With the NBA Championship behind them and most of the coverage of the Toronto Raptors focusing on the loss of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (not forgetting the sheer mind-blowing size of their championship ring), the Raptors are now focussing down on this new season and trying to gel the pieces of their newly formed team together.
There are a lot of questions over how well the team will work without mainstays like Leonard and Green and what the new starting lineup will look like. In this article, we’ll be looking at this new Raptors’ team and what their performance in this early part of the 2019-20 season can tell us.
A Year of Nick Nurse
The reality is that Nick Nurse couldn’t have asked for a better first season. The Raptors ended his first season with 58 wins in total, second sport in the Eastern Conference and an NBA Championship ring the size of a diamond-encrusted grapefruit.
To be fair, the team did win more games in the 2017-18 season, but detractors will find it hard to argue that Nurse hasn’t made his mark, certainly with the championship in the bag. The Raptors’ play style has clearly changed, with them moving from 11th spot for transition points per game to 3rd spot, just behind the Milwaukee Bucks and the Sacramento Kings.
The “big man upfront” style of play the Raptors used during the last season also benefitted them, playing to the strengths of Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka and a tactic that has been showcased this season with a combination of Kyle Lowry and Siakam.
The New Blood
There is no doubting that the loss of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left a big hole in the Raptors and worse might be yet to come. Free agency is still very much in the air, with Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet all becoming free-agents next summer.
While it seems unlikely that all of these big names will move on, particularly with Lowry publically looking for a contract extension, Nurse’s offseason additions indicate he is certainly planning for the worst.
By adding in second-draft picks like Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Cameron Payne, and rookies like Dewan Hernandez, Terence Davis, and Sagaba Konate, Nurse is clearly conducting auditions for whatever the Raptors transition into as the stars that won the NBA Championship wink out one by one.
(Caption: Rather than attempt to retain star players who wanted to move on and keep the team static, Nick Nurse has focussed on bringing forward players into the limelight and recruiting a range of new faces and rookies to build the next NBA Championship winning team out of.)
With so many players having question marks hanging over their heads this season, Fred VanVleet has the opportunity to become a core part of the Raptors’ rebuild. Last season, VanVleet moved up from barely appearing to becoming one of the best backup point guards in the NBA.
VanVleet averaged 11.0 points, 4.8 assists, and just under a steal per 27.5 minutes per game during the 2018-19 season and started in 28 games. With the loss of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, there are a lot of shots that need to be redistributed across the team. Most of those will probably fall on the shoulders of Pascal Siakam, but in order to either secure a starting spot or the value to move on to something better in 2020, VanVleet will have to prove that he can take some of those shots himself.
This means diversification from his traditional role as a three-point shooter and VanVleet will need to push his average up above 40 percent and work around the rim more, something he’s clearly been working on.
It only took one game for VanVleet to establish himself, scoring 34 points in the opening game against the New Orleans Pelicans with a blistering 12-for-18 shot average from the field. On that performance alone, VanVleet seems like the kind of player you should bet on having a high scoring season, especially if they come for free!
It’s fair to say that Marc Gasol hasn’t had the best start to the season. The big Spaniard entered the Orlando Magic averaging just 4.0 points and having got 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists from the first three games.
By the end of the game, Gasol had seemed to have finally found his stride, scoring 10 points, and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes of play and coming away as the team best in the box score. At the other end of the field, he was instrumental in limiting Nikola Vucevic, a key part of any successful game against the Magic.
Hopefully, Gasol has now found the pace and can start providing the passes that were so effective at facilitating others during the last season.
Lowry’s efforts against the Magic showed just how important he still is to the team. K-Low scored his 26 points in 38 minutes and, when he was on the field, the Raptors outscored the Magic by 13 points.
Lowry put in the effort across the court, giving six assists and getting five rebounds, but his work ethic showed through most in the fourth quarter, as he shorted 10 of his 26 points at the gritty end of the game.
Bringing Back OG Anunoby
Bereavements, personal issues, injuries, and even an appendectomy, it’s fair to say that last season was not kind in any way to OG Anunoby. This season represents an opportunity for a phoenix from the flames moment as Anunoby has the opportunity to prove that he is not just a 3-and-D guy, but someone who can make plays for himself and be a viable replacement for Pascal Siakam.
His will certainly be a name that comes up if the Raptors make a move for an All-Star and while he’ll certainly have competition out on the wings, he certainly has the talent and drive to recover from the disaster of last year and make his mark on this new Raptors team.