It’s Pascal Siakam’s time now. Time to take the torch from Kawhi Leonard as the team’s primary scorer. But can the man who won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award last season get better at perimeter shooting and playmaking? Where will the club’s secondary scoring come from? And how will Kyle Lowry respond after having surgery on his left thumb this past summer?
These are just some of the questions the defending NBA champions are facing coming into the 2019-2020 season, with many players expected to receive expanded roles.
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No big-name free agents were added after their championship. Team president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster added several fringe players and re-signed vets while also letting Jeremy Lin go. Marc Gasol picked up his player option for another year while the club extended Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby.
The new faces on the club include Terence Davis and former lottery pick Stanley Johnson, who signed multi-year contracts back in July. The club then signed No. 59 draft pick Dewan Hernandez. The club followed up by signing guard Matt Thomas, who spent the past two seasons in Spain’s Liga ACB, and forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who spent the past four seasons with the Brooklyn Nets.
Best Addition: Terence Davis, the rookie from Ole Miss, is shaping up to be the best addition to the Raptors as a backup point guard. It’s a new position for him after he played the two in college. The Raptors signed him to a two-year deal after Davis went undrafted, and because of that he’s drawing comparisons to the undrafted Fred VanVleet. Davis was a pleasant surprise in his pro debut, scoring eight points and collecting five assists in Toronto’s first preseason game in Japan. He’s going to become a fan favorite with his athleticism at the basket and his solid work ethic. Look for him to win the job as the third point guard behind Lowry and VanVleet.
Biggest Loss: Kawhi Leonard was, of course, the biggest loss. There are about 20 shots a game that Toronto is going to have to spread around to others. Leonard’s departure to the L.A. Clippers as an unrestricted free agent was the culmination of a major drama in Toronto as the city came to a stop following the championship with speculation surrounding his future reaching the height of craziness. Danny Green, who moved to the L.A. Lakers as a UFA, left the Raptors with a second big hole to fill.
The Raptors have developed a young core behind veterans Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol. Pascal Siakam, 22; OG Anunoby, 25; Fred VanVleet, 25; and Norm Powell, 26, should be just hitting their prime. To replace Leonard and Green, Toronto signed reserve forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson. Returning shooting guard Patrick McCaw, who left Sunday’s preseason game against the Chicago Bulls with a twisted left knee, is also in the mix.
With Serge Ibaka enjoying a bounce-back year at center, he may platoon with Gasol. Toronto may also offer load management to Gasol, who had a busy summer leading Spain to a gold at the FIBA World Cup. He will be 35 in January. With Ibaka and Gasol eligible to become free agents next summer, Raptors president Masai Ujiri will weigh the options at the Feb. 6 trade deadline should Toronto be underperforming at that point.
Team MVP: It’s hard to argue against Kyle Lowry being the team’s most valuable player. He is 33 years old, but he’s still the heart and soul of this team. The Raptors invested another $31 million in him by a one-year extension through 2020-2021, so that should end any trade rumors before they get started. Winning a title has freed Lowry from the burden of trying to win a championship on his own. The monkey is off his back, and with his legacy in Toronto assured, he should remain at the top of his game.
Best Value: Pascal Siakam is a bargain now, earning a base salary of $2.35 million, but he is line for a raise. Siakam reportedly wants a max contract extension. The No. 27 pick in the 2016 NBA draft is eligible to become a restricted free agent next year. There is little incentive for Toronto to get this deal done now because, by waiting until the summer, the Raptors would gain valuable cap-space flexibility.
X-Factor: OG (Ogugua) Anunoby is the X-factor. The small forward was the forgotten man last year after he missed 15 games in the regular season because of personal issues and concussion-like symptoms, and all of the playoffs because of an emergency appendectomy. But this is a player who started 62 games as a rookie the previous season and shot 37.1% from three-point range. Toronto picked up the $3.87 million club option on the 6-8 232-pounder for 2020-2021. Selected by the Raptors with the 23rd overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Anunoby hasn’t realized his potential yet. He should step into the starting three spot. He is expected to become one of the club’s primary defensive stoppers and coach Nick Nurse also wants him to post up and get the ball in the open floor.
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The best case is that the Raptors put all the pieces together for a seventh straight season as a top-four seed and perhaps even get the No. 2 seed. If Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry show they’ve still got lots left in the tank, Toronto could make it interesting for Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Losing Kawhi Leonard was a blow, but this team was never just about one player. Last season, the Raptors went 17-5 in regular-season games that Leonard sat out.
The worst-case scenario is that the Raptors fail to make the postseason for the first time since 2012-13. If they fall out of contention early, they could start trading away assets by the deadline to prioritize the future. The Milwaukee Bucks are poised to have a big year with league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo hungry to atone for last year’s playoff defeat to the Raptors. Plus, there could be a championship hangover in Toronto, making this a transition year instead of a winning year.