Raptors close out doomed season with eyes on what comes next

Toronto Raptors' Fred VanVleet, centre, gestures down court as he stands by head coach Nick Nurse, second from right, late in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas, Friday, May 14, 2021. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors’ tumultuous 2020-21 season has, at last, come to an end.

Toronto played its final game of the year Sunday afternoon, falling to the Indiana Pacers 125-113 to finish the season with a 27-45 record, the first time Toronto’s finished a regular season under .500 since 2012-13 and the eighth-worst season in franchise history by winning percentage.

And as icing on the cake, Canadian and former Raptor Oshae Brissett torched his old team for a career-best 31 points and 10 rebounds on 10-for-16 shooting as a reminder of what could have been had Toronto opted to keep him instead of Paul Watson Jr. during training camp, yet another decision gone awry in a season defined by them.

Toronto’s doomed season could be traced all the way back to even before camp started, when it was revealed that they would have to spend at least the first half of their season in the temporary home of Tampa, playing in Amalie Arena and create a practice facility and workspace for the team and its staff in a hotel, similar to what the NBA did with its Disney bubble a year ago.

Midway through the season, any hope of the Raptors returning to Toronto was snuffed out when it was announced they’d remain in Tampa for the remainder of the year, meaning they’d be playing their entire season, essentially, on the road.

That’s a bad situation for just about any NBA team, but it was exacerbated by what appeared to be a miscue form Toronto’s front office during free agency, when the team was unable to bring back either Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol, in an effort to prioritize keeping as much cap room available in the summer of 2021 to make a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo, of course, signed an extension to stay in Milwaukee, throwing a major wrench in the Raptors’ plans, particularly because they’d already allowed Ibaka and Gasol to walk, and replaced them with Aron Baynes and Alex Len, who didn’t prove to be suitable replacements at all as Baynes greatly disappointed this season and Len was waived early in the season.

So, while there was optimism at first for Baynes and Len, it became apparent rather quickly they were major talent downgrades from what the Raptors enjoyed before, and it led to the Raptors crawling out of the gate, starting 2-8 and never really managing to recover thereafter as the team dealt with crisis after crisis including a rash of injuries, and a brush with COVID-19 that ravaged the team and directly led to a dismal 1-13 month of March.

And along the way, the Raptors’ front office appeared to make moves that both helped and hurt the team’s chances, such as, at the trade deadline, trading Norman Powell to the Portland Trail Blazers for Gary Trent Jr., and then opting to keep Kyle Lowry only to have him play just nine games after the deadline as the team decided he would be better off resting for the majority of it, including the final six games of the season.

On Sunday, a number of Raptors players held court to discuss their odd season and what’s next for them. Here’s a little bit from each of their availabilities.

Fred VanVleet

More so than any other Raptors, it’s been a roller-coaster season for VanVleet.

He was among the hottest free agents before the season began and ended up locking up generational security for himself and his family by signing a four-year, $85 million deal to stay with Toronto, and he had the highlight of the season when he exploded for a franchise-record 54 points against the Orlando Magic on Feb. 2.

But while those were certainly major highlights, VanVleet also contracted COVID-19 and even now hasn’t completely recovered.

“I didn’t have one injury before COVID and I’ve been fighting to get back ever since,” said VanVleet. “There’s certain aches and nicks and things that just feel different since I’ve had it and as I said on the broadcast: I’m happy that I haven’t had any chest problems, any breathing problems, and that’s the one thing I was worried about. The rest of the stuff, the muscles and joints and aches, I feel like I can manage through that but the breathing was what I was concerned about and the heart and all of the major things. We’ll see, we’ll see, nobody knows – the world in general – especially at this level of competition, I think all the professional athletes dealing with COVID are gonna be the first of this kind to see how it affects us moving forward.”

And more than anything, the losing his team experienced this season affected VanVleet more than he would’ve liked.

“I find myself doing a lot of soul-searching just in life in general. I’m at a crossroads in my life in general, just speaking, like, I spent 27 years to get to this point, to get the big contract, to have two kids, to have a happy family. But I’ve been a winner the whole time,” said VanVleet, who once led the Wichita State Shockers to a perfect season in 2013-14 before bowing out in the Sweet 16. “So the moment I get to the pinnacle of my life and where I wanna be, we have this [expletive]-[expletive] season. It’s just a lot of back and forth on who that makes you as a person, because you let winning define so much of your character. Do you know what I’m saying?

“When you’re not winning anymore, you’re searching, like, ‘Well damn, if it’s not winning, what is it?’ There was a lot of that this year, just mentally.”

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Pascal Siakam

If there’s one thing we know Siakam loves to do, it’s get his butt in the gym and work on his game.

Still relatively new to competitive basketball, Siakam’s growth arc has a near straight shot upwards since the Raptors selected him with the 27th-overall pick in the 2016 draft, but as was seen in the bubble last year and through much of this season, the hurdle to make it over and become a true NBA superstar isn’t quite so easy.

