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Player Review: Pascal Siakam became the Raptors’ best player this season

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Despite all his ups and downs this season, Siakam still managed to become Toronto’s best player, further expanding his role as the team’s focal point.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Somewhere between the original pandemic shutdown and the merciful end of the season from hell, Raptors fans — and the basketball watching public at large — forgot how to appreciate Pascal Siakam for what he is, opting instead to linger on what he’s not. Frankly, it sucks.

Name search Siakam online after any game, and you’ll see it. Hate speech, unhinged overreactions, thoughts and takes not at all rooted in reality — it’s all there, and it’s all varying degrees of wrong and/or disgusting. Of course, you could cherry-pick nasty stuff about any player from the most ooze-filled corners of the internet, but that’s not the only place Siakam gets a wildly unfair shake. I mean...

Look, it’s no secret the last 10 months haven’t been the 2019 Most Improved Player’s best. The Bubble for Siakam was a looping nightmare, in which he relived the same doomed post-up against Jaylen Brown for two hellish weeks. Toronto wins that series if Siakam is even 80 percent of the player he was before the world closed down. He was probably somewhere closer to 50.

Ultimately, the Disney letdown for Siakam was understandable if deeply disappointing. He famously didn’t touch a basketball for months during the shutdown, and the mental health toll of the Orlando experience remains untold, but absolutely part of the calculus.

It’s also not as though he were some seasoned and battled-tested number one option when the Raptors ran into Boston. In 2019, Siakam was the opportunistic benefactor of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry’s gravity and smarts. A year later, he was job number one for any opposing defense. Learning the ropes of stardom is a course completed over years, not months, weeks or seven-game chunks. It’s a constant back and forth of doing star player things, meeting resistance, and finding counters. Siakam was confronted with a whole lot of resistance in that Celtics series, without much time to figure out which Boston soft spots to punch in response.

It’s been a mad rush for Siakam since his incredible breakout in 2018-19; expectations of him these past two years have always felt accelerated because of who came before him. He’s not Kawhi. But a fan base with a taste for the crisp air atop the mountain doesn’t seem keen on waiting around for the team’s next star to assume the position.

Leonard, a two-time Finals MVP and on the shortlist of the best players alive, is of course a ridiculous, entirely unattainable standard against which to measure a guy who more or less learned to dribble within the past 24 months. But the sentiment persists, and Siakam’s start to the 2020-21 season didn’t do much to help slow the slander wagon down.

Much like the Boston series, Siakam’s play during Toronto’s foreboding 2-8 start was not so hot. Also like the Boston series, it absolutely did not tell the story of what Siakam was or would be as an overall player. Shaking a reputation earned on national television in the post-season ain’t easy, though, however unfair. Ask Paul George.

The thing about Siakam’s start this season is that, by the numbers, it wasn’t even that bad. He didn’t drive winning the way he would later in the year, and a dust-up with the team that got him suspended cast some shady vibes over the team in those early days. But on the whole, that opening stretch was more or less in line with his season-long numbers.

During the 2-8 start: 9 GP / 20.4 PTS / 8.8 REB / 5.1 AST / 2.6 TO / 54.6 TS%

Final 62 Games: 47 GP / 21.5 PTS / 6.9 REB / 4.3 AST / 2.3 TO / 54.7 TS%

Still, the Raptors’ awful start, punctuated by rimming-out game-winners for Siakam on back-to-back nights in Golden State and Portland, hung over him like a cloud of sewage exhaust, giving rise to all sorts of misconceptions about the type of player he is.

Maybe we’re talking about straw-person arguments here. But I don’t really think so. The avalanche of replies to any Siakam highlight from a big account, the free-flying jokes and takes from loud basketball internet and TV voices, even the comments on this here website suggest the consensus on Siakam is lower than his play warrants.

“He has no bag — all he does is spin!” is one thing you’ll see a lot. It is, of course, stupid.

Yeah, Siakam has a spin move, and yes, he uses it a lot. That’s because it works. Siakam is incredibly fast; channelling that speed into a defense-confusing spin move seems like a pretty good use of one’s strengths.

Where it’s gotten him in trouble before is when the opponent is ready for it. Against the Celtics for example, there was no surprise when he busted out the spin against Brown and Marcus Smart roughly 78 times per game. The grind of playing a team over and over has a way of taming your pet moves. You need to have a retort, and for any one of a half dozen possible reasons, Siakam didn’t have ‘em to close 2020.

And so, as good players do, he diversified his bag of tricks in his second year at the wheel of the Raptors offense. He adapted. Most notably, he learned to pass like a number one option has to.

No Raptor flashed a more important new skill this season than Siakam did with his playmaking. Instead of getting locked into Satan’s spin cycle on telegraphed post-ups, he learned to leverage double teams into kick-outs and weak-side swings for threes. Moving downhill, he sprayed passes to corner shooters, and leveraged his two-point scoring gravity into cute dump-offs to dunker-spot bigs and baseline-cutting OG’s. In the process of hiking his assist percentage from 16.4 to 20.5 year-over-year, he managed to trim decimal points off of his turnover rate. All of this came with defenses throwing more of their time and energy his way than ever before, thanks in large part to Toronto’s consistently depleted roster. Operating as a number one gets way trickier when Stanley Johnson and DeAndre’ Bembry are your corner shooting options.

Scoring-wise this was not Siakam’s best season, despite his shooting percentages holding steady or improving from his 2019-20 marks from every area of the floor aside from three-point range, per Basketball Reference.

He ranked 19th in the NBA in drives per game, per NBA.com’s tracking data. When he took a shot on those drives, he scored 58.7 percent of the time, 23rd-best among all players who drove 10 or more times a night. Among those within a couple percentage points of where Siakam finished up: James Harden, Luka Doncic, DeMar DeRozan, Devin Booker, and Paul George. Maybe even more impressive was his 4.9 turnover rate on drives, which ranked seventh-best among the 58 players averaging double-digit slashes to the basket.

