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PREVIEW: Toronto Raptors vs Cleveland Cavaliers — New year, fresh start

The Raptors ended 2023 by trading a fan-favourite — and by losing to the lowly Pistons. Things can only go up in 2024, right?

Toronto Raptors v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

2024 is here, and yeah, it couldn’t come soon enough for the Toronto Raptors. Calendar year-wise, it was pretty much a bomb — from the lacklustre 2022-23 campaign, to flaming out in the play-in, firing their coach and letting their lead guard walk for nothing, and the first half of the 2023-24 season hasn’t been much better, as the team sits at 12-20.

In fact, December may have been Toronto’s worst calendar month of the entire year. Not only did the Raptors go 3-10, but two of those losses came to the Charlotte Hornets and the Detroit Pistons.

Guess how many other games the Hornets and Pistons won in December?

And it wasn’t just the record of course... after years of rumours, maybes, what-ifs and almosts, the Raptors finally traded OG Anunoby, their homegrown, elite 3-and-D wing, a favourite of both teammates and fans (and management, who may have waited just a little too long to trade him). Although the trade seems like a solid swap, it’s always hard to see players like Anunoby leave town.

But all of that is behind us now — and the Raptors have a chance to start off 2024 right, as they integrate new faces and take on an undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers team on New Year’s Day.

How to Watch:

Sportsnet at 7:30 p.m. ET

Lineups:

Toronto: Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett

Cleveland: Jarrett Allen, Max Stress, Donovan Mitchell, Isaac Okoro, Dean Wade

Injuries:

Toronto: Christian Koloko (respiratory — out), Garrett Temple (ankle — doubtful)

Cleveland: Darius Garland (jaw — out), Ty Jerome (ankle — out), Evan Mobley (knee — out)

*****

New faces

RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley are in Toronto and will speak to the media today, and — barring anything unusual in their physicals — will both make their Raptors debuts tonight.

Barrett is a fairly known quantity; like all Canadian NBA players, he’s constantly linked to the Raptors in trade rumours, and we’ve all seen him play on the national team. As such you all know the story: has all the tools, can’t seem to consistently put it together. The 18 points per game is nice, but he doesn’t do enough of the other things (4 rebounds, 2 assists, less t than one steal/block combined) and is shooting numbers are lower than they should be for a guy with his talent (47% on two-pointers, 33% on three-pointers).

Quickley has been stuck on Tom Thibedeau’s bench, but is a potential star in the making, averaging 15 points on 45/40/87 shooting in just 24 minutes a game off the pine; he was the runner up for Sixth Man of the Year last season. When he’s started and filled in for Jalen Brunson, the numbers are even more impressive: similar shooting splits, and 26/6/6 in 40 minutes a game last year without Brunson.

And the one thing both players can do, that Anunoby never could master, is creating their own shot.

Losing OG is hard but the Raptors should be a more balanced team with Barrett and Quickley.

Barnes unleashed?

Perhaps more importantly, the new additions should be good fits alongside Scottie Barnes. Barnes has been Toronto’s only bright spot, averaging all-star numbers despite being let down by the fit of the talent around him. Sure, the Raptors are losing their best three-point shooter, but Quickley should replace Anunoby’s deep shot making while adding new dimensions with his speed and creativity. And Barrett and Quickley’s ability to create should in turn free up Barnes, both to run the offense more, and to continue his own impressive uptick from three-point range (39% on 5.7 attempts per game).

It’s still not a perfectly balanced roster; assuming Barrett and Quickley start, the Raptors will still be starting three subpar three-point shooters in Barrett, Jakob Poeltl, and Pascal Siakam. Thus a Siakam trade seems likely — but even if that doesn’t occur, the spacing created simply by Barrett and Quickley’s ability to penetrate should improve the flow of the Raptors’ offense.

Shorthanded foe

Can the new-look Raptors put it all together and win their first game of 2024? The post-trade positivity bump is a real thing for teams that are down in the dumps and boy, is this Raptors team down in the dumps.

So potentially better vibes are in store tonight — and their opponent, the 18-14 Cleveland Cavaliers, will be missing two of their best players in Darius Garland and Evan Mobley. Still, this team employs Donovan Mitchell, who’s likely breathing a sigh of relief knowing that he doesn’t have to face OG Anunoby tonight.

Nothing is going to come easy for this Raptors team, even if they are slightly improved on paper. But I think they’ll put it together tonight and knock off the Cavs, 114-106.