, more loving, and fun than his public one. Now it seems like he’s bringing that Kyle forward more. Lowry still badly wants to win, of course, but it somehow feels like it means something different to him. With rare exceptions — e.g. the game against the Bucks, where KLOE lost the plot a little and tried to burrow under George Hill — he just doesn’t seem to let his frustrations slip into his game the way he used to.
While LeBron James was obviously a major element to Toronto failing to cash in on a series of very good regular seasons, an under-discussed element was how the Raptors could often lose their cool when things went against them. While we’ll have to see what this team does up against it, with no Kawhi to turn to, the risk that they’ll melt-down and get in their own way seems a lot less likely.
Tier 2: I’m Better Than You Thought
Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet
This is a tricky one to navigate. Previous to the title, both Siakam and VanVleet were regarded as good up-and-coming players, Siakam’s Most Improved Player regular season had firmly put him on the radar, but still, neither guy was unanimously seen as a core-championship piece.
Both players faced adversity in the playoffs. VanVleet was awful offensively for the first 14 or so post-season games, while Siakam tended to start hot in a series, and then struggle to adjust once an opposing coach worked to take away his favourite moves.
Still, Siakam’s Game 6 performance in the Finals, where he scored the de-facto clincher over one of the best defensive players in the game, and VanVleet’s Final’s MVP vote-worthy performance proved to the league they were real.
Did it change them? From a confidence point of view, probably not — both are already incredibly confident, and were competing without the playoff scars that Lowry and DeMar DeRozan had. They hadn’t yet been given a reason to believe that as featured players they couldn’t get it done.
VanVleet though has seemed a bit like Lowry. He’s as intense on the court as ever, but being a champion has allowed him to take a deep breath. He seems to be walking a little lighter, and to let the ebb and flow of the game wash over him a little easier. The hint of hero-ball he sometimes had, largely disappeared as well.
For Siakam, it’s harder to say. His role in his next playoff series is going to be totally different. He’s going to be, if not ‘The Man’, then at least ‘The Man-1A.’ He seems more mature than before, but hasn’t lost his sense of joy for the game.
We may not know whether his playoff experience means he feels more pressure to try to “be Kawhi” until we’re actually in the thick of it.
Tier 3: This Is My Team Too
A long, border-line Hall of Fame career is coming to a close, and everyone’s favourite championship-partying Spaniard, finally, finally, has his title.
Gasol entered his Raptors playoff career without any of the baggage that the Raptors had carried. His Grizzly teams were almost always seen as dark-horses. Sure, like here, there was a feeling in Tennessee they had been unfairly ignored by the media, but without five million people to amplify it, it wasn’t the mania it is here in the Six.
When the Grizz lost it was painful, but not a referendum on them as players, or, more insidiously for DeMar and Lowry, as people.
So, Gasol played like the savvy veteran he was, but, as was oft-noted, he didn’t command things, largely on offense, as you might have expected. Gasol frequently talked about wanting to “fit in” and not disrupt what Toronto had already built. It was undoubtable though, that at times, the Raptors would have been better off if he had been more aggressive.
With the injuries, it’s been hard to tell from a statistical point-of-view — his usage rate and field goal attempts have both cratered to new lows — but there’s a feeling that Gasol isn’t feeling his way through the offense anymore. The best sign has been a sharp increase in the number of threes, pushing back up to his peak Memphis numbers on a per 36-minute basis, and before the season was paused, after a hellacious slump from close to the basket, Gasol had been showing a bit more willingness to use his size in the post.
Regardless, of the raw numbers, Gasol’s deep intelligence on both sides of the court, and his increased willingness to be a vocal leader, has only added to the Raptor’s ability to weather tough in-game situations.
Tier 4: I Know What I Need To Do
Last season, Powell was the 8th man in an eight-man rotation, but as always, the man that earned the “Playoff Powell” sobriquet, had a few big moments. His play in Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Milwaukee was vital to Toronto winning a title.
