After losing superstar Kawhi Leonard in free agency last month, it’s highly unlikely that the Raptors will repeat as NBA champions in 2020. But on some level, Leonard’s departure could make Toronto the league’s most interesting club this season.
The team was an impressive 17-5 during the regular season1 when Leonard sat out. The Raptors play in the weaker of the two conferences, and might be looking at an Eastern Conference in which three or four rosters, at most, will enter the campaign clearly more fortified than their own. Forward Pascal Siakam showed signs last year of being a burgeoning star and now, without the ball-dominant Leonard, will likely be asked to do far more on the offensive end.
There’s an additional aspect of the Raptors worth watching. The team has a number of solid vets on the team who are headed into the final season of their contracts, leaving Toronto in a spot where it could push as far as possible for a playoff run, or, if its ceiling becomes obvious, pivot and trade to bolster their future.
If Toronto is to exceed expectations again, Siakam — the league’s Most Improved Player — would almost certainly have to take another step (or spin move) forward by becoming the team’s No. 1 offensive option. And while there are some metrics that inspire confidence on that front — his field-goal percentage last season, for example, was almost as good without Leonard on the court as it was with him2 — there are a handful of things to look for, and perhaps even some reasons to doubt that another seismic leap is on the way. For starters, his usage rate last season, at just under 21 percent, was one of the NBA’s lowest among those who averaged 15 or more points per game. His usage will almost certainly need to increase, which could then dent his efficiency. (As a sidenote: This concept is what made Leonard’s ascent in San Antonio so incredible. His usage spiked, but he was somehow just as efficient despite taking on more offensive responsibility.)
Though it seems easy enough to accept the notion that Siakam will need to shoot more, it’s worth considering at least two more things. First, he’ll likely see each team’s best defender now that Leonard is gone; and secondly, without Leonard, he won’t be able to play off the ball as much.
The second factor is significant because of where Siakam is most comfortable shooting. He developed into a solid 3-point shooter from the corners — where he could hang out while sharing the floor with Leonard and All-Star Kyle Lowry — last year, at better than 41 percent. But Toronto’s need for him to handle the ball,3 especially in screen-and-roll scenarios, will likely put Siakam at the top of the key more often, which complicates things since he shot just 27 percent from above the arc, tied for the NBA’s 10th-worst mark.4
If Siakam isn’t quite ready for the role of a lead scorer night in and night out, it helps that the Raptors are a team that often thrived without relying too heavily on one player throughout most of the 2018-19 regular season. Of course, Leonard was an enormous part of that and picked up all the necessary slack come playoff time. But no other club enjoyed such a variety of players driving to the basket. Backup point guard Fred VanVleet shone in the later stages of the postseason and can play with the starters at times to help ease the ball-handling responsibilities on Siakam and Lowry.
One other key in all this: Toronto may not have to score all that much. Yes, Leonard and Danny Green were huge contributors to the Raptors, who ranked in the top five in effective field goal percentage defense. But even without those two, Toronto enjoys a pretty solid defensive core that can still orchestrate switches (they were this postseason’s most efficient switch defense by a mile) and reliably step up in help scenarios, while Lowry is one of the best charge-takers in the game. OG Anunoby, who missed the playoffs after an emergency appendectomy, will be integral in replacing Green on that end. Aside from him, Toronto picked up a pair of free-agent wings in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, who underwhelmed in their initial stops after being taken in the first round of the 2015 draft, but are low-risk gambles for a team that’s looking for more young talent to put around Siakam.
In a way, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson being under the microscope is emblematic of the team as a whole. Team president Masai Ujiri is going to want to take constant stock of just how good this team is to get a sense of how he should handle things come February, when his phone figures to be ringing off the hook ahead of the trade deadline. Lowry, VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are all set to be free agents next summer,5 and could appeal to teams seeking to make the sort of magical run Toronto did last season.
Barring an injury or something else unforeseen, the Raptors should still have more than enough to make the playoffs this season. FiveThirtyEight’s projection model gives them an 85 percent probability of reaching the postseason, and a 4 percent chance of reaching the NBA Finals. But it will be even more interesting to see exactly where Ujiri’s dividing line falls, between deciding that it’s worth pursuing another deep playoff run versus selling off assets to pivot toward the future.