Five problems plaguing Raptors: Can Anunoby turn shooting around?

Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby (3) knocks the ball away from New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) during the second half of an NBA basketball game. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Though it’s only been five games, a 1-4 record and having blown double-digit leads in all of their losses has kind of made it feel like the sky is falling for the Toronto Raptors.

Everywhere you look where conversation is happening about the team you see people searching for answers in an effort to make sense of what has been a sluggish start to the season.

The team’s passionate, devoted fanbase has appeared to be on edge with a few sectors already exploring trade ideas involving some of the roster’s most important players, while others look for a scapegoat in the nefarious officials who are certainly out to get the Raptors. And then there are the fans who are upset over the coverage the team’s been getting, claiming the so-called negativity around the club has been overblown.

Depending on your perspective, all discussion points surrounding the Raptors are fair game. How you feel about the team right now is just how you feel about the team right now because, bottom line, the club hasn’t been very good and, as Fred VanVleet explained Saturday night after the Raptors lost to the New Orleans Pelicans again, “there’s a lot of blame to go around for everybody.”

So let’s dig into that a little, shall we? Here’s a look at five reasons why the Raptors haven’t been much good to start the season.

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The problem with Pascal

This has been spoken about a lot so we won’t spend a ton of time on this, but it’s impossible to separate the struggles Toronto’s experienced to start the season and those of Pascal Siakam.

In the four games he’s played, he’s averaging 16.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game on 39.4 per cent shooting from the field and 28 per cent from three-point range while only getting to the free-throw line twice per game.

Those numbers are incredibly similar to the ones he put up last playoffs, where, in 11 games, he averaged 17 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists on 39.6 per cent shooting from the floor and 18.9 per cent from deep while attempting just 4.2 free throws per contest.

Because of the big max contract extension he signed in the summer of 2019, the lens zeroed in on him — particularly during the playoffs — and he faltered. And now, with that four-year, $136-million deal in full effect, the microscope is on him more than ever and, whether you think it fair or not, won’t ever really switch to another slide until he begins producing like a max player is expected to.

When you’re making money like a star player, expectations are that you meet the demands to play like a star player, and right now Siakam simply isn’t meeting his quota.

Inconsistent offence and defence

For the season, the Raptors have appeared to be a good defensive team (boasting a defensive rating of 104.3) and a poor offensive team (only putting up 101.8 points per 100 possessions).

However, given this is a small sample size, those numbers are a bit more skewed than you might believe, as the Raptors have appeared equally good and bad on both ends of the floor, just not simultaneously.

In Toronto’s loss Saturday, it allowed the Pelicans to put up 120 points, and in the team’s first two games of the season, it allowed 113 and 119 points, respectively. You don’t need fancy stats to tell you that’s all bad.

But the defence did make a brief return with the Raptors holding the Philadelphia 76ers to just 100 points on 38.1 per cent shooting last Tuesday, which they then followed up with a lockdown of the New York Knicks, holding them to only 83 points on 36.4 per cent shooting.

The New York game was obviously aided by a historically bad shooting night from deep for the Knicks (they shot 3-for-36 that game), but the defensive effort from the Raptors shouldn’t be swept aside, either.

The issue the Raptors seem to be having at the moment is that they can’t put together both a good offensive and defensive performance in a single game. This is likely the reason why the team has squandered double-digit leads. Being good on one end but bad on the other is a solid recipe for blowing games.

Poor offensive balance

The Raptors lead the league in three-point attempts, hoisting up 46.4 per game, but rank second-last in free-throw attempts per contest (17.8).

If Toronto was a little more accurate with its outside shooting, this wouldn’t really be a problem, but unfortunately they rank just 22nd in the league in three-point percentage, hitting at just a 33.2 per cent clip.

Given their personnel, it makes sense that the Raptors are a team that lives and dies by the three-ball, and at this moment they look to be digging their own grave each game with their offensive philosophy.

There’s been a decided lack of balance to the Raptors’ attack to start the season, and while free-throw attempts aren’t an exact measurement of a team’s ability to get inside, a mark of only about 18 per game simply isn’t good enough.

And, of course, any discussion about free-throw attempts will bring up talks about officiating and the possibility that the Raptors aren’t getting calls. But that, frankly, isn’t a good enough excuse. If the Raptors were getting inside more consistently, then they’d likely get to the line more often.

Threes are obviously a staple of any modern NBA offence, but the Raptors seem to have an over-reliance on them and need to find a way to get something going more consistently in the paint.

Anunoby’s (lack of) three-point shooting

There’s been a lot of attention paid to players like Siakam and Norman Powell for their early struggles, but OG Anunoby also hasn’t been the fastest out of the gate here.

As you may recall, Anunoby signed a four-year extension worth $72 million before the start of this season and, as is true for Siakam, that comes with a certain level of raised expectations.

Defensively, Anunoby has been as advertised. He consistently takes on the matchup of the opposing team’s best one or two options and, for the most part, shuts his man down. But that’s what we’ve already come to expect from Anunoby, and what we want to see is a leap forward in his production offensively.

Particularly, as a three-and-D guy, it would be nice to see more consistent three-point shooting from him.

He’s only making 25 per cent of his attempts from three-point range so far, and while he has had flashes of good offensive nights and shooting nights — like against Philadelphia when he had 20 points, going 4-for-7 from deep — those performances have been fleeting instances of brilliance, rather than the kind of sustained play the Raptors need from him.

Secondary unit woes

The shakiest part of any Raptors game these days is when the starters exit and the team’s revolving cast of second- and third-unit guys enter.

The team’s bench is only averaging 30.4 points per game — good for 27th in the league — and, worse yet, it seems to be anybody’s guess who head coach Nick Nurse will be turning to outside of Powell at any given time.

Nurse has given reasonable minutes to everyone available on the roster with the exception of Paul Watson Jr. and rookies Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris.

The only bright spot for the Raptors reserves has been the play of Chris Boucher, who had an excellent night Saturday, scoring 24 points, collecting five rebounds and blocking a shot while going 7-for-13 from the field.

Unfortunately for Toronto, however, big nights off the bench like Boucher had Saturday haven’t been the easiest to come by, particularly from the team’s reserve wings.

Nurse has been searching for a reliable answer there since the pre-season and looks like he’ll continue to probe and prod his roster until he finally finds something he’s comfortable with, which, much to the chagrin of many Raptors fans, doesn’t appear to be first-round pick Flynn.

As good as Flynn looked in the pre-season, it seems that, at least through five games, Nurse isn’t too comfortable rolling with him at the moment. Whether that’s because of something he’s simply not doing in practice or maybe because Nurse just hasn’t liked any matchup he’s seen for him is anybody’s guess right now, but it just looks like Nurse doesn’t believe a rookie is the answer to Toronto’s problems, no matter how much fans are clamouring for him.

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