Powell, like so many Raptors came to the league with something to prove. A second rounder who’d bounced between the starting line-up, the bench, and out of the rotation all-together, Powell had struggled to find a rhythm. Combine that with a litany of injuries and the fact he earned a nice pay-day that almost immediately came to be seen as a significant overpay, and Powell often felt like he was trying to do everything he could to prove he was as good as he felt he was, all at once.
This year, with that big ring on his finger, Powell has seemed calm, and understanding of what he is in the league. “Losing” a pre-season battle to start didn’t seem to phase him, and after a month or so of Powell-esque up and down performances, he’s methodically hunted out the shots he’s best at. Most impressively Powell has gone from one of the most frustrating players at the rim, to one of the most efficient. Powell now seems like he has a clear plan with the ball in his hands, and while he’s still not necessarily a playmaker, he was on track for a career-high in assists per game this season.
Is all that improvement due to playing a clear role on a title team? Is it the benefit from watching Kawhi Leonard ruthlessly find his shot? Maybe not, but it certainly feels that Norm Powell, NBA Champion, understands how to leverage his strengths in a whole new way.
Tier 5: Of Course We’re Good
Terence Davis, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Of the four, Boucher has experience with the Raptors before, and Hollis-Jefferson can lay claim to having an NBA career of some significance, but for all intents and purposes these four are Raptors rookies.
It’s with them that I think you can see the benefits of being NBA champions. All four have come onto a team where the notion of winning isn’t a goal, it’s a fact. Do the Raptors target players they think have a tough mentality, who are willing to fight to win? Absolutely, but a new culture that can point to having won it all makes it easy for all four of these players to be contributors.
All four have been at the very least useful in their roles, and all carry themselves with the confidence needed to be a winner. Does Thomas know he’s a target on defense? Does Rondae know teams don’t respect his shot? Absolutely, but they attack the game with the swagger of someone whose been a champion, because this roster is filled with champions, and they’ve shown these four how champions act.
It’s hard to believe that this group would have that confidence if their chance to play real Raptor minutes had come in the previous 4-5 years. It’s unlikely any of these players will play a huge role in a championship defense, but if called upon, it feels like you could count on them to compete, if not succeed.
Tier 6: I Still Have Something to Prove
OG Anunoby and Patrick McCaw
These two guys come from very different places. On one hand you have Patrick McCaw, Three-Time NBA Champion™, and, for some reason the most hated basketball player in Toronto. (It boggles my mind, that the guy whose 10th in minutes on the most surprising team in the league can generate so much ire, but, here we are.)
On the other OG Anunoby, C.I.T. (‘Claw’ in Training), an already very useful young player, who happened to not play a single-minute in the team’s title run since he was recovering from an appendectomy.
We’ll start with McCaw. Unlike the Tier 5 guys, McCaw doesn’t ooze confidence. He often passes up open shots, either hunting for something better, or simply not trusting himself. McCaw’s three titles have almost worked the opposite way then the rest of the players on the list. They’re bandied about as a joke, as if somehow being a minor part of very good teams means McCaw is unworthy.
For the record I also don’t fully understand Nurse’s love for McCaw. But both the coach and the player, by virtue if the team’s record if nothing else, have earned the benefit of the doubt. If this year’s playoffs do go ahead, and McCaw still holds down the last rotation spot, then there will be some new pressure on him. If McCaw does wilt, then Nurse will turn to Davis and we’ll see if the fanbase is as right as it thinks.
As for Anunoby, it’s strange. His last big playoff moment was immortalized on a t-shirt, and he hasn’t played big minutes in many big games. This year that will have to change as not only will Anunoby likely be sent to check the opposition’s top wing or guard, he’s going to be the player other teams target to make them beat him.
There are tons of reasons to believe Anunoby can do both those things — but can he do them at a championship level? We have no idea, because we never got a chance to see him climb that mountain with the rest of the team.