If you can believe this, the Toronto Raptors, reigning NBA champions, are set to play some competitive 5-on-5 basketball this week. As we documented over here in the return of the Rap-Up, the team’s scrimmages are set and their title defense is about to restart. This is wild news, considering everything that’s been happening (or not) over the past few months. Yet here we are.
In that spirit, we’re here to assess the Raptors’ relative strengths and weaknesses heading into this new 8-game mini-season and eventual playoffs. As you’ll no doubt recall, Toronto was sitting pretty in second place in the East, with a 46-18 record and one of the finest defenses in the league. They’re not quite the team they were last year during their championship run, but they’ve still got something to prove. Let’s reconfigure our take on the team for this unprecedented August run.
The Power of Identity
Can hotel rooms kitted out with pictures of family actually help the Raptors play better? In truth, probably not. But if basketball is a mental game too, and the circumstances of this NBA restart are as psychologically trying as they sound, then maybe... hmm, maybe they can. This is just one small thing, but it’s another gesture from the Raptors (like their Black Lives Matter buses) that illustrates just how far ahead of the curve the organization really is as a whole.
Couple this sort of unity with a core group of players who have now gone through the gauntlet of an actual championship run and you’re left with a feeling that these Raptors really are just different. Again, this is all somewhat ineffable. There’s no metric that says Toronto’s identity gives it a numerical advantage over any other team; indeed, some of the other squads may have just as much emotional strength built into their returns. This is all possible — and yet it does seem like the Raptors are just better in some way. Toronto does happen to have the best personnel to carry out these organizational principles. Players like Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are leaders and experienced basketball warriors. The team’s head coach Nick Nurse has been around and around the basketball globe. The younger Raptors are more mature than one might think. They’ve seen it, and done it, and will continue to be it.
Yes, these are unheard of times, totally unlike anything we’ve ever seen or experienced before. Still, don’t the Raptors sound ready to you?
Thanks to the maestro Too Much Hoops (Brad!), we’ve got some great footage of the Raptors’ defense in action — and a helpful breakdown too. Take a look here:
Yes, the above Twitter clip features Kawhi Leonard, but these sorts of team priniciples don’t just head out the door with one player’s departure (even one as good as Kawhi). The other important components — Lowry, Gasol, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam — are of course still there too. And besides, we’ve seen just what the new Toronto defense can do this season, as they’ve shut teams down across the spectrum and with a mix-and-match grab-bag of personnel. At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll say again: the Raptors had the NBA’s second-ranked defense in the 2019-20, with an overall rating of 104.9 points per 100 possessions. (Note: that’s ahead of Kawhi’s new team, the Clippers.)
There are likely to be some kinks to work out as every team retakes the floor after a months-long lay-off. Players will have to get back into their shooting groove, get their conditioning up, remind themselves of what they’re doing at any given time. The Raptors? Well, they’ve been playing this kind of defense for some time now — I’m of the opinion it won’t take as much or as long to bring it all back.
More Options Than You’d Think
But what about the Raptors’ offense? Yes, Toronto was only 12th in this ranking, lagging behind teams like the Heat, Jazz, and Spurs. Most of the related numbers (TS%, AST%, EFG%) have them in the upper third of the league as far as offenses go, but the Raptors are still not exactly a lights out powerhouse.
That said, we’re forgetting something significant here. Toronto spent most of the season amassing those righteous numbers while consistently playing without one or two key players at time. The Raptors went for a stretch without Lowry and Serge Ibaka, weathered multiple periods without super sub Norman Powell, and were only just working Gasol back into the lineup after he’d sat for most of 2020. Most importantly, Toronto had to play a chunk of time without budding star Pascal Siakam, their do-it-all power forward. They went through all this and still had a 46-18 record with a 12th ranked offense. The obvious question: How? Well, thanks to Nurse’s tinkering, that aforementioned championship identity, and an unsung bench unit able to fit into different positions when called upon, Toronto has muscled on.
So, while no one wanted a four month break before the end of the 2019-20 season came around, the Raptors used the off-time to get healthy and reset. This was already a solid team, and now the offense — which had been adjusted and re-adjusted multiple times since October 2019 — is back and operating at full-strength. Look out.
OK, so we just went off on all the reasons why the Raptors will be good, but what this section presupposes is: what if they’re not? Look, it’s not impossible to look at Toronto’s team and find some holes. Lowry and VanVleet are still undersized, the newly thinned Gasol is still 35 years old, Ibaka and Powell have their limitations one way or the other, OG Anunoby is often a one-dimensional offensive player, and Siakam, well, we’ll get to that situation in a second.
The other issue for the Raptors is reliability. When the squad has looked off, it’s been because Nurse has been left searching for players he can plug into the lineup to keep things rolling. He’s leaned on Patrick McCaw to comical effect at times, he’s surfed the up-and-down waves of Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and he’s weathered the limitations of Matt Thomas and Chris Boucher. It’s possible — distinctly possible — that many of these names will see their minutes evaporate in the playoffs. It’s not their fault, per se, but it is a reality of where the Raptors could be headed. There is no doubt they’ll go as far as Lowry, Siakam, and those other core names will take them. This was always going to be the obvious chokepoint for the Raptors this year. Can they generate enough points when the times get truly tough or will they be left scrambling?
Lack of True Superstar
In this, we have to acknowledge somewhere that Siakam is not quite yet a true number one lock-stock-and-barrel NBA superstar. There have been games where he’s looked unstoppable. There have been moments where it’s looked like he was ready to rise to any occasion. And there is every reason in the world to believe this once unheralded player who has leapt all the way to All-Star status will just continue to jump higher and higher.
But when the Raptors were in serious trouble in 2019, there was always Kawhi there to bail them out. He did it again and again, in every way he could; sometimes he even did it on one leg. Siakam contributed in big ways too during that post-season and he was instrumental to the Raptors’ defensive and offensive punch, thanks to his relentless motor and overall versatility. But Siakam will not have Kawhi there to save him this time around. That sounds harsh — as if Pascal isn’t learning, growing, and embracing the role put in front of him — but the reality of this post-season, in a bubble, without home fans, and lacking even the comfort of unimpeachably safe conditions, will be a test beyond all measure for Toronto’s cornerstone.
If, as the odds suggest, the Raptors don’t repeat as champs, it will likely be because they ran into a superior player or two along the way. That’s just the black-and-white of it. The Raptors can rely on their team identity to overcome an upper-level talent deficit, at least in part. There are, of course, recent precedents for that very thing. But it’s not how it usually happens in the NBA.
Just No Way to Know
As has become tradition, we’re going to use this final space to harp on the extreme conditions of this NBA restart. The Raptors, along with the other 21 teams involved, are in Florida right now, about as close to the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in America as a person can get. Yes, there are all sorts of health protocols in place, but it certainly feels like a spread of the virus — and the necessary quarantining of various players and team staff — is inevitable. As such, the largest weakness facing this Raptors squad is perhaps the fallibility of the human body itself.
Now, I still contend the Raptors are better positioned than most other squads to make it through such an unprecedented and potentially tumultous time. They’ve done their homework as an organization and prepared accordingly. But no bubble is impenetrable — it’s right there in the word “bubble” itself. And in that, there’s just no way to know for sure what will happen. All we can do is hope that things go as planned, the games are played as safely as possible, and we don’t get a news update of calamity.