The Lookahead: Raptors' Pascal Siakam could benefit from playing in Tampa

Raptors forward Pascal Siakam discusses all the factors that caused his disappointing 2020 season, says the biggest thing was not having fun anymore, but says he has that joy again, and is ready to put 2020 behind him.

Playing his home games in Buffalo was a good thing for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and I’m willing to bet in his heart of hearts that Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam will equally profit from playing his home games in Tampa this season.

Given the blame placed on Siakam for the Raptors’ playoff exit by some parts of the Twittersphere, it might not be the worst thing for ‘Spicy P’ to try and regain his game in front of an empty or 75-per cent empty Amalie Arena in a city like Tampa that will just be happy to have even a borrowed NBA franchise.

Consider that the Raptors will be playing in a bolstered Eastern Conference without the on- and off-court contributions of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, one year after losing Kawhi Leonard. Folks can dream on Giannis Antetokounmpo all they want, but it will be Siakam and OG Anunoby who will have a large say in how attractive this team will be to whomever in that bumper free-agency class considers the Raptors as an option.

Our experience in the post-Chris Bosh Raptors years is mostly with players who have grown into stars from modest career beginnings – think DeMar DeRozan, Fred VanVleet and, to some degree, Kyle Lowry, as well as Siakam, of course. Anunoby is on the verge of also joining this group. Yet, despite the fact that improvement has come in every case through well-documented hard work and gradual improvement in different skills season by season, I wonder how patient Raptors fans will be more than a year removed from their NBA title.

I’d rather find out with the guys down south, to be honest. I’d rather that Siakam, who has spoken publicly of experiencing the same lack of joy and mental displacement described by so many other players within the NBA bubble, continue to – as he described it – "get myself right" without hearing the court-side murmuring.

Looking for a silver lining to a pandemic-created cloud? I guess I can stand accused of it. But just as I believe that at some point we will be thankful that young Guerrero’s shotgun move to first base and 2020’s general growing pains were experienced in an empty Sahlen Field as opposed to a judgmental Rogers Centre – and who knows, maybe a move back to third base in 2021 – so, too, do I like the idea that, starting now with training camp, the Raptors are going to get a little room to breathe.

THE WEEKEND TO-DO LIST

Might kill some time this weekend watching this…

Cleveland Browns at Tennessee Titans – Sunday, 1 p.m. ET

I think the last time I saw the Browns in a meaningful game, Earnest Byner was doing something. It seems like the Titans have locked in defensively but I’m always wary when a defence faces the same team (Indianapolis Colts) twice in a span of 17 days, and the other team its faced over that period is the Baltimore Ravens and the quarterback formerly known as Lamar Jackson. Browns? 2020? Makes sense.

Tottenham vs. Arsenal – Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET

C’mon, Spurs fans. You know the lads are setting you up for some kind of self-inflicted calamity in the spring, because Spurs gonna Spurs. The North London Derby is often a nasty affair, and this will be the first time since the pandemic shut down sports in the spring that fans will be at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Under the English government’s system of tiered loosening of restrictions, 2,000 fans will be allowed in. They’ll make themselves heard, as did the 2,000 Arsenal fans at Emirates Stadium for Thursday’s Europa League match against Rapid Vienna. They warmed up by singing anti-Spurs songs.

Bayern Munich at RB Leipzig – Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET on Sportsnet

Bayern will win the Bundesliga this season but second-place Leipzig can pull into first place ahead of the reigning champions by one point with a win this weekend. This is a tough call for neutrals. Even though they’re easy on the eye, Bayern’s success is a little too foretold. Leipzig, on the other hand, will always be looked upon as arrivistes propped up by Red Bull’s financial clout. It will be a good show, however. Fun game? Ask your friends what the RB stands for in Leipzig. Nope. Wrong answer.

Sakhir Grand Prix – Sunday, 12:10 p.m. ET. at the Bahrain International Circuit

That rare, competitive Formula 1 race due to Lewis Hamilton’s absence after a failed COVID-19 test. He’s wrapped up the driver’s title but with just one more race after this won’t get a shot at tying Michael Schumacher’s and Sebastian Vettel’s record of 13 wins in a year. He has 11. This is embarrassing for Hamilton, who was seen on social media playing tennis and hanging out with his dad and a friend. They were masked up. He wasn’t.

FAIR OR FOUL?

FAIR
Suggesting the NHL mandate that teams must carry an extra goaltender this season who is off the roster and isolated as much as possible from the team.

We all remember David Ayres. Once was funny … twice would be embarrassing.

The NBA is looking at bolstering rosters as a precaution and so, too, should the NHL take a lesson from the NFL, where the Buffalo Bills decided coming out of training camp that they would limit rookie quarterback Jake Fromm’s time around the team – separating him during meetings and practice – in order to keep him safe in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. The Bills put him on the injury list every week and didn’t reveal why until this Monday. Smart.

The Denver Broncos started that this week with Blake Bortles, after losing all four QBs last weekend due to improper masking, and the guess here is, with playoffs on the horizon, other teams will follow.

The NHL needs to do this with goalies, and maybe even one skater. Limit contact during practices and in the dressing room as a precaution and keep the player or players safer than they would be in the minors.

FOUL
Hammering on MLSE for the departure of Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney.

I’m not certain we’ll ever know just how screwed up the Reds' 2020 season was as a result of the pandemic but finding out they were practising on baseball fields at times while in exile in East Hartford as a result of the closed border gives me an idea.

Vanney is a 46-year-old with a family who was born and raised in southern California and has likely taken this TFC core as far as he feels he can. There are only a few jobs in MLS more lucrative than TFC and a couple of them happen to be open, including the LA Galaxy gig.

MLSE has never cheaped out on money when it comes to executives – you can make the case they’ve gone the other way – so this is likely one of those cases where parting really was sweet sorrow on both sides. No blame, just thanks and best wishes. Vanney got to leave on his own terms and not many coaches have ever been able to say that in this city.

THE ENDGAME

I have no great inside information on where the Toronto Blue Jays will be five years down the road except this gut call: it won’t be the current Rogers Centre.

I don’t know what folks expected in the way of a public, on the record response to Andrew Willis’s reporting that Rogers Communications planned to tear down the existing Rogers Centre instead of sinking half a billion dollars minimum into repairing the place.

As much as there will be an appetite for big construction projects and jobs post-pandemic – especially if they’re privately funded – I’m not certain you hold a news conference right now to announce it. Actually, that’s wrong: you don’t, if you want to get a fair hearing.

But everything about the report jibes with what has been a parlour staple in this city for two years, or at least since Rogers took the question of what to do about the building out of the purview of Blue Jays president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro.

It’s become a real estate play along with Brookfield Asset Management, and while the original focus is on the existing location, do not sleep on the idea that the new ballpark gets built down by the water in the Portlands instead. That would allow the Blue Jays to play at the Rogers Centre while the new place gets built. The commissioner’s office will not sign off on allowing a team to play in another market while a park gets built – the pandemic relocation is different and I can guarantee you Rogers won’t want to waste a year of Bo and Vladdy in another city.

As of now, the Rogers Centre is on the clock and it will run down faster than most of you imagine.

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 3-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan and co-hosts Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass, with Dan Riccio on Monday nights across the Sportsnet Radio Network.

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