Who are the Toronto Raptors, and what are they, really?
That’s what we get to find out now. That’s one of the small blessings for a team that has largely been vaccinated against COVID-19, returning to a city that — thanks to vaccines and other measures has largely been able to fend off the worst of the fourth wave — is waiting with open arms to take one more cautious step down the road to normal with the return of its NBA team after 18 months apart.
So much has happened. For the first time in nine years Kyle Lowry isn’t around to set the tone, to act as the bellwether for whether this team was going to run hot or cold.
For the first time in nearly that long the team that is opening training camp at the OVO Centre on Tuesday has more old faces than new. Only four returning players — Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher — have played as Raptors in Toronto. For the other 16 in camp, everything is new, even if they’ve played for the Raptors before.
Yuta Watanabe seems delighted that he’s had success in finding some of the city’s best Japanese restaurants. Freddie Gillespie was getting a tour of Scotiabank Arena for the first time, eyes wide. Malachi Flynn is taller in person — a legit 6-1, maybe 6-2 — than the guard we’ve watched weave his away around in the land of the giants on TV.
Luckily the Raptors don’t have to deal with any drama some other clubs are having to manage with high-profile vaccine holdouts like Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn and Andrew Wiggins with Golden State dominating conversation out of media day around the league.
The Raptors have no such issues.
According to general manager Bobby Webster, the Raptors are one more dose away from having their entire roster fully vaccinated. Players from opposing teams haven’t received their shots will be allowed to enter Canada and play at Scotiabank Arena under the a ‘National Interest Exemption’ but will be subject to testing and have their movement limited to their team hotel and arena, while wearing masks.
But in place of drama, the Raptors offer question marks.
With Lowry gone and the disruption of being relocated to Florida for more than a year behind them, what the Raptors look like going forward is an unknown. They’re not a championship contender, but they aren’t rebuilding either. They have some promising leaders, but they’re untested.
We got a sense of how challenging the transition was and will be when Siakam gave an interview to the New York Times recently where he discussed his struggles to find his place in the Raptors firmament since the pandemic hit: “Kyle was there, being a point guard. Kyle was, to me, always the greatest Raptor of all time. I think he was always like, ‘I was the guy’ [and] I had the contract, but I never really felt like I was the guy, to be honest.”
Leave it to point guard and resident sage VanVleet to flesh that thought out a bit:
“People couldn’t understand, ‘how could you not be the man, you got the contract, you got the ball in your hands all the time, Kyle defers to you, Kyle said it was your team,’” said VanVleet.
“But being ‘the man’ sometimes is ‘I’m gonna shoot this ball 40 times and nobody better blink, I better not see a face, the coach better not throw his hands up, a player can’t get mad.’ It’s a clear-cut distinction.
“I think my interpretation of what he was saying was that listen: ‘I got paid the max and when I got paid the max, all the fans expected me to become this, this, this and this and with that came a lot of responsibility, but in my way was the greatest guy to ever to that for this franchise and it [Siakam being ‘the man’] wasn’t a clear-cut distinction.’”
“Kyle didn’t just bow out gracefully, he wouldn’t be Kyle Lowry if he did … he’s not gonna just back up and let somebody else do it.”
Now there’s no choice. Lowry’s media day was Monday in Miami, where he signed as a free agent.
The Raptors in this iteration will go as far as Siakam, VanVleet and OG Anunoby can take them, a formula complicated somewhat as Siakam – recovering from off-season shoulder surgery – won’t likely take the floor until late November or early December, with US Thanksgiving as an optimistic target.
Not that it matters all that much. This is a season about ceilings more than floors. If the returning core can’t show signs of elevating this team beyond the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, chances are changes will begin in earnest.
But for now, in the first year after Lowry, it’s a fresh opportunity to see what is possible and what can be achieved.
Siakam seems energized by the opportunity. He’s as eager to put the past 18 months behind him as anyone else.
“For me, coming in in a year where there was COVID and everything happening, I was trying to figure out my role and where I fit in on the team — knowing when to say something or not,” he allowed. “… I think for me it was just understanding where I stand.
“Now obviously with Kyle gone, there’s no question. We had a conversation with Masai [Raptors president Masai Ujiri], and it was me, it was OG and it was Fred. Everyone else is gonna be young or [new to the team]. ‘We’re gonna go wherever you guys take us.’ I think that’s the focus. We’re gonna do it together. I think for me, again, I don’t like the word ‘the guy.’ I don’t like using it. I want to be the guy who wins. I want to win. That’s all I care about. If it’s playing more defence, if it’s scoring more points, if it’s being more of a vocal leader or someone who leads by example, that’s what I want to do. I just want to figure out what my role is. Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
He’ll have help. VanVleet has quietly been — odd as it sounds — the team’s vocal leader for several years now. It’s just that without Lowry, there’s no safety net.
“There were some things along the way that were out of character [for Siakam],” said VanVleet, referring to a couple blow-ups from the 27-year-old that bubbled into the public sphere. “But it’s all part of the journey. The only thing we don’t do now because we have phones [in our hands] every day is we don’t give [players) time.
“When [Siakam] comes back and he plays like the player everybody knows he is and who he knows he is, and better, I think that all of that stuff will be part of the story where you say, ‘OK, this was a moment of adversity. He broke through on the other side of it’ and you won’t remember it …
“We’re all in this together. Pascal’s gonna be a huge, huge part of what we do here, if not the biggest key for us. He’s the best player on this team. I’m ready for him to get healthy and get back on the court with us.”
Until then Siakam is working on some of the finer points of his game that have little do with his ability to slash to the rim, terrorize teams in transition or switch across five positions defensively.
In the Raptors’ first year post Lowry and first full season back in Toronto since they won their championship in 2018-19, Siakam is learning to lead on a team in need of it.
“I think it’s gonna be a [process]. I’m growing. I’m definitely getting better and trying to pick my spots,” Siakam said. “Obviously we have Fred and OG, different personalities. It’s gonna be a process. But I’m super excited about it. I remember when we went for dinner in Vegas [Summer League] in dinner and I’m sitting there and I’m like, ‘Damn, I feel like I’m the oldest here.’ It was weird, a weird feeling I never had before.
“It’s gonna be a process, but I’m excited about it.”
It’s new and it’s different. And at some point this season we’ll all find out what this team is all about and what its next era is going to be like.