In the long view, we can say this: the Raptors went 10-8 over the past quarter-season, which is better than their first mark of 7-11. If those numbers don’t jump off the page to you, that’s fine. Unfortunately, Toronto’s entire season has felt like this — incremental progress in fits and starts, yet with reason for optimism in the future. One could argue all of our lives are like that right now too, with the end of the pandemic seemingly just around the corner, yet always a step or two down the road.
Like many of us in the moment, the Raptors are decidedly not whole right now, and we don’t know how serious the situation is just yet. We know the team had at least one positive COVID test, which necessitated contact tracing, and application of the league’s health and safety protocols, and then the quarantining of some of Toronto’s coaches and five not inconsequential players — including Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby. These events cast a pall over the end of the first half of the season. Even though, yes, the Raptors were playing better than before.
Now we’re at that halfway mark, which means we have to assign some grades and assess how the season is going — even as it operates under its current cloud of health problems. By way of comparison, here’s where we were at with the Raptors 18 games ago at the quarter-season mark. Let’s see where we stand now with Toronto.
Kyle Lowry - A
Lowry is now Toronto’s fourth-leading scorer, which seems impossible given what he’s meant to the Raptors over the years. In his past 14 appearances (he missed four games with a sore thumb), Lowry has put up perhaps one truly lacklustre performance (in a loss against Atlanta). He’s still the engine, is my point. Case in point: that last game of the first half vs. Boston. There was Lowry, his team severely diminished and the vibes more than a little off, dropping a franchise-tying 19 assists in a loss, still driving the team forward.
Pascal Siakam - A-
It is no coincidence that when Siakam plays better, the Raptors are better as a whole. There’s no denying he got off to a rough start, and so did the team. But over the past 18 games (minus three COVID-testing related absences), Siakam showed more of his Spicy P skills of old — the fearless drives to the rim, the reckless spin moves, the all-over-the-place-in-a-good-way defense. Expectations are still so high for Siakam, but for a stretch there, he helped the Raptors beat some titans of the league (the Nets, the Bucks twice, the Sixers). He’s maybe still not everything he could be — and hopefully his health is OK — but Siakam is still a whole lot.
Fred VanVleet - A
No change here for VanVleet, other than the slow-dawning conclusion that this upcoming iteration of the Raptors will be his team. He currently co-leads the Raptors in scoring with Siakam, lags just behind in assists to Lowry, and is clearly an absolute different maker on defense (with both his on-ball and organizational ability). I think my favourite thing about FVV’s approach is this: yes, there are limitations to his game — e.g. he’s not going to dunk on anybody — and yet he knows how to work within those limits rather than against them.
OG Anunoby - B
OG gets dinged here because he missed 12 of the past 18 games. This is not his fault, but I have to factor it in somewhere. On the plus side, the Raptors have embraced their nascent small-ball identity (or: playing their five best players together the most), which only works with Anunoby at centre. In the meantime, OG has been showing off a little one-legged Dirk Nowitzki-like fadeaway that could be something. For now, we still wait to see what’s next from him.
Aron Baynes - C-
Baynes is no longer an absolute liability for the Raptors, finding himself as a stabilizing force off the bench rathan than as a fulcrum in the starting lineup. What’s more, we can (and should) stop comparing him to Toronto’s big men of the past and just give him credit for what he brings to the team now: a strong force in the pick-and-roll, a little extra toughness in the paint, and, sure, a twinkle-toes three now and again.
Norman Powell - A+
Norm! Norm! Norm! Forgive my exuberance here, but also: Norman Powell has been playing the best basketball of his life over the past month or so for Toronto. Do you realize that Powell has gone from Sixth Man (or lower) bench piece to carrying the Raptors’ offense for long stretches? His three-point stroke is pure now, his drives to the basket are purposeful, and there’s little doubt that [extremely online voice] Norman Powell is a problem for other teams. What a turn of events!
Chris Boucher - A-
OK, who had Boucher doubling his scoring average this season and becoming a semi-reliable player for the Raptors? It seems obvious in hindsight, but come on: did you really in your bones believe that? Boucher is averaging 13.6 points (sixth highest on the team), 6.5 rebounds (second on the team), and obviously the most blocks (1.9 per game). His three-point shooting (at 45 percent) might be for real too. As the Boston broadcast pointed out recently — with much befuddled amazement — Boucher is the only player in the NBA with over 50 blocks and 50 made threes. Again, who saw that coming this season?
