It’s an annual tradition of mine to make bold predictions on the Toronto Raptors. Last year, I hit on five out of nine bets. Hopefully my predictions for the 2019-2020 season are closer to the mark:
Fred VanVleet outscores Kyle Lowry
If there’s anyone poised to make a leap this season, it’s Fred VanVleet. Since the birth of his son in May, VanVleet has been on an absolute tear. He rained seven threes on the road in Game 5 against the Bucks, he essentially started for Danny Green in the Finals, and he secured the trophy with his 12 points in the fourth quarter of Game 6.
VanVleet has showed no signs of slowing down. He was the Raptors’ best player at the Rico Hines runs, he dominated in training camp, and he was excellent in three pre-season games. His range now stretches five feet behind the three-point arc, he’s making quicker decisions with the ball, and most importantly, he finally has a clean bill of health.
His rise hasn’t gone unnoticed. Nick Nurse praises him at every opportunity, Kyle Lowry predicted that he was about to make a “big jump,” and even Kevin Durant cited VanVleet as an example for players everywhere with his inspirational journey from going undrafted to earning Finals MVP consideration.
In the wake of Kawhi Leonard’s departure, the Raptors need VanVleet more than ever. Toronto went 23-5 with VanVleet in the starting lineup last season, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Nurse chose VanVleet over Norman Powell to stand next to Lowry. VanVleet is the Raptors’ best shooter, and the closest thing they have to a closer. He’s noticeably more confident in his pull-up jumper, and that ability will create more opportunities for him to also attack the basket.
Meanwhile, Lowry is on the decline. Although there are expectations for Lowry to step up for Leonard, the reality is that 33-year-old point guards generally aren’t counted upon as volume scorers. Lowry is coming off consecutive campaigns averaging 16 and 14 points, and that trend will likely hold going forward. Lowry scored 226 more points than VanVleet last season, but their per-36-minute averages were quite similar (Lowry at 15.1, VanVleet at 14.3) and VanVleet is poised to step into a bigger role.
Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol stay put
There’s no shortage of speculation, but it’s clear the Raptors intend to launch a proper title defence. That may change if they are derailed by injuries, but this is still a very competitive team in the East, and there will be no fire sale of the veterans. Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are two of the Raptors’ best players, and they should stay put despite being on expiring deals.
Part of this prediction is informed by a weak trade market. Bigs are generally undervalued at the moment, and Ibaka and Gasol did not draw much interest when they were last available. Memphis accepted a middling package of Jonas Valanciunas (a solid but not spectacular centre), Delon Wright (who signed with Dallas), and C.J. Miles (a bad contract) for Gasol last season. Orlando returned Terrence Ross (a middling bench player) and a late-first round pick (Anžejs Pasečņiks) for Ibaka in 2017. It’s not worth undercutting a competitive team for these underwhelming pieces.
The Raptors also lack depth in the developmental system. Chris Boucher has yet to make any meaningful contributions, and he is mostly a hustle player that stat-pads more than anything else. Dewan Hernandez plays with great energy, but he needs to improve his strength and refine his skills in the G League. Neither one would be capable of stepping in for Ibaka or Gasol without a serious hit to the Raptors’ competitiveness.
Ibaka finishes second in scoring
It’s been forgotten that Ibaka ranked second on the Raptors in scoring for most of last season. Siakam finally overtook Ibaka in February, but Ibaka was clearly the second option behind Leonard early on. Nurse’s offence is heavy on ball movement, and Ibaka is a natural beneficiary. He’s an elite finisher around the basket and in the midrange, and Ibaka knows how to get open.
Next to VanVleet, the player that looked the sharpest in pre-season was Ibaka, who scored 15 points on 70 percent shooting in 20 minutes per game. Ibaka looks to be aging backwards, as the 30-year-old continues to improve his skillset dramatically in his fourth season as a Raptor. Having established his interior game last season in anticipation of playing centre, Ibaka spent this off-season refining his 3-point stroke. If he can get back to hitting 3s at a 37-percent clip or better, there might even be an outside chance of Ibaka sniffing his first All-Star appearance.
Raptors win between 50 and 53 games, earn third seed
Leonard and Green are major losses, but the Raptors without Leonard are hardly the Cavaliers after LeBron James left, or even the Golden State Warriors post-Kevin Durant. The big difference between Toronto and those other title teams is that the Raptors’ front office replenished the roster with young talent, and they’ve proven capable of contributing in expanded roles.
For one, the Raptors remain elite defensively, and that’s what wins in the regular season. Take last year’s Pacers — another well-coached team with a solid supporting cast surrounding one central star — who would have won 50 games if not for a 4-9 finish to the season after Victor Oladipo ruptured his quad. Indiana was 18th on offence, but it remained competitive because it was fourth in defensive rating. Expect the Raptors to replicate a similar profile this season. Every single player in the Raptors’ rotation grades out somewhere between above-average to elite on defence, and that’s how they will win on most nights.
