The Toronto Raptors took the biggest gamble before last season and both won and lost it. They nabbed Kawhi Leonard and eventually an NBA title. Then Leonard signed with the LA Clippers in the offseason leaving many to think the Raptors would be a one-time aberration as both a champion and contender.
This season, the Raptors have barely missed a beat, sitting again in 2nd place in the Eastern Conference, they’re three games ahead of the third-place Celtics and six and a half games behind Milwaukee for first. So, barring an injury to either them or the Bucks, they will stay in 2nd place.
Making Up the Offensive Gap
Last season, Toronto was in the top 5 on both ends of the floor. The offense has slipped a little bit, understandable when a 27 points per game scorer like Leonard leaves, but the defense is actually a little better.
The offensive hole has been filled by first-time All-Star Pascal Siakam who is averaging 23.6 points per game and Fred VanVleet who has upped his scoring from 11 points a game to almost 18 per game. VanVleet is averaging almost two more assists per game and shooting nearly 39% from the three-point arc. Norman Powell has also jumped up from 8.6 points to over 16 points per game.
The steadying force is still Kyle Lowry who at age 33 is averaging nearly 20 points per game and was taking meaningful charges at the end of this year’s All-Star Game. It’s that attitude that is indicative of how the Raptors play, they’re pests on defense, tough rebounders and have just enough on offense.
Late Game Concerns
It’s the offensive end that worries me in playoff games. Not so much that they’ll just get outscored because playoff basketball is much more defensive-oriented, but rather whether Siakam or Lowry can be the guy taking the big shots late that Leonard was last season.
Assuming the Zombie Nets drop down to the 8th seed, the Raptors will face the Magic in round one and should advance with little difficulty. If they face a healthy Celtics team in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, I think they lose a tightly contested series because they don’t have that go-to scorer. Siakam may be that guy someday but I think Kemba Walker or even Jayson Tatum is infinitely more equipped to handle that right now.
No Drop Off in the Near Future
The Raptors are set up well for the future. Siakam signed long-term after last season and Lowry has one more year left on his contract. Otherwise, they pretty much clear the decks at the end of this season. Fred VanVleet is definitely here to stay with a big raise as is OG Anunoby. Gasol or Ibaka could be back but on much more team friendly terms. Toronto is in the mix to get back to the Finals this season and have more than enough flexibility to make sure they continue to contend.