Throw in a 76th percentile rank scoring as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (up from 43rd in 2019-20), and a 63rd percentile finish as an ISO scorer (up from 57th last year and 19th in the playoffs), and you’re looking at a more well-rounded player than we saw at the close of Toronto’s Bubble stay. So yeah, he spins a lot. But to focus on that part of his game is to miss a forest of sprouting trees.

Do any of his statistical bumps put him on the level of other contention-guaranteeing superstars? Of course not. But either way, Siakam’s development curve has never been as high as it is today, all thanks to his playmaking and the avenues it opens up. His raw scoring was down this season almost entirely due to a down year from outside. A bounce back to the league average-ish clip he achieved over the prior two seasons leaves a similarly potent scorer to the one we saw before the COVID shutdown last March, but a much more well-rounded one.

Siakam’s strides this season didn’t translate to one rather important area of the game, however.

“He’s just so bad in the clutch!,” is another common refrain you’d hear in reference to Siakam this season, ratcheted up with each heartbreaking miss or ill-timed screw-up, of which there were a good half-dozen or so. If you’re judging purely on this wretched, lost season, then I suppose you’d be right to label Siakam a late-game crumbler.

The numbers were rough, man. Over 92 minutes logged in games within five points with under five minutes to play, Siakam managed just a 43.5 true shooting percentage, while seeing his usage dip by a couple of percentage points compared to non-clutch situations.

Toronto’s crunch time metrics as a team were also brutal. Only Detroit got outscored by more points per possession than Toronto did. In 116 qualified minutes, Toronto posted a -16.9 NET Rating. If you ever asked yourself this season how the Raptors could have a roughly even point differential while sitting so low in the standings, there’s your answer.

The most jarring thing about Toronto’s late-game issues was the starkness of the drop-off from 2019-20. You may recall, the title defense team pounded the piss out of teams when the result hung in the balance. That year the Raps outscored opponents by 20 points per 100 possessions, with an offense that hummed along at a 1.2 point per possession clip. And if you recall, it was Siakam who formed half the backbone of that crunch-time attack alongside Kyle Lowry. Whether working as a screener for Lowry, or getting Lowry to screen for him to gain downhill steam, Siakam-involved pick-and-rolls were as sure a bet to score as any two-man game in the league. His true shooting percentage that season was 19.8 percentage points higher than it was in the Tampa season. Even if you think 2019-20 was an outlier, driven by immaculate team chemistry and Lowry operating near the peak of his powers, the same logic applies the other way to a season that saw different available lineups every other night, and four or five critical misses that were mostly shit results borne of sound process. You could also argue coach Nick Nurse should have deployed the Siakam-Lowry two-man game way more often than he did when the team was healthy.

All this is to say Siakam’s bad crunch-time work this season is in no way predictive of late-game struggles to come, especially when you consider the many examples of Siakam’s propensity for big buckets already written in ink. There’s the game-winner against the Suns during his breakout season; last season’s consistent mauling of defenses in the waning moments; and of course that time where he literally scored the championship-winning bucket over one of the three best defenders of the century.

“Okay, all the numbers are fine, but is he really a max player?,” is the final critique of Siakam you’ll hear, and maybe the most common. Thankfully it’s also the dumbest one, and therefore the easiest to dispel. If you don’t think Pascal Siakam is a max player, you don’t understand how the NBA works and has worked for a decade.

Under the current CBA, there are like 50 dudes in the league who qualify as “max players,” because they make the maximum allowable salary. Not all max players are made equally, of course, but if you want good players on your team, you have to pay them what the market commands. Siakam would have gotten a max from any other team in the league had the Raptors not given him one. It’s the cost of being relevant. Name the last title team that didn’t have multiple max salary players on the books.

This was a clarifying season for Siakam in a lot of ways. He took over the title of “Best Player on the Raptors,” a claim that isn’t made lightly considering Lowry has held the belt with an iron grip since 2013. His newfound playmaking is the kind of developmental success story that any star needs to maintain that status.

But Siakam’s areas of struggle did crystallize an important truth, one that the last two years have been about discovering: He’s not a number one option on a title-worthy team, and likely won’t ever be. But guess what: there are maybe seven or eight players alive who are.

If you’re realistic about Siakam, and take heed of the statistical signs of the last two years, there’s no cause for alarm. Through all the shit, he’s a better basketball player today than he was when the league shut down in mid-March 2020. Instead of projecting the Kawhi role onto him, envision a world in which he’s flanked by a superstar and freed up to assume a less burdensome shot chart, and flex his muscles as one of the most geometry-bending defenders on the planet. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better running mate for a ball-dominant star in the league.

Team building isn’t linear. Not every team drafts a star or two and constructs a team around them over time. Just because you don’t have the number one guy yet doesn’t mean it’s time to cast aside the number two you already have on the roster. Toronto will search for its next alpha. Maybe there’s a trade for another disgruntled star on the horizon, or maybe the Raptors land Cade Cunningham in the draft and everything falls into place. They could also strike out on finding Siakam a leading man to work with. If so that’s a front office problem, not a Siakam one.

The recent news of Siakam’s shoulder surgery and five-month-long recovery is sure to stoke more uncertainty within the fan base about his place within the team, and it’s definitely a tough break for him that he won’t get a shot to tear up Rico Hines’ runs in LA all summer long. But maybe what’s best for Siakam isn’t more basketball after 10 months where the basketball never stopped. Distance, breathing room, and most importantly time, are things Siakam’s never been afforded since becoming Toronto’s surprise star. Maybe it's time he gets them.