Raptors roundtable: Can new Raptors centres replace Ibaka and Gasol?

Brad Fay, Michael Grange and Eric Smith discuss this season’s Raptors squad, touching on the player likely to take the biggest step forward, and where they will finish in the standings.

Despite going on a decent run, taking the Boston Celtics to seven games in the second round of the playoffs, the Toronto Raptors still felt like they felt short of expectations last season and will be hoping for a better result in 2020–21.

That quest officially begins Wednesday night when the Raptors kick off their regular season against the New Orleans Pelicans in their new temporary home of Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.

It’s been an off-season of great change for the Raptors, and the roster looks a fair bit different than it has in the last two seasons, but the lofty goals this team has set for itself for nearly a decade now remain the same as ever.

So, with Toronto’s season about to kick off, Sportsnet has assembled a group of its basketball experts to answer five big questions about the team.

Q: We all saw Pascal Siakam falter in the playoffs last season, and this season there’s probably more pressure on him with his extension kicking in. What can we expect from him this season?

Donnovan Bennett, Staff writer and digital host: His improvement has been exponential every year he’s been in the NBA — no reason to suspect 2021 will be any different. With even more offensive usage and playmaking responsibility with Marc Gasol no longer in the starting lineup and Kyle Lowry’s minutes being carefully watched, there’s no reason why Siakam can’t increase his offensive output while maintaining his previous levels of efficiency.

JD Bunkis, Good Show host: Small but meaningful growth. There’s actually way less pressure on Siakam this year, since last year he had the most difficult job in basketball: Fill the void Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard left. He’s not Leonard, and I think everyone gets that, so Siakam can get back to having the fun he said was missing for him in the bubble, improve his offensive arsenal a bit and stay in the All-NBA conversation.

Brad Fay, Host of Sportsnet’s Raptors television broadcasts: It might have cost the Raptors another Finals appearance, but, long-term, what happened to Siakam in the playoffs may benefit the team. I feel like the playoff struggles will drive him to get (a lot) better and prove he belongs among the elite.

Michael Grange, Senior basketball insider: Another strong season and less noise once people recognize that being an all-star and an All-NBA candidate makes him good value, rather than people being frustrated because he’s not Kawhi Leonard.

Steven Loung, NBA editor: The pressure will certainly be on Siakam as he enters the first year of that four-year, $130-million max extension he signed. But while he did stumble when last we saw him, I think until proven otherwise there has to faith that he can bounce back and return to that All-NBA form he showed before the bubble. If there’s one thing that’s undeniable about Siakam, it’s the fact he puts in the work during the off-season, and that effort has always paid off. So why should this season be any different?

Eric Smith, Raptors play-by-play announcer on Sportsnet 590 the FAN: I think we’ll see him return to all-star form. He has spoken at length about finding the love for the game again — the daily passion. I think 2020 was hard for so many of us, in all walks of life. I think Siakam will be “back.”

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Q: Kyle Lowry’s contract expires at the end of the season. Though still very good, he’s turning 35. Do you think this is his last season as a Raptor?

Bennett: There isn’t a massive market for mid-30-year-old point guards. Unless Lowry wants to take far below market value to ring chase elsewhere, Toronto represents his best situation to retire as a beloved figure. Like Chauncey Billups at the end of his career, Lowry can extend his years of high level of play late in his NBA life by moving off the ball to the two and getting by with tough defence and elite three-point shooting. And the roster in Toronto would allow for that to happen well beyond this season.

Bunkis: Chapelle voice: “The fiiiiiiiiiiif!”

Fay: Tough to call. If the Raptors are in a position to challenge for a title “next” season, I see another one-year deal. But if the team takes a step back, it might result in both wanting to move on.

Grange: Yes. I think he’ll look for an opportunity to win another title, and he’ll be in demand in all the usual places.

Loung: As someone who’s admired Lowry since he first came to the Raptors in 2012 — he was forced to wear No. 3 because Andrea Bargnani had No. 7 on lock — I’d selfishly like to see him play out his career in Toronto and retire a Raptor. But the reality of the team’s competitive situation may not allow that to happen. Unless Toronto can land a big fish in free agency, keeping Lowry may not make sense. In that case, could he and the $30.5 million he’s making this season be better served as an asset to land said big fish in a trade? If there’s a willing suitor and the player is right, we already know there’s historical precedent for this Raptors front office to trade franchise icons.

Smith: I think he’s a very valuable piece to this team, and I think he has earned the right to write his ticket. If he wants to come back, he can definitely help this team next season and beyond. If he wants to move on and close his career elsewhere, he has earned that cachet.

Q: OG Anunoby signed an extension to remain with the Raptors. How does this impact Toronto’s future?

