No season is a “throwaway,” because the individual development and experience gained over those six months always matters. But the Toronto Raptors’ 2020-21 season may be the closest we’ve seen in a while. They were displaced, playing their home games in Tampa, Fla. They dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak and injuries, such that all of their starters missed at least 16 games. And they basically shut things down in the closing weeks, content with missing the playoffs.
The Raptors were rewarded with the No. 4 pick in the 2021 draft (Scottie Barnes), but they lost the best player in franchise history (Kyle Lowry) in free agency. So they’re not exactly picking up where they left off as they return home. Still, this team has three pieces — Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam — who won a championship, were big parts of the league’s second-ranked defense two seasons ago and who are still very much in the prime of their careers, with room to grow.
What do they get from spots No. 4-8 in the rotation? We basically know what the Raptors will get from their core three guys, though Anunoby could certainly make another leap and Siakam could bounce back from an up-and-down season once he’s fully recovered from left shoulder surgery. What could really determine how good the Raptors are is the next tier of players. The questions start with Goran Dragic, who made it clear that he’d rather be elsewhere after being acquired in the Lowry sign-and-trade deal. If Dragic is at his best for however long he’s with the Raptors, he can be a very useful break-starter and playmaker that would fit well alongside the other starters. Gary Trent Jr. can help by shooting better, Malachi Flynn and Precious Achiuwa have a season in the league under their belt and Barnes will obviously be given an opportunity to play right away.
After dropping from second (in 2019-20) to 15th in points allowed per 100 possessions, the Raptors should get back to being a top-10 defense again. And it would be very difficult for them to match their late-game misfortune of last season, when they were 11-28 (second worst) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. Without a real go-to guy on offense and with Lowry’s departure, improvement on that end of the floor would require career years from multiple players. VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam and coach Nick Nurse give this team a certain level of competence, but while the floor isn’t very low, the ceiling isn’t very high. Predicted finish: 40-42.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Goran Dragic: Has seen a drop in drives per 36 minutes in each of the last four seasons (from 18.9 in ’16-17 to 13.1 last season).
Fred VanVleet: Active defender (led the league in deflections per game) and aggressive shooter. Struggles to finish inside.
OG Anunoby: Elite defender. Shot 39.5% from 3-point range over the last two seasons. Can (and should) continue to add to his offensive game.
Pascal Siakam: Rapid improvement has stalled with higher usage. Still an All-Star-level, two-way player, but he’s out to start the season.
Khem Birch: Posted 11.9 ppg on 56% shooting in his 19 games with Toronto last season. Only 6-foot-9, but that’s as tall as any Raptor.
Malachi Flynn: Showed some promise both as a scorer and passer in starting 14 of the final 21 games last season.
Gary Trent Jr.: Led the league with 41 field goal attempts per 100 touches. Didn’t shoot as well after trade from Portland.
Scottie Barnes: Shooting needs work, but ability to handle the ball could allow for minutes alongside both Anunoby and Siakam.
Precious Achiuwa: Energy big made just one shot outside the paint in 737 minutes as a rookie. In a great system for development.
Chris Boucher: Shot-blocker and 3-point shooter started last year strong, but struggled as the season went on.
LAST 5 SEASONS
How the Raptors have fared stats-wise over the last 5 seasons …
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
STAT TO KNOW
1 — The Raptors were the only team that finished in the bottom five in both clutch offense (27th) and clutch defense (26th). They had a positive point differential (with a 27-41 record) until the final four games of the season.
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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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