Raptors Restart Roundtable: Can Toronto repeat as champions?

We look back at all the ups and downs from the Toronto Raptors 2019-20 season before the NBA pause, and look ahead to a healthy return in Orlando, and a chance to repeat as world champs!

It’s been 145 days since the last time the Toronto Raptors played a meaningful basketball game, but on Saturday night that all changes.

Obviously, a lot has changed in the near-five months since, and with how long the hiatus was and the dynamics of playing without fans it almost feels like this whole thing is a new season in and of itself.

It isn’t, of course. A 2020 champion will be crowned and as such, the Raptors are still the defending champs until they’re officially eliminated.

So how will the Raptors fare in this restart? Sportsnet has assembled a group of its basketball experts to attempt to answer this question and a few more.

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Q: In one sentence, how would you describe the Raptors’ season pre-hiatus?

Donnovan Bennett, Staff writer and digital host: Considering the Raptors had virtually the same record this season as they had last year on their championship the only way this season can be described is as an overwhelming success.

JD Bunkis, Good Show and Free Association host: The most enjoyable regular season in Raptors history.

Brad Fay, Host of Sportsnet’s Raptors television broadcasts: Better than expected in the eyes of everyone, except the Raptors themselves who were firm, right from the start, in believing how good they were.

Michael Grange, Senior basketball insider: Surprisingly excellent and full of promise.

Steven Loung, NBA editor: As enjoyable and gratifying a title defence as you’re probably ever going to see.

Eric Smith, Raptors play-by-play announcer on Sportsnet 590 the FAN: Beyond impressive.

The Raptors lost their best player (and your best defender) and another starter – 40 per cent of their starting line up from last season, gone – and still went out and compiled the second-best record in the East (third-best in the NBA) with a defence that’s ranked first in opponents’ points per game and second in opponents’ field-goal percentage. Oh, and they did all of that with Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, Norm Powell, Marc Gasol and others missing 10 or more games due to injury.

Arden Zwelling, Senior writer: A mad science experiment in figuring it out on the fly.

Q: It feels like Nick Nurse is the favourite to win Coach of the Year, are there any other Raptors you believe deserving of hardware? If so, what award?

Bennett: Pascal Siakam. I know he won Most improved last year but how many players improved more this year? He’s playing harder minutes with more attention being paid to him as the focal point of opposing defences but still improved as a scorer.

After going from 7.3 points per game in 2017-18 Siakam increased that average to 16.9 in 2018-19. This season he’s up to 23.6 which is a harder jump to make to get in the class of the elite scorers in the league. Siakam has an outside shot of going back-to-back.

Bunkis: No other Raptor will be recognized with an award, but I really don’t understand why Masai isn’t getting more consideration for Executive of the Year.

The Raptors’ culture and depth is largely why they’re in this position, and no one deserves more credit for that than Ujiri, who also is widely considered as the best executive in basketball. So why not acknowledge that?

Fay: No, although early on it looked like Siakam was taking another run at Most Improved Player again.

Grange: Norm Powell would be an excellent Sixth Man candidate, as would Serge Ibaka, but both started too many games to qualify. I think Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby should get consideration for All-Defence and Kyle Lowry should be All-NBA.

Loung: I don’t believe any other Raptor will be in the running for any of the major awards outside of Nurse’s Coach of the Year candidacy, but I think OG Anunoby has a case to make one of the All-Defence teams and Pascal Siakam should be a good bet for the All-NBA third team at the very least.

Smith: You could certainly build the case for Most Improved Player for Pascal Siakam. His jump, statistically, from last season is as impressive as the increase we saw from 2018 to 2019, and we all remember him taking home the hardware last summer.

However, his recognition already came as an all-star this year, and there are many other deserving candidates around the league so I don’t anticipate Siakam going back-to-back with this award. The Raptors don’t need individual accolades though, they’re just a good team, period.

Zwelling: I don’t think so. You could make a case for Pascal Siakam to receive a second-consecutive Most Improved honour. But I doubt voters will go along with that. Remember, NBA Awards voters hate Canada, hate the Raptors, and hate you, personally. I bet Bam Adebayo takes it home.

Livestream the Raptors' quest to defend their NBA title with select NBA playoff games on Sportsnet NOW.

Q: Do you feel the layoff helped or hurt the Raptors relative to the rest of the league? Why?

Bennett: Can only help them. This is the first time all season the entire team has been healthy. What made their season so unlikely was the fact all their major players missed significant time due to injury. That won’t be the case to start the restart.

Bunkis: The easy answer is it helped because they got healthy, but so did a lot of teams.

To me, the biggest thing working in Toronto’s favour is they have an identity and are a veteran group that won’t be sidetracked by the challenges of “bubble life.” You hear it over and over again, but the teams that can put aside the distractions should thrive, and I think Toronto is a sure bet to be one of those clubs.

Fay: With their extreme health issues it can’t help but benefit them.

