A lot has changed since the Toronto Raptors won their first NBA Championship, 18 months ago, and two million people packed the streets of downtown Toronto for a parade. Heck, just writing that sentence gives me the willies.
By the end of the 2019 NBA Finals, the Raptors were only playing eight players. Four of them are now gone.
Kawhi Leonard went to Los Angeles.
Danny Green went to Los Angeles, but is now in Philadelphia.
Marc Gasol went to Los Angeles.
Serge Ibaka went to, you guessed it, Los Angeles.
What does that mean? Ii means it’s warmer in LA than in Toronto.
It also means there are some big roles left to fill by some young, talented players who are looking to make a name for themselves. This excites me.
The Raptors never get much respect from the “analysts” across the border before the season starts. They’re normally projected to just sneak in the playoffs, probably because the bottom of the Eastern Conference is perpetually atrocious.
Case in point: last season. They had just lost Kawhi in free agency and people were like, “Great, we can go back to ignoring the team from Canada.”
And then the Raptors went out and won 53 of 72 games, good for the second best record in the NBA. Sure, the playoff bubble didn’t go well and it exposed some things, but I’m still looking at last year as a success.
This year, the Raptors will be playing their home games in Tampa Bay. That’s all I really want to say about that.
I feel like when people do preseason rankings of NBA teams, they do so based off name recognition and star power. As they should, honestly. I’d do the same thing.
However, that method may cause people to overlook teams like the Raptors, who don’t really have that big name guy.
Yes, they have Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, but when you’re listing off superstars in the NBA, those names aren’t coming out of your mouth.
Instead, the Raptors have a bevy of talent on the rise.
That is why they were so good last year, without Kawhi.
When the leaders leave, new leaders must emerge. That is true in every walk of life, not just sports.
In high school, I joined the Intramural Council in Grade 10 and was relatively quiet in every meeting. The council was dominated by older students who had been there and done that. The following year, they were all gone – graduated. And it was time for me and the others to step up, use what we had learned the year prior, and take over ownership of the council.
And the cycle continued when I was in Grade 12, teaching the younger students what to do, so that when I was gone, the Intramural Council was in good hands.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, that’s a measly high school council.
But if you apply that to professional sports, and the Raptors, it works.
Last season, you could say Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol – along with Kyle Lowry – formed the top tier of leadership on the team. They were the most experienced players. They were the guys you made sure to listen to.
The year prior, add Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to that same tier.
Now, only Lowry remains from that group.
Beneath that tier were players like Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, and OG Anunoby, who have had the opportunity to learn from great veterans since they joined the Raptors.
Those four players are still young, but you can call them veterans now. They’re no longer rookies or sophomores. They’ve been in the league. They’ve all received a second contract. They know what to do. And now it’s their turn to step up and take on a bigger piece of the ownership pie.
You may look at the roster and say, “well, they haven’t really added anyone that puts them over the top, or grabs anyone’s attention.”
But don’t overlook the fact that most of the players on the team, especially the main contributors, haven’t even reached their full potential yet.
Fred VanVleet, as good as he is already, is only scratching the surface.
Pascal Siakam was a starter in the All-Star Game last year. He had his struggles in the playoffs as “The Guy”, though. Nevertheless, he has so much more potential to unlock, it’s scary.
Siakam is only 26-years-old and didn’t start playing basketball until he was nearly 18. There is still more growth to come.
OG Anunoby has shown flashes that he can be a menace at the Small Forward position, and sliding over to Power Forward, when necessary. Heck, I’ll just say it – he can guard any position.
Don’t forget that in his rookie season, he was tasked with guarding LeBron James in the playoffs. He wasn’t timid in doing so, either.
Norman Powell averaged 16 points per game last season, almost doubling his output from the previous year. There is still a lot more there with Powell.
One thing I’ve noticed with his three-point shot is that when he doesn’t rush the process, and gets his legs into it before releasing, he’s almost automatic. There are shots where I just know the ball is going in, based solely on his shot preparation.
Those four players I just mentioned will help carry the team this year, along with Kyle Lowry.
What’s there to say about Lowry? He’s not going to jump over you; he doesn’t have to. Even if he could, I doubt he would. He will outsmart you on the floor. His toughness and bulldog mentality is infectious, and that will be important more than ever this year.
