Every season I make bold predictions for the upcoming season. I hit on five of the eight predictions for last season. Here are eight predictions for the 2020-21 Toronto Raptors.
Malachi Flynn makes the All-Rookie team
I promise this isn’t an overreaction to preseason games, where the No. 29 pick in the 2020 draft thoroughly outplayed the No. 3 selection LaMelo Ball. Flynn’s progression will depend on how he handles the rigours of being a professional athlete, which isn’t guaranteed for anyone. The learning curve is steep, and most draft picks don’t even get a proper chance to grow.
That being said, it should be clear that Flynn’s skillset is NBA ready. He was one of the best guards in college, leading San Diego State to a 30-2 record before the NCAA tournament was called off due to COVID-19. Flynn was named Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in the Mountain West Conference, and advanced stats showed he was a top-three player in the pick-and-roll on top of being an above-average passer and an accurate three-point shooter. Everything he flashed in preseason, he was already making a habit of it in college. This isn’t a mirage.
Flynn won’t get enough minutes to collect big boxscore numbers like Killian Hayes in Detroit or even Ball in Charlotte, but he will be one of the rare rookies who will contribute to a winning team, which is how Terence Davis qualified last season. Flynn should be the point guard for the Raptors’ second unit, where his shot creation and clever decision-making will serve as the foundation of the bench’s offense by season’s end. Nick Nurse has an abundance of options in the second unit, but it will be Flynn that distinguishes himself as the best two-way option.
This is Kyle Lowry’s last year with the Raptors
No matter what happens, Kyle Lowry is a Raptors icon and his No. 7 will be hanging in the rafters in Toronto. He is the greatest Raptor of all-time for the amount of winning he contributed to this organization, and will always be cheered and celebrated as the player who showed the fanbase what it means to put Toronto across your chest. He gave it his all, and he will always be beloved and upheld as the standard for how future Raptors will be compared.
Speculating over Lowry’s future is unpleasant, but there is a real chance that the nine-year marriage will come to an end in 2021. Lowry is entering the last year of his deal, and he will be 35 when the market opens next season. He will be looking to win, because that is what Lowry is all about, and because he is a borderline Hall-of-Famer who can further cement his case with a second title. Toronto would be the sentimental spot, but not the most competitive one.
The pie-in-the-sky pursuit of Giannis Antetokounmpo is dead after he signed a five-year extension to remain in Milwaukee, and so the Raptors can choose to retain Lowry if they want. But let’s say the Serge Ibaka scenario arises: Lowry can either take something like a three-year, $30-million deal with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers, or he can stay in Toronto for higher pay. How much long-term money will the Raptors sink into a 35-year-old, and how much more will they need to spend over the competition to make it worth Lowry’s time?
In any case the Raptors have the succession plan lined up. Fred VanVleet hasn’t carried the franchise like Lowry did over the last decade, but he is as good as an understudy can be. Toronto also has more depth at the point guard position than anywhere else. Nobody would complain about riding off into the sunset with Lowry, but Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have not exactly taken a sentimental approach over the last few seasons. Regardless of what happens, the Raptors should treat Lowry with the respect he deserves. The decision needs to be mutual, because the love for Lowry in this city is forever.
Fred VanVleet cracks the 20-point average
There is always this perception that VanVleet has hit his ceiling. It’s the same thought process that led him to go undrafted, and it continues four years into his career despite him continuously showing improvement. Maybe it’s his stature, or the lack of explosive athleticism, but VanVleet is shown pessimism where others would be given grace. Even as he continues to grow, the focus is always on what he isn’t yet.
And that’s just fine with VanVleet, because his stock continues to rise. Fresh off signing a four-year deal during the offseason, VanVleet now stands as one of the three clear-cut leaders of the team. If Lowry moves on, then VanVleet will become the outright leader, especially since Siakam isn’t as vocal. With the responsibility to lead comes the responsibility to deliver, and VanVleet still has plenty left to prove.
The Raptors went 12-2 last season with VanVleet at the helm while Lowry missed games. In that stretch, he averaged 22 points, four rebounds, and eight assists. If Lowry takes a step back, or he is missing again, the onus will fall on VanVleet to pick up the slack. Already there is talk of Anunoby making up for the offense lost from the downgrade at the center position, but the strength of the Raptors has always been their guard play, and that’s where the extra shots will go.
VanVleet’s range stretches beyond 30 feet, and at his efficiency, he should be taking even more than the seven threes per game he attempted last year. VanVleet’s effectiveness around the rim is what it is given his size, but he is starting to pick up more tricks on how to draw contact to get himself to the line. He averaged 17.9 points last season, and he will surpass the 20-point mark by simply doing what he already did, just at a slightly higher volume, and the team will need it.
Norman Powell gets moved
Powell is a very solid player with a flair for the dramatic in the playoffs, and would appear to be one of Toronto’s core pieces following a career year last season. But there is a certain dependability that is missing with Powell, which is why he got skipped over for the starting lineup time after time by Anunoby, VanVleet, and even Danny Green.
He is now entering the last year of his contract before he can potentially opt out in 2021. The Raptors have stashed several prospects at Powell’s position, with Terence Davis and Matt Thomas emerging as two possible replacements as the backup shooting guard. Powell is still the best player out of the three for now, but he is expendable if a compelling offer were to come Toronto’s way.
One scenario that would make sense is to flip Powell for a starting caliber center, or at least a prospect who can eventually grow into the role, simply to balance out the roster. Toronto is too guard-heavy in its current composition. But Powell also shouldn’t be tossed aside just because. He is a productive player with the offensive upside to swing a game from time to time. He is also a good culture fit, and is the second-longest tenured Raptors player behind Lowry.
