How do you go from winning the championship, to losing your superstar, to having one of the worst seasons in recent franchise history to now being one of the most talked about teams in the league in less than a span of 4 years? Ask the Toronto Raptors.
It's an exciting time up north. Summer is officially in the books, the yearly Blue Jays let-down and all eyes on the city’s first winner in 26 years. The Raptors, just a year gone from all corners of the NBA world talking about how big of a mistake picking Barnes over Suggs is, are now officially quoted to be “The most interesting experiment in the NBA”. Exactly a year ago did ESPN ranks Toronto 20th in their annual preseason power rankings? Needless to say, the 35-47 record prediction did not age well at all. They went above and beyond, and when the post-season came; they were just 6 games off the 1-seed Miami Heat.
Last season was all about getting the young guys that valuable experience and building team chemistry. While most people expected the very young ‘21-‘22 Raps team to spend another year in the lottery, the team had other plans. It missed having a real big man on the roster but managed to play around it. Nick Nurse puts on his mad scientist hat time and time again to give us the most outrageous line-ups, line-ups you would never expect to work, but somehow, they…just do.
As evident from last season, one of if not the biggest keys to this team's success is Pascal Siakam’s play. The Tampa season in ’20-’21 was one to forget for the Cameroonian. At numerous times, Nurse found the most efficient way to make this line-up the most productive its ever been, was to play Siakam at the 5. Although he battled injuries throughout the year, when Spicy P was on the floor, the raptors were at their best. The insane run post-all-star break wouldn’t have been possible without Siakam playing at the All-NBA level. Another step up in ’22-’23 would be difficult considering the talent at the forward spot, but one thing I’ve learned over the last few years with the raptors is never ever count them out.
Speaking of insane runs post-All-Star break, Precious Achiuwa is going to be another one to keep an eye out for this year. Year 3 brings with it even more excitement and optimism about what this young unicorn can bring to the table. If pre-season is anything to go by, this kid can explode to take it to the rim at will, or if he’s feeling it, make it fly from deep. Completely biased opinion, but I feel Precious is really going to surprise a lot of people, and by All-Star break, might even be in the conversations for MIP.
The Raptors can boast of one of the most defensively sound backcourts in the NBA. Both the guys (Vanvleet and Trent Jr) made a case for All Defence teams last year and you can expect this season to be the same. One which is problem however is how much of a step up the playmaking is going to be from last season. 3PT shooting is still a worry, and a big key to solving that issue would be if GTJ can avoid being as streaky as he was in the ’21-’22 campaign. OG Anunoby may have taken his last major jump in terms of skillset, but he will be key to the Raptor’s catch-and-shoot game. A 3 and D guy is just what the raptors need and OG can complement this backcourt beautifully.
The bench looks somewhat better this year. Off-season additions in Otto Porter Jr, who was HUGE in the 2022 Playoffs for the Warriors, and bringing back Thad Young is a plus. They also picked up Juancho ‘Bo Cruz’ Hernangomez. Hernangomez’s usage is going to be something we do not know a lot about for now, but it's safe to assume he’s in good hands with Nick Nurse. Chris Boucher, Malachi Flynn, and Dalano Banton who looked really good in pre-season, gliding to the basket at whim, are returning faces in the second unit. New rookie Christian Koloko seems to be another Masai Ujiri steal and looks ready to make an immediate impact. This much complete bench may be an end to the regular 40-minute games for the starters.
And now for the centerpiece of this team. The reigning rookie of the year, and probably the most loved man in the whole of Canada right now. All eyes are going to be on Scottie Barnes and how big of a leap he takes into his sophomore year in the NBA. He’s already shown us what he can do on a basketball court, and fans will be expecting more come October 19th. Scottie’s jump shot and shooting will be key to what this team can achieve, on top of his explosiveness with the ball in his hand and much-needed playmaking abilities. Toronto and Masai Ujiri have shown clearly this is the guy they want to build their team around.
So, for such a unique team, with such a unique style of play, what really is the ceiling and how can it be made higher? For a start, Toronto has no players above 7’0 ft who can play the 5 except rookie Koloko. That being said, clever coaching can minimize that flaw, after-all the small-ball lineups Nurse experimented with last season turned out to be their most effective. They also don’t have a dependable 3 ball shooter and a backup point guard. Honestly, the main goal should be developing this insanely young team and getting them as many minutes as possible. They need to figure out the best combinations while playing the best in the East. Making the playoffs looks like the minimum for this team, and if they’re lucky with seeding, they may even just win a round. Raptors v Heat in a best-of-7 series in May? Yes, please!
However, another route…which is still a long shot, could be to make that blockbuster trade mid-season. Toronto has all the assets required to trade for a superstar. I wouldn’t be a fan of this since I really want to see where this roster is headed, but in a wide-open east, the raptors may make that big push toward making a deep playoff run as early as this upcoming season.
All in all, Raptors Basketball is back and we surely have a crucial yet extremely fun year in store. And hey, if everything goes south, this is probably the best year to be in the lottery right?