The 2018-19 NBA Champions enter this season with mostly the same roster – sans their best player and NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard represents a huge loss for the Raptors, but don’t feel too badly for the Association’s only professional Canadian team.
The Raptors can easily initiate a rebuild during the 2019-20 season if that’s their desired course of action. They should still be highly competitive considering they returned virtually everyone but Leonard. And retooling around Pascal Siakam will be a cinch considering how well he complements other players and positions.
But if the Raptors struggle, they can speed up the rebuilding process by trading away veterans like Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, for whom there should be a market considering they’re both on expiring contracts and still serviceable starters. Fortunately, the Raptors don’t have to make a decision on whether or not they want to rebuild just yet. They can take their time assessing how well their team performs and pull the trigger on deals closer to the trade deadline – when contenders typically get more desperate and become willing to part with future assets to score key veterans.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
It’s going to be a major turnaround for the Raptors. One minute they were on top of the world having won their first championship in franchise history. The next, Kawhi Leonard was out the door on his way to Los Angeles. It was always a distinct possibility though that no matter what happened, Leonard was going to leave, and Masai Ujiri did a good job of stockpiling the team with assets. Pascal Siakam has emerged as a legit building block. OG Anunoby was looking like one too before his injury. They refused to give up all their draft picks in a potential Paul George trade to keep Leonard. Whatever direction the front office decides to go in, they’re well suited. They still have enough talent on the team to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference. They added a couple of reclamation projects in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Ujiri had a strong case for Executive of the Year last season and as long as he’s in charge, the Raptors will be in good hands.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
Congratulations to The Six on its first NBA Finals win. Last season was a magical run and a blast to watch. The Raptors paid a hefty price to win a championship, though. Kawhi Leonard headed home to the west coast and Danny Green will be in the same city of Los Angeles with a different team. So now, Toronto is left with Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka – all on expiring contracts. It will be interesting to see whether this core big four (Pascal Siakam as option No. 1, of course) can navigate a wide-open Eastern Conference. We certainly know that Fred VanVleet is a capable backcourt partner for Lowry, and OG Anunoby’s return will afford him valuable minutes in a crucial season. However, if things aren’t going as planned in this upcoming year, it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see one or two of those big contracts moved for draft capital or future assets. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was a solid pick up to fill a void at forward. Maybe Nick Nurse’s group gets the best of both worlds by making the postseason and preparing for what’s down the line. Regardless of what happens, 2018-19 was all worth it in the end. We’ll see if momentum can carry The North forward or if this is the start of a new Raptors era.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
How the mighty have fallen. The Raptors, to a degree, leveraged their future on the Kawhi Leonard trade. They bet that they could convince him to stay (they couldn’t); and if not, that it would be prudent to avoid paying $30 million+ to stars who weren’t delivering championships (e.g. DeMar DeRozan). They surprised everyone – probably themselves, too – when they won the 2018-19 NBA championship in their first year with Leonard on the roster. Now, they must deal with the fallout from the gamble.
Fortunately for the Raptors, Pascal Siakam was the breakout star (and MIP) of the year in 2018-19. His presence alone should instill confidence and hope. The Raps also managed to add some versatility to their roster by signing Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. But neither signing moves the needle too much.