If the Raptors are going to have any shot at competing for a championship, they need to get the new players on board with their defensive standards. Gasol and Ibaka aren’t around anymore to control the paint. Others need to step up.
One thing I love about this team is they contest every shot. If a player is left wide open, someone will run at them, even if it won’t make a difference. There are too many teams in this league who just leave a man open, and then just wait for the rebound.
Chris Boucher is one of the players who will be taking over the minutes left by Gasol and Ibaka. I’m excited to see what he can do with extended minutes.
We already know he’s not shy to shoot the three. We already know he can block shots. We know he will be able to cause problems in the pick-and-roll.
Can he do this for 25 minutes every night? That’s the question that needs answering. Again, he’s another player who hasn’t come close to reaching his ceiling yet. Let’s see what he can do.
I loved the signing of Aron Baynes this off-season because he is exactly what this team looks for in a Centre. Someone who is rugged and tough and can open up shots for others by setting screens, while at the same time being able to step away from the basket and knock down their own shots.
If you were to morph Jonas Valanciunas and Marc Gasol into one person, it would be Aron Baynes.
Baynes and Lowry will be the proverbial rock and hard place on defence and I can’t wait to see it.
I’ll now quickly go through the other players on the roster.
Malachi Flynn: Oh, the Flynnsanity. I need to pump the brakes a bit because I’m already comparing this rookie to Stephen Curry and that’s not fair to him at all. However, that just shows how excited I am about him. Whenever the post-Lowry era of the Raptors is, Flynn seems like the heir apparent. Along with VanVleet, of course.
Terence Davis: Off the court, he has a domestic violence allegation against him. On the court, he’s a dynamic guard off the bench.
Matt Thomas: Mr. 99% looks like he got bigger over the off-season, which will help him if Head Coach Nick Nurse sticks to his plan to give him more minutes this season. He is the best three-point shooter on this team and is, honestly, right there with the best in the NBA, too. I’m looking forward to watching his growth this season. He’s better on defence than people give him credit for.
Jalen Harris: He was the 59th overall pick in the NBA Draft and is on a two-way contract, which means he’ll spend most of his time in the G-League with the Raptors 905. Don’t sleep on him, though. He has talent and the Raptors have one of the best, if not the best, development programs in the league.
Paul Watson Jr.: A graduate of the Raptors 905, now finds himself with an NBA contract. He probably won’t receive many minutes unless the score is swaying heavily in one direction, but don’t be surprised if he uses those minutes to push for an expanded role. The energy and athleticism is there.
Patrick McCaw: He is currently out after having left knee surgery in August. His role on this team feels a bit redundant right now.
Stanley Johnson: Call me crazy, but I still believe in Stanley Johnson. He didn’t show much in limited minutes last season and probably won’t play a lot this year, but something is there. I don’t know what. I just know something is there.
DeAndre’ Bembry: He signed as a free agent after spending the first four years of his career with Atlanta. I like what he can bring defensively, but don’t really know what he can do on offence yet. Regardless, I am an immediate fan of his after hearing that he wears #95 to honour his late brother, who was shot and killed trying to break up a fight, just before Bembry was drafted in 2016. His brother was born in 1995.
Alex Len: He isn’t as mobile as Boucher, but he is long. Good luck going down the lane when Len is there. I don’t know what his role will be, exactly. I can see him getting minutes when the other team has a centre he can match up with.
Yuta Watanabe: I don’t know much about him, but he’s big and he can shoot. His impressive preseason earned him a two-way contract.
I truly believe this is a year of development and discovery.
Development: So many guys can take the next step in their careers. OG Anunoby, especially. He can easily win the Most Improved Player award. It’s right there for the taking.
Discovery: Without Gasol and Ibaka, who steps up and becomes a voice in the locker room and on the defensive end? Other than Lowry and VanVleet (who is mature beyond his years), who is holding others accountable?
We’ve seen before that the front office is not shy to make trades. I think a lot of players are going to raise their value this year, and as a result, provide management with pieces they can move for a “big fish”, in the future.
Don’t be surprised when that happens.
At the end of the day, I’m just going to enjoy this season. The team is going to be good – tell a friend. But more than that, the Raptors are so much fun to watch and so easy to root for.
The family environment they exude makes me feel warm inside.
Yes, even warmer than Los Angeles.