When Giannis Antetokounmpo signed his five-year, $228-million supermax with the Milwaukee Bucks last week, it not only became one of the most critical moments in Bucks history but also impacted several teams across the league. The NBA is a star-driven association, and when a potential back-to-back MVP like Giannis goes to the market, linked teams will always try to move mountains to prepare for a potential departure.
Masai Ujiri and the Raptors are no stranger to this. They sacrificed franchise great DeMar DeRozan for a year of Kawhi Leonard, which turned into more than anyone ever could have imagined. Giannis had been linked to the Raptors longer than Kawhi ever was, with a longtime connection to Ujiri and rumblings from local and national media. It was clear that Giannis was Toronto\’s Plan A after they had cleared space for 2021 through subtle moves like a dip in the second year of UFA Fred VanVleet\’s big contract as well as a one-year extension for Kyle Lowry for the current season to make sure they were flexible in 2021.
However, when the news broke about Giannis\’ commitment to the Bucks, even if it was not a massive surprise to many, Plan A for the Raptors was officially dead. It is unusual for a team to \”move on\” from a player they never actually had on their roster (and with no real proof they were ever even close to getting him), but the Raptors must come to terms with the fact that there is no superstar in their future.
Now that their priorities have shifted away from 2021 free agency, and their season has tipped off what is Toronto\’s main focus going into the 2020-21 season?
Making up for key losses
After Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol\’s departures, making up for lost production is the top priority for the Raptors. The Raptors\’ newest addition to the starting lineup (and short-term replacement at center) came in the form of Aron Baynes, a serviceable veteran that provides floor spacing for the Raptors. He ranked ninth in catch-and-shoot threes among centers last season and shot the ball at a 35% clip, with his three-point attempts-per-game skyrocketing to 4.0 after a previous career-high of 1.2.
In the Raptors\’ opener, Baynes opened the game and played a long stretch near the end of the first half. So, the Raptors hope they do not have to default to smaller lineups too often in the regular season, making the Aussie center a key part of the rotation.
The trio of Baynes, Alex Len and increased minutes for Chris Boucher will have to make up for some of the hit taken in scoring and efficiency from losing Ibaka in particular. The combined PER-36 averages of Boucher, Len and Baynes fail to meet Ibaka\’s 20.5 clip despite similar volume from Baynes and Boucher in their minutes on the floor.
It is a difficult loss for the Raptors, especially when diving back into the team\’s loss to the Celtics. Over the series, Ibaka was the second-most reliable Raptor. His field goal percentage of .648 was the highest of the top-seven Raptors in minutes by a wide margin.
Also, his 110 offensive rating topped the rotation. While Kyle Lowry\’s consistent high-volume scoring made him the most valuable member of the Raptors in the tightly-contested series, Ibaka provided a boost of the bench in ways no other player replicated.
With the Raptors ranked as the 16th-best offense in the league in non-garbage time minutes, the loss of Ibaka makes it challenging to improve Toronto\’s most glaring weakness.
However, where the Raptors could see some improvement is on the glass. The Raptors were 25th in offensive rebounding percentage with Gasol and Ibaka at the helm. Baynes, Len and Boucher could work to improve this total.
Another often-overlooked aspect: Baynes is an excellent screen-setter. Last season with the Suns, he averaged 3.0 screen assists-per-game which generated 6.7 points-per-contests. With Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet at the guard position, Baynes\’ profound screen-setting could give the Raptors some better looks from deep.
One concern for the Raptors\’ froncourt is Baynes\’ health. He throws around his body, sitting at eighth in charges during the year. He\’s also logged two straight seasons of missing at least 20 games.
If Baynes gets injured, the Raptors will be very thin on size against bigger teams. They would likely start Alex Len at center, with Boucher as the only backup big and no real borderline 15th man to play center. Such would leave Toronto relatively small against opponents like the Celtics, with several bigs in Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis.
Taking another step
The reason the Raptors have been able to build a team that competes year-in and year-out is their development. The apparent direction for improvement is another step forward for members of the Raptors\’ young core.
With Pascal Siakam\’s rise from the bench, to the NBA\’s Most Improved Player, to 2nd-Team All-NBA, OG Anunoby\’s late first-round draft slot to a $72-million contract and Fred VanVleet receiving a Finals MVP vote years after going undrafted, no team sees leaps from players quite like the Raptors.
In Siakam\’s first year as the best player on the Raptors, he totalled 55.4% true shooting on 28% usage; more than the Raptors ever could have imagined. When Siakam struggled throughout the end of the season, it was difficult to pinpoint why he began to struggle. Of course, his three-point splits went 44-35-42-36-28 from October-to-March; however, cold-shooting can happen.
The difficulty with Siakam lies in high expectations brought from early last season, where Pascal was a legitimate MVP candidate. 34% of Pascal\’s threes last year were unassisted, proving that he could create for himself and not rely on spot-up shooting.
