Previously on our offseason review series: Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.
Toronto’s 2021-22 playoff push didn’t materialize until late January. But once it did, the Raptors displayed a distinct, menacing style of two-way play predicated on the funky services of a bunch of multifaceted forwards. They surpassed the .500 mark for good on Jan. 29 and closed the year on a 25-11 tear. Over that 36-game stretch, they ranked fourth in defensive rating (109.7), seventh in net rating (plus-4.2) and rattled off 16 wins against playoff teams.
Spearheading this torrid second half was Pascal Siakam, who did not earn a second All-Star berth, yet did end the season with his second All-NBA appearance. Heading into 2022-23, Toronto will hope it gets another All-NBA-caliber campaign from its Cameroonian star, as well as a fully healthy season from point guard Fred VanVleet.
Through early January, the Wichita State State product was absolutely stellar on both ends and nabbed his first All-Star nod. He bombed from deep with prolific success, made strides as a playmaker and continued to be a hounding defender, both at the point of attack and on drives in help situations. But the hefty workload seemingly proved to overwhelm him and resulted in a knee injury derailing the second half of his year, including into the postseason.
The goal will be for the quartet of Siakam, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. to lighten his offensive responsibilities, afford him more off-ball reps, where he excels, and continue to perform like the All-Defensive guard he can be.
Following a delightful first year that saw him win Rookie of the Year amid a deeply talented Draft class, Barnes will aim to take the star leap in 2021-22, which will likely stem from playmaking and off-ball defense improvements. He averaged 17.1 points on 58.1 percent true shooting in 25 post-All-Star Break outings, a notable jump from the 14.4 points on 53.6 percent true shooting he yielded during his initial 49 games. Building upon that, along with the aforementioned passing and defensive growth, would be welcomed developments and possibly vault him toward All-Star buzz.
Along with Barnes’ potentially increased role to help preserve VanVleet, Anunoby, who’s progressed in an array of ways offensively throughout his career, reportedly wants heightened responsibilities within the offense, too. He doesn’t often win any awards for aesthetics, but he’s refined his creation and passing since being drafted in 2017 and is quite effective as an ancillary option.
Last season, a shortcoming of this Toronto team was front-court floor-spacing. To help remedy that problem, it inked Otto Porter Jr., one of the league’s premier off-ball shooting forwards, to a two-year, $12.3 million deal. He’s drilled 39.8 percent of his career 1,698 long balls, can launch off movement and knows how to relocate around the arc. His presence should amplify the slashing and interior-oriented nature of focal points like Siakam and Barnes.
A healthy VanVleet should invite more VanVleet-Siakam pick-and-rolls, with either player acting as the ball-handler. Siakam’s full-fledged rise somewhat coincided with VanVleet’s health setbacks, at least over the second half of the season, which quelled some of their potential in the two-man game. Regardless, head coach Nick Nurse should prioritize collaborating their talents more often. They’re the Raptors’ top players and decision-makers with harmonic offensive skill-sets.
Toronto’s primary center options last year — Precious Achiuwa and Khem Birch — were not credible roll threats and that bogged down the offense at times. Achiuwa is a fearsome defender with an intriguing slashing and shooting arsenal, but interior scoring is not a strong suit. Birch is a good screener, off-ball mover and quality rotation defender, but he also lacks in the roll gravity department. Perhaps, second-round rookie Christian Koloko can provide this dynamic, though he’ll have to carve out a consistent role. All of these reasons stand to underscore: more Siakam as the roller alongside VanVleet!
Defensively, this group is aggressive loading help on drives, ceding corner threes and pursuing takeaways (first in turnover rate last year, per Cleaning The Glass). I’d imagine those tenets remain, given the continuity from last season’s team, both in where they thrive (rangy ground coverage in help, versatile on-ball stoppers) and fall short (defensive rebounding, size inside).
While I wouldn’t quite rank Toronto in the utmost echelon of Eastern Conference contenders, I do expect this to be an excellent team. If Siakam and VanVleet can sync up their All-NBA-caliber play (they didn’t last year) and key players yet to enter their prime (Barnes, Trent, Anunoby, Achiuwa) progress, 50 wins is entirely reasonable.
They’re a tier behind my top three of Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, and I’d probably rank Miami ahead as well, but the Raptors are dangerous. They have star power, quality starters around those dudes and a good head coach who’s proven to help his team win lots of games. The Raptors are a legit threat to the Sixers, even if I wouldn’t rank them of the same caliber or deem them among the most pressing threats.