It was never going to be easy for the Raptors, not when they’re living out of hotels and temporary residences more than 2,000 miles from their home city. Not when they dwell in, by far, the most top-heavy division in the Eastern Conference.
Still, the way the 2018-19 NBA champions have performed more like a bottom-feeding also-ran than a presumed title contender during the nascent stages of a challenging 2020-21 season is at least a cause for concern. And the difficult circumstances the Raptors find themselves under, playing their home games in Tampa, Fla., after being forced southward by travel restrictions by the Canadian government, does not reasonably explain all their early problems.
It is not the sole reason Toronto has been among the league’s most inept scoring teams thus far, ranking 26th in offensive rating and dead last in field goal percentage. It is not why the Raptors have been routinely steamrolled in the second half of games during their 1-6 start (their sixth loss of last season did not come until their 21st game, by the way).
No, there’s a bit more to it than that. And while it is certainly not time to press button, there are a few areas the Raptors clearly need to improve on if they are to at least extend their current seven-year streak of playoff appearances.
The shots are not falling, especially from deep
The 3-point shot has always been a big part of the Raptors’ game since Nick Nurse took over as head coach. They ranked sixth in the NBA in 3-point rate (the ratio of 3-pointers attempted to total field goal attempts) last season and 10th during their 2018-19 championship campaign. So far in 2020-21, nearly half (49.2 percent) of Toronto’s shots have come from behind the arc — the highest total in the league.
The difference is this Raptors team isn’t hitting those shots at nearly the same proficiency as before. Toronto’s 34.2 success rate ranks 24th in the league. The Raptors finished no lower than sixth in either of the past two seasons.
In 2019-20, the Raptors had six players with at least three 3-point attempts per game shoot 38 percent or better from long range, tied with the Pistons for the most in the NBA. Only three current players (Fred VanVleet, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas) can make that claim so far this season.
Two players who accomplished that feat in 2019-20, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, have moved on. Aron Baynes, a 35 percent 3-point shooter over the past two seasons, was signed with the intent to fill the void, but he is 3 of 16 on triple attempts thus far. Holdover OG Anunoby, just weeks removed from signing a four-year, $72 million extension, is 12 of 41 (29.3 percent) after hitting at a 39 percent clip in 2019-20.
Where have you gone, Pascal Siakam?
Siakam’s well-documented struggles in Toronto’s seven-game loss to Boston in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals may not have been a blip on the radar.
The Celtics masterfully neutralized the forward by deploying the smaller Jaylen Brown as his primary defender, and teams have been successfully following that blueprint during the early stages of this season.
The plan is working so far. Often drawing defenders with the length and athleticism to give him problems (the 76ers’ Ben Simmons and the Spurs’ Rudy Gay were particularly effective), Siakam is simply not getting to the rim with the same frequency as past years, and (see below) has been among the least efficient players of his size when doing so.
Lowest field goal percentage at the rim, players 6-9 or taller, 2020-21 season (min. 100 minutes played)
Isaiah Stewart, Pistons, .478
Pascal Siakam, Raptors, .488
LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs, .500
Brook Lopez, Bucks, .500
Jusuf Nurkic, Trail Blazers, .500
Dwight Powell, Mavericks, .500
The Raptors have been outscored by an astonishing 63 points with Siakam on the court, an average of 10.5 per game that is eclipsed only by a pair of players from the likely lottery-bound Timberwolves (D’Angelo Russell, Ed Davis) for the worst mark in the league.
It has been a humbling start for the 2018-19 NBA Most Improved Player, and that frustration was no more evident than when he bolted straight to the locker room after fouling out late in a loss to the 76ers. Nurse benched him for the next game, which happens to be the only one the Raptors have won so far.
Siakam did look more like his old self in Wednesday’s outing at Phoenix, when he put up 32 points and shot over 50 percent from the field for the first time this season. It goes without saying the Raptors need him to return to his All-Star form; they were 19-1 when he scored 25 or more points in a game in 2019-20.
Leads are slipping away
Six teams have lost multiple times when holding a double-digit lead in a game so far. The Rockets, Hawks, Wizards and Pistons have done so twice, the Grizzlies three times. The Raptors have five such losses through their first seven outings.
Starting well hasn’t been a problem — Toronto is outscoring opponents by an average of 4.3 points in the first quarter, the second-best mark in the NBA behind only the Bucks. Starting the second half well has been a real issue, however. The Raptors have been outscored by an average of 5.4 points in the third quarter, with only the Timberwolves and Cavaliers having been worse.
In contrast, the Raptors outscored foes by 4.3 points per game in the third quarter (fourth-best in the NBA) while going 53-19 last season. They ranked second in the league during their 2018-19 title run.
So what’s the reason for the dramatic drop-off? Is it because Toronto fields one of the league’s older rosters? The Raptors are one of only three teams with two starters (Baynes and Kyle Lowry) aged 34 or older. One of the others is the Lakers, however, so there goes that theory.
A lack of depth is the more plausible answer. The Raptors rank 27th in the NBA in bench scoring, though they also had one of the league’s least productive second units last season. That was less of an issue in 2019-20 because the starting five was often so good. With Siakam, Anunoby and Baynes all underperforming thus far, it has quickly become a more pressing concern.
The bottom line
There’s no cause for alarm yet for Toronto fans regarding their snowbird team. If not for a few bad stretches, the Raptors could just as easily be 5-2 instead of 1-6, and a defense that is still among the NBA’s better units has kept them in every game in spite of their inefficiencies on the other end.
There is enough of a track record throughout the roster to suggest that the offense will come around. Further, it needs to happen for a team that has been built to win now and whose window may be closing soon.
Lowry, the Raptors’ unquestioned heart and soul, is in the final year of his contract and turns 35 in March. Does team president Masai Ujiri consider moving him at the trade deadline if Toronto finds itself fighting for merely a playoff spot instead of a division title?
The next two months should be very intriguing in Toronto. And Tampa as well.