Toronto also has the advantage of continuity and knowing exactly how it wanst to play, which is a rarity in the East. Philadelphia needs to remake its entire offence now that Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick moved on. Brooklyn is integrating three new starters in Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, and Taurean Prince. Indiana has exactly one holdover in its starting lineup from last season. Boston is dealing with the losses of Irving and Al Horford while introducing Kemba Walker. Miami now belongs to Butler, and all the chaos that follows him. Orlando and Milwaukee are the only other playoff teams with strong continuity.
Milwaukee should still be a regular-season monster, and Philadelphia’s talent is undeniable. But aside from that, the Raptors should stand out from the pack. They went 17-5 without Leonard last season, and a quarter of the season isn’t a mirage. Toronto is still a very competitive team, especially in an Eastern Conference that is weaker than ever.
Pascal Siakam makes All-NBA Third Team
This one sounds bold, but it really isn’t. Siakam is a safe bet to average better than 20 points this season, and if the Raptors reach 50 wins, it will be Siakam that earns the credit. The reigning Most Improved Player is already recognized as one of the best two-way players in the league, and he’s championship-tested. The only question is whether he can translate his efficiency to a larger role in leading a playoff team. If the Raptors perform up to standard, Siakam will be rewarded for it.
The six forwards that earned All-NBA honours in 2019 were: Leonard, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Durant, and Blake Griffin. George will miss the first six weeks of the season and is now a second option behind Leonard, so he’s a long shot to repeat. Durant is out for the entire year, so that’s another spot that is open. Griffin was quietly excellent, and his output likely represents the ceiling of what Siakam can realistically provide, but he’s also an injury-prone player on an average team. If it ever comes down to Griffin versus Siakam, chances are voters will go with the player that wins more games.
Siakam wouldn’t even need to necessarily post eye-popping numbers. He’s in competition with the likes of Griffin, Ben Simmons, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Luka Doncic for the third team. Even a modest bump to roughly 22 points, nine rebounds, and four assists with decent shooting percentages should be enough.
OG Anunoby makes more starts than anyone other than Siakam
Anunoby became a forgotten man last season. He was demoted to the bench with the additions of Leonard and Green, and he went through a nightmare set of circumstances both on and off the court. He didn’t see the floor at all in the playoffs due to an appendectomy, and even months later he still hasn’t made up the lost weight.
But there’s a quiet optimism surrounding the precocious 22-year-old. Although he doesn’t have the numbers to show for it, Anunoby has been a standout in pre-season with his tenacious defence and opportunistic offence. Anunoby’s 3-point shot is coming around, and his defensive versatility was on display against Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The more advanced aspects — running the occasional pick-and-roll, or creating his own shot — still appear to be lost on Anunoby, but he’s developed into a prototypical 3-and-D player, and he fits exactly what the Raptors need from the small forward position.
Whether the Raptors opt to play bigger, or if they downsize, Anunoby is the common denominator. Anunoby is penciled in as the starting small forward, and so long as he stays healthy, that position will be his to lose. As it were, he faces no realistic competition from the bench, as Stanley Johnson and Malcolm Miller are both depth pieces at best. The Raptors are also invested in Anunoby’s development, so he’ll receive every opportunity to flourish.
The question then becomes how Anunoby compares to the other starters. Siakam is a workhorse and he’ll play every game, but the rest are questionable. Lowry has been injury-prone in recent seasons and he might require load management. Gasol is coming off a long summer and there are plans to rest him as well. Ibaka will float in and out of the lineup, but he’ll mostly play with the bench to balance out scoring. VanVleet is starting calibre, but Powell should also get his turn.
Masai Ujiri is a buyer at trade deadline
It’s not in Ujiri’s nature to make in-season acquisitions, but we’re not talking about anything major. The Raptors just need one or two pieces to bolster the bench. Nurse doesn’t seem too impressed with Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, or Matt Thomas, but he’ll just have to be patient. If one of them pops, the Raptors might not even need to make a move. But if they don’t, the Raptors could stock up for the playoffs with a minor addition. Think something on the scale of signing Pat McCaw.
Nick Nurse finishes top-three in Coach of the Year voting
Similar to Siakam, Nurse will receive his credit if the Raptors reach their potential. The argument will be easy to make: Nurse kept the Raptors together and afloat despite losing the best player in franchise history, and it should be a compelling case. The regulars are likely out of contention this season: Mike Budenholzer won last year and this reward never repeats, Steve Kerr won’t even have five competent players at his disposal, Doc Rivers’s success will be attributed to his stars, and Gregg Popovich is saddled with a middling roster that will struggle to make the playoffs. Nurse has a great shot, but even if he doesn’t receive recognition from voters, chances are good the Raptors reward him with a raise next summer.
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