In this four-part series, I’ll explore where each of the Toronto pro sports teams stand going into the future, and what we can reasonably expect from them:
The Toronto Raptors; a picture of consistency and success over most of the last decade and by far the brightest beacon of hope when it comes to the Toronto pro-sports scene. They’ve claimed a handful of division titles and an NBA championship in that time, which keeps hopes high, despite taking a significant step back in the last year. Even with the losses over the last couple years of a top-3 NBA player in Kawhi Leonard, the best player in franchise history in Kyle Lowry and a tremendous stopper in Serge Ibaka, the fact that the team is coming back home and president Masai Ujiri is staying here puts the Raps in the best position for the future.
Last season was a tough transition for the Raptors. Unable to play games in Toronto, they had to settle for a new temporary home in Tampa Bay where they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms (you know it’s bad when the visiting Taco Fall in garbage time gets a louder cheer than any Raptors). Toronto would finish with a home record of just 16-20, well-below the bar they’ve set of home records of at least .600 in a season and their worst home record since 2011-12. In sports, especially NBA basketball, the home crowd’s energy is a massive boost to the home team. Toronto is known for having one of, if not, the best atmosphere for an NBA game, and you better believe that was a huge reason for the Raptors seven-year run of being one of the top teams in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. After the Toronto Blue Jays were given permission to play in Toronto for the remainder of the 2021 season, all eyes were on the government to give the Raptors permission to play at home this coming season, which eventually happened. Coming back to an excited home crowd that will cheer the team on through thick-and-thin will be one step to getting the Raptors back in the playoffs, even with limited capacity.
When it comes to player personnel, the Raptors are nowhere as strong as they were just a couple short years ago, but there’s still a solid core of young, hungry players ready to lead the team into the next generation. Pascal Siakam seemed to be up to the task of being the primary point of emphasis on the attack right after Kawhi left for the Clippers, but struggled to regain his footing when playing in mostly empty buildings. He’s already 27 (turning 28 in April) which means that he’s closer to his ceiling potential than one may think given his level of NBA experience. The man obviously has an incredible amount of skill and athleticism. The question is whether or not he’s worth the over $33 million in cap space that his contract commands? There were rumour before the draft that Golden State was willing to offer a package of at least one of their first round picks in the draft (7th and 14th overall) as well as last year’s 2nd overall pick, James Wiseman. The trade never materialized, and you have to imagine it’s because of the Raptor’s belief in Siakam. Masai has even given him a public show of support in his latest press conference. We all know Siakam can thrive as part of an ensemble, but can he take the next step as your go-to scorer on a competitive team?
With Kyle Lowry gone, Fred Van Vleet will step in as the starting point guard, and despite his small stature, he is a bonafide floor general that can sink clutch shots. His size limits his effectiveness in defensive situations, but it should be easy to deal with since he’s now the primary point guard. Gary Trent Jr. will play his first full season as a Raptor and will most likely be the starting shooting guard. Known for his shooting abilities, as well as his physical game, he should fit comfortably in the Raptors lineup for years to come. OG Anunoby comes back as the starting small forward. The talented 3 and D has seen his numbers steadily improving throughout his 4 NBA campaign and has even become a reliable ball-handler. Look for the upward trend to continue this season with a larger offensive role coming his way.
The centre position was a huge issue for the Raptors last year, with Aron Baynes and Alex Len unable to make a meaningful impact on the team. However, late into last season, a Canadian, Kem Birch, was signed to help fill the void. Birch was able to step in and give some much needed production to the 5 position. He’s useful on the glass and on pick-and-roll plays, a large void left behind by Ibaka and Gasol. Thankfully, Birch signed back on a 3-year deal and should be the Raps primary starter at centre. Off the bench, there will be some familiar faces like Chris Boucher and Malachi Flynn (who both look promising) as well as new faces Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa, who were brought in from Miami in the Lowry trade. Despite not having the most favourable comments about Toronto coming in (though there could be some thoughts that were lost in translation*[look into if it was actually a foreign interview]), Dragic can step in as a veteran point guard and will play some meaningful minutes this season. As an expiring contract after this season, Dragic could also be traded for picks and prospects later on, increasing his potential value.
Lastly, the Raptors also had the fourth overall pick in this past summer’s draft after moving up in the draft lottery. Many saw the draft as 4 players at the top, with everybody else in the tiers below. The thought was that Toronto would take one of these 4 (likely PG/SG Jalen Suggs), but the Raps went off the board, choosing SF/PF Scottie Barnes, who wasn’t expected to be picked until at least number 5. Going off the board (even ever so slightly) sent Raps fans into mayhem despite his tools fitting exactly into the system the Raps have been building up for almost a decade. Essentially, Barnes plays like a point guard despite having the body of a power forward. He has all the play-making savvy you want out of your point guard with tremendous size and strength to go along with it. He is not a great shooter as of right now, but as we all know, you can fix a jump shot with young NBA prospects. He won’t likely see too much action with the Raptors this season, but should star on most nights for Raptors 905. Considering Masai’s draft record, I’ll give the Raps front office the benefit of the doubt, and besides, in the words of TSN 1050’s Matt Cauz, “the 4th overall pick was found money” given the Raps luck in the draft lottery, and you can’t get upset at that.
The Eastern Conference in the NBA suddenly looks good with Bucks, Nets, 76ers, Heat, Celtics, Hawks and Knicks teams that all look ready to return to the playoffs. With the new play-in format, that leaves 3 remaining playoff spots. Charlotte and Chicago both made significant improvements which automatically make them the front-runners for those spots, but don’t count the Raps out especially if Siakam comes back into his all-star form. Either way, the Raps are in a great place if only for the fact that Masai Ujiri is back at the helm, calling the shots. He’s the most important asset Toronto has when it comes to all of their sports team. Mike Richards, host of The Mike Richards Show thinks that in another 2 or 3 years, the Raps will be back among the best teams in the East and given the team’s tremendous attention to detail when it comes to drafting and player development.
That sounds about right.
Who knows, the Raptors might even get back into an NBA Finals sooner than you might think if the stars line up again.