The Toronto Raptors will play their 20th game of the season Tuesday evening when they take on Miami Heat. This takes us just about right at the quarter mark of the season.
As such, while there’s still a good chunk of season (and post-season) left to play, we’re beginning to get a good sense of what this Raptors team actually is about.
With that in mind, Sportsnet assembled a group of some of its basketball experts to answer five questions about the Raptors at the quarter-mark.
Q: Who has been the Raptors MVP so far?
Donnovan Bennett, Staff writer and digital host: Pascal Siakam. He’s their best perimeter defender, he’s their best interior defender, he’s their best rebounder, when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson isn’t on the floor, he’s their most well-rounded offensive player and he makes winning plays to close out games on both ends.
The Raptors are 23-4 all-time, including playoffs, when Siakam scores 25 or more points. And now that he’s knocking down threes with regularity, he might average over 25 points. The best player in the Eastern Conference has been Siakam.
Brad Fay, Host of Sportsnet’s Raptors television broadcasts: Fred VanVleet. Yes, I know Pascal Siakam has clearly been the Raptors’ “best” player, but with Kyle Lowry injured, VanVleet has not only taken over the QB duties but also has also elevated his game to where it’s at. He gets my vote as most valuable.
Michael Grange, Senior basketball insider: Siakam and VanVleet have been the Raptors co-MVPs.
Steven Loung, Section editor: Siakam’s the easy answer here as he looks like candidate for league MVP right now, but I interpret this question as “most valuable to the team,” and in my mind VanVleet’s been that guy.
“Steady Freddy” has lived up to every bit of his nickname taking the reins in Lowry’s absence as the team’s on-court leader in addition to just its starting point guard as the Raptors have seamlessly navigated an opening quarter of the season despite being as banged up as they have been.
Eric Smith, Raptors play-by-play announcer on Sportsnet 590 the FAN:Siakam. You could certainly make a case for VanVleet as well, but Siakam is putting up all-star (MVP?) calibre numbers and still finding ways to score and impact the game in spite of being the top target on opposing teams’ scouting reports every single night.
Arden Zwelling, Senior writer: It has to be Siakam for obvious reasons, but VanVleet’s been just as important — particularly in Lowry’s absence.
He’s seamlessly assumed Lowry’s do-a-little-bit-of-everything role, setting an energetic tone for his teammates at both ends and coming up with timely, impactful plays in crucial moments. The performances the Raptors have gotten from some of their depth players lately have been great and we shouldn’t overlook the role VanVleet’s played in running those bench units.
Q: Who has been the most improved Raptors player?
Bennett: Siakam. OG Anunoby will garner some attention, but his improvement is more an increase in opportunity and health than in ability.
Just two years ago, Siakam once missed 27 consecutive three-pointers over a 15-game span in just over a month. Now he’s shooting just under 40 per cent from three.
This season, Siakam has improved in every major category and done it while he’s the player other teams prepare for as Lowry has been injured and Kawhi Leonard left in free agency.
Fay: Siakam. He has actually improved more from last season to this one than he did from two years ago to last season. It would be unprecedented for a player to go back-to-back in MIP, but the NBA may have no choice.
Loung: I’ll go off the board a little here and say Chris Boucher. Yes, the Montreal native was named G League MVP and defensive player of the year last season, but as a guy who’s turning 27 in January it was kind of assumed he had already hit his not-so-high ceiling.
Obviously, that theory has been proven wrong thus far and he’s turning himself into a nice change-of-pace rotation big that provides some needed shot-blocking for a Raptors team that actually doesn’t have a ton of it.
Smith: Siakam, for the same reasons I listed above. He won the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season and he’s only gotten better. Siakam’s three-point shooting is most impressive; no longer just spotting up in the corners but draining it with consistency from the wings and above the break as well.
Zwelling: How can this be anyone but Siakam? He’s been a better scorer, a better rebounder, a better creator, a better facilitator and a better free-throw shooter. He’s making the same impact he always has in the paint, but now he also plays point guard sometimes and reliably hits pull-up threes.
Raptors fans should riot if he isn’t a first-time all-star, and it isn’t ridiculous to consider him the front-runner for a second consecutive NBA Most Improved Player award.
Q: What has been the most underrated Raptors storyline this season?
Bennett: Terence Davis. Normally it takes the Raptors a while to develop their undrafted players as they use Raptors 905 to give them some seasoning, but Davis is so good already the Raptors can’t afford to waste his energy and enthusiasm in the G league. All he does is come off the bench, get buckets and show rapid improvement.
Nov. 10: Terence Davis sets new career-high with 13 points. Nov. 13: Terence Davis sets new career-high with 15 points. Nov. 18: Terence Davis sets new career-high with 16 points. Nov. 20: Terence Davis sets new career-high with 19 points.
