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Raptors HQ Roundtable: New year, new outlook edition

What’s the best startring five in dino-land? What gift would we give the organization? The most surprising teams in the NBA and more!

Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

We’re back! After a holiday hiatus, the Roundtable is back with a grab-bag of HQ writers to tackle the most pressing stories in Raptors-land. We want your feedback, so if you have questions you want the roundtable to answer hit us up in the comments.

1. With the Toronto Raptors looking to get fully healthy for the first time all year, what does your ideal starting line-up look like?

Conor McCreery: Birch-Siakam-Anunoby-VanVleet-Trent; maybe a little controversial, but I think Birch is a force-multiplier, especially on the defensive end, where the Raps — 20th in the league — need the most help. Birch may not finish games, but I think his inclusion still gives the Raps ample playmaking, shooting and defensive versatility at the top.

J.D. Quirante: Let’s keep rolling with this starting lineup that we’re seeing (FVV-GTJ-OG-PS-SB). These guys need to develop chemistry, as they are our potential closing lineup and possibly, could develop as our own “lineup of death”

Josh Kern: I’m with JD in that I think the current starting lineup is the best option. That said, part of me really wants to see a Birch-Siakam-Barnes-Anunoby-VanVleet lineup; I love the dimension Birch brings as a more traditional, if undersized, big, especially as the roll/dive-man in PnR situations with FVV (or anyone, really). And I’m fascinated by the idea of OG as a jumbo 2-guard.

Jay Rosales: The writing’s been on the wall for a while now. FVV-GTJ-OG-Barnes-Siakam is the best starting (and closing) lineup. VanVleet mentioned Barnes being in “that Marc Gasol spot” as Center/facilitator. In the rare occasion when a traditional Center is needed (think Philly), I’d swap Birch in and move GTJ into the Harden-Sixth-Man role.

2. Who are the key reserves?

Jay: Birch and Watanabe would be the first two off the bench for me. Khem could conceivably be a starter and fills every need the team needs at that position. Yuta has proven to be a perfect fit in Nurse’s system. After that, every reserve has a flaw that can be exposed. But in order of preferred playing time, I’d go with Achiuwa, Champagnie (no, that’s not recency bias), Banton, Boucher, Flynn, and Svi.

Conor: In no particular order: Barnes-Boucher-Svi and Yuta. I think Barnes can work as a back-up point-guard in non-FVV minutes and he’d very likely finish games for me. I think you need Svi because of his shooting and ball-handling. Yuta is just a solid player, and Boucher’s rounding back into form. There is still room at times for Achiuwa and, I hope, Flynn, but I don’t think those guys HAVE to play.

J.D.: Assuming FVV-GTJ-OG-PS-SB starting unit, Boucher and Birch. I also haven’t given up on Malachi, and barring a trade, I think he’ll find his way as the 8th man on the rotation.

Josh: Boucher and Birch, yeah, and I think Yuta is the 8th man. Then I roll with Svi and Achiuwa depending on the matchup or who has it going. Backup PG is still an issue; I hope Banton can get some solid 905 run and tighten things up, because I love that change of pace he brings.

3. If you could make one New Year’s resolution for the Raps, what would it be?

Jay: I wrote one for each Raptor in this week’s Rap-Up, but also said health for the team collectively. This season has turned into survival of the fittest. The team that can navigate the land mines that are health & safety protocols will end up on top.

J.D.: Health. I want to give this core a fair shake on what they can do, it’s too early to be evaluating whether they’re good enough to be the core of something real or not.

Conor: I agree with J.D., I’m not sure this team has a great ceiling as constructed, but it’s hard to tell. A 30-plus game run seeing the core playing together, is an absolute necessity so that Bobby Webster and Masai Ujiri can really see where they are at.

Josh: Health! Got us a consensus here. Seeing the core group together for a good stretch will help us (and Bobby Webster and Masai Ujiri) determine what this team is capable of, and inform the future direction of the team.

4. What Raptors player surprised you the most in the first half of the season?

Conor: There are a few positive surprises, but the easy answer here is Barnes. He’s so much farther along than I could have hoped. There’s still a lot to be done to see him eclipse: “high-end role-player” status, but it seems more a matter of when, than if.

J.D.: Scottie Effing Barnes. Whoa, I did not see this coming.

Jay: I’ll take this in a different direction and go with Malachi Flynn. When the Raptors drafted Scottie Barnes over Jalen Suggs, part of my reasoning was that Flynn had similar characteristics in his game as Suggs. There’s still time for that to happen but, boy oh boy, I am surprised how wrong I’ve been.

Josh: It’s definitely Barnes, but I’ll also throw out a “surprising in the wrong way” guy here for variety, and for me that’s Chris Boucher. He really seemed to have found his role as the energy big off the bench last season, but this season — up until the past two weeks, anyway — he appears to have reverted to 2019-2020 Chris Boucher. I hope the recent positive trend continues!

5. What teams in the NBA surprised you the most — both the good and the bad?

J.D.: Good: Cavs. The roster looked weird, and I was not a big fan of Sexton and “lawn chair Love.”

Bad: Pacers. I thought their low-mid of the pack East team, and the coaching change was supposed to fix their issues. I just saw Myles Turner put up only four shot attempts vs the Knicks the other night, the lowest shot attempts among the nine Pacers that played, including 10-day hardship guys.

Jay: Good: I was really, really low on the Bulls before the season started. With all that offensive talent, but little-to-no defensive identity, I predicted they’d be Pelicans East - all style, no substance. ** Insert grimace emoji **

Bad: I fell for the Hawks. I fell face-first into Trae Young’s artistry. I fell for Nate McMillan’s latest good-bad-good-bad coaching rope-a-dope. I won’t let that happen again.

Josh: Good: Honestly, Phoenix. I must be listening to the wrong podcasts because I fell for the “they were a feel-good, flash in the pan, one-year success.” Pretty wrong about that one!

Bad: I got the Hawks too. They seemed like they had so many weapons and could score in so many ways in the second half of last year. They just seem… flat this year.

Conor: Ugh — just look at my NBA standings pool, and you’ll see. I didn’t see the Cleveland Cavaliers being THIS good, this soon. I thought they might sniff the outer edges of the play-in, not basically leading the freaking East in point differential.

On the other side, it’s a tie between the Pelicans and the Lakers. I thought the Pels would be in the thick of a race to .500 and firmly in a playoff position, while I didn’t see L.A. scuffling this badly. Although the new “LeBron at centre” look may be the key that unlocks a better version of this roster.