Raptors Roundtable: On Barnes, Siakam and where Toronto fits in the stacked East

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse discusses how he and the Raptors organization manage team goals compared to individual goals and which they see as more important from season to season.

The 2022-23 NBA season could be one that defines the direction of the Toronto Raptors.

While the Raptors were in the conversation as a potential landing spot for Kevin Durant in the off-season, the team settled on only making a few additions to deepen its bench and is essentially running it back with the same core that won 48 games last season in the hopes that they will see continued development from its younger players.  

What does that mean for this Raptors squad in a pretty stacked Eastern Conference this season? Sportsnet’s basketball insiders answer some of the key questions that will help shape the season in Toronto.

What does the next level look like for reigning Rookie of the Year, Scottie Barnes, in his sophomore season?

Michael Grange, NBA Insider on Sportsnet: Long term? A big body who can score at all three levels (three-point line, mid-range and in the paint and at the rim) and who can pass well and defend. I don’t think it’s fair to put limits on him; his talent and IQ is that high. But for the Raptors in 2022-23? It’s simply more of what he did a year ago: opportunistic scoring, a more consistent defensive effort that is less reliant on ‘big plays’, but with big plays too, and a nice dose of point guard play to maximize Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr. and (eventually) Otto Porter Jr. as catch-and-shoot threats.

William Lou, Host of The Raptors Show on SN 590 The FAN: The next level looks like Barnes calling his own number. The only thing holding back Barnes is his propensity to be a passenger, even though he has the most natural talent to drive the bus. Nick Nurse runs a balanced offence where anyone can attack according to the matchup, which was reflected last season in all five Raptors starters averaging 15 points or more. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for someone to take charge, and Nurse is always imploring Barnes to assert control. His footwork and jumpshooting isn’t as precise as veteran leaders Pascal Siakam or VanVleet, but Barnes needs to be their equal this season, as he showed last season when either was missing due to injury.

Blake Murphy, Host on SN 590 The FAN: The honest answer is that there’s no one big flashing-sign skill I’m looking to see Barnes take a step with. Sure, the three-point shooting would be great, but realistically, improving a little bit at everything is probably the most valuable step he could make. Having said that, if Vision 6’9 is going to work offensively, Barnes will need to improve playing on both sides of the pick-and-roll. Barnes is a very good playmaker in transition and clearly sees the game at a high level. That didn’t materialize in consistent playmaking in the half-court last year, something the Raptors really need. A few more opportunities to run pick-and-roll as the ball-handler, and finish them as a screener/roll-man, should give us a better look at where Barnes’ ultimate offensive upside will land.

Savanna Hamilton, Sideline reporter on Sportsnet: This season for Barnes is all about refining. He won ROTY for his versatility and basketball IQ so we already know that he can do a little bit of everything well. He has told media that his next goal is making an All-Defensive team this season. That would be a great next step in his career before considering his name in an All-Star conversation. No player likes the word “potential” so this will be a defining year to see how he establishes himself amongst, not only his teammates, but the top players in the league.

Steven Loung, NBA contributor on sportsnet.ca: With Barnes likely playing more point guard — a position he said he’s always viewed himself as — the next level for Barnes this season will probably come on the offensive end as a decision maker and scorer. If he can truly run the one and spur some valuable minutes for VanVleet, that alone would be a big win for the Raptors. If improved scoring and shooting were to come with that this season as well, we’d be looking at a real star turn and blue-sky possibilities for the future of the franchise in both the short and long term.

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Where do the Raptors fit in the stacked Eastern Conference?

Grange: I see them somewhere between third and sixth. I think Philadelphia and Boston are likely the top two regular-season teams in the conference, and it’s kind of a jumble from there. Assuming good 70-ish game seasons from VanVleet, Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Barnes, I think Toronto is well built for regular-season success. They should get off to a decent-to-good start based on the continuity they have on their roster, and should be able to finish strong as so many teams will likely be tanking after the mid-way point of the season as the focus shifts to the Wembanyama sweepstakes.

Lou: They’re right in the mix with the second-tier teams that lack a superstar, but that could change. Siakam is already calling his shot as a top-five player this season, and he’s only one leap away from hitting that lofty mark. The Raptors’ depth is much improved with veterans Porter Jr. and Thaddeus Young joining an athletic core of Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa and summer standout Dalano Banton. The Raptors already won 48 games last season, and the path to 50-plus is through maintaining their focus against under .500 teams.

Murphy: Somewhere in the 5-7 range. I think we’ll know fairly early, too — the Raptors have a very difficult schedule to start the season, and if their rotation continuity can lead them to a strong start, we know this is a group that can find belief in themselves and play a lot of very good regular season basketball. If they stumble and it looks like this core might not take the next step without additions, then there are some trade possibilities that could slide the Raptors into the play-in range with an eye towards a better 2023-24. On balance, I think they can compete with the Heat and Hawks of the world to avoid the play-in and finish top-six in the East.

Hamilton: Playing in the Eastern Conference seems to get more difficult every year with new ‘big names’ coming over every season. However, the Raptors have a brand of basketball that has withstood the ever-changing East. The brand is built on development and defence. This past offseason, the team got together to collectively to improve their individual games and team chemistry. That kind of effort pays off down the road in a long season so don’t be surprised if that locks them into the top-5 position. My prediction is that they may even end up stealing third in the East.

Loung: The Raptors are a pretty good team but, looking around the rest of the conference, it’s tough to see them improving much over where they finished last season (fifth place). The Milwaukee Bucks look as powerful as ever, the Philadelphia 76ers should only be better with a full season of James Harden, the Miami Heat look solid, the Boston Celtics are a team that did reach the NBA Finals last season and can’t be counted out even with disturbances in the off-season, and the Brooklyn Nets, volatile-looking as they may be, could be world-beaters with the amount of talent they boast.

