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The X-Factors: Toronto

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ X-factors series, assessing what the Toronto Raptors need to break in their favor to make a deep postseason run and defend their title.

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The NBA recently announced that players must alert their teams if they intend to opt out of the remainder of the season by June 24, and Kyrie Irving is speaking up about his preference for players to avoid returning at all. It was always going to get more complicated in the run-up to the return of basketball, but it’s gotten even weirder than anticipated. But on a positive note, details have been distributed pertaining to the logistics of the NBA and Disney World’s hosting strategy, complete with entertainment for players, hotel assignments and rules for entering and existing the bubble.

Regardless, we are a mere six weeks from the return of basketball.  We at Basketball Insiders have published pieces identifying X-factors for 15 of the 22 teams returning to action — today, we turn our attention to the lone Canadian team to discuss its keys to a deep postseason run.

The defending NBA Champion Toronto Raptors were 46-18 as of play stoppage in March — a 71.9% winning percentage. They’ve played as well on the road as they have in Toronto – posting a 23-9 record at home and on the road. That bodes well for their chances considering no teams will benefit from the comforts that home court advantage affords. They have impressive depth at most positions, and their length on the wing is better than maybe anyone – and who wouldn’t want that kind of defensive depth at the forward position in a league with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Jayson Tatum?

Speaking of their lengthy wings, one of them is the Raptors’ first X-factor — OG Anunoby. He was already having a breakout season and was playing his best basketball just prior to the stoppage, increasing his scoring average from January (9.8) to February (10) and March (15.2). He also increased his true shooting percentage and offensive rating in four straight months between December (53.3% and 102) to March (71.9% and 136). So clearly, things were trending in Anunoby’s direction.

But despite developing a reputation around the association, Anunoby could still surprise folks. He’s only 22 and has lots of potential into which he can grow. His defensive impact is basically a given at this point, but what if he spent a time over the past three months working on his offensive shortcomings? He already improved his decision making this season when catching the ball in half-court offensive sets, decisively stepping into jump shots or shooting more quickly. But Anunoby was still turning the ball over at a mildly-alarming pace and committed too many offensive fouls. If he improves in either of those areas, he could add additional firepower to the Raptors’ offense. Even if he doesn’t,  Anunoby’s improved shooting and defensive prowess make him a staple of Toronto’s lineups. He can’t take a step back if Toronto has hopes of advancing beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals. Considering Anunoby missed the entire 2019 playoffs due to an emergency appendectomy on Apr. 12 — and the fact that he was simply a different player in the postseason prior — he’ll have to acclimate to playing a major role for a contender in the playoffs on the fly. But like the adage goes, pressure either bursts pipes or makes diamonds.

But Anunoby isn’t the only wild card. Marc Gasol is another player from whom the Raptors could receive a boost, and the potential for that is relatively high for two reasons. First, he was banged up prior to play stoppage due to a hamstring injury that kept him out of 38 games so far in 2019-20 – so getting a three-month (and counting) break from basketball activities means that the seven-footer should at least return more structurally sound. And at 35-years-old, Gasol needed the extra rest more than most.

But it doesn’t end there for Gasol. Much like Nikola Jokic’s body transformation, Gasol appears to have dropped a good amount of weight, sporting a new, lean  physique. While dropping weight hasn’t always worked out well for NBA players, it’s logical to assume that Gasol will be quicker and nimbler considering his slimmer appearance.

Even Raptors head coach Nick Nurse acknowledged Gasol’s body transformation.“It is good. I mean, I’ve seen Marc myself many times on some Zoom calls and most of all just his face in there,” Nick Nurse said. “So I thought it (Gasol’s weight) probably reduced a little.”

Granted, Gasol hasn’t performed exceptionally well in any month this season; but remember, the Raptors currently own the second-best record in the East, while getting only 27.5 minutes per game from “Big Spain.” And in the 36 games in which he’s appeared, Gasol was posting both a career-low 7.6 points and in 6.3 rebounds per night. Granted, they’ve gotten increased production from Serge Ibaka, but imagine if Gasol comes back fitter and more mobile?

But the team’s most important X-factor lies squarely with where they’re seeded. As the second seed, Toronto is slated to play the currently seventh-seeded Nets — sans Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Nets replaced their head coach only four games prior to stoppage, and they just replaced their starting center, too. That’s not an ideal recipe for continuity.

But it’s not as if the Raptors specifically want the Nets; the other teams competing for the seventh seed – Orlando and Washington – are equally ideal competition for a team looking to skip ahead to the conference semifinals. It’s not that they’re flat-out bad – it’s just that all three teams are under .500. And more importantly, the alternative is to play the sixth seed. As is, the sixth seed currently features a tie between the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers (while the Miami HEAT are only two games ahead of them both). And both the 76ers and Pacers have won 60% of their games in 2019-20. Which option would you prefer?

It’s worth mentioning that the Raptors are 6.5 games behind the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and only 3 games ahead of the Boston Celtics, so Toronto could technically finish higher, too — but it’s unlikely. So while the exact schedule hasn’t been determined just yet, the Raptors still have eight games remaining.

The Raptors have the most boom-or-bust potential. This writer’s skepticism pertaining to Toronto’s chances are well-documented since as far back as the preseason. None of my calls for trades and looking to the future have came to fruition. Instead, the Raptors have went about their business…and they’ve won.

While the top of the Eastern Conference looks tough, the Raptors have as good of a chance as any team outside of Wisconsin to advance to the conference finals. And once you’re there, anything can happen.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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