It seems like a lifetime has passed since the Toronto Raptors hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy in Oracle Arena. A playoff run fueled by impeccable team defense, plus heroic offensive performances from Kawhi Leonard, eventually culminated in the franchise’s first-ever NBA championship.
Less than a month later, half of that equation decamped to Los Angeles in basketball’s biggest fallen domino: Leonard to the Clippers. Not long after, Danny Green followed suit and joined the Lakers. The exuberance that comes with a title was cut short, replaced quickly with worry and uncertainty. Questions arose about the feasibility of the current roster and some asked whether a rebuild was in order. General manager Masai Ujiri, who architected the title-winning roster, was offered a position in Washington.
Ujiri stayed put and decided not to attempt a roster tear-down either. Instead, the team brought in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, while holding on to the remaining members from last year’s group.
With Philadelphia and Milwaukee being the consensus favorites in the Eastern Conference, Toronto will have the rare opportunity to enter the 2019-20 season without lofty expectations despite their previous championship pedigree. Losing a star will do that but the Raptors still have a roster of smart, experienced and gritty players that could keep this team near the top of the conference ladder.
The core of Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and OG Anunoby should keep this team afloat defensively, even if it’s not as elite as before. Head coach Nick Nurse will have the team competing on that end, so it’s certainly feasible that they could grind their way to some wins through that enduring identity.
During the regular season, the Raptors went 17-5 without Leonard in the lineup, another key trait that should act as optimism for the upcoming season. That number is rather misleading, however, as the Raptors mostly beat up on lesser opponents, only going 4-5 against teams that made the playoffs when Leonard was given the night off.
The Raptors also looked lost offensively when Leonard went to the bench in the playoffs. Their lack of shot creation outside of The Klaw was a glaring flaw, one that nearly derailed their title run in just the second round. For them to nab a top-four seed, and put up a fight in the playoffs, the Raptors will need offensive improvements from individuals and as a team.
Lowry is an obvious candidate for those improvements as he will operate as the fulcrum for Toronto. The long-time veteran was originally slated to play on Team USA during this offseason’s FIBA World Cup, but thumb surgery kept him out longer than anticipated. Now, the point guard will spend the rest of the summer resting and training for the upcoming campaign.
Lowry’s efficiency took a hit in the previous year, that much is clear. There was a drop in his three-point percentage, down from 40 percent in 2017-18, to just under 35 percent last season. The pull-up threes were the culprit there as his efficiency dropped from 40 percent two seasons ago to just under 30 percent in 2018-19, per NBA.com. Also concerning was a decrease in fouls drawn, a facet in which Lowry has been historically elite. His shooting foul rate fell to just 8.8 percent, which puts him right at the 50th percentile for his position in that department, according to cleaningtheglass.com.
It is tough to pinpoint one reason for the decline. It could be age — Lowry is now 33 years old and heading into his 14th season — or it could be simple variance when it comes to the pull-up shooting. One could also attribute some of the offensive passivity to Lowry trying to help his star teammate acclimate over the years.
Lowry largely served as a safety valve at the top of the arc, waiting for kick-outs and swing passes after he initiated the offense. Wildly, 50 percent of his shots registered as non-corner threes, putting him in the 96th percentile in that category.
Lowry is still a major cog for this Raptors team even with the efficiency decline. Toronto was about eight points per 100 possessions better offensively with him on the court than they were with him off, per cleaningtheglass.com. His passing is still elite and his frenetic energy created transition opportunities that the team relished. If those areas stay consistent, a bounce-back shooting season and an uptick in aggressiveness could go a good distance toward keeping this Raptors team near their best possible outcomes.
Pascal Siakam, the reigning Most Improved Player, will also take on a heavier offensive load, so his maintaining his efficiency on the higher usage will be a notable subplot for Toronto’s season. The obvious area for Siakam to improve is his shooting — can he make another big-time jump? Siakam did shoot a tick over 37 percent from deep last season, but that was buoyed by his 42 percent mark from the corners, where the majority of his attempts came, per cleaningtheglass.com. His 26 percent mark from non-corner threes was exposed in the playoffs last season as Philadelphia had Joel Embiid leave Siakam by his lonesome when he was standing anywhere around the top of the arc.
Siakam’s finishing ability was his strong suit, converting 71 percent of his looks at the rim last season, according to cleaningtheglass.com. Often, he zig-zagged his way to the cup, using his quickness advantage against most opposing fours that tried to guard him. If teams guarded him with a wing, Siakam had no issue using his improved post game to punish that decision. The Raptors scored 1.08 points per possession out of Pascal post-ups last season, ranking him seventh in the NBA among players with at least 1.5 post-ups per game.
These forays to the paint will come with more resistance this season, of course, now that franchises can better prepare for the former breakout star. Increased scouting will have opponents sagging off above the break, while the glaring absence of Leonard and Green will allow for more help on drives and in the post.
Siakam was a steady passer last season, upping his assist percentage to 14.2, a strong number for his position. But if Siakam can handle more attention on defense, and his shooting improves, the Raptors’ offense will have more room to breathe. The blossoming star’s accuracy on long midrange shots — 48 percent — leaves room for optimism, as does his rate of improvement over the last two seasons.
Replacing the isolation scoring of Leonard will be a tall task, but just as pressing may be finding ways to space the floor without Green. Toronto shot just 32.6 percent on their three-point attempts with Green off of the floor, compared to 40 percent with him on, per cleaningtheglass.com.
As discussed, Lowry and Siakam will both need to be more consistent from deep. The aforementioned Gasol shot 36 percent from deep on the season but shot a blistering 44 percent after he joined the Raptors. Gasol hovering somewhere in the middle of those two numbers would be invaluable to the Toronto offense — that should go without saying. Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby finding any additional assistance from outside would be a bonus.
The Raptors have a roster full of heady passers. Fred VanVleet, Lowry, Gasol and Siakam are all willing ball movers — sometimes even too willing in the case of Gasol and Lowry. The players on the receiving end of those passes will need to confidently shoot when open. As a team, the Raptors will also need to emphasize transition opportunities. Their halfcourt offense suffered without Leonard, and they will need to create better looks by turning that nightmare-worthy defense into easy offense.
But if the Raptors are able to generate at least a league-average offense, their defense could keep them in the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round. The intangibles are there as well. Gasol, Lowry and Ibaka are grizzled veterans, while Fred VanVleet is as poised as they come — don’t forget: He’s been called “Steady Freddy” for a reason.
While the Bucks and Sixers are still heavy favorites to meet in the conference finals, it may be unwise to count out the defending champions from north of the border just yet.
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