For all his talents, Siakam struggled when it counted most this season, as he shot just 35 per cent from the floor, was just 1-of-7 from three-point range and turned the ball over seven times in situations defined as “clutch” by NBA.com this season.

As the man with the big max-money contract, that simply isn’t good enough and Siakam knows it, which is why the Raptors getting bounced earlier than normal is likely a blessing in disguise for the team.

For the first time in his career, Siakam figures to have a lengthy three-to-four-month off-season just to narrow in on what still needs polishing, and hone his craft.

“It’s an exciting time and wanting to get better is something that I take pride in and I’ve always done it,” said Siakam. “Obviously, going through different things you learn about things that you need and those are the things I want to go back and focus on. Having more time is a better thing.”

OG Anunoby

In a season of uncertainty and disappointment, perhaps the most encouraging development for the Raptors was the progress made by 23-year-old wing Anunoby.

He started the season by cashing in on a rookie extension, earning a four-year deal worth $72 million. It seemed a fair price given that Anunoby had already established himself as the type of floor-spreading, multi-position defender essential to winning basketball in the NBA now. He shot 39 per cent from three in the 2019-20 season overall and finished strongly – knocking down 52.6 per cent in the bubble and 41.5 per cent in the playoffs.

After a slow start in 2020-21 Anunoby began to prove that the contract might be a steal and his ceiling is far beyond simply being a catch-and-shoot player on offence. As has often been the case with Anunoby through his four seasons, injuries have been an issue as he was limited to just 43 games due to a bout with COVID-19 and ongoing problems with a calf strain that cost him 10 games in February, just as Toronto was beginning to get rolling, and helped justify the Raptors sitting him out the last eight games of the season.

But he did put together a 34-game stretch in which he averaged 16.9 points a game while shooting 42.9 per cent on more than six attempts a game with a true-shooting percentage of 61.7. More intriguingly, his usage rate crept up to 20.7 per cent, indicating his ability to participate more equally in the offence. In his last eight games before the Raptors began sitting multiple starters with an eye on draft position, his usage rate climbed up to 24.7 – in the primary option range – and his efficiency kept climbing as Anunoby put up 22.5 points a game with a true-shooting percentage of 64.

“Just being more aggressive. That is the main thing,” said Anunoby when asked about the key to his breakout. “Be more aggressive. Looking for my shot more. Looking to get other people involved more. Trying not to be passive. Just trying to make an impact on the game on both ends.”

For a 23-year-old with only 253 games under his belt, it’s easy to imagine Anunoby pushing himself in the ranks of the NBA elite before his new contract is over.

He’s got goals, and he’s got plans:

“The next step is continued all-around development, on-court, off-court leadership,” he said. “Just continue to work on my skills. Just being a leader, more of a leader, more vocal. Trying to help guys get to their sports; help guys (know) what to do on the court and off, just helping guys, especially when we’re back in Toronto, teaching them about the city, stuff like that.”

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Chris Boucher

A 28-year-old is supposed to be in his NBA prime. For Chris Boucher, though, it feels like he’s just getting started.

The late bloomer – he only started playing competitive basketball as a 19-year-old – finally got a steady role and a consistent dose of minutes, and did what you’re supposed to do if you want to establish yourself as an NBA regular: breakout.

Not long after he signed a two-year deal for $12.6 million in the off-season, Boucher began lighting up boxscores. For the month of January, he averaged 13.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks a game while shooting 43.8 per cent from three on four attempts a game – a lot of production to stuff into less than 24 minutes of playing time.

His name was on league leaderboards for all manner of efficiency statistics, often adjacent to leading MVP candidates Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. Things evened out somewhat, but Boucher finished the year 15th in WinShares per/48 at .202 – tied with Steph Curry and Chris Paul, who will likely appear on their share of MVP ballots as well. His 1.9 blocks per game was fourth in the league and he finished third in block percentage and 20th in true-shooting percentage.

“I finally got an opportunity, a consistent one, and … they still did a really good job in making sure I stayed ready and got better in my game,” said Boucher, who put up some monster games – 38 points and 19 rebounds against Chicago; 31 and 12 against Oklahoma City and 22 points; 10 rebounds and seven blocks against San Antonio among them. “When the opportunity showed up, I had the chance to use it. Guys like Fred, Pascal, Kyle – they stayed on me to get better. A lot of credit to this team for helping me during this season.”

But the Raptors want more and Boucher wants to provide it. Next season will be a contract year for him and his best chance to hit a home run financially – no small issue for someone who was essentially homeless for stretches as a teenager in the north end of Montreal.

