When we look back at the Toronto Raptors’ historic 2019-20 season, there are a number of reasons why it was such a surreal, odds-defying campaign. One of the standout reasons is the fact that reigning Finals MVP and top-five player Kawhi Leonard left the team as a free agent; you don’t typically lose a player like that and still expect to repeat success the following season.
But then Pascal Siakam stepped into the number-one option role and almost made it look easy all season.
Strong Start to an All-Star Season
To put it simply, Pascal Siakam blossomed into a bonafide star this season for the Raptors. It’s tough to surpass a championship-winning season where you made the jump from bench player to regular starter and won Most Improved Player, but somehow, Siakam defied the odds once again and took another huge step in the right direction.
It’s not an easy task to be given, “replacing” a top-five superstar in Leonard as the number-one option, and it’s an especially tall task for a player in his fourth season. But Siakam was up for it and he delivered.
There’s many different ways we can break down Siakam’s season. We can look at the innumerable memorable games he had, where he really stepped up to lead this written-off Raptors team. Like opening night (Ring Night), when he scored 34 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished five assists to quiet the haters who questioned both his and the Raptors’ legitimacy this season. Or when he matched his career-high 44 points against the New Orleans Pelicans back in November (with both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka out).
We can also look at his improvement from a statistical angle. This year, the Raptors gave Siakam the keys, and he took the extra minutes and increased usage and rolled with it. He went from averaging about 17 points a game last season to nearly 23 this season. His field goal percentage may have taken a dip, but it’s expected since he was taking on average nearly six more shots a game. Offensively, he put up elite numbers.
Pascal Siakam offensive stats: 2018-19 vs. 2019-20
On the defensive end, Siakam was already a lockdown defender and one of Toronto’s most important defensive options, and he breathed new life into that role this season. His ability to guard all five positions with such versatility, using his size, speed and agility, is something you don’t see often. If anything, we can see how much his basketball IQ has improved, making him a bigger threat to some of the NBA’s top offensive cores. It’s almost shocking that he wasn’t voted to an All-Defense team (or the fact that no Raptors were voted in), but he definitely made a statement on that front.
I think it’s important to note just how effective Siakam was in the first half of the season. If we break down his play right up until the All-Star break, we see the makings of a top 10 player.
There were several times between November to February where Siakam’s name was even thrown around in MVP discussions. That’s the type of season and impact he was having with the Toronto Raptors. This misfit, underdog team had propelled themselves to the top of the NBA without paying mind to any of the doubters, and that force was led by Siakam.
Pascal Siakam Pre-All Star Break
As a result, he was rightfully voted in as a starter in first NBA All-Star Game appearance.
Although Siakam struggled somewhat after the All-Star Game, his statement was already made: He proved he could hold his own against the best of the best. He was in turn rewarded with a selection to the All-NBA Second Team.
However, when the season came to an unexpected pause in March due to the ongoing pandemic, things took an unfortunate turn for Spicy P.
The Bursted Bubble
Before training camp re-started prior to the Raptors moving into the bubble, Siakam explained that he did not have access to a court and hoop during the pause. Unlike many players with houses that have basketball nets, Siakam was cooped up for about four months in his Toronto condo.
I’m not using that as an entire excuse to dismiss Siakam’s offensive struggles in the bubble, as many other players were in a similar boat as him but figured things out eventually. But following the Raptors playoff exit, Siakam made it clear that this really set him back.
Siakam says the most challenging aspect of COVID was not having anywhere to go to put in work. Had visa issues in trying to get to the States.
— Vivek Jacob (@vivekmjacob) September 12, 2020
The things that Siakam struggled with — timing on offensive plays, touch around the rim, outside shooting — are the things you lose when you’re not consistently practicing and working on your craft.
Offensive Woes, Defensive Prowess
Siakam struggled throughout the bubble, including in the seven “seeding” games, where he averaged only 17 points on 29% shooting. His numbers improved slightly over his seeding performance in the first round of the playoffs against Brooklyn, but were still below his pre-bubble production. Something was clearly off.
Pascal Siakam’s offensive numbers in round 1
|2018-19 (vs. ORL)||5||37.6||22.6||9.6||18||53.3||1.6||4.4||36.4||1.8||2||90||8.4|
|2019-20 (vs. BKN)||4||33.4||20.8||7.5||18||41.7||1.5||5.3||28.6||4.3||6||70.8||7.8|
The second round against Boston was strenuous in more ways than one. And while the entire team struggled to make shots and find a rhythm, the real topic at hand was the play of Siakam, who struggled throughout the series before having an especially rough Game 7. Game 4 was the sole game in the series where Siakam led the team offensively, and even then he put up just 23 points and 11 rebounds — a slight step back from his clutch performances this season. His per-game averages of 14.9 points on 38% shooting were below even his 2018-19 regular season numbers.
Offensively his game might not have been there, but Siakam was still a lockdown defender on the other end, which deserves to be highlighted more. His speed as both an on-ball and off-ball defender continued to be impressive and was a big reason why the Raptors were able to stay in the series. In fact, he still ranks second in the entire NBA Playoffs in defensive win shares. There were calls from fans to reduce his minute or bench him, but the defensive stats show how important it was to have Siakam on the floor.
Game 6 was another game where Siakam struggled offensively, but it may be because of how much he’s working defensively.
His unique ability on that end makes him forever impactful to the Raptors. pic.twitter.com/LUw07IEglH
— Raptors Film Room (@RaptorFilmRoom) September 10, 2020
Of course, if he had just a couple more shots fall, the outcome may have been different. But they didn’t, the season ended, and the time for reflection began.
Unfortunately, one look online tells me people already know that Siakam was not himself in the series, so there’s no point in piling on. Although Siakam rightfully took the blame for his performance, the slander that has come his way has been over-the-top and unnecessary.
Sports stars are as susceptible to criticism as everyone else, but we do, at times, need to step back and remember that there is more to life than sports — and more to an athlete’s life than the sport they play. Athletes, especially black athletes, are not merely individuals to be used for entertainment purposes — especially now, when America is facing a resurgence of overt racism. And the degree of racist, repulsive and just straight-up mean comments and jokes being made at the expense of Siakam passed well beyond the status of criticism — so much so that Masai Ujiri felt compelled to comment on it in his end-of-season press conference.
Recency bias might put Siakam’s struggles in focus, but we must also remember the strides Siakam made this season, and how much potential still awaits.
In the end, Siakam didn’t have the end to his season that both he and the fans hoped for. Yet overall, he did an admirable job of filling Kawhi Leonard’s shoes and meeting the increased expectations of his new role.
In this whacky season we’ve experienced, it’s easy to forget how much Siakam achieved with this team. There’s comfort in knowing that Siakam, who has barely even been playing basketball for 10 years, hasn’t even discovered his complete ceiling yet. If Pascal Siakam did prove something this season, it’s that he is a star and he has what it takes to remain a star in this league.
All stats per NBA.com