Grange: It helped because they’re almost fully healthy (Pat McCaw and Oshae Brissett aside) for the first time this year and their younger players – Anunoby, Thomas, Terence Davis and perhaps even Siakam – have had a full off-season to work on skills that they can immediately translate. This is the equivalent of Anunoby’s fourth season, so to speak, having come off a four-month ‘”off-season” where he worked on ball-handling and shooting and it shows.

Loung: I definitely think the hiatus helped them, and in a big way at that.

The Raptors were among the most injured teams in the league and even if their full roster came back in time for when the playoffs were supposed to be played there’s a good chance they would be far from optimal condition. Now, they’re fully loaded, fully rested and, as a result of increased opportunities for guys with all those injuries they sustained during the season, boast, perhaps, the most depth in the whole league.

Smith: Considering all of the injuries Toronto dealt with this year, the layoff could prove to be a major bonus for Toronto. Two of their top six – Gasol and Powell – should benefit most.

Powell was playing better than ever before he got hurt and Gasol has come back leaner and lighter – looking like he’s in the best shape of his career. Factor in the rest for your leader, Lowry, and for a veteran like Serge Ibaka as well, and I’d say the Raptors have many reasons to be optimistic about their return to the court.

Zwelling: From a sheer recovery standpoint, it had to be a big help. The Raptors had the shortest break of any NBA team between their 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. And it’s good that they did, because that’s what happens when you win a championship, but the physical toll that comes along with it very clearly materialized this season. A few months off to heal, refocus on conditioning, and mentally reset can only be a benefit.

Q: Which Raptor are you most excited to see hit the court again after the long layoff?

Bennett: Kyle Lowry. The routine question about Lowry at the end of the season is, “How healthy is he?” It looked like we’d have similar concerns this year as he was in the top five in minutes all season. Yet, Lowry had basically an off-season length of time to rest but actively used that time to work on his body and looks in great shape with a spring in his step since entering the bubble. A healthy and refreshed Lowry is a nightmare for the rest of the league.

Bunkis: Marc Gasol. If “Skinny Marc” is able to stay on the floor longer and gets more touches I think he’s the team’s most important player during this run. His impact on defence is undeniable, but the Raptors’ 12th-ranked offence stagnated at times this season, and a rejuvenated Gasol might be the best chance of unclogging it.

Fay: Norm Powell, now the longest reigning conference player of the week in history. Three different times this season he got wound up and played at an all-star level. Twice injuries derailed him and then the shutdown.

Grange: Anunoby. It’s crazy to think the Raptors could have another player take a leap like Siakam did, but it’s not crazy to think Anunoby could do it. His ceiling is very high.

Loung: OG Anunoby. He didn’t get to contribute at all during last year’s championship run because of an emergency appendectomy and with a much-improved handle that’s fed into a more assertive-looking offensive game during the scrimmages, we could finally start to see Anunoby begin to touch that star-level ceiling he’s always had the potential for.

Smith: Marc Gasol. When I think back to how well he played in the post-season last year – and the impact he made on the Raptors overall – I’m definitely intrigued by what he can do this year.

And when I factor in his frustrating, up-and-down regular season and then add the rest that was provided by the hiatus and his new slim-and-trim look? I’m intrigued even more.

Zwelling: It hurts how obvious this answer is, but it’ll be pretty interesting to see how Marc Gasol’s beach body translates on the floor. And, more importantly, how refreshed he looks after getting an extended break from high-intensity basketball for the first time in a year. Close second goes to Kyle Lowry, who’s just fun to watch play regardless.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

Q: Last year during the playoffs Pascal Siakam had a breakout moment for himself. Who do you think might be that guy for the Raptors this year?

Bennett: OG Anunoby. Many people forget Anunoby wasn’t a factor at all during the playoffs last year as he didn’t play a minute due to an emergency surgery right before the first round. This year he’ll be asked to guard the elite wing players the Raptors face and show off the ball-handling he’s worked on as a facilitator and a playmaker offensively.

Bunkis: Norm Powell. Twice this guy has proven to be a big-game Buck hunter, so why not go for the hat trick? Powell was living up to his contract this season and despite injury interruptions he kept coming back with the same offensive efficiency and confidence that eluded him on a consistent basis in seasons past. His role and minutes are more certain, and when games tighten up I think Nurse will look to Powell to create for himself.

Fay: Norm Powell. “Playoff Powell” could go to another level.

Grange: Matt Thomas. He looks confident and assured with the ball in a way he didn’t before the hiatus. It’s a stretch to think he can take over games like Siakam did at times last year, but I can see him having a “Playoff Norm” moment or two.

Loung: Norm Powell. He’s obviously had his moments and flashes of brilliance in the post-season before, something that has always tantalized fans and media alike about what kind of player he could become. Unfortunately, that promise would more often than not come up empty – until this season, that is.

Enjoying his best season as a pro by far, Powell, when healthy, has been among the Raptors’ most consistent scoring threats and with the team’s offence not being as potent as in years’ past, Powell’s ability to just come in and fill it up – both off the bench or as a starter – will be a very valuable asset in the post-season.

