Back in Toronto, the Raptors are the same, but different: take the temperature on a team in transition

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Before considering what will come next for the Toronto Raptors, one must look at their time in Tampa Bay. Overall, was the Raptors’ 27-45 record more about misfortune or mismanagement? Before the COVID outbreak and late-season tank work, was Toronto ready for a playoff push?

On February 26, the Raptors were fourth in the East. Their net rating of plus-2.3, which ranked ninth in the league, suggested they were better than their record. They had won 10 of 15 games, including clashes with the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, and they seemed to have found something with their smallball by starting five.

If you remember how Toronto played during that streak, you’re at least intrigued by the team’s current iteration. The Raptors don’t have a player taller than 6’9 ” on the roster, and coach Nick Nurse can throw rosters in which everyone is at least 6’7 ” tall. On defense, they’ll put pressure on ball handlers, swarm the stars, spin like crazy, change tons, play in the zone and force turnovers. Toronto wants chaos and wants to run.

The Raptors want to run in part because they don’t have the talent they used to have. They placed eighth in half court in 2019 and 15th in this category without Kawhi Leonard next season. Last season, they fell to 20th place without the overtaking of Marc Gasol and the center distance of Serge Ibaka. Now that Kyle Lowry is out of sight, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are the only players left to make the 2019 final. (OG Anunoby was injured and Chris Boucher didn’t play a meaningful playoff minute.)

The Toronto roster is packed with athleticism, length and versatility, but light on the game, especially with Siakam still in rehabilitation after shoulder surgery. It’s time for VanVleet to run the show and Anunoby to stretch his game. Even in the preseason, it’s clear the Raptors are a lot more interesting when rookie Scottie Barnes – tailor-made for the Raptors with a wingspan of nearly 7ft 3in and “6-9 PG” in his Instagram bio – is on the floor. Precious Achiuwa, acquired under the Lowry brand, was able to shoot 3s and put the ball on the ground. Goran Dragic, also in this deal, will be a major source of offense – for now.

There are League Pass favorites (Boucher swats 3s!) And curiosities (Dalano Banton, another 6-9 PG!) Everywhere. Toronto’s distinct style will make it boring to face, especially if you’re the guy dealing with a box-and-1 on the second night of a game in a row. This way, the Raptors return to their hometowns the same, but different. They’re younger and wilder, with only a few select base players stepping into entrenched roles. How far will their chaos take them in the short term? Well it depends. There’s a freedom inherent in Toronto’s offense, and, if you’re a player trying to establish yourself, that freedom equates to an opportunity. Let’s see what these guys can do with it.

Toronto Raptors roster

To take the temperature

Believing raptors: This team is going to be great. I want Nurse to play everyone on the roster, partly because there’s good depth here and partly because it’s fun when the Raptors are going millions of miles an hour. I’ll laugh when they frustrate an opposing superstar and upset a championship contender for the first time.

Skeptical raptors: I do not hold my breath on them upsetting a real competitor. Look, I understand that the point of this franchise is that “everyone gets to forget about us,” but most rational people see the Raptors as a fringe team for good reason. The East is much better than it was when they were still near the top of the standings, and they no longer have the parts that allowed them to rack up regular season wins. We used to go into every season asking whether or not the Toronto formula would translate into the playoffs; now i wonder how he will score when he can’t run.

Believing birds of prey: I knew you would start with the offensive in the half court! It’s a valid concern, I guess, but it bothers me that no one talks about, say, the opponent’s turnover percentage in that way. It seems to really bother people when teams aren’t great at that particular area, even though the supposedly fatal flaw didn’t end up sinking the 2020 Lakers or the 2021 Bucks. Did you know that last year’s Kings were 10th in attack on half court? Of course you didn’t because they were one of the worst defensive teams ever and nothing is more overrated than ‘getting caught in the trap’. If the Raptors are elite defensively and in transition – both are very possible – then they can surely live with a below average score against a defined defense. Plus, they only need a little bit of growth here and there to be better than people offensively expect. Siakam quietly improved as a passer last season, VanVleet has been preparing for the role for years and Anunoby has shown some lightning bolts as a creator.

Skeptical raptors: VanVleet has shot between 50 and 52 percent at the rim in each of its five seasons. Siakam got off to a flying start in 2019-2020, but just hasn’t been so effective since then. I’ve been hearing about this hypothetical Anunoby escape for years, but I’m still waiting for it to justify the hype. I think the Raptors are going to need Dragic to do a bit for their offense, but I’d be pretty surprised if those other three guys improved to the point where it makes sense for the 35-year-old to stay past his deadline. Exchanges.

Believing raptors: Did you see Barnes promoting Dragic in the pre-game introductions? How could he want to be elsewhere?

Skeptical raptors: Oh, that’s right, Barnes is going to save the Raptors only with vibes. How could I forget? Seriously, this is a play-in team the best, law?

Believing raptors: Going back to your previous point, I actually think Toronto has a good formula for regular season wins: high level defense and pretty decent attacking. It might not mean a field advantage in the first round of the playoffs this time around, but the bottom half of the Eastern playoff table is pretty messy. Don’t overreact to what happened in Tampa and dismiss the Raptors’ chances of making the playoffs.

Skeptical raptors: I do not react at all to Tampa. I’m reacting to an odd offseason in which Toronto paid big bucks to keep Gary Trent Jr. and Khem Birch, let Jalen Suggs pass for Barnes, and positioned themselves to be in the murky middle of the league. It seems like a team that is ready to be more fun than good.

Eye on: Scottie Barnes

Watch Barnes’ Summer League and Preseason movie and you’ll say things like:

  • Look at this pass!
  • Whoa, he takes the playmaker!
  • Imagine if he can do this shot all the time!

You will also probably be amazed by its energy. He never stops, not even when he’s supposed to be resting. From the moment he sat on an NBA bench, he has been perhaps the most active and encouraging spectator in the league.

Barnes has certain attributes which suggest that he can be a useful actor immediately. Toronto, however, drafted him fourth overall, due to the attributes that give him a chance to be a star. Ahead of the Raptors’ first preseason game, Nurse said he would make sure to replace Barnes early and reinsert him with a bench unit, so he can have the ball in his hands. Sure enough, at the end of the first quarter, Barnes was there with four guys on minimum, unsecured or two-way contracts. In his third preseason game, Toronto hit him in the elbow with other starters on the field. He recorded eight assists in 30 minutes. Where can he be in a few months?


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