His biggest falter was, not shooting, but shooting too much. He went from taking 40% of his shots at the rim to a mark of 28%. Better decision-making while getting back to 40% at the rim makes for a far healthier balance.
A great way to measure this is getting to the line. Pascal went to the line just 3.1 times per game against the Celtics, compared to 5.1 during the year. Even when his shot faltered post-All Star break, with a slight 3% decrease in EFG%, Pascal could get to the line and still score at a clip of 21 points-per-game.
So, for Siakam, balancing shooting with getting to the rim will be key this season. Siakam\’s usage increased by 7.8% last season; however, his free-throw attempts only increased by around 1.0 per game without Kawhi Leonard on the roster. Siakam has to get closer to other elite wings in the NBA to become a more efficient player (i.e., DeMar DeRozan at 6.6).
Pascal Siakam\’s usage rate will be at a similar clip this year, especially with the downgrade in supporting cast. It is a simple answer, but the Raptors go as far as Siakam takes them. If he makes another monumental leap, the team will have a far better shot, and if he struggles as he did in the bubble, it\’ll be a long season.
A year after a max extension, Siakam makes nearly 30% of the team\’s cap and is now the Raptors\’ clear future. With no Giannis on the table, this is the new mantra for the Raptors; How high can Siakam go?
The Raptors have to be more creative with Siakam as well. Too often in the bubble, Siakam would be forced to get the ball and attack. As per Blake Murphy of The Athletic, it\’s up to the Raptors to involve Pascal as the ball handler in the pick and roll far more often. Less than 5% of the Raptors\’ possessions had Siakam attack the rim as the PNR ball-handler.
Aron Baynes averaged 1.14 points per possession as a roll man in 2019-20 compared to sub-1.00 totals for both Ibaka (1.00) and Gasol (0.90). So, he could mesh well with Siakam on that front.
Another candidate for improvement is OG Anunoby, who\’s preseason ball-handling has gotten Raptors fans excited. One of the reasons why the Raptors defense has been amongst the best in the league, Anunoby\’s role has often been the fifth option to score (or fourth when Marc Gasol was on the floor) standing in the corner when needed and providing a complementary role in transition.
Anunoby\’s 2019-20 14% usage rate will almost certainly increase. The Indiana standout is only 23 and has improved his three-point shot from .330 to .390, showing real offensive potential. Thus, creating inside game as a complement to defenders closing out could give the Raptors a considerable edge.
So, suppose the Raptors run a crunch-time offense of Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Anunoby, and Siakam. In this case, opponents\’ lesser defenders will likely be assigned Anunoby (a la Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, etc. in the East). If he can make teams pay for this, it will be of massive importance for the Raptors.
The James Harden wildcard
It\’s always fun to play with the hypotheticals.
James Harden is the league\’s headline story, as he\’s in the midst of a messy breakup with the Rockets. Of course, the possibility of adding Harden would redefine the Raptors identity, style and pretty much everything completely.
In Kawhi Leonard\’s year of glory in Toronto, he fit in seamlessly as a massive plus defender and an offensive threat that worked as a go-to for when the offense stalled. Harden, who has seen his usage number skyrocket over 40% in recent years (and was at 36% even with ball-dominant Russell Westbrook by his side), is an entirely different kind of threat.
Harden, arguably the most gifted offensive player in the NBA\’s current generation, tends to throw all offensive style out the window, which could be a good thing for the Raptors, a team struggling to find an identity in the half-court.
Don\’t let his 105 possessions per game fool you; Harden slows down a team\’s pace. This number is so high not because of transition totals but rather the quick shots taken in the Rockets offense. The Rockets averaged 13.7 transition points per game last year compared to the Raptor\’s 18.2, an inflated stat given that more than half of their transition attempts were three-point shots.
Harden would hit the team\’s transition totals but would make up for it as an incredible passer, to the benefit of Anunoby and the Raptors\’ centers on cutting action, and three-point shooters like Lowry and VanVleet from deep.
Of course, there is no acquisition of James Harden without a steep price. The most popular estimate for Harden comes from one of his hottest reported suitor, the Philadelphia 76ers, with a reported package surrounding Ben Simmons.
So, what does such a price look on the Raptors\’ end? Pascal Siakam and a first-round pick? After signing an extension, OG Anunoby would not be included yet, but could he be in a few months when he is eligible? It is difficult to say, but we have seen Masai Ujiri take homerun swings in the past.
Ultimately, the Raptors\’ defense gives them an incredibly high floor. The team was on-pace for 60-wins last season and were expected, per Cleaning the Glass, to win 55.2 games even with several injuries across the board.
Their difficulties scoring in the half-court make it challenging to make a Finals run in their current iteration; however, the Raptors can be content with where they are.
With Kyle Lowry\’s contract expiring, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet face a pivotal season in their development.
The 2020-21 season could be perhaps one of the last years they can rely on their 34-year old point-guard as the engine of both the offense and the team itself before the three take the reins of the team long-term, even without a Giannis Antetokounmpo to save the day.
Cover photo credited to Getty Images