The Raptors appear primed for a rebuild, but seem willing to be patient in doing so – maybe waiting to see who becomes available before the trade deadline. Regardless, they have too much talent to finish below the Knicks, but probably not enough to finish higher than fourth in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division. The playoffs are a possibility, but matching the team’s recent levels of success seems like a long shot.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
It is easy to write the Raptors off after losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, but the truth is the Raptors are still a very, very formidable team. Sure, there may be some hangover from such a magical title season a year ago, but the pressure is off almost everyone. Typically teams carry the burden of repeating into the season, and that’s frankly not something the Raptors have to worry about; they can simply play. Head coach Nick Nurse isn’t going to be questioned if the team doesn’t win 60 games; he can just coach. The Raptors have some ending-contract guys they may look to move if the season isn’t competitive, but what’s more likely is that the Raptors are competitive because they were when Leonard had “load management” games last year. Winning 58 games likely isn’t in the cards, but it would be surprising if the Raptors fall off. In fact, home court in the playoffs still seems plausible, especially for a team playing with house money on the expectations front.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
First things first, congratulations to the Toronto Raptors for winning their first championship in franchise history last season. Of course, losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency hurts, but winning the championship last season makes the initial trade for Leonard worth it. The Raptors are now left with a talented, but perhaps not elite roster. Pascal Siakam is on the rise and could turn into one of the best overall forwards in the league in short order. I like the addition of young, athletic forwards like Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis Jefferson. Whether this team can make serious noise in the playoffs this upcoming season is in question but I think the front office will give this team a fair chance to show that it can compete at the highest levels, even after losing Leonard. If the team underperforms, we could see some deals go down. Masai Ujiri is a calculated dealmaker and won’t let sentiment get in the way of making deals he thinks help his team in the short and long term. That means even players like Lowry could be on the move this upcoming season, assuming another team makes a legitimate offer for his services.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
Outside of losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors have had a relatively quiet summer. The team added Stanley Johnson via its Bi-Annual Exception ($3.6 million) and used most of its Mid-Level Exception ($9.3 million) on Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Dewan Hernandez and Matt Thomas. In doing so, Toronto triggered a hard cap at $138.9 million. That shouldn’t be an issue, given the team will probably head into the season below the NBA’s $132.6 million tax threshold.
Pascal Siakam, arguably now the Raptors’ best player, is eligible for a contract extension before the start of the season. If the team chooses to wait until he’s a restricted free agent next July, he’ll only take up $7.1 million in cap space unsigned. That may be reason enough to wait, given Toronto could have over $80 million in cap space before the 2020-21 season, depending on what the franchise does with Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and other expiring contracts. Before November, the Raptors also need to decide on OG Anunoby’s rookie-scale option.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Pascal Siakam
Siakam isn’t a traditional offensive workhorse. His three-point shot leaves much to be desired; he was a horrible three-point shooter for his first two seasons, but he improved to a 36.9 percent three-point shooter last year. But old habits die hard and Siakam regressed in the 2019 postseason, shooting just 27.9 percent from three-point range and only 23.8 percent in the Finals.
But that’s not the whole story on Siakam. He is an uber-athletic, 6-foot-9 forward who can be relied on to get to the rim in one-on-one situations. He demonstrated an improved jump shot last season. And taking on the first-option role might not have as dramatic an effect on Siakam as it does on most players; Siakam’s per-36 numbers were better last season when his usage rate was at its highest.
But will he continue to improve? He did turn 25 in April, and that is around the age where players begin to level off regarding making major improvements to their games. Regardless, Siakam is a great piece. He’s eligible for an early extension this season until October 21 though, so the Raptors must decide just how much they like him.
Top Defensive Player: Pascal Siakam
While Siakam appears primed to take on the lead offensive role for the Raptors, he is also their most important and versatile defender. Siakam’s ridiculous 7-foot-3 wingspan allows him to cover much more ground than most 6-foot-9 forwards can. His defensive win share has steadily increased each year and it reached a career-best 3.6 in 2018-19. Siakam also posted the best defensive rating of all Raptors last year.
He is an above-average on and off-the-ball defender, and he anticipates passes and shot attempts brilliantly. Siakam will be leaned on even more heavily this season, as he will be viewed as a leader on both the offense and defense. He’ll have to defend other teams’ best wings and bigs. And he’ll have to be very deliberate in expending energy given the ridiculously large work load he’ll be asked to tackle on both sides of the floor.
Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry
Lowry took a noticeable step back last season, scoring less than he had per game since his first season in Toronto (2012-13) and posting a worse shooting percentage than he has in the previous five seasons. But he was good enough in The Finals to help secure the Raptors first championship, chipping in 16.2 points and 7.2 assists per game. Lowry willingly took a backseat to Leonard last year; his selflessness is a hugely helpful attribute considering many stars would resist a decreased role. But it was for Leonard and it yielded a championship.
