By Cole Parkinson
The countdown to the 2020-21 NBA season is officially on with regular season games finally beginning Dec. 22.
With no official schedule set for the NHL, the NBA will have the lion-share of eyes during the week on days that aren’t Sunday, Monday and Thursday. And that means the Tampa Bay Raptors, excuse me, the Toronto Raptors will be back on the court for the first time since being eliminated in the second round against the Boston Celtics.
Looking at the Raps roster as it stands, it’s worse on paper than last year. The loss of Serge Ibaka to the Los Angeles Clippers is huge, there are no two ways around that.
Marc Gasol departing to the Los Angeles Lakers is less so due to his age and declining ability to score points, but nonetheless, that’s two big men that ate tons of minutes for the Raptors last year.
But it’s quite obvious why Serge chose to leave. The Clippers offered him a multi-year deal, where the Raps wanted to overpay on a one-year deal in order to have maximum cap space heading into next offseason, where they no doubt will be big game hunting.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was expected to be the big prize before he ultimately signed a five-year deal to stay with Milwaukee. Now, Raps president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster have to re-adjust their sights on how to add a superstar to the team.
It worked for Toronto last time they picked up a bonafide number one option. Now, it’s no guarantee any of the big players choose Toronto in free agency, but there are several top-end players available including Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo, the Raps’ own Kyle Lowry and previous cornerstone DeMar DeRozan.
The option to make a big splash via trade is also something the front office hasn’t shied away from, so the path forward after this season is truly wide open for a team expected to have lots of cap space. So, while the Raps are a lesser team on paper heading into the new season, they were able to scoop up Aron Baynes and Alex Len to shore up the front-court. Expect Baynes to start most nights with Len and Chris Boucher coming off the bench.
With Baynes showing he’s able to hit from beyond the arc (a 35 per cent clip last year), that will certainly help stretch out any opposition defence.
I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Boucher so far and with him signing an extension this offseason, along with the holes in the centre position, I hope to see him take another leap.
While the losses no doubt hurt the team overall, the biggest piece of this offseason was locking up Fred VanVleet to a long-term contract.
It didn’t take long as they inked a four-year $85 million contract.
With Kyle not getting any younger, having Fred back is great for the Raps moving forward. And the fact both will largely be playing the same role heading into next year, Fred shouldn’t have to pressure himself into being someone he’s not.
We saw FVV trying to do too much offensively last playoffs because Pascal Siakam was nowhere near where he needed to be.
And speaking of Siakam, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for another gear to his game. We’ve seen him take a step year over year since he got into the league, and his poor playoff appearance no doubt is still nagging Pascal. I expect there to be lots of motivation coming into this year and trying to prove he can be a reliable option on the Raps offence. The rest of the main players of the lineup should look familiar as Lowry is still the leader of this team, which means the Raps will be anything but lazy.
Look for OG Anunoby to progress this year. Heading into his fourth NBA campaign, there certainly has been ups and downs but he’s shown a ton of flashes on both sides of the ball.
Coming into the league he was regarded for his defence and under Nick Nurse, that has flourished.
Now his offence has started to take off, and with the departure of Ibaka, the offence will need some help and I look to OG to provide that in spades.
The Raps’ first rounder from this past draft, Malachi Flynn, has also looked impressive on both sides of the ball in the first few pre-season games. Look for him to be a be a big presence on the second unit.
All in all, I expect the Raptors to once again be one of the upper echelon teams along with Milwaukee, Miami, Boston and Brooklyn in the east. The lack of a superstar for any NBA team is always a concern considering it’s such a star dominated league but the Raps and Nick Nurse’s coaching staff proved last year they are capable of being a top team without one.