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Player Review: Pascal Siakam, a bright spot in a lost season

If 2022-23 was Siakam’s last season as a Raptor, it was a pretty dang good one.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

If the Toronto Raptors had won 50 games in the 2022-23 season, we’d be talking about Pascal Siakam’s campaign as one of the greatest single-season efforts in franchise history.

Unfortunately, the team underperformed, which relegates Siakam’s outstanding numbers to the category of “good season, didn’t impact winning.”

And that’s a shame.

Siakam averaged 24.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists on the season, with the points and assists both career-highs.

Luke Doncic, LeBron James, and Nikola Jokic are the only other players in the league who averaged greater than 24.2, 7.8 and 5.8; Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 5.7 assists, so we’ll throw him in too, but hey — that is some elite company.

Siakam shot 48% from the field, including 52% from 2-point range and 32% from three point range, and 75% from the free throw line. He also led the league in minutes per game. He continued his fine play in the Play-In tournament, scoring 32/9/6 on 13-22 shooting in the loss against the Chicago Bulls (unfortunately, his 5-for-11 from the free throw line were a major black mark).

He made the All-Star team as an injury replacement (he absolutely should have been a coach’s selection). He probably won’t make All-NBA, due mainly to the team’s record, which is a shame, especially when looking at those names above — Doncic’s Mavericks didn’t make the postseason and he’s an all-NBA lock — even though Siakam is twice the defender Doncic is. And LeBron’s Lakers were a play-in ream, just like Siakam’s (All-NBA is a regular season award), and he is also a likely lock.

In any case — great season, numbers-wise, as good as any in Raptors history.

But the team only won 41 games and was exactly as average as their .500 record would suggest. And Siakam needs to shoulder some of the blame for that. Not all of it — he accumulated 7.8 win shares, good for 25th in the NBA, according to basketball-reference — but as the team’s leader, the guy who played the most minutes and had the highest usage rate (by far) on the team, he deserves a share... but I’m not sure how big.

After all, it’s not Siakam’s fault the team didn’t sign a backup point guard or add sufficient shooting around him. Siakam didn’t pioneer vision 6’9”, the experiment that had success last season but clearly didn’t work this year. It’s not Siakam's fault that Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. went through shooting slumps, or that the coach didn’t trust his bench... all of which led to Siakam playing so many minutes that he himself had stretches where he couldn’t put the ball in the hoop, thanks to his tired legs. I think you can walk away from this season thinking that Siakam did all he could, and the Raptors still stunk.

So why didn’t the Raptors win more with Siakam putting up such great numbers? Well, part of it is the one glaring weakness in Siakam’s game — the three-point shooting. The three-ball is a massive difference-maker in the modern NBA, and the Raptors are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league (28th overall, at 33.5%; the only teams worse then the Raptors were the Charlotte Hornets and Houston Rockets, neither of whom cracked 28 wins).

Now, as noted, it’s not Siakam’s fault that the team shoots the three poorly. There’s a very clear and proven strategy for when your best player can’t shoot the three: surround him with multiple options who can shoot the three. See: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, Joel Embiid’s 76ers (who led the league in three point shooting at 39%), all those great LeBron Cleveland teams, heck even going back to all those great Dwight Howard Magic teams!

But the Raptors have never successfully done this. I suppose you could look at the roster and think, OK, Gary Trent, O.G. Anunoby, Fred VanVleet... all credible three-point threats! But a) they all had down years from deep and b) these guys are — or think they are — playmakers, not just shooters; where are the guys who are money from the corners and are just relocating from spot-to-spot waiting for the catch? Otto Porter Jr. was an attempt to rectify it, but that wasn’t going to fix the issue, even if Porter could have stayed healthy.

(Siakam averaged 6 assists with poor-shooting teammates; he might have averaged 8 if his running mates could shoot.)

Adding Poeltl to the mix doubles down on this problem. It moves Trent to the bench and means the starting lineup (as it is now) has three non-three-point threats in it! That’s not going to cut it. (Sometimes I do wonder if Masai Ujiri is paying attention to the modern NBA...)

Assuming that Siakam isn’t traded in the offseason — and maybe he should be, since the team seems to believe that Scottie Barnes is the future and he’s not a three-point shooter either — it seems the onus is simply on him to get that three-point shot working. He’s done it before, shooting 37% in his Most Improved Player season and 36% (on a career-high 6.1 attempts) in his first All-NBA season. But it’s a lot to ask the guy to be the playmaker/initiator, shot creator, rebounder, defender on a string, and three-point shooter — all while playing more minutes than anyone.

Ujiri and Bobby Webster need to get the dude some help — the right kind of help, the kind that complements his skillset.

Or they should trade him.

What’s next for Pascal Siakam?

Having already fired their coach, the Raptors seem to be in “we’re making big changes” mode this offseason. What that means for Siakam is hard to guess. He’s a free agent after the 2023-24 season, where he’ll make $37 million, which might make trading him tricky; that's a big contract, one you’d have to trade multiple assets for — for a guy who might walk away after a year. But, if a team believes they can re-sign him then he’s very attractive. There aren’t too many players who can net you the types of numbers as Siakam does, who sets a better example with their work effort than he does, or cares about winning as much as he does.

But I’m not sure that Ujiri is ready to give up on him. I think Ujiri is invested in his success, and I think he wants to give Siakam another shot, with a new coach. I think it’s more likely that Siakam comes back and, if the 2022-23 season starts off poorly, a move is made before next season’s trade deadline.

I really like Siakam as a player and I want him to stick around long-term. But unless he develops a three-point shot or the Raptors re-jig the roster around him to take better advantage of his gifts, his time in Toronto might be running out.