The Raptors X-factor for 2021-22 NBA season, and it’s not Pascal Siakam
The Toronto Raptors had a very disappointing season in 2020-21. The squad never fully recovered after losing All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard and while they made the postseason in the NBA Bubble last summer, the season that just passed was a realistic showing of strength for the roster. Now, coming into this season, the only Canadian team kept the most important piece, forward Pascal Siakam, but lost long-time fan favorite guard Kyle Lowry, who left to join Jimmy Butler in Miami.
They did get guard Goran Dragic back, but his arrival was not without controversy. The Slovene was caught stating that Toronto is not his preferred destination and was forced to issue a statement, apologizing to Raptors fans. Regardless of the controversy, his veteran presence should help Toronto reach the postseason in the Eastern Conference.
However, it is clear that the straight Lowry for Dragic swap is not going to be the deciding factor in what the Raptors do next year. Since they did have a pretty quiet summer, true progress must come from within. The X-Factors of the upcoming season will, most likely, be now-veterans OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet. The forward and guard, respectively, did take steps forward last year, but this year will be the decider, regarding whether these two players have the quality to be good second and third options.
Fred VanVleet cashed in on an amazing Finals run two years ago and received a massive extension in November of 2020. At that point in time, it was only natural that the point guard receives that contract. Any other team in the league with the cap space was ready to provide it to him and it was a pill that the Raptors simply had to swallow. While he has upped his level of play, it still seems underwhelming for a player that was supposed to take a giant leap forward in terms of offensive prowess.
VanVleet has jumped, in the last two years, from 11.0 to 19.6 points per game. Now, with Lowry gone and Dragic probably taking a back seat for the former Wichita State man, he should explode even more. The problem, however, is that his efficiency has gone down. Now, that is only natural when a player jumps from 9.4 to 16.7 shots per game, but VanVleet has shooting splits of 38.9/36.6/88.5. Outside of the solid free throw stroke, these are abysmal numbers for a player that should be the second option on offense.
As a three-point shooter primarily, his efficiency was never going to be through the roof, but he has shot a better percentage in the past and his play against the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors in 2019 was a great indicator of how good and efficient VanVleet can be. It is, however, fairly obvious that VanVleet, possibly, cannot be a second offensive option for a team. Rather, he should be an offensive spark off the bench and when he was in that role, he and the team around him thrived.
What he can do, of course, is expand his game. The Raptors need him to step up and take more control of the offense. He should be so much more than a shooter for the team to succeed. Most likely, he will be handling the rock and while an average of six assists per game is not too bad, he can increase those numbers and take his game to a new level. Unfortunately, his six-foot-one, 197 pounds frame is not enough to be a proper defensive threat, he can still improve offensively.
On the other hand, it seems like the world completely forgot about OG Anunoby. The British forward has made sure, but steady improvements over the last couple of years and actually finished last year with career highs in points (15.6 per game), rebounds (5.5 per game), assists (2.2 per game), and other statistical metrics. The improvement did come with a fall in efficiency, as Anunoby fell under 50% shooting from the field, but it was still an amazing season for him.
Anunoby is showing excellent potential in the offensive part of his game, something that was brushed aside upon his arrival in the NBA. Hailed as a possible LeBron James stopper, Anunoby was mostly waiting for scraps offensively, like three-point shots from the corners. Now, however, is a different story. Last season, Anunoby took 12.1 shots per game, good enough for sixth in the team. Now that Kyle Lowry is gone and there is a gap of around 13 shots, that will go around the team and a piece will fall into OG’s lap.
Anunoby can do something similar to what a lot of one-dimensional offensive players do when they are asked to carry a larger load – diversify. Rather than a simple 3&D guy, that he was kind of pushed into, Anunoby has the physical tools to be a capable slasher and dunker. His six-feet-seven, 232-pound body can tussle with the best of them and if he can develop any sort of post-up or slashing game, he will be a nightmare to deal with. Toronto is bleeding for a third option, a gap 35-year-old Dragic simply cannot fulfill. Anunoby is just young enough and has enough potential to be just that for the Raptors.
It is difficult to say where the Raptors are right now. Unfortunately, they are far removed from the 2019 NBA championship Raptors, mostly due to the Leonard departure. However, they are also not the 27-45 Raptors that miss the postseason. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle and coach Nick Nurse will do absolutely everything in his power to rejuvenate his team.
Should he succeed, the Raptors will still not be in the top of the Eastern Conference, where there are only two teams that can truly contend, but that is not the end of the world for Toronto. They will still be relevant and that is very important for this franchise. It was complete irrelevancy that destroyed the second Canadian franchise, the Vancouver Grizzlies, and Toronto has worked way too hard to reach this point, simply to lose it after a few subpar seasons. The core of Siakam-VanVleet-Anunoby is maybe not championship-worthy, but it will keep the Air Canada center full and all teams in the NBA will be on high alert when playing there.