No, this is not a knee-jerk reaction from a terrible loss to the Orlando Magic last night. This isn’t me saying that the Toronto Raptors are a lottery bound team either. This also isn’t going to be a piece where I bash certain players, and discuss how they’re letting the team down. This is simply me asking a question.
In life, as soon as you are capable of doing a certain task, that is your new bar to reach.
If you can finally bench press 225 lbs, the expectation is to then work your way up from there, not drift downwards or plateau. If you complete grade 10 math; you are then expected to advance to grade 11 math.
Sadly, in the world of sports, things don’t always work out this way. There are so many factors to put into place.
The first one, is that growth is not always linear. Sometimes athletes learn better, and get better through digressing first. Of course, freaks of nature like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic exist, who manage to take steps in the right direction year after year.
But when Scottie Barnes won rookie of the year, the expectation was that it was only up from here. I even heard some discussion centred around All-Star status for the 21 year old sophomore.
In the past five seasons, there have only been three players to make the all star team as second year players: LaMelo Ball, Luka Doncic, and Zion Williamson. Two of which are expected to be lifetime MVP candidates barring injury, and the third in Ball who was an injury replacement. To be fair, he has also has entered those same “future MVP” conversations in the eyes of a lot of people.
You can look at a player like Andrew Wiggins for comparison. He was an absolute freak in high school, who turned into a really good yet slightly disappointing college player. Wiggins then followed up his number one pick status with the Rookie of the Year award, but then quickly declined into “worst contract in the league” status. Just to turn it back around again with the Golden State Warriors, start in the all star game and be a crucial part to a championship team.
Do you see the roller coaster his career has been on? He’s still only 26 years old and having another career year! The only point that I am trying to get across is that just because Barnes has not taken this massive leap, does not mean that he never will. In fact, the main thing that has put this season from him in such a negative light is the unrealistic expectations the fans had for him prior to the season. Yes, he gets lost on defense sometimes, and yes he forces up shots, but that is all part of the growing process.
One positive that no one could have expected is the leap that Pascal has taken. The way that Siakam closed out the season last year was the best I had ever seen him play, but he was still missing some crucial elements to his game. A pull up mid range, and the ability to be a real threat from 3-point range.
He has came back this season, and not only worked on those two areas, but has absolutely thrived in them. This has soared his game to the top, and he has entered legitimate MVP ballot status.
Through the first 26 games of last season, the 48 win Raptors were actually slightly worse than this season, starting off 12-14. Nearly identical to this season, Siakam missed 11 games within that stretch. This year he missed 10 due to his adductor injury. Just like this year with OG Anunoby, VanVleet last season had taken his game to a new level and looked like an all star candidate.
This year is more so due to injuries, but the bench was a big question mark last year, just like it’s been through big spurts of this season. The first 26 games of both years have seemed nearly identical.
I still personally think that this Raptors team can put up a similar season to last year’s team. This is a team who can compete with the best teams on one night, and remain way too competitive with the worst teams on the next.
It’s completely frustrating, but that might just be where this team is at. Relying on internal improvement is possible, yet difficult. It is especially difficult when you expect a big internal improvement jump in one season.
Not only that, but it is even more difficult when teams who were below you in the standings last season, made moves in an effort to bolster their team ahead of yours.
The Brooklyn Nets got their guys back from injury and whatever the heck else had them sitting out. The Cleveland Cavaliers added Donovan Mitchell, the Atlanta Hawks traded the house for Dejounte Murray. Even teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers, who had made big mid-season trades, got to enter a full season with their new guys.
It was not inevitable that the Toronto Raptors would make a big jump based off internal improvement, when a ton of their East opponents went the more reliant route of external improvement.
Even despite this, it seemed as if every single media member was hammering the over on Toronto’s pre-season win total. Vegas placed their over/under at 46.5, which would hold them very similar to last season’s record. All I could ever hear was how Toronto was not only going to hit the over, but absolutely smash it.
Prior to this season, the Raptors have hit the over on their projected win total in 9 of the past 11 seasons. 9 of the past 10 if you take away the Tampa season where they essentially played nothing but road games.
The over still might be the move. I still think it is realistic for Pascal Siakam to be award with an All-NBA Second Team honour, lead this team to a top 6 seed, win 47-49 games, and have a competitive first round playoff matchup.
At this point, that seems like a realistic expectation. I know it’s fun to dream of dark-horse conference finals runs, or multiple all stars, but it is looking like the Raptors have some kinks they need to work out.
Defensively, it seems as if everyone but Anunoby is a risk to get blown by, and with limited rim protection, that is a recipe for disaster. Offensively, “give it to Pascal” can’t be the only reliable game plan. I know Nick Nurse would love to channel his inner Will Ferrell and just “give it to the Italians,” but there are very few players who can win with that role every night. Also, having Precious Achiuwa and Otto Porter Jr. who are arguably their two best bench players back from injuries, would provide massive help.
So you don’t have to be happy when Toronto loses in tragic fashion to the Magic, or when they look like they don’t even belong on the same court as the New Orleans Pelicans; that is what being a fan is all about. You’re expected to ride the extreme highs and extreme lows super hard.
Just stay patient, enjoy the growth of this team, and know that Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office see exactly what we see, and I can promise you that they are more upset about mediocre expectations than we are.