After winning their first NBA championship and losing superstar Kawhi Leonard in free agency, all eyes were on how the Toronto Raptors would respond in 2019-20.
Of course, the Raptors were expected to take a major step back. But with Nick Nurse leading the way, they defied the odds. Toronto finished an impressive 53-19, beating out the Boston Celtics for the Atlantic Division title and finishing second in the Eastern Conference behind the Milwaukee Bucks.
Still boasting champions Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka and benefiting from the emergence of Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher, the Raptors reached the conference semifinals before losing to the Celtics in seven games inside the Orlando bubble amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But now the franchise faces a crossroads in terms of what it might look like next season and there are doubts over whether VanVleet, Gasol and Ibaka will return. Toronto experienced a similar situation at the end of 2018-19 when Leonard and Danny Green departed for the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, respectively.
As the Raptors prepare for this critical offseason, let’s take a look at where the team stands heading into the 2020-21 season:
The 53-year-old Nurse has not missed a beat since his appointment as Toronto’s head coach ahead of the 2018-19 campaign, leading the Raptors to a 134-55 record including the playoffs and an NBA title.
Only Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr (171 from 2014-15 to 2015-16), former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson (141 between 1989-90 and 1990-91) and ex-Phoenix Suns coach Paul Westphal (137 in 1992-93 to 1993-94) managed more victories in their first two seasons.
Nurse’s work has not gone unnoticed. The Canada head coach was named the 2020 NBA Coach of the Year and signed a “multi-year” contract extension with the Raptors last month.
SIAKAM, VANVLEET EMERGE
Siakam and VanVleet have developed into key pieces for the franchise, improving their scoring averages in each of the past three seasons after averaging less than 5.0 points as rookies in 2016-17. Siakam averaged a career-high 22.9 points last season – up from 16.9 in 2018-19 – and VanVleet scored 17.6 per game – up from 11.0 the previous year.
No players have elevated their scoring averages over the past four seasons more than Siakam (plus-18.7) and VanVleet (plus-14.7), with New Orleans Pelicans star Brandon Ingram (plus-14.4), Jaylen Brown of the Celtics (plus-13.7) and Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie (plus-13.3) coming closest. As a result, the Raptors have a huge decision to make on VanVleet, a free agent (more on this later).
At the same time, Lowry has remained a steady leader and perennial All-Star. He enjoyed a rebirth of sorts as a scorer, averaging 19.4 points after scoring only 14.2 per game two years ago and 16.2 in 2017-18.
LACKING THE KAWHI ELEMENT
Despite the rise of Siakam and VanVleet, the Raptors have lacked a dominant scorer or rebounder since Leonard left for Los Angeles.
VanVleet led Toronto with 19.6 points per game in the 2020 playoffs, and Ibaka had a team-high 7.7 boards per game. Since rebounds were first tracked in 1950-51, there has never been a team that has won the title without a player who averaged 20.0-plus points and a player who grabbed at least 8.0 rebounds in the postseason. Leonard averaged 30.5 points and 9.1 boards in the playoffs during the team’s 2018-19 championship run.
While Siakam has grown into an All-Star, there are still teething issues, especially with his 3-point shooting. The fourth-year forward was decent from beyond the arc in the regular season at 35.9%, but he went just 10 for 53 (18.9%) in the playoffs. It was the second-worst 3-point percentage of all time in the postseason (minimum 50 attempts), behind only Lindsey Hunter (15.1) in 2000-01.
Siakam will likely need to become a more reliable 3-point shooter if he’s going to take his game to the next level.
The Raptors have a difficult decision to make if they hope to land another star that could lead them to a second title. President of basketball operations Masai Ujiri has said that re-signing VanVleet is a priority, but he’s also rumored to have his eye on Giannis Antetokounmpo – an unrestricted free agent in 2021.
Currently, only Siakam’s $31 million cap hit is the only guaranteed money on the books for 2021-22 and Toronto should have room for a max-salary difference-maker. But that would change if the Raptors sign VanVleet to a big deal.
On the flip side, letting VanVleet go would mean losing one of the team’s heart-and-souls on both ends of the floor. Toronto could offer a shorter or less valuable deal, but with Anthony Davis and Brandon Ingram expected to remain with their respective clubs, VanVleet could get several big-money offers as the top free agent on the market.
If the Raptors re-sign VanVleet, they might not have the financial flexibility to re-sign both Ibaka and Gasol. They might not have to decide between the two veteran big men if reports of Gasol leaning toward playing in Spain next season are true.
STATS PERFORM’S VERDICT: EVOLUTION
We ultimately expect the Raptors will find it difficult to lose VanVleet’s toughness and production and try to bring him back in hopes that he and Siakam will take another step in their development.
If that happens, Toronto will be a contender in the East once again next season. If it doesn’t, expect the club to prepare to make a run at Antetokounmpo after next season.
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