Happiness can be gauged in the way reality relates to expectations. As a result, a 1-4 start for the Toronto Raptors, a team many thought would compete, playing out an early schedule that none would describe as too grueling, has had fans feeling, well, less than happy. Smart money is on the Raptors improving from a .200 winning percentage, but beyond that, the fate of this team is unclear.
There are always those who will spout “championship or bust,” when asked how their favourite team should perform in any given season. If the equation for happiness that I presented is indeed accurate, then these fans are preparing themselves for a healthy dose of misery this season — as reality will fall well short of those expectations. The Toronto Raptors as currently constructed are not a championship-caliber team, so we must offer a middle way — somewhere between writing this season off entirely and placing unrealistic expectations that are doomed to remain unmet.
To do so, I’ve established four benchmarks the Raptors could hit that would allow us to look back on the season with a smile and feel confident in the team’s direction going forward.
(Disclaimer: These benchmarks are for the team as currently constructed. Although the noise around a certain bearded player has grown increasingly loud, it is still far more likely that the Raps don’t acquire James Harden than that they do. I will play the odds and assume it does not happen for the sake of this exercise.)
We’ll begin with the overall outcome of the season:
1) A scrappy second-round series (or better!)
As of right now, this may feel optimistic to some. Peruse Raptors Twitter, and you could be convinced that the team has lost their 13th straight and is on their fifth season of sub-.500 ball. Some fans are demanding the front office take a stick of dynamite to a roster that has yet to hit 10 games, preseason included.
For this benchmark, I am weighing multiple seasons worth of evidence against five games. Pascal Siakam has not regressed to Frank Ntilikina with a green light. The Raptors won’t turn into the Iowa State Cyclones with Kyle Lowry on the bench all season. Nick Nurse is still the guy who we were ready to hand a lifetime contract to last offseason.
Either Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka were both winning machines on the court, excellent player-coaches, and motivational gurus, or this is just a severe, extended slump. I’m inclined to believe that Marc and Serge, though great players and teammates, do not have quite that impact on Raptors basketball.
I realize Ibaka and Gasol played a part in the Raptors' success last year, but... was it.... that big a part?— Daniel Reynolds (@aka_Reynolds) January 3, 2021
If I am at least partially right, a shift will occur. The Raptors will have stretches that are the inverse of these first five games. Though the Eastern Conference is deeper and more talented at the top, the team that we believe the Raptors are can and still will compete. If they can avoid Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets, or Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on a revenge tour in the first round, this goal becomes all the more attainable. That starts with winning a few more games in the early going, righting the emotional ship, and getting to a place in the standings that would allow for a relatively easier first round matchup. After just five games, this remains doable.
2) Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet make key improvements
The future of the Raptors is inextricably linked with the development of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. If they plateau now, this team will have to look outside for answers. If they improve in some key areas, we are in business.
In the NBA, individual creation is like a magic trick. Your team is putting together a bad possession? The defense has snuffed out option one, two, and three and the outlook is bleak? Poof! A bucket is created, nonetheless, out of thin air. Siakam’s journey to becoming our Criss Angel has been, well, non-linear.
He may never be a true number one, but Toronto needs Siakam to be able to create when everything grinds to a halt, when other options are exhausted. Of the 17 players that average over three isolation possessions a game last season, Siakam is tied for 14th in points per possession in those situations, averaging 0.88, per NBA.com. Obviously, Siakam’s problems are myriad right now, but an uptick in efficiency on those star possessions would be an essential step for both Siakam and the Raptors.
As the point guard of the future, VanVleet needs to run a competent offense, beyond just stopping the bleeding when Kyle Lowry is off. That starts with pick-and-roll, the lifeblood of an NBA offense. Last season, VanVleet generated 0.84 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball handler, per NBA.com. For reference, the elite in that category, like Lowry who generates 1.02 points per possession, average over one. The offense needs to flow and attack with VanVleet, not chuck it around the outside on the way to a contested three. That starts, again, in the pick-and-roll.
The only reason I don’t include OG Anunoby here is because his ceiling as of now appears to be that of an elite role player. Sure, it would be nice if he became an elite creator. It would also be nice if Anthony Davis demanded a trade to the Raptors. For now, as long as his shooting and defense are tight, he is an asset for Toronto.
3) The Raptors maintain their identity
With rampant player movement and turnover within a franchise, carving out an identity that spans years is a rarity in the NBA. The Raptors solidified their identity last season after winning a championship in 2019. It was one of toughness, effort, and tenacity. The Raptors are the team that a pee-wee basketball coach used last season as an example of how to play the right way.
They played defense, communicated, played hard, and were exemplary teammates. Those characteristics, combined with all the wins, were what made this team revered by their fans and respected by their opponents.
Toronto’s identity suggested that they did not value individual stats over winning, that they were willing to sacrifice for the team, and most importantly, that they cared as much as those who supported for them. Whether they straighten out their offense, or return to the highs of the prior seasons, we can enjoy rooting for a Raptors team with this identity.
4) Toronto unearths another gem
The Raptors consistent success has been significantly aided by finding players in non-traditional ways. Simply put, the Raptors do not bring in names. Guys become names after they are brought in. When you can turn an undrafted rookie, for example, or a G League project into an impact NBA player, it is like winning big on a scratch-off ticket your aunt got you for your birthday. There was never risk in the first place, and it can only serve to benefit.
This season, there are a few opportunities for players to fit that bill. Chris Boucher has gone from an end-of-the-bench adrenaline shot to a key Raptor so far this season. Malachi Flynn, though he has yet to see legitimate play time, stole Toronto’s hearts in the preseason. If Boucher’s rise is real, or Flynn can follow in the footsteps of VanVleet, it will continue the trend of organizational depth that Toronto has been built on.
There are others who can pop, like reclamation projects DeAndre’ Bembry and Alex Len, or dead-eye shooter that just can’t earn the trust of Nick Nurse, Matt Thomas. As it stands right now, Flynn and Boucher feel like the two most situated for a lasting impact with the team. If so, it would be a boon for Toronto’s present and future. The fun here, as it were, is to root for these deeper bench pieces and to see how it’ll work out for them. There’s an exciting story to be enjoyed there if we look for it.
So, there you have it, even in these dark days, there are four benchmarks to a successful Raptors season. You may feel differently — or you may not be open to optimism while Toronto goes through their worst stretch in years. That’s OK. If you do, I only ask that you don’t set yourself up for too much misery.