Midway through the last season the Toronto Raptors realized they were going to have to pivot.
For two years they tried to run back their 2018-19 championship squad while oil leaked out the side. One by one almost every member from that iconic team departed leaving the cupboards bare in Toronto. Eventually, it became untenable. As a COVID-19 outbreak killed almost any chance for another magical season, Bobby Webster and Masai Ujiri realized the end was near for the old core.
On March 25, 2021, Toronto sent Norman Powell to Portland to help kickstart a retooling with Gary Trent Jr. Four months later, the Raptors let Kyle Lowry leave for Miami in exchange for Precious Achiuwa and Goran Dragic.
“You probably could see the direction the team was going and jumping up in the draft to get the fourth pick, I think philosophically going young became kind of a more desirable path,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said Friday. “I think philosophically that’s where we were going as an organization and we thought now was the best path for us the next year, two, three, four, five years.”
Once Toronto started parsing through draft prospects this summer that realization only became more clear. The talent atop the 2021 draft made going younger and moving on from the golden age of Raptors basketball more appealing for the organization, Webster said,
“Just the level of player that we had in for workouts, we all kind of like ‘wow, like, you know, this is what a lottery pick looks like and this is the talent,'” Webster said.
Now the Raptors are setting forth on a retooling, if you will. The goal isn’t to tear it down to the studs and ‘trust the process,’ rather Toronto wants to build around its core of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam, Webster said. They’ve brought back Trent Jr., the 22-year-old sharpshooter, traded for Achiuwa, a 6-foot-8 big man they really wanted in last year’s draft, and they’ve added Scottie Barnes, the fourth overall pick in the draft and someone they view as a player who can “alter the direction of the franchise,” Webster said.
By all accounts, Toronto’s defense should be incredible next season. They have seven versatile, athletic, and long defenders between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9 who should pose problems for even the best offenses. They’ve built the type of team Webster has been dreaming about, a squad of equally sized players that can handle the ball, defend multiple positions, and, hopefully, shoot at an adequate level.
The question, however, will be on the offensive side of the ball where the Raptors appear to have major flaws. VanVleet is a phenomenal outside shooter but can be inconsistent inside the arc. Siakam has some half-court offensive creativity, but he hasn’t quite gotten over the hump and turned himself into a No. 1 offensive scoring threat. Anunoby seems like the make-or-break player on this roster, but his offensive game is still far away from being a real difference-maker. Ideally, as Webster said, one or two of those other players between Barnes, Flynn, Trent Jr., and Boucher can jump up and really flourish in Toronto’s system.
“Listen, they’re not all going to make it,” Webster said. “They’re not all gonna hit and they’re not all going to stay around here forever, but I think creating that culture of competitiveness and winning, combined with what we currently have is what’s really exciting.”
For now, it appears Toronto is trying to build what it had prior to its championship run. The 2017-18 Raptors were a group led by some talented homegrown players including DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, Powell, Siakam, Anunoby, and Jakob Poeltl, and complemented by outside additions like Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and C.J. Miles. While none of those players was a superstar, there was enough talent on that roster to hang around in the Eastern Conference until eventually an opportunity to strike on a true difference-maker opened up.
Toronto wants to build that kind of group again. While there might not be any truly elite talent developing in their system, the Raptors have begun to position themselves once again as the type of organization that can pounce on the next disgruntled superstar. Until then, they’ll be building, complementing their core, and trying to be a surprise in the Eastern Conference.
“We haven’t fully restocked the cupboard, but I think that’s the direction that we’re heading,” Webster said.