Raptors slip out of the top-5 in defense
Toronto’s defense kept the team afloat last season, especially across stretches where the Raptors suffered from injuries. Every member of the starting five graded out between good and elite on defense, and Nurse also had Ibaka, Powell, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to fill in. Toronto’s rim protection was airtight, particularly with Gasol in the middle, and the Raptors forced enough turnovers to fuel the most efficient transition offense in the league.
The Raptors will still be excellent on defense this season, but repeating as a top-five defense will be challenging. For one, the losses of Gasol and Ibaka are significant. Aron Baynes is a physical and disciplined defender, but he isn’t as big as Gasol, nor is he as savvy at anticipating plays. The drop-off from Ibaka to either Alex Len or Chris Boucher will be even steeper. Len offers slightly more size than Ibaka, and might be as effective in a conservative scheme where Len can simply stay by the basket, but Len has none of Ibaka’s versatility. Boucher is capable of the supernatural with his three-point blocks, however, he is prone to mistakes and is too slender in the post which leads him to compensate by jumping for everything.
The loss of Hollis-Jefferson isn’t significant on its own, but the bigger issue is that Toronto never replaced him. Anunoby is already being tabbed as the reserve power forward behind Pascal Siakam, while there is an open tryout between a handful of G-League forwards for the 15th slot. Hollis-Jefferson wasn’t consistent but he was immense at times. He famously forced Kawhi Leonard into a career-high in turnovers, then followed it up by limiting Damian Lillard to single digits in scoring. Hollis-Jefferson was instrumental in the 30-point comeback against Dallas, and stood up Karl-Anthony Towns as a smallball center during the 15-game win streak. That’s not insignificant, especially for a team that lacks size from top to bottom.
The cumulative effect of their offseason losses will set the Raptors back, the question is by how much. The only teams that are definitely better on defense are the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks, who both have too much size and experience to fail. If Baynes’ health and rim protection holds up, the Raptors will be in that next tier with the Celtics, Clippers, and Sixers.
Raptors rank top-10 in offensive rating
The Raptors had real issues with scoring last season, and that’s the reason why they ultimately lost to the Celtics in seven games. They were lethal in the open floor, arguably the best in the league, but their halfcourt creation was average at best, which is why they finished the year 14th overall in offensive rating.
But if you dive deeper into that number, it becomes clear that the Raptors were weighed down by two limiting factors. One, they faced injuries to all of their main pieces which forced more limited players (mostly Pat McCaw and Hollis-Jefferson) into prominent roles. Toronto’s starting five boasted an offensive rating of 114, which would have ranked as the second-best offense in the league, except they only played 361 minutes together. Two, its bench unit just wasn’t able to score outside of getting out in transition.
Toronto’s starting five should grade out around the same on offense with Baynes in place of Gasol. It may take some time to adjust to no longer having Gasol’s playmaking at the top of the floor, but the structure of the offense will be the same. Baynes pulls the opposing center out of the lane with his three-point shooting, and then it’s up to Lowry, Siakam, and VanVleet to collapse the defense. Baynes provides bone-crunching screens, a perimeter shooting threat, and the occasional hook shot. It’s going to work fine.
The improvement should come from the second unit. Flynn gives the second unit a natural playmaker (if Nurse plays him over McCaw), and there will be three scorers in the perimeter positions. The center position isn’t as solid with Boucher or Alex Len in place of Ibaka, but a change in style should mitigate that. Playing through Ibaka on the second unit never really produced efficient offense, and shifting the offense to their guards makes more sense. Any trio of Flynn, Davis, Powell, or Thomas will give opposing benches legitimate problems.
This is not to say that the Raptors have fundamentally fixed their offensive shortcomings. Toronto’s main shot creators in Lowry, VanVleet, and Siakam are a few tiers below the superstar talents that decide on the Larry O’Brien trophy, and absent those stars there will always be a glass ceiling on your team. But over the course of the regular season, the Raptors should grade out as a good offensive team.
Aron Baynes is the only center that plays in the playoff rotation
Nurse wants to give it a go with Boucher as his reserve center, and it is a huge opportunity for the 28-year-old from Montreal. Boucher is an odd player with unique talents and unique flaws, and even after two seasons his minutes are still largely experimental. It could work out like Toronto’s many other undrafted finds, or Boucher might just not have the physicality to contribute to a playoff team.
Len is there as insurance in the event that Boucher doesn’t pan out. Where Boucher offers both promise and risk, Len gives a guarantee of being solidly average. The 7-footer stays around the basket and rebounds on both ends, and his effort won’t waiver. He isn’t mobile enough to hang on switches, and he could get burned by teams who offer pull-up threats. Barring a breakout from Boucher, Nurse will likely platoon the two center according to the opponent.
Either way, it’s unlikely that Boucher or Len will factor into a playoff rotation. Even in training camp, Nurse has talked about using Anunoby as a backup center in a smallball lineup. Boucher might get a look, but his propensity to make mistakes and vulnerability to bigger centers makes him vulnerable. Len hasn’t even made the playoffs after nearly 500 career games, and he too is a matchup problem.
Raptors out in the second round, after going 6 or 7 games in round one
There will be no shame in getting ousted in the second round in the East. There are six teams in contention for the Finals, and even the bottom of the conference offers tricky opposition. Just as it was last season, getting into one of the top-two seeds will be vital, as the 3-6 or 4-5 matchups will be a bloodbath. Toronto will be underdogs against Milwaukee, Boston and Brooklyn, and at best on par with Miami and Philadelphia. Even Indiana could pose problems, which guarantees a difficult and lengthy first round battle. Anything beyond that would be gravy.
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