The Toronto Raptors are off to a miserable start, with successive losses to the New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs and Philadelphia 76ers to start the 2020-21 season. They have blown double-digit leads in all three losses and rank dead last in offensive rating. There are no shortage of problems to point out, but four trends stand out as the main reasons why the Raptors are losing.
Pascal Siakam can’t pressure the paint
Key stat: Siakam is shooting 8-of-23 within five feet of the basket while attempting a total of six free throws
Siakam is in the midst of reinventing his game to suit his role as the No. 1 option. He put noticeable work into his jumpshot, both from deep and in the midrange, and has also improved his playmaking, as he demonstrated by matching his career-high with eight assists against the Spurs. Improving his perimeter skills continues to be his main focus, and although the results haven’t translated to wins, Siakam is making noticeable improvements on the weakest parts of his game.
In doing so, however, Siakam has lost what made him so successful early in his career. His burst to the rim, the all-out sprints, the stretching layups around defenders, the devastating spin move, and his exquisite touch around the basket made Siakam an indispensable second scorer on the 2019 championship team. His defining play from that stretch was the floater he made over Draymond Green, where he eluded Green’s swiping attempt at a steal before rising up and hitting a running bank shot to secure the title.
Siakam has not impacted the paint whatsoever this season. Defences have scouted him well, using the Celtics series as a blueprint, and have packed the paint against Siakam by loading up with a help defender at the basket while assigning their best wing defenders to pressure him up top. Siakam hasn’t shown the handle to elude his defender, nor the strength and touch to finish against the help, and the results are downright ugly. Not only is Siakam shooting 8-of-23 within five feet, but he has also collected just six total free throws despite attempting 56 field goals. That free-throw rate is almost impossibly low and will naturally rise as Siakam averaged over five per game last season, but it’s unclear if his current skill set is sufficient to unlock the paint.
The best way the Raptors can help Siakam is by improving the spacing on his drives. The common theme so far within the offence is that newcomer Aron Baynes prefers to linger in the dunker spot along the baseline to collect layups and offensive rebounds. By doing so, that keeps the opposing centre in the paint and within a few steps of rotating over to contest against Siakam. Sometimes it works, as Siakam has found Baynes a few times with dump-off passes when he draws the double, but it might be easier as a whole if Baynes just stayed at the 3-point line. Defences might still choose to leave Baynes open since he’s only a 35 percent shooter, but at least it would give Siakam another option on the kickout. Of course, it’s also down to Siakam to make his baskets. He failed to capitalize on mismatches against Keldon Johnson and Danny Green (both standing 6-foot-5) which isn’t so much a spacing issue rather than an issue of skill.
Third quarter struggles
Key stat: Raptors outscored 38-22 vs. Pelicans, 30-28 vs. Spurs, 28-20 vs. Sixers
Toronto’s third-quarter struggles have been especially deflating, having squandered leads and relinquished control in all three losses. The common theme is that everything comes apart when Kyle Lowry subs out midway through the quarter.
Against the Pelicans, the Raptors held a five-point lead when Lowry checked out. The Pelicans immediately launched a 9-2 run to take the lead, while the Raptors missed four straight open 3s from OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, and Fred VanVleet. Toronto never regained momentum and trailed from that point onward before losing in a blowout.
Against the Spurs, it was a tight game when Lowry subbed out at the seven-minute mark with a one-point lead. In the three minutes when he sat, the Raptors’ only field goal was on a putback dunk by Chris Boucher following up Powell’s bricked layup, while the Spurs scored seven points to take the lead.
Against the Sixers, Lowry checked out with an 11-point lead, only for Powell to have his shot blocked, VanVleet lose the dribble along the baseline, then for Siakam to drive into traffic which resulted in a transition dunk. Lowry came back early after sitting for less than two minutes, but the momentum was gone and the Sixers erased a 13-point deficit by the end of the third quarter.
The immediate problem is that Lowry is being replaced by Powell, which is swapping the best player for the worst rotation player at the moment. The bigger issue is that VanVleet and Siakam have not been able to run the offence at all without Lowry on the floor. VanVleet is 1-for-12 from the field without Lowry, Siakam is 4-of-13 and Powell is 2-of-9. Those three simply need to do better because Lowry can’t be expected to carry the team for the full 48 minutes just to keep a lead.
Lopsided free throw disparity
Key stat: Raptors rank last in free-throw attempts at 13.7 per game, have been outshot 69-41 by their opponents
This is something that will resolve itself. Only taking 13 free throws as a team is unsustainably low. No team in the last decade has ever averaged even fewer than 16 free-throw attempts. The Raptors took 23 free throws per game last season, and are running mostly the same offence with the same three main offensive options. The losses of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol doesn’t account for the difference either, as they combined for just over three attempts per game last year.
That being said, the Raptors will likely remain in the bottom-10 in terms of free throws even when everything levels out. Toronto is fourth-last in drives per game and have shot just 30.8 percent out of those attempts. Conversely, they are first in the league in 3-point attempts. Factor in the lack of isolation scoring and a completely new and unfamiliar set of pick-and-roll combinations, and it’s just not conducive to accumulating foul shots.
Norman Powell mired in a slump
Key stat: Powell is shooting 4-for-23 from the field, has been a minus in all three games
The good news is that Powell can’t possibly be this bad all season. He is coming off a career year where he scored 16 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from deep. Powell is a talented finisher with plenty of experience with the group since he is the second-longest tenured Raptor outside of Lowry. There is a long history of Powell getting off to slow starts, and Raptors coach Nick Nurse seems determined to keep Powell in the rotation until he sorts himself out.
The bad news is that Powell doesn’t bring anything else to the table outside of his scoring, so his cold stretches can sink the team as a whole. He tops out as an average defender who is prone to bouts of inattentiveness and has made several obvious and inexplicable errors to start the year. He also doesn’t create anything for others, which further strains a team that is already light on playmaking. Powell is at his best surrounded by strong defenders who can get stops to trigger Powell on the fast break, or flanked by strong passers who can put him in a position to finish, as Gasol did for him in recent years. In short, he is more an accessory to success rather than the driver of it.
Even last season, the bulk of Powell’s success came as a pinch starter whereas his bench production was mostly average. Powell’s fit with this year’s bench is even iffier. First, his defensive misadventures become even more glaring when he’s paired with another minus defender in Matt Thomas. Second, the lack of a solid screener with the second unit makes it difficult for Powell to get open. Third, the lack of playmaking often leaves Powell with the responsibility to create for himself, and that has never been his strength.
It’s inevitable that Powell will turn it around. He is 0-for-10 from within five feet of the basket and 0-for-3 on wide open 3s without a defender within six feet to contest. He is famously streaky and right now he is ice cold. One change could be to introduce rookie point guard Malachi Flynn in place of Thomas with the second unit. The addition of another playmaker should produce easier chances for Powell, or at the very least take the pressure off him to create for others.
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