Will his willingness to be Toronto’s second fiddle begin to wane now that Leonard is no longer a Raptor? Either way, his playmaking abilities should help keep the Raptors afloat; and if he must carry more of the load, that’s okay because he’s done so before. But will the Raptors keep him around beyond the February trade deadline?
Top Clutch Player: Norman Powell
With Danny Green heading to the Lakers, Powell appears poised to step into the starting two-guard spot – and with good reason. Powell shot 40 percent on 2.8 three-point field goal attempts per game last season. But 2.8 three-pointers per game was a career-high, and it’s not that many threes for a sharpshooter in the modern NBA. Can he maintain the strong shooting with increased volume? There’s no reason to think he can’t.
Powell shot 37.5 percent from three-point range last season when playing 30 or more minutes, and he shot 36.5 percent in the nine games combined when he shot five or more threes. Further, Powell continued his hot shooting into the 2019 playoffs, posting 38.7 percent from long-range through 23 games. So last season’s numbers suggest that Powell is still more than proficient from distance under duress, and when playing more minutes and shooting more threes. Hopefully for Toronto, that trend continues as the sample size increases.
The Unheralded Player: OG Anunoby
Anunoby is well-positioned for a strong year. He increased his scoring average by about a point per game in 2018-19 to 7 ppg. His usage also jumped from 12.4 to 15.5 and his PER remained mostly unchanged (dropping to 9.8 from 10). Anunoby’s dimensions (6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 reach) and age (recently turned 22) are feathers in the young forward’s cap. He is built in the Siakam mold – a versatile player who can affect the game in a number of ways. The Raptors are hoping he will have a similarly successful breakout year similar to Siakam’s 2018-19. And considering Leonard’s departure, there will absolutely be an opportunity for him to prove his worth in the frontcourt.
Best New Addition: Stanley Johnson
Stanley Johnson has not lived up to the high expectations inherited by lottery picks. But he’s moved on from the Detroit Pistons (and New Orleans) and gets a fresh start in Toronto. Johnson is a very athletic forward who can lock down opposing wings. He must work on his three-ball, but he’ll definitely have a role on the Raptors and he’ll help form a capable frontcourt rotation that can switch off on guards in pick-and-rolls, while also defending most power forwards. Johnson needs to focus on his offensive game, as he’s never even averaged 10 points per game. But despite being drafted back in 2015, he’s still only 23-years-old. Johnson still has time to mature and grow into his NBA game. Hopefully, for Johnson and Toronto, that happens with the Raptors.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Rondae Hollis Jefferson
Hollis-Jefferson is a scrappy and versatile defender. He plays the small forward spot and is equally well-suited to be a small-ball power forward. Hollis-Jefferson’s dimensions are similar to that of Anunoby and Siakam, and all three give the Raptors a dangerous group of defenders who can switch all screens and defend multiple positions. He doesn’t shoot the three-ball well, but he doesn’t shoot many threes. He is otherwise pretty efficient offensively and can score when given the right opportunities; and his athleticism aids him well – on both sides of the court.
2. Fred VanVleet
VanVleet proved his worth last season. He enters 2019-20 as one of the best backup point guards in the NBA, and he should only build on his career year. VanVleet averaged 11 points and 4.8 assists per game last season, and he finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting. VanVleet is a hard-nosed defender and should be far more confident in 2019-20 considering his experience. Unfortunately, VanVleet’s stature prevents playing him alongside Lowry for too long. Otherwise, he might have a case to become a full-time starter.
3. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka had a resurgence of sorts last season. He scored and rebounded the ball better than he has since 2013-14. And while he shot poorly from three-point range, he posted a higher overall shooting percentage than he has since 2013-14, too. His role changed entering last season, as he only started approximately 68 percent of games in which he appeared (compared to all of the games he appeared in in his previous five seasons) – and his new role obviously suited him. The presence of Marc Gasol was also helpful, allowing Ibaka to rotate between backup center and a stretch four. He plays well with Lowry and VanVleet. And while Ibaka blocks fewer shots than he once did, he limited opponents to shooting 52.6 percent at the rim when he was defending – which is on par with Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid. Ibaka appears to have at least one more good year left in him, and considering he’s still only 30 years old, he might have even more than that.
