A season like no other begins for the Toronto Raptors with Saturday’s media day, setting up a Sunday start to five days of training camp in Quebec City. There’s the 25th season of existence to celebrate and, oh yeah, an NBA title to defend. And these five questions to answer:
It is somewhat unusual for a team that’s defending a championship, but the Raptors go into the pre-season with two-fifths of the starting lineup empty. It’s a virtual certainty that Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol will reprise their starting roles, but there are many directions coach Nick Nurse can go with the other two spots, and the battle for jobs might be interesting.
The lack of a veteran third point guard might preclude Fred VanVleet from moving into the starting backcourt, but he has been tremendously effective alongside Lowry in the past. Norm Powell and OG Anunoby would seemingly have the inside track on the two positions, but their scoring abilities might be better served in a second unit that could struggle to produce points.
In the past, Nurse has moved from one starter one night to another the next depending on matchups, and that remains a possibility. Consistency, though, is a much desired commodity along with well-defined roles, so finding starters and letting them develop cohesion would likely be best for all concerned.
Siakam’s rise from intriguing but raw youngster to borderline all-star and the NBA’s most improved player was one of the most delightful — and unexpected — stories of last season’s championship run.
It’s improbable that anyone on this roster will match that meteoric rise, and unfair to ask anyone to. Still, some young player emerging to become a key bit on a very good team is vitally important if the Raptors are going to come anywhere close to matching that success of a year ago.
All eyes are on Anunoby — who basically lost last season to off-court personal matters, injuries and an exploding appendix — and perhaps he is the guy to take a major step forward. Powell’s got to be on the short list of candidates, too, but there’s also sharpshooting Matt Thomas and former lottery pick Stanley Johnson to think about.
Someone, anyone, has to improve their game tremendously.
It’s trite to suggest the Raptors will replace the 37 points a night they got from the departed Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green last season with increased production from up and down the roster. The trouble is, the NBA is not that egalitarian and neither are individual teams.
Someone is going to have to make a major, major jump, while a few others can be expected to be a little bit better — and likely will, with more opportunities. But scoring might be an issue, and it’s something team president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster will be keeping a close eye on as the season rolls along.
As everyone saw last February, Ujiri is not averse to making major roster moves late in the season if there’s a bold trade to make. Equipped with three large, expiring contacts — Kyle Lowry, $33 million (all dollars U.S.); Marc Gasol, $26 million; Serge Ibaka, $23 million — he might be enticed to do something with one of them, and teams that are a player away might covet them.
The other edge of the sword, however, is that Ujiri and Webster aren’t going to take on years of contractual obligations just to make a move, and a deal involving any of them should only happen under the most perfect of circumstances for the Raptors. Still, it will bear watching depending on how the team fares in the first half of the season.
Who stays long-term?
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One of the no-brainers is that the Raptors should lock up 25-year-old Siakam to a large, long-term contract extension that would kick in at the start of the 2020-21 season. They have until Oct. 21 — the day before the season starts — to get that done, and you can be sure at least preliminary discussions have been held.
There’s another one that’s just as intriguing. Ownership would be wise to find a way to lock up president Ujiri on another long-term deal of his own. He is much sought after around the league, but truly appreciates the job he’s got here and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment would be well advised to make that appreciation reciprocal and make him an offer he can’t refuse.