Smith: Some may argue that Fred VanVleet is already there – and that may be true, I wouldn’t argue that – but as good as he was last year against Milwaukee and Golden State, he struggled early on against Orlando and Philly.

Coming off a fantastic regular season and a major uptick in his production and numbers, I expect VanVleet to be as effective and dangerous in the playoffs. His patience, play-making, defence and shooting could all be X-factors in a long run for Toronto.

Zwelling: There will probably be a “Norman Powell Game” at some point. Perhaps a “Terence Davis Game,” too. Matt Thomas could hit a bunch of three’s one night, as well.

The way the Raptors share the ball, anyone’s liable to have a big night depending on circumstances and game script. And that’s the thing — the real strength of the Raptors is how their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. This team’s at its best when scoring can come from anywhere and all five players on the court are playing organized, dogged defence.

Q: The Raptors drew a very tough eight-game seeding schedule. Realistically, what record do you think they finish with afterwards? Can you see them falling out of the No. 2 seed in the East?

Bennett: The Raptors were just 11-14 versus .500 opponents this season so I don’t expect them to finish above .500 during their eight-game seeding stretching, nor will they have to as I don’t expect them to be pushed by Boston for the No. 2 seed. Nurse will tinker with rotations and manage minutes until the games count in the playoffs.

Bunkis: To me it’s all about the Celtics game. Win that and you’re the No. 2 seed. Lose and it’s definitely going to be a photo finish.

Thing is now though, without home-court advantage, the Pacers likely to finish No. 6 without Damontas Sabonis, and some lower-body injury concerns for Kemba Walker and Joel Embiid, the stakes aren’t nearly as high.

Fay: The Raptors’ near-unmatched depth will allow them to ease into the schedule. But if the gap with Boston closes quickly that could change. I see a 6-2 record which will allow them to hold down the No. 2 seed.

Grange: I think 4-4 would be a perfectly fine mark and if they can do that they’ll hold onto the second seed. I don’t see them being worse than 4-4.

Loung: I see the Raptors going 5-3 in their seeding games, including a big win over the Celtics to keep the No. 2 seed with ease.

With injuries and player opt outs on teams like Boston and Indiana, keeping No. 2 isn’t as important anymore as one previously thought, but this is just an eight-game tune-up before the playoffs hit, so the Raptors should look to win as many games as possible to build momentum heading into the real dance.

Smith: I’m not as concerned with their record as some may be. And while I acknowledge the apparent, or perceived, importance of the No. 2 seed (and what it means for matchups and whatnot) I think you have to know that others below you could flip-flop seeds as well (which could impact matchups, too).

Plus, the Raptors are the reigning champs and shouldn’t fear anyone. They should carry that confidence and swagger that they’ve justifiably earned.

Zwelling: Boston might make it interesting, but I think the Raptors will take care of their business and keep the No. 2 seed. The Celtics are actually closer to Miami in the standings than they are to Toronto, but the Heat have a pretty tough schedule themselves. I could see the Raptors going 4-4, finishing 50-22 and a game up on the Celtics.

Q: What are the realistic expectations for the Raptors in the post-season?

Bennett: Championship. This organization was built for the science experiment and test of institutional culture and individual mental fortitude that the NBA bubble presents.

Championship basketball is no longer the goal, it’s the standard. Defence wins championships and Toronto ranks first in opponent points and opponent three-point field-goal percentage and second in opponent field-goal percentage and steals. Anybody who is counting the Raptors out of the championship hunt has been sleeping on them and hasn’t been paying attention.

Bunkis: Winning back-to-back NBA championships. It’s not likely, but it’s certainly possible.

The Raptors are well-coached, their 3-7 players are arguably the best in basketball, they have big game experience together and a history of players returning from layoffs with additional skills. Are they favourites? No. Is there a path? Absolutely.

Fay: As Fred VanVleet said, they’re going to be tough for any team to beat four times. Conference final should be the minimum stepping-off point, and a repeat is definitely not out of the question. Nick Nurse will thrive in this unique setup.

Grange: NBA Finals.

Loung: Though they lack that one magnetic superstar that’s the usual hallmark of NBA championship-winning teams, including their team last year, the Raptors are good enough and the Eastern Conference is volatile enough for them to once again reach the NBA Finals. And, just like last year, should they reach the Finals, it would be pretty foolish to bet against them since they’ve already it made it that far.

Smith: They’re as good as any team in the East and they have every reason to think they could be in the Finals again. And if they get there, all bets are off and the series and title will be there for the taking.

Zwelling: That it’ll be interesting. That’s about all you can expect.

It’s impossible to predict what form teams will be in or how they’ll respond to the unique challenges of this restart. It’ll be unlike anything they’ve ever encountered before. That makes this NBA post-season even more unpredictable than it would be under normal circumstances. Just enjoy the ride.

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