Defending champs still a threat

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The Toronto Raptors spent the summer celebrating their sensational victory in the 2019 NBA Finals. We’re a few weeks into a new season. What do the early results mean and what can we expect going forward?

It’s been an interesting summer. The Toronto Raptors only won their first NBA championship! Those huge rings and the reactions of players on the opening night really hit the feels.

On the other hand, the team and the fanbase had their hearts broken in free agency when Kawhi Leonard opted to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Clippers. In the immortal words of NBA announcer Kevin Harlan, “He just sucked the gravity right out of the building.” The team’s ceiling for success suddenly seems so much lower.

Or is it?

Outside of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors begin the 2019-20 season with nearly all their key pieces intact— veterans Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell alongside burgeoning star Pascal Siakam.

Based on what we’ve seen, what can we expect from the Toronto Raptors? Here are three of the biggest early observations.

1. Pascal Siakam is on his way to NBA superstardom

With the departure of Kawhi Leonard, all eyes are on reigning Sixth Man of the Year winner, Pascal Siakam.

Fresh off inking a four year, $130-million max contract extension, Siakam is looking to improve upon his breakthrough 2018-19 season where he averaged 16.9 points per game, 6.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists while shooting 54.9-percent from the field. He feasted in the paint, ranking as one of the best post-up scorers in the league, coming in the 82nd percentile with an average of 1.08 points per possession. In the postseason he averaged 19.0 points, 7.1 rebounds on 47-percent shooting to help lead the Raptors to their first-ever title.

Can Siakam make the leap to NBA superstardom? Yes. But it’s still a work in progress.

As the offensive focal point, teams are now blitzing Siakam with double teams, forcing him to make split decisions in crucial moments. As much as he excels doing everything fast, it’s in the team’s best interests now if he slows down. When teams put their best defensive players on him in the playoffs (i.e. Giannis Antetokounmpo), Siakam became a bit too predictable and his efficiency cratered. To fix this problem, he needed to develop a consistent jumper and continue working on his playmaking skills.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, Siakam clearly put his time off to good use. He’s scoring from deep (42-percent from three), maintaining his craftiness near the basket as well as being active on defense. Perhaps too active. Siakam has fouled out in two games and picked up at least five fouls in four of six games to date— he might need to tone down his aggressiveness to keep himself on the court longer.

Siakam’s jump hasn’t gone unnoticed. Thinking Basketball, a woefully underrated basketball-centric YouTube channel, highlights Siakam’s offensive improvement. While he believes that Siakam’s three-point shooting percentage will go down, in his view, he is a legitimate all-around player on a legitimate team.

2. Which other player(s) will step up and have a Siakam-like breakthrough?

As much as it’s on Siakam’s gangly shoulders to carry the Raptors this year, he will still need his teammates’ support. Who amongst the returning cast and/or fresh faces can step up to the challenge? The picture remains rather murky a few games into the season.

There are a few possible candidates that can help.

Will it be Norman Powell? In the past five years, in between bouts of inconsistency and some bad decision-making, Powell has flashed big potential in key moments. He has the physical tools, plays solid defense and can stretch the floor with his three-point shooting (in both his rookie season and last season he shot better than 40 percent from deep). With the departure of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, Powell has the opportunity to finally put together a consistent season from start to finish. It’s now or never.

How about OG Anunoby? In his rookie season, Anunoby played his way into the starting lineup. He brought strong individual defense along with flashes of a consistent stroke from distance.

Then last season happened. After losing valuable development time due to personal issues, Anunoby missed out on the entire playoff run due to an emergency appendectomy, with its own set of complications– losing 15 pounds can zap anyone’s energy.

Fortunately, all of that seems to be behind him now. Anunoby is looked good, knocking down his threes (46 percent) and making strong, decisive moves towards the basket to go with his usual stellar defense. ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes that he’s blowing by defenders off the catch at more than 53 percent double his rate last season, leading to 1.17 points per possession for Toronto. It certainly looks like he’s hitting his stride.

The Raptors will need contributions from him and other bench players to avoid overtaxing the starters. Through six games, VanVleet is averaging a career-high 37.8 minutes, while Kyle Lowry is sitting at 38.8 minutes. With the emphasis around the league now on load management, things will need to change.

3. The Toronto Raptors are still contenders

Depending on who you ask, the Toronto Raptors may or may not be able to contend for another NBA championship.

Like last season, most American media sees the Raptors as an afterthought, more so now with the departure of a top-3 player like Kawhi Leonard. And that’s a perfectly legitimate reason. The often-repeated mantra about the NBA is that superstars win championships— there’s no way that the Raptors win it all last season without Leonard’s historic postseason performance.

Then again, the Raptors had a 17-5 record without Leonard in the lineup last season. These weren’t easy peasy games either— half of them were on the second half of a back-to-back situation against opponents with legitimate playoff aspirations.

What’s more, with an NBA title under their belt, almost everyone on the Raptors has championship experience. You cannot underestimate the importance of this. The Raptors faced a lot of adversity during their exciting playoff run. That builds up a level of mental toughness that’s not going to just evaporate.

So far, it seems to have carried over. At the time of writing, the Raptors sit tied for third in the Eastern Conference with a record of 5-2 and remain undefeated at home.

The aforementioned Lowe agrees, painting the Raptors as savvy, ultra-confident, totally comfortable in their own skin, and a damned pain to play against. That’s high praise from one of the most respected minds in the business.

One thing’s for sure though, fans will be treated to another thrilling season.