4. Masai Ujiri
Ujiri is viewed very favorably around the league – in fact, he is seen as one of the very best general managers and/or team presidents in basketball. Ujiri has fleeced his share of opposing teams. He takes chances, but he sees the bigger picture better than most. Most recently, he swooped in and snatched up Leonard from the Spurs shortly after it became obvious that the situation had become irreconcilable; and in doing so, he won the Raptors their first NBA title and freed up their cap situation moving forward. Ujiri is excellent at team building and he instills confidence in his staff, the coaching staff and the roster. He is an executive players and coaches seem to enjoy working for, which will continue to benefit the Raptors for as long as he remains with the team.
Versatility. The Raptors boast a good amount of versatility – especially at the forward and center positions. Their roster boasts a number of ultra-versatile wings/forwards who will enable them to defend opponents at a very high level. Siakam, Anunoby, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson are all long and capable defenders, and their athleticism makes them all very dangerous in transition. While none of the aforementioned players are overly adept three-point shooters, they are full of potential – and none are older than 25. And they’re able to share the floor with one another and switch most screens really effectively, causing nightmare matchups for opposing wings/forwards.
Their flock of centers also provides interesting versatility. Gasol played less impressively last season than he had in previous years, but he looked better in the FIBA World Cup and was named to the tournament All-Star Five. Gasol morphed into an above-average shooting big a few years back and connected on 36 percent of his three-pointers in 2018-19. And while Gasol might not be quite as strong a defender as he once was, his ability to stretch the floor and pass the ball from the perimeter presents additional options for the Raptors.
And then there’s Ibaka. And while Ibaka’s three-point shooting was down last season, he launched fewer long balls last year than he has since 2013-14. And Ibaka seemed to understand the importance of good possessions and took more shots from the mid-range last year than in the recent past – and he scored more last season (15.0 points per game) than he has in years for that very reason. Ibaka and Gasol’s complimentary skill sets make the Raptors even more dangerous.
No star power. Not that the Raptors necessarily wanted it this season, but their one true, current star just recently left to head back home to Los Angeles. The Raptors would have preferred to run back their 2018-19 roster, but they took a Leonard-or-bust approach when they traded DeRozan for Leonard. The Raptors knew they might not return Leonard and they were OK with the possibility of losing him because, in adding him last season, they also offloaded long-term, high-level salary. But regardless of their team-building preferences, the success of NBA teams in 2019-20 is contingent on star power – and the Raptors really don’t have much.
They might not be down for long – depending very heavily on if Pascal Siakam is able to develop into a superstar this season – but given the competition in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors could be the first team since the 2004-05 Los Angeles Lakers to miss the NBA Playoffs the very next season after winning a championship, and the fourth team to ever do so, joining the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls and the 1969-70 Boston Celtics.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Raptors hold or fold?
They not-too-subtly dealt DeMar DeRozan with a contingency plan of jump starting a rebuild if Leonard didn’t re-sign. Well, Leonard didn’t re-sign. Now it’s time to pay the piper.
The Raptors must decide if they’re going to try to get something back for Lowry, Gasol and others. Otherwise, the majority of the roster expires following 2019-20, so they’re rebuilding by choice or not. The Raptors will probably be patient in the early part of the season. But if it looks like they’re on the bubble regarding the playoffs, they will probably become sellers. The market for point guards (Lowry), centers (Gasol), etc. at the time they decide to deal will dictate how much they get back. The Raptors should – and probably will considering the savviness of Ujiri – be proactive in fielding offers. And if they get one that improves the roster long-term, they would be well-served to take it. However either way, the Raptors appear primed to initiate a rebuild beginning next offseason at the very latest.