There are some NBA teams that, faced with even one of the factors the Toronto Raptors are going into the 2021-2022 season with—departure of a franchise icon and leader, nearly new roster, reacclimatization after a season and an Orlando Bubble away, forging a new identity—would balk at, if not outright cut and run from. But the Raptors, from the front office down to its newest players, only seem eager to get started.
The biggest takeaway from the team’s Media Day can be succinctly summarized in the word its default new leader, Fred VanVleet, kept coming back to: nuance. This isn’t a group that doesn’t grasp the number of challenges they’re facing in the long-awaited return to Toronto; if anything, they seem keenly interested in holding those challenges to light and seeing all the ways they might refract back, presenting even more potential tests and within them, chances to outwork, outwit, and win.
“It’s something that I think we’ve preached for the past five, six years that we’ve been here: How do you win, and develop at the same time?” Raptors GM Bobby Webster said, when asked how the team planned to balance the need for leadership with maintaining the space and focus on its newest players to develop into meaningful contributors, “I think we’ve had some examples of that in the past. Fred [VanVleet] was that young guy. Pascal [Siakam] was playing in the 905. Chris Boucher was there.”
“I think it comes from both,” Webster continued, “Obviously we have to talk to the young players, develop them, understand what our values are. It has to also come from some of the players who are veterans now, who have just been through that experience. So I think we lean on them as well. In the locker room, on the plane, on the road, to also be models and be examples for those young players.”
Nurse said one of his themes for the team this season, beyond returning to Toronto’s brand of pestering, smothering defence, is to figure out rosters that “can play a lot of different ways on both ends of the floor, or always”—rosters that can, in effect, always be switching. To “get in there and jar the ball loose and change patterns and cut offences off.”
A big part of that disruption is going to be Barnes. Nurse (and Webster, and VanVleet, and well, everyone) are eager to see what Barnes will bring to competition given his development even with his short stint with the team since Summer League. Siakam said Barnes reminded him of a young, even more explosive version of himself, Webster praised Barnes’ IQ and feel for the game, and Nurse confirmed that Barnes’ role was “going to be huge.”
“From day one, [I’m going] to give him as many minutes and reps and all those things that he can handle,” Nurse said. “I think his impact of defending, rebounding, running, spirit, enthusiasm, size, all that stuff gets him in the mix, early and often. And he’ll stay in there, often and late, I would imagine.”
As far as early season snags, one, Nurse confirmed, will be guys vying for rotational spots, with “real battles” for positions as the coach moves through likely even wilder and weirder lineups than the past two seasons saw; another is scoring, with Siakam out for some of the early season. But both problems have potential silver linings long term. Changing rotations will only ensure early team versatility and chemistry, and give Anunoby, Boucher, Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., and Malachi Flynn more offensive minutes to fill.
“What’s our identity? Well, we like to play really hard and like to guard really hard and like to attack on offence, and we like to do it on a nightly basis.” –Nick Nurse
For the Raptors, at least early on this season, team leadership and growth will be necessarily intertwined, with the balance of team direction and development toggled between depending on what the team needs. It might sound ambiguous, in terms of establishing a new team identity, but if anything, it’s continuing to build on the tenets Toronto’s used all along.
“What’s our identity? Well, we like to play really hard and like to guard really hard and like to attack on offence, and we like to do it on a nightly basis,” Nurse said when asked what this Raptors team’s character would be. “And that is all I’m striving for with any team. The start of any season I sit here and try to get the team to max out its ability. It’s no different this year than it was three years ago.”
There’s a full-circle mentality in the way the team’s new and ready leaders see where they go from here, too.
Siakam, who was entirely confident, bright and candid with media, saw the Raptors making a name for themselves this season as new league menace. “We want to go out there and want to have people not wanting to play us,” he said. “That’s kind of the mindset you gotta have, being that team that you know, I just don’t want to play against because of the length and athleticism and energy, and all those things together.”
“If people want to count us out, great. It’s not a bad place to be sometimes, especially when you’ve got a good group,” VanVleet said, when asked about the team’s old chip on the shoulder mentality. “I think that chip should grow every year that you don’t win.
“Do we have to have more patience? Yes. Do we have to manage the expectations? Probably. But at the same time, the goal is gonna be to win, and that’s set from the top down. This is not a franchise that’s accustomed to having the type of year that we had last year, but I think we’re on the track to get right back to where we need to be.”
In terms of what nuance will mean for Toronto this season, take your pick. Growth, as much as getting back to basics, restraint and calculated control as much as flashing teeth. A team on the rise likely to face some missteps, rife with energy, enthusiasm, and potential, but a team, above all else, with options.
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