From a distance, this season might look like it’s becoming a lost cause for the Raptors. They’re 3-8, with those three wins coming against less-than-good teams. The last time Toronto started this poorly was during the 2010-11 season — that Raptors team, led in points and minutes per game by Andrea Bargnani, would finish the season 22-60. Only one logical conclusion can be drawn from that fact: this year’s Raptors are much better than their record.
The first few games of this season have been tough to watch, but the Raptors have started to find their swagger since then. Heck, they’d have a play-in spot in the East if a couple bad bounces had gone the other way. The roster itself is still being evaluated by coach Nick Nurse, who’s used the first ten games as an extended preseason to tinker with different lineups and bench units. The rotation needs work, but what the Raptors have that other 3-8 teams don’t is a proven core with playoff experience together.
Nobody foresaw this kind of start — but things are trending up. Should the Raptors climb the standings (and I’d be shocked if they don’t), these bright spots from early on will likely help them do so:
1. Pascal Siakam is looking like an All-Star again
Whether Siakam’s issues stemmed from his groin injury or from the toll of pressure and often unfair criticism — it seems like he’s very much worked through them. Over his last five appearances, Siakam is averaging 23.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game, and most recently picked up the first triple-double of his career. (This was calculated before last night’s quieter Hornets outing.) His passing might be what stands out the most (this one is P at his spiciest).
In all, Siakam looks smoother and more patient, and has significantly improved his ability to read defenses while in the post. When defenders help off their man to clog the lane — and they do just about every time Siakam is posting up — he punishes them by finding the open man as opposed to forcing a bad look. He also looks the most explosive he’s been since last March when attacking the hoop, and the most confident as well. It’s great to see him punishing over-helping defenses with smart passes, but it’s even more encouraging and downright exciting to watch him be the aggressor. If Siakam can play at this level offensively — and let’s not ignore the constant defensive effort and versatility he brings to the table — then the wins will come.
2. Freddy’s steadiness
Fred VanVleet has been the Raptors’ most consistent player this year, scoring 20+ points in six of their first ten games, and averaging a team-high 20.5 per game. As the primary ball-handler, he’s been effective at creating shots, both for himself and his teammates. Like Siakam, the game seems to be slowing down for him. In the pick-and-roll game VanVleet has been making nice, patient passes, both inside to cutters and kick-outs to open shooters. His 39 percent three-point percentage makes defenders pay for going under on screens, while also making him a major catch-and-shoot threat that defenses have to account for while Siakam is in the post.
Even on nights when he’s not scoring 20, VanVleet brings it with his stingy defense, helping frustrate opponents like Stephen Curry with his active hands and ability to navigate screens. Losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol was, uh, not great — but keeping VanVleet in a Raptors jersey was the top priority for a reason.
3. Chris Boucher is one of the most fun players in the league.
To be clear, we’re not just talking about “fun” in a Bruno Caboclo, chant-his-name-during-garbage-time way. Boucher has been fun in an actually productive, swing-the-momentum-of-the-game way. His energy, length, and amazingly timed jumps make him a thrilling player to watch, as well as the likely leader in Matt Devlin Screams Produced. The Raptors’ traditional centres, as we’ve witnessed, have been unable to produce much of anything so far, really. But Slimm Duck provides a unique set of skills when he’s on the court.
Boucher has been by far the team’s most effective roll man, scoring 1.5 points per pick and roll possession, according to NBA.com. He’s shooting an absurd 47 percent from three-point range, which is an unsustainable number, but even once it settles down he’ll have established himself as a real perimeter threat. He’s the team’s best hope at securing offensive rebounds and putbacks, too, leading them in OREB% for the second consecutive season. And, of course, he is a shot-blocking menace, whether it be in the paint or on the perimeter, where he’s blocked a league-leading six threes, per PBP Stats.
