Five Raptors storylines to watch as team returns to Toronto

Nick Nurse talks about why the Toronto Raptors are good when it comes to depth and can match up with any other team in the league.

After missing the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons last year, the Toronto Raptors will be looking to return to their winning ways in the 2021-22 campaign, but will have to do so with a new-look roster.

The Kyle Lowry era is over. The Raptors arranged a sign-and-trade that sent the greatest player in franchise history to his desired destination — Miami — in exchange for Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa.

Of course, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby stll remain on the roster and will enter this season as definitive leaders both on the court and in the locker-room, but a lot of this season looks like it’ll be determined by how the young pieces around this core trio perform.

There’s the aforementioned Achiuwa, Gary Trent Jr. — who’s entering the season having signed a pretty hefty three-year, $54-million contract — and second-year man Malachi Flynn — just to name a few who figure to play key roles in determining the success of this Raptors season.

The Raptors are a hard team to prognosticate because there are so many unknown variables regarding this squad, and one easily can argue Toronto could be decent or bad this season.

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Here’s a closer look at the team and what we might expect from them this season, including five key storylines to watch.

Off-season snapshot

Re-signed: Khem Birch, Gary Trent Jr.

Additions: Precious Achiuwa (acquired in sign-and-trade transaction with Miami), Dalano Banton (No. 46 overall pick in draft), Scottie Barnes (No. 4 overall pick in draft), Isaac Bonga (free agency), Justin Champagnie (undrafted free agent), Sam Dekker (free agency), Goran Dragic (acquired in sign-and-trade transaction with Miami), David Johnson (No. 47 overall pick in draft), Svi Mykhailiuk (free agency).

Departures: Aron Baynes (still a free agent; suffered severe nerve damage in his neck during the Olympics while with Australia), DeAndre’ Bembry (signed with Brooklyn Nets), Rodney Hood (signed with Milwaukee Bucks), Kyle Lowry (traded away in sign-and-trade transaction with Miami Heat), Paul Watson Jr. (signed with Oklahoma City Thunder).

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Raptors roster
Precious Achiuwa
OG Anunoby
Dalano Banton (rookie)
Scottie Barnes (rookie)
Khem Birch
Isaac Bonga
Chris Boucher
Justin Champagnie (two-way)
Sam Dekker
Goran Dragic
Malachi Flynn
David Johnson (rookie, two-way)
Svi Mykhailiuk
Pascal Siakam
Gary Trent Jr.
Fred VanVleet
Yuta Watanabe

Storylines to watch

Threading the needle: Though this plan can change as the season progresses, as things stand at the starting gate of the season, the Raptors appear to be a team attempting to do one of the toughest things in all of sports: keep a reasonably competitive window open while developing younger talent.

When you have veteran players like Siakam and VanVleet on the roster who have only known winning during their NBA careers and you remove a piece like Lowry, making these guys the undisputed leaders of the team, it would be a disservice to them to not at least make a good attempt to win some games and reach the post-season.

At the same time, however, the Raptors have many youngsters on the roster who will need time and reps to develop and become players who will inevitably help the team return to its contender status, meaning, in all likelihood, mistakes will be made that may cost Toronto games that could impact its playoff potential.

How the Raptors strike this fine balance — if they choose to do it at all as we find out more what this team is exactly — will be intriguing to monitor.

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Going all in on defence in a league dominated by offence: Last season saw the average offensive rating in the league leap up to 112.3, the highest mark since Basketball-Reference first started tracking the stat in the 1973-74 season.

That rating was also the third straight season the league average offensive rating was at least 110 or above and it appears to be a sign that the NBA is heading in a direction that favours offence more than it ever has.

Which is why it’s rather curious that the Raptors have apparently zigged while the rest of the league has zagged this season by appearing to better fortify its defence with a veritable army of long, rangy, six-foot-eight to six-foot-10 players who can guard multiple positions and figure to be able to switch everything out on the perimeter.

In a league that values perimeter shooting and pace-and-space-style offences so much, having the kind of length that the Raptors feature on the defensive end could make for a good counter.

The scoring conundrum: Being a solid defensive team is never a bad thing, but you have to wonder if the Raptors may have trended too much toward the defensive end because outside of Siakam, it’s difficult to see where Toronto will find reliable scoring.

Siakam (shoulder) will miss the start of the season and likely won’t return to the lineup until closer to December and in the meantime, the Raptors will need to find some players who can get put the ball in the basket.

Chris Boucher could be an option, but he’ll also miss the start of the season with an injury, meaning we’re likely to see a number of players being given opportunity to get theirs with likely candidates being VanVleet, Anunoby — who has looked fantastic as an offensive weapon during the pre-season — and Trent.

Without Siakam in the lineup, the Raptors don’t have a true bucket-getter, but they have players who can score, if they’re put in the right spots.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Toronto’s offence will function without Siakam, and the solution may come more from the team’s scheme than anything an individual player might be doing on a nightly basis.

Home at last: The Raptors haven’t had an opportunity to play in Toronto dating back to February 2020, but that will finally change this season as they’ll be back in front of their home fans, playing in a full-capacity Scotiabank Arena.

It’s been well documented about some of the struggles the team experienced while playing in the bubble and their experience in Tampa, Fla., but all those worries should be dispelled playing back in their real home again.

Raptors fans always come out to support, and having access to their actual training facility can only help.

How much it’ll help, though, is still anyone’s guess.

Barnes boost: The most exciting player to monitor this season will be No. 4 overall pick Barnes.

The rookie has already endeared himself to both the Raptors players and staff, and their fans with his fun, outgoing personality, and the way it looks like he plays is bound to turn even the prickliest curmudgeon.

His energy on the court appears infectious and the tools he flashes as a defender and playmaker look enticing.

He likely isn’t going to have big scoring nights, but Barnes appears to be a player who will have a big impact on winning, and that’s all you can ask for in a highly-touted rookie like he is.

Reasonable expectations for the Raptors this season

As mentioned, the Raptors are a team who are hard to pin down.

On one hand, a club that plays good defence, like this team is expected to, and plays hard generally produces a tough-to-beat squad that will rack up wins and find itself in the post-season.

On the other hand, though, the injury to Siakam to start the season is concerning and could see the Raptors get out to another bad start to the season like they had last year. And even when Siakam does return, the concerns on offence still feel warranted, particularly when things get into the half-court and the offence may stagnate.

So, all of this is to say you can be optimistic that the Raptors can make the post-season, but if that’s going to happen, it’ll likely be because they made it out of the play-in tournament to reach the traditional playoffs.

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