Bennett: It means the Raptors’ core three moving forward are 23 (Anunoby), 26 (Siakam) and 26 (Fred VanVleet), and locked up for the foreseeable future with room for internal growth. Next off-season, the team will also have room to add top-end talent around them, wether that’s in the form of re-signing Lowry or even bringing back former Raptors like DeMar DeRozan or Leonard.

Fay: Once the Giannis Antetokounmpo dust settled, this seemed like an obvious move. Anunoby is still young and getting better, and with Siakam and VanVleet the Raptors have a long-term core that will keep them a threat in the East long-term.

Grange: It locks in another key foundation piece and at what I believe will be good value if he continues his trajectory towards being the one of the league’s best 3-and-D players.

Loung: A safe, sure way of ensuring a foundational, cornerstone piece of the franchise remains satisfied and locked in for the foreseeable future. Plus, if he has the kind of breakout year most are expecting of him, the Raptors may have gotten themselves a nice little discount for his services, to boot.

Smith: Without considering any other player on the roster — current or future — I think you’re in pretty good shape if you have Anunoby, VanVleet and Siakam as your anchors.

Q: Do you believe the likes of Aron Baynes and the combination of Alex Len and Chris Boucher can serve as suitable replacements for Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol?

Bennett: No. They’re more than capable of holding their own and providing 48 good minutes a night at the position, but they can’t replace Ibaka and Gasol. Nick Nurse generally knew that whatever happened on a given night, his team was going to outplay the opposition at the five spot. He can’t say that with the same confidence now.

Bunkis: Suitable? Sure. Better? No. The Raptors screwed up by not offering Ibaka more money on a one-year deal, and now they’ve got a less talented frontcourt. Good news is they’re among the deepest teams in the league, and can counter that talent loss with lineup diversity.

Fay: With the changing of the game to it being almost position-less, the designated centre becomes less important. Baynes may be a bit of a step down from Ibaka in terms of what could have been the starting lineup, but the usage at the position will drop with the expected uptick in production from Siakam and Anunoby, who both could play extended minutes at the five.

Grange: In aggregate? No. They will miss the offensive punch and shooting that Ibaka provided. Pairing him with Baynes and Boucher as the third big would have been a stronger combination of bigs.

Loung: Call me crazy, but I don’t see much of a drop-off and actually some improvements in some areas. Sure, Ibaka had himself a career year, but in terms of versatility on offence, he was almost exclusively a pop man in the screen game, whereas Baynes, Len and Boucher, in theory, can both roll and pop. Is Ibaka the better overall player than any of those three? Probably. But consider the fact that Gasol is no longer on the team. He was fantastic during the championship run, but looked to be a player with most of his skills greatly diminished last season. With Baynes continually improving, and the youth and upside that Len and Boucher bring, Toronto’s centre corps really isn’t as diminished as people may want to think.

Smith: You may not have the explosive shot-blocking, but I think you still have a presence in the lane and a big body that can set screens, rebound, and take no “guff” from opponents in Baynes — and his evolving offensive game is underrated. Additionally, Boucher is a confident scorer and athletic shot-blocker. Toronto should have enough to withstand the loss of Ibaka and Gasol, though they’ll certainly miss Gasol’s playmaking, and the chemistry and cohesion that existed with both players and the core of this Toronto team as well.

Q: Malachi Flynn has had an outstanding pre-season. What are realistic expectations for the rookie this season?

Bennett: Being a factor in the rotation is realistic, but it would also equate to wild success. People quickly forget VanVleet almost didn’t make the team as a rookie and Delon Wright needed considerable development with Raptors 905 before he fully gained Dwane Casey’s trust. To be a rookie point guard in the NBA is baptism by fire. Flynn has looked outstanding, but with no Summer League and an abbreviated pre-season, expectation should be tempered before we start filling out all-star ballots with the poor kid’s name on it.

Bunkis: Something similar to what we saw from Terence Davis last season. Not a ton of opportunity, but solid play when he gets it leading to calls from fans for more minutes.

Fay: Perfect fit for the Raptors. Upperclassman who has a grasp on the entire game. He could easily make the All-Rookie Team, even as the 29th-overall pick.

Grange: First-team All-Rookie Team. I’m not sure he’ll get the minutes he needs to be a Rookie of the Year candidate, but he’s good enough.

Loung: With Lowry and VanVleet in the starting lineup, he should be a lock for rotational minutes as the team’s primary backup point guard. Though it was pre-season, Flynn looked to have all the tools necessary to excel at that spot in the NBA already. There will be ups and downs, for sure, but there’s no reason why he can’t be a player in the All-Rookie Team conversation given his talent and ability.

Smith: Hard to say. Because of minutes, I don’t think we’re talking about a Rookie of the Year candidate (I’d love to be wrong), but I think he’ll be given a chance to play. And as long as he steadily improves and continues to show, as he has in the pre-season, that he’s confident and not running from the spotlight or the moment, I think he’ll have a great season and set himself up for even greater heights in the years to come.

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