With Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green leaving in free agency, with a bunch of young players taking on larger roles in their rotation, the defending NBA-champion Toronto Raptors were generally viewed as a team that would sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs but do little more this season.
Well, something funny happened: their youngsters grew up quickly and have the Raptors in contention.
A handful of respected and proven veterans remain in head coach Nick Nurse’s rotation such as Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol. While they’re still reliable players, any chance of the Raptors competing in the East this season was going to revolve around the growth of their younger commodities.
Pascal Siakam (25) and Fred VanVleet (25) entered this season as their prominent youngsters; they’ve dazzled.
Siakam is making a case to be a finalist for the NBA Most Valuable Player Award. He has been an elite force on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he’s playing in the post, knocking down outside jump shots, taking what the defense gives him, and playing selflessly. Defensively, he continues to swarm his cover, hit the boards, and redirect shots.
Siakam is averaging a remarkable 25.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game while shooting 38.1 percent from beyond the arc.
VanVleet went from a nifty bench scorer to a superb starter. He’s bringing the ball up the floor, finding the open man, draining perimeter jump shots, and getting inside off the dribble. The Wichita State product is averaging 18.0 points and 7.0 assists per game while shooting 39.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Concurrently, he’s pickpocketing ball-handlers at a high level, averaging two steals per game.
Norman Powell and OG Anunoby have also played a large role in the Raptors’ 18-8 start. They’re shooting 39.4 and 38.7 percent from beyond the arc and averaging a career-high 14.6 and 11.0 points per game, respectively. Powell and Anunoby are defensive assets.
Now, the vets are still contributing and playing prominent roles. Lowry is averaging 19.0 points per game; Ibaka is still a defensive backbone; Gasol does a little bit of everything. But their production and the Raptors’ success, as a whole, is generated by their young core.
VanVleet’s growth is taking pressure off Lowry, Siakam has stepped up as the new go-to scorer, and Powell and Anunoby are savvy wings. The Raptors have a healthy mix of old and new.
Collectively, there’s nothing this team fails to do. They’re grinding out buckets, operating with cohesion offensively, shooting at an efficient level, hitting the boards, and playing elite team defense. The Raptors went into Tuesday fourth in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage (37.8 percent) and eighth in rebounds and assists per game (46.3, 25.2). They were also second in opponent field goal percentage (41.6 percent), fifth in opponent three-point shooting percentage (33.4 percent), and seventh in opponent points per game (105.7).
Ibaka and Gasol are playing on expiring contracts, and although Lowry signed an extension before the regular season, it only keeps him on the team’s payroll through next season. Case in point: the Raptors’ future is Siakam, VanVleet, and friends.
Yes, VanVleet is a free agent after this season, but it’s hard to envision president Masai Ujiri letting an integral piece to the team’s present and future walk for the sake of having a chance of landing Giannis Antetokounmpo in the summer of 2021 — which is a buzz around the organization.
It’s not surprising to see this core take the next step; they’re talented players with upside. It’s the extent to which Siakam and VanVleet have grown that’s astonishing. In two years Siakam went from a reserve big man to a shoo-in All-Star Game participant. In that same timespan, VanVleet went from a backup guard to one of the better guards in the NBA.
Questions mounted whether these two had the potential to grow into franchise players. Would Siakam be the same without Leonard? Is VanVleet better coming off the bench? They’ve shattered that doubt.
Now, the Raptors have their hands full in the East if they aspire to go on another deep playoff run this spring.
The Milwaukee Bucks are a well-oiled machine that recently endured an 18-game winning streak; the Philadelphia 76ers are a potent foe; the Kemba Walker-led Boston Celtics have impressed thus far; the Miami Heat are on the rise; the Indiana Pacers are an elite defensive unit.
There are little to no questions left about the Raptors’ future; they’re in good hands. This season looked like it would be a bit of an experiment for the defending NBA champions. Instead, that experiment grew into something far greater, or at least the rest of the NBA world became cognizant of what the Raptors felt they had on their hands all along: franchise players.
Most of said players have extended experience coming off the bench, playing in the starting lineup, and now serving as vital sources of offense under their belt. They’ve also been a part of various types of playoff outcomes. Last season they played a role in the Raptors’ championship run and were present for the recurring playoff heartbreaks.
They’ve been humbled, have perspective, and have gradually improved over their NBA careers. A dynamic forward (Siakam), a well-versed guard (VanVleet), and athletic wings (Powell and Anunoby) no older than 26 apiece. Find a rebuilding team that wouldn’t kill for that grouping to be their foundation. The Raptors aren’t rebuilding, they’re retooling, and the process hasn’t affected their contender status.
The future came a year early for the Raptors. There’s nothing more they could’ve asked for.