Stanley Johnson - C-
Unfortunately for Stanley, the good times may have come to an end. To be fair, Johnson is still working hard when he gets the chance to play, but it appears as though the Raptors have gone away from relying on him too much. Johnson’s longest appearances over the last quarter of the season have been inconsequential (e.g. in garbage time or under extreme shorthanded duress) and his modest scoring numbers (always the factor limiting his minutes) have dropped too. Johnson is still a nice bench player to have — he’s a good soldier! — but right now he’s marching to nowhere.
Terence Davis - D+
There were a couple so-called “Terence Davis games” over the past 18 contests in which TD was doing that randomly explosive thing he does on the court while actually helping the Raptors win. Of course, there were also many, many instances where he looked to be entirely out of control — or straight up confused — on defense. Not that the fanbase is particularly attached to Davis now, but it does not look like he’s going to put it all together in Toronto.
Patrick McCaw - INC.
McCaw has now appeared in three games this season for the Raptors, playing almost 20 minutes. He has not yet taken a shot — not even a free throw — so far this year. I refuse to make any further determination as to McCaw’s value as an NBA player.
Matt Thomas - D-
Thomas’ season has gone from being an abject failure to a mere... failure. In minutes per game, he is ahead of only Paul Watson (who barely plays), McCaw (who is barely a player), and Jalen Harris (currently in the G League). Still, the past 18 games for Thomas have been more productive than the first 18 games — if only because he’s sat fewer games, gotten a few more chances to put up some shots, and Toronto is winning more now than they are losing. Does Thomas have anything to do with that last bit? Eh, probably not.
DeAndre’ Bembry - B
Bembry, meanwhile, has gone from being the new guy in Toronto to a mainstay in the Raptors’ rotation. That’s because, despite his shooting limitations, he’s found ways to be useful for whatever lineup he’s in. The team can count on Bembry more often than not to handle the ball (which is nice, given the absences they’ve dealt with as of late) and he’s proven himself to be an opportunistic cutter and scorer, filling the gaps in Toronto’s offensive approach. Bembry doesn’t stuff the stat sheet, but he’s efficient and applies what he does well with consistent force, taking little off the table in the process.
Malachi Flynn - INC.
It’s only fair to take Flynn’s grade off the table now after his shift to being a full-time G League player (he appeared in just four of the Raptors’ past 18 games). It’s clear he’s a difference-maker for the 905, but Flynn’s confidence isn’t quite there in the NBA yet. That’s fine. Let’s regroup next year.
Paul Watson - D+
Watson got to play a bit more over the past quarter-season, but his appearances still don’t amount to much. He’s taken and made a few more threes than before, and his defensive chops — thanks to quick feet and long arms — have shone here and there. But, well, to quote Bud Grossman: I don’t see a lot of money here. Toronto’s exhausted game against Detroit was perhaps Watson’s time to make his presence felt and it just did not happen. Maybe next time? Maybe.
Yuta Watanabe - C
After his feel-good run out of nowhere, Watanabe has come back down to Earth. Like fellow reserve Johnson, Yuta still tries hard and makes more good reads than bad. But his offensive numbers have taken a nose dive and he was even hit with a few DNP-CDs as of late, which is surprising given how reliable he’d been for the first quarter of the season. Watanabe also got his first career start (which went poorly) and became a meme after Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards dunked him into the next dimension. If nothing else, Yuta is definitely an NBA player now — which is not something we could have said at the start of the season.
Jalen Harris - INC.
Not yet for Jalen. But we’ll see.
Nick Nurse - B+
Nurse’s decision to finally, mercifully embrace the Raptors’ small-ball destiny was perhaps the season’s turning point — well, OK, it’s positive turning point. On the court, Toronto’s identity seemed to click into place after that, a much-needed reprieve after a tough start. Unforunately, the negative turn followed soon after, with Nurse and much of his coaching staff forced to miss a few games under the league’s health and safety protocols.
In all, it’s fair to say that Toronto’s head coach has settled down some, which has created a slightly more stable environment for the Raptors. They’re winning more games than they’re losing now, which is a nice change. We just have to see how this team will look once Nurse is back on the sideline with his full roster. Are they ready to respond to this latest round of adversity?