The Toronto Raptors are currently in seventh place in a deep Eastern Conference – and five games back from first place – surpassing most expectations for a team coming off a down year. They’re just four wins away from surpassing Vegas’ projected 35.5 win total, and have 25 games left to do so. Things are going well!
Going forward, the Raptors have the 24th-most difficult strength of schedule remaining based on opponent winning percentage. But a number of the teams surrounding Toronto in the standings made moves at the deadline, and are threats to improve down the stretch (i.e. Sixers, Celtics, Cavs, Nets(?)). To keep pace with their competition, the Raptors will have to pick up where they left off and, considering the risks of playing starters massive minutes all season, could use some more help from the bench. (Welcome, Thad Young!)
Because of the team’s success to this point, Raptors fans’ rest-of-season wishlists have grown increasingly optimistic. But how likely are we to see our expectations realized? Let’s dive into some key items on the wishlist, and assess their likelihood on a scale from “Nick Nurse playing Malachi Flynn” to “Scottie Barnes slowing down before a breakaway dunk’”
The Hope: The Raptors make the playoffs with a top-six seed
Likelihood: Definitely possible... but don’t count on it
As I mentioned earlier, the East is really deep this season. While the old playoff format often prompted close races, the play-in tournament adds an element of anxiety for teams farther up in the standings. Six teams are currently ahead of the Raptors, and with Kevin Durant’s return looming, the Raptors’ likeliest outcome is landing a spot in the play-in tournament. This is going to be a tight race, and tons of Eastern Conference games will have significant implications for playoff seeding. For example: the Raptors’ back-to-back against the Nets on February 28 and March 1? Quite big!
Considering the pre-season expectations, a play-in spot wouldn’t hurt — this team is ahead of their perceived schedule. Plus, the consolation prize of missing the playoffs entirely is retaining their first-round pick. That being said, we’ve seen how the Raptors can bother top opponents, and it’d be a shame to not watch them in the postseason.
The Hope: Pascal Siakam is named to an All-NBA Team
Siakam not being named an All-Star was a big disappointment. But All-NBA recognition isn’t off the table, as he’s missed just 13 games overall. Siakam’s insane February has included averages of 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 5.4 assists, shooting splits of 56-39-76, and a Player of the Week award for his troubles. His season averages are 21.9/8.7/5.2. On the court, he’s won games for the team with his authoritative scoring, elevated playmaking, and high-energy defense.
I am legit making it my mission right now to make people understand how good Pascal Siakam has been over the last six weeks or so. He’s been maybe a top-15 player in the league over that time. Been like 23/9/5 with great defense like this. https://t.co/nrDPkrRUxi— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) January 30, 2022
The three All-NBA teams each consist of two guards, two forwards, and one center — so how does Siakam stack up against other forwards? Measuring this is a bit tricky due to positional ambiguity, but assuming players are voted into their All-Star Game positions, the only clear picks above Siakam are Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum are also likely to get some voter love, but even if both receive more votes than Siakam, that leaves an open spot on the All-NBA Third Team. Others that could compete for the spot include Draymond Green, Brandon Ingram, Miles Bridges, and Khris Middleton, but each of their cases are held back by one factor or another (missed games, team record, sub-All-NBA performance, etc). If Siakam continues playing anything like he has the last couple months, a second All-NBA appearance in three seasons is very much in the cards.
The Hope: More (productive) bench minutes!
Likelihood: *Larry David voice* Pretty, pretty, pretty solid
The downside of Pascal Siakam’s brilliant season is that, due to the Raptors’ lack of depth, he’s had to play 40 minutes per game since January. Meanwhile, Fred VanVleet leads the league in minutes per game, Siakam is in second, OG Anunoby is fifth, and Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. are both in the top 15. That is, for those keeping score at home, the Raptors’ entire starting lineup.
While VanVleet’s absences due to knee soreness are not necessarily a result of his heavy minutes load, it’s a reminder that a seven-man rotation is not a sustainable option for the regular season. At full strength, Khem Birch, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, Thad Young, and Dalano Banton give this team nine or 10 playable guys. It’s a hilariously unbalanced roster makeup, but it’s 10! But will Banton be consistently productive? How long will the team’s health last? The starters are bound to miss more games, so these five rotation players will inevitably slot into bigger roles. In fact, while writing this very paragraph, I received a notification that OG Anunoby has a fractured finger. *shakes fist at sky* Damn you, basketball gods!
Anyways, I think the addition of Thad Young will boost the team’s bench production, not only because he’s a quality secondary playmaker and proven solid defender, but because veterans are simply more astute at facilitating logical and well-executed possessions. His presence should help the Raptors survive their bench minutes. If Banton can steal some more minutes from VanVleet while Young alleviates some of Siakam’s pressure, the Raptors would face a less strenuous fight for playoff seeding.
The Hope: Raptors remain at full strength the rest of the way
The Hope: Scottie Barnes wins Rookie of the Year
Likelihood: Slightly possible (but impossible if we’re including All-Star Weekend)
Scottie Barnes made it clear very quickly that he was a great draft pick, as his scoring ability is already far ahead of where many projected it to be. But the Raptors’ return to full strength has lessened his offensive role to the point that his numbers probably won’t be enough to win the award over apparent shoo-in Evan Mobley, or perhaps even Cade Cunningham or Franz Wagner.
Barnes’ case will depend on Nurse running more actions for him and increasing his role in the offense. Will that happen? Only the coaches know! Nurse has hinted that he’ll be tinkering with the starting unit, and that could mean Barnes playing as a sixth man with greater responsibilities in bench lineups. The likeliest outcome is Mobley winning the award, and deservedly so. But hey, lots of greats didn’t win Rookie of the Year! The 2021 draft class is stacked, and Scottie is already looking like one of its crown jewels.
The Hope: The Raptors are entertaining to watch
The Raptors are a wildly constructed team and it is amazing television. Their swarming defense and wealth of Tall Players Who Push the Ball in Transition® make them a uniquely thrilling League Pass watch for opposing fans. I urge you to listen to opposing team’s commentators’ attempts at comprehending Dalano Banton.
Meanwhile, VanVleet and Siakam’s two-man game is a thing of beauty, and watching either of them when they’re on is a delight. Add Gary Trent to that list. Barnes shows something every game that makes your head explode. Anunoby is too strong for 99% of NBA players. The highs of the Achiuwa roller coaster are dynamite. Boucher plays his ass off and blocks three-pointers. Khem Birch push shots have magical healing powers. This is a very fun roster.
Let’s see what this team can do.