If he continues to improve, the Raptors may have cultivated yet another building block that helps raise their ceiling.
Fay: Nick Nurse’s coaching. His adjustments to injuries and early season refusal to play guys that weren’t buying in defensively have been impressive.
Grange: Norman Powell’s production as a starter.
Loung: There have been so many good stories to follow with the Raptors thus far, but I believe the one most underrated — or maybe just overlooked — has been the incredible job Nurse has done to steer this ship through injuries and what he believed to be a lack of defensive focus and come out with one of the very best defences in basketball at the moment and one of the truly elite teams in the NBA. Nurse, in my opinion, is the front-runner for Coach of the Year right now.
Smith: Nick Nurse. We’ve all talked about VanVleet stepping up in the absence of Lowry, the rise of Siakam, the return of Anunoby and the impact of the bench from hustle and energy guys like Boucher, Hollis-Jefferson and rookie Davis, but has Nurse been given enough credit for how he has managed this team without two of his top six players, Lowry and Serge Ibaka, and without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, as well? No, I don’t think he has.
He is creative both offensively and defensively and may be the leading candidate for Coach of the Year at the quarter-point of the season.
Zwelling: In a media-saturated market like Toronto, not much flies under the radar, but one thing we probably aren’t talking about enough is the fascinating decision the Raptors will have to make with unrestricted free agent VanVleet after the season. His stellar play is not only a tremendous present value for the Raptors, it’s also increasing the future cost to retain his services if the club chooses to do so this summer.
The Raptors are obviously trying to preserve as much cap space as possible for the big free-agent class of 2021. Can they find a way to do that and retain VanVleet?
Q: Forecasting ahead a little now, do you see the Raptors buying, selling or standing pat at the trade deadline?
Bennett: Buying. They’ve done business with Memphis before, so what would it take to pry Andre Igoudala away from the Grizzlies?
Toronto won’t be in the market to make a blockbuster move and they won’t be selling off expiring deals anymore, but a veteran addition on an expiring deal like the P.J. Tucker and Marc Gasol deals is what Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have proven to be interested in.
Fay: Not as imperative. Before the season I was convinced they couldn’t win without a major move (a la Bradley Beal) but barring injuries, a slight tinker — at most — will put them right there.
Grange: Certainly not selling, and could be buyers.
Loung: I believe the Raptors will stand pat at the deadline. With how well the team’s performed it’s obvious they won’t be sellers, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to go out and make a splashy trade to try to put them over the top like they did last season with Marc Gasol, either.
The Raptors are already very good and should feel comfortable with the current group they have, as keeping it together will mean they’ll definitely have a competitive team come playoff team and still remain as flexible as ever in their future off-season-and-beyond pursuits.
Zwelling: It’s still too early to say definitively one way or another — a lot can happen over the next two months and the roster’s constructed in a way that allows the front office to adjust its strategy on the fly.
But if things continue to go as well as they have, the Raptors will obviously be positioned to add. However, as always, whether a move occurs or not will depend largely on what opportunities are available on the trade market and what other teams do. People don’t realize how close the Raptors were to acquiring Nikola Mirotic last season before the deal fell through and Toronto pivoted to Gasol.
Q: Given what we know now, how would you re-assess the ceiling of this Raptors team?
Bennett: “The ceiling is the roof,” as Michael Jordan would say.
Siakam went from looking like he’d make the leap and become an all-star, to making the leap and becoming an all-NBA player. If he continues to improve at this rate it’s hard to put a limit on how good both he and this team can be.
Fay: Better team than almost everyone thought. Best way to say it is, while I wouldn’t bet the house on the team reaching the NBA Finals again, I certainly wouldn’t bet the house “against” it happening. They will be a very tough out.
Grange: I had them as a 50-plus win team and a home seed in the first round. That’s likely their floor and they could push for 60 wins and a No. 2 seed, with a possible Finals appearance with good health.
Loung: I was incredibly skeptical of this Raptors team coming into the season, pegging them as a No. 4 or 5 seed with likely a second-round exit. From what I’ve seen so far, however, I think this Raptors team will push for one of the top two spots in the East with an Eastern Conference final appearance as the team’s floor and a realistic shot to repeat as champions.
Smith: At the beginning of the season I said that I felt Milwaukee was likely the East’s top seed, but after that there wasn’t much separating the Raptors, Celtics and Sixers. That opinion hasn’t changed (except for maybe adding Miami to the mix as well).
Toronto is one of the best teams in their conference — in the league — and they should absolutely have home court in the first round of the playoffs. There’s every reason to believe they could be in the conference finals again. And from there? See 2018-19. Anything is possible.
Zwelling: I expected the Raptors to be a top-four team in the East and I still think that’s what they are. There isn’t a ton separating the conference’s best teams — if everyone enters the playoffs healthy, it’ll be a fun spring.