4. Signs of life off the bench for Toronto
It’s looked bleak at times, but a couple players have emerged beyond Boucher and Powell, playing active minutes and showing some promise. Stanley Johnson’s 13 minutes per game have come as a bit of a surprise. He’s a really solid, disruptive defender, but what he makes up for on that end of the floor is generally lost on the other. That’s been the story of his career to date.
In his season-high 23 minutes against Portland, however, Johnson showed the ability to make good passing reads, smart cuts, and fight for offensive rebounds, finishing with seven points, five boards, and three assists. With his defense being as good as it is, Johnson just needs to not be a minus on offense to warrant some playing time off the bench. Hopefully he can keep it up, because he has some real fan favourite potential.
Meanwhile, Yuta Watanabe has also had good moments, providing defensive energy and scrappy rebounding at times when it was needed in a big way for the Raptors. Both players need to be the fifth offensive option in lineups, but it’s been refreshing to watch them make high effort plays. Speaking of which...
5. These players have still got some fight in them
No, moral victories do not count in the standings, but there’s a big difference between a team that accepts their beating, and one that does everything possible to claw their way to back. Just over a week ago against the Celtics, the Raptors did the former, with Kyle Lowry commenting that they played with “no swagger.”
Since then, they seem to have regained it. They completed a huge comeback against Sacramento and fell just short against Golden State, yet both games were encouraging. I personally will never grow tired of watching the Raptors go into full-court press while down twenty. The Raptors’ non-centres have also picked up their rebounding effort, with guys like OG Anunoby and Lowry each averaging career highs in rebounds, and using strength and hustle to shave off opponents’ second chance points. There’s been a noticeable tone shift since that Boston game — that it also coincided with Siakam’s return to form is probably not a coincidence.
6. No more fans allowed in Tampa!
Toronto has established itself as one of the loudest fanbases in the league, with sellout crowds at home and travelling fans chanting “Let’s go Raptors” on the road. To go from that, to getting booed at the free throw line and having to listen to “Ta-cko!” at home games, has been jarring, and probably demoralizing for the players.
The 3,800 fans allowed at Tampa’s Amalie Arena did little to make it feel like home, so the recent announcement that there will be no fans for the foreseeable future is a welcome one, both from a public health standpoint (it’s kind of unbelievable there were fans to begin with), and for the in-game atmosphere.
7. Lowry is still Lowry
Yes, Lowry is almost 35 years old, but you wouldn’t know it from the way that he continues to sacrifice his body, whether it be by drawing charges or hitting the deck on a strong drive to the hoop. He remains the Raptors’ best player at getting to the basket and is often the engine that keeps lesser lineups afloat, posting a net rating of +10.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass (pre-Hornets game).
After a slow start in his return from an absence due to personal reasons, Lowry showed that he can still take over games, scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter against the Warriors to almost get the W. In short, when Lowry turns it on like he did in that quarter, it’s still a joy to watch. Don’t take him for granted, folks.
8. Malachi Flynn is finding his groove
In his first few regular season games, the Raptors’ first-round pick, Malachi Flynn, looked timid with the ball, as can be expected of someone playing in the NBA for the first time. Through 21 minutes played in his first four games, he’d started getting good looks, but the shots just weren’t falling. It happens.
But then Malachi broke out in the Sacramento game, scoring 12 points with five rebounds and two assists. He hasn’t quite thrust himself into the rotation yet, receiving a DNP-CD two games later, but he’s played high-effort defense, taken care of the ball (he has one turnover this season), and shown himself to be a multi-dimensional scorer, hitting a couple threes and finishing a nice runner in the lane. Most importantly, he seems to have a lot more confidence since that Sacramento performance. Look for Flynn to get more involved.
There’s a long climb ahead for the Raptors to get back to .500, and it’ll take some more tinkering from Nurse — and potentially a move from Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster — to get there. But the Raptors have time on their side, with more than sixty games still to be played. Each of these bright spots are encouraging signs of a team finding its identity. Now it’s time for them to turn the bright spots into wins.