The Raptors established that he’s not suited to play centre. At six-foot-10 and barely 200 pounds, he simply couldn’t match up defensively and the Raptors would be routinely out-rebounded. As the season progressed he played more and more at power forward alongside another big man. To make himself a permanent rotation piece on a team that promises to be deeper next season, Boucher will need to be more adept at guarding on the perimeter, as well as navigating screens and developing his ball-handling to attack smaller, quicker players on switches – a tactic opponents used to run him off the three-point line more and more as the season went on.

Translation: Boucher has more work to do to build on an impressive season, but the good news is he has a very specific list of things he needs to improve.

“Yeah, I’m definitely going into this summer with a game plan a lot better than the other years,” he said. “Playing at a different position, there’s a lot of stuff that I can get better at and I have plenty of clips now that I can watch. But I also just want to become a more patient player. My [basketball] IQ needs to get better. Playing at the four now, there’s a lot of stuff you don’t do as a five man. I need to get better at those. I have a lot of clips to look at so I’ll definitely get better at it and we definitely have a game plan now and we want to go into the summer attacking it.”

Gary Trent Jr.

The big trade the Raptors made at the deadline saw them bring in Trent from the Blazers for Powell, a comparable and younger player.

Now this off-season they need to make the move worth it by locking him up.

A restricted free agent who comes with a qualifying offer of about $4.7 million this off-season, Trent will likely command more than that as his talent as a perimeter defender, shot-maker and clutch performer was made apparent in the 16.2 points per game he averaged across 17 games with the Raptors.

It was a small sample size, of course, but Trent looks to have gelled with the team quickly and he’s said he’s enjoyed his time getting to know the people in the organization so far.

“For the Toronto Raptors, a great organization. It’s built up of a lot of great people,” said Trent. “It’s a lot of moving parts that goes on behind the scenes that a lot of people don’t see, from the front office down to the training staff, down to the coaches. Just in my two months of being here, the people I’ve met are good people and the type of people you want to be around.”

That bodes well for Trent to return to Toronto, something he said he’d like, but, ultimately, doesn’t have full control over.

“For sure. Most definitely,” said Trent when asked if he’d find appeal in returning to the Raptors. “But again, at the end of the day this is a business and the organization is going to do what’s best for them.”

You don’t trade away a player like Powell and then not bring back the prize acquisition from that trade, so chances are retaining Trent is what will be best for the Raptors.

Khem Birch

Birch was eager to play for the Raptors for a number of reasons after he joined the team when his contract was bought out by the Orlando Magic in early April.

And his six-week stint has worked out as well as could have been expected for all parties, but there’s something he’s still hoping to experience.

“I just hope if I come back that we’ll be able to have fans [in Toronto] there and just live a normal life,” said the 28-year-old big man from Montreal. “So that’s the one thing that I’m looking forward to, is just playing in front of my country and in front of 21,000 loyal fans and just going all out every night.”

The obstacles that need to be overcome include the pandemic receding to the point fans will be allowed in Scotiabank Arena at some point and – somewhat more in Birch’s control – him signing with Toronto as a free agent this summer.

There appears to be mutual interest. Birch was an even better fit than could have been expected when he joined the team. Through most of his career he’d been firmly entrenched as a back-up and looked on as a defence-first rim protector who was, at best, an after-thought offensively.

With Toronto he proved to be a much more evolved player as his 18-point, 14-rebound and four-assist outing in the season finale against Indiana showed. He demonstrated a solid pick-and-roll feel; a workable catch-and-shoot game from three – before finishing the season in a 1-of-9 slump he shot 36 per cent in his first 17 games with Toronto. Perhaps most impressively, he looked perfectly at ease as a passer and decision-maker in the Raptors’ quick-moving ‘next action’ approach on offence. Of his 12 career games with three or more assists, seven of them came since joining the Raptors, as have four of his career games with five or more assists, including a career-high six against Utah on May 1.

Birch was limited to just 91 minutes playing with the Raptors core of VanVleet, Lowry, Siakam and Anunoby, but the numbers were impressive, as they compiled a plus-22.3 net rating, the best of any five-man unit with at least 50 minutes played the Raptors put on the floor all season.

“I mean, I’m happy that it worked out. It was kind of nerve-racking. Those are championship-level players and I’ve never been in that kind of situation,” said Birch. “So I was kind of nervous but at the same time it kind of put the pressure off me because those guys are great players and the focus is on those guys and I’m an unselfish player so I know I can get my points but I can also just play my role and it was fun playing with those guys.”

Birch certainly gives the impression that he would love to be back with Toronto and it’s hard to imagine the Raptors wouldn’t have a role for him. But he’ll be 29 next season, so the contract will have to be right also. He’s coming off a two-year deal that paid him $6 million and would doubtless like some security on his next deal.

“I think [on-court] fit and financial is probably what’s tied right now,” said Birch. “I’ve seen a lot of guys who actually go for financial but they get flushed out after their contracts [are over]. So I think fit is very important because I don’t want to just be the kind of guy who gets money and gets flushed out. I actually want to have a career and play a big part on a championship-level team or just win. That’s my goal.”

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