And we haven’t even talked about the upgraded Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks — with the trades they made for Donovan Mitchell and Dejounte Murray, respectively — and, perhaps, maybe even the potential internal improvement that the Chicago Bulls may have made, too.

The East is deep this season and while the Raptors aren’t a bad team, being just that may lead to some disappointment.

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Pascal Siakam wants to be a top-5 player in the NBA. What steps must he take this season to get closer to that goal?

Grange: Top-five will be incredibly difficult and borderline unreachable, given some combination of Giannis, Jokic, Embiid, Luka and Steph will have at least four of those spots on lock, if not all five — and that’s without talking about KD, Kawhi or LeBron. But if he shoots for top-five and earns all-NBA (top-15) honours again, the Raptors will be in great shape, and so will Siakam, as he’ll be eligible for a five-year ‘super-max’ contract in the $300-million range. Lots of incentive. He needs to play a lot of games (70-plus) and a lot of minutes (36-plus) in order to hit the kind of stat thresholds that will catch voters’ attention, which will likely be in the range of 25 points/eight rebounds/seven assists on good efficiency.  The first thing to look for? Can he get to the line 7-9 times per game, compared to the five-plus attempts he’s averaged the past three seasons.

Lou: Siakam needs to become more efficient. His jumpshot remains streaky from three, but his midrange shooting has come a long way and serves as a credible counter to defences that use the old playbook of sagging off to deter the drive. Where he can improve his scoring average and the overall team offence is by drawing more fouls. Siakam works too hard in the paint to get so little from the line. If his footwork continues to improve, along with the addition of a few more fakes, Siakam could easily replicate the type of offensive production that DeMar DeRozan put together last season. Take that skillset, along with active defence and a top-two seeding in the East, and Siakam will be in that conversation.

Murphy: He probably needs some narrative juice in his favour, which means the Raptors exceeding expectations. On play and numbers alone, Siakam was a borderline top-10 player for two different stretches in the last three seasons. He’ll need to avoid some of those injury- or pandemic-related lows, though, to make sure the numbers have him in those conversations at the end of the year. More specifically, Siakam doesn’t get to the free-throw line as much as you’d like for a top option, in part because he’s traded some attempts at the rim for more of his floater and mid-range package. That strategy has been effective, but easy points are easy points, and Siakam nudging into star-territory for free throws could be a difference-maker. The return of his three-point stroke — as much a product of which shots he gets to take in the offence as it is any decline in skill — would help, too. The gap between top-15 (All-NBA) and top-5 (MVP ballots) is a pretty extreme one. Siakam’s guiding career principle applies here: “Why not?”

Hamilton: Siakam already has all the pieces and characteristics of an All-Star player. Aiming to be amongst the best of the best comes down to how many high-level performances he can string together on a nightly basis. Not only will he have to maintain his game in finding creative ways to get to the rim, make plays and defend the NBA’s biggest names, but also increase his three-point shooting percentage. That will certainly help him secure that goal.

Loung: Siakam’s desire to improve is an admirable thing and would certainly help the team as a whole reach another level this season if he’s able to accomplish this lofty goal. However, for it to happen, it can’t all be on him, either. The team will also need to try to do its best to boost Siakam and give him as much opportunity as possible, something that runs counter to the egalitarian approach to offence the Raptors have attempted for the past couple seasons. However, if Siakam is to reach top-five status, he’s going to need a lot of opportunity to make plays and that means his teammates will need to feed him even more than they already do.

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Who will be the X-factor off the bench for the Raptors?

Grange: Well, since we haven’t seen Porter Jr. yet and Banton seems like an obvious — though worthy — choice based on an impressive pre-season, I’m going to go with Boucher. It’s been a little bit of a quiet few weeks for him due to his hamstring injury (he’s expected to play the opener), but once Boucher settled into his niche as a high-energy disruptor off the bench mid-way through last season, the Raptors really began to benefit, and towards the end of the year his three-point touch returned too. He’s got a nice contract, a high motor and fully understands his job description. Players like Boucher can change games.

Lou: Young won’t put up the most stats among bench players, but his role will be the most important. Young is a stabilizer who will bring some much-needed organization to the group. Boucher and Achiuwa are both chaotic players who need to channel their activity in the right ways to contribute towards winning. Young will direct the group, acting as a reliable secondary ball handler who will make smart and unselfish reads to prevent the offence from cratering while the starters sit.

Murphy: Achiuwa is the “right” answer here on Oct. 19, because he’ll likely emerge as the best player from the second unit and maybe even the team’s best non-OG defender. I won’t pick him, though, because I think he ends up starting by the end of the year. That would make Trent Jr. the X-factor here as the top scoring option on the second unit, a role he seems born to play, a la Norman Powell in L.A., Jordan Clarkson in Utah, or Tyler Herro in Miami. It’s about skill-role alignment, not anything negative about Trent. If these answers feel like cheating, Banton looks like a significantly more confident offensive player this year and is the key to that Raptors second unit being a terror in transition.

Hamilton: Banton. Many other teams have gotten familiar with guys like Achiuwa and Boucher. However, Banton is still new enough to the NBA (having been drafted last season and playing significant minutes in the G-League) that they may not realize how well-rounded of a player he’s become throughout the offseason. He brings a spark off the bench with a new level of confidence gained from being a leader on both Team Canada and on the Raptors’ NBA Summer League team. He’s also hard to guard because he’s 6’9, deceivingly strong and has solid play-making skills which gets his teammates the ball in their ideal positions.

Loung: Bringing in Porter Jr. was the only significant move the Raptors made in the off-season. He was brought in as a reliable three-and-D wing to help shore up a Raptors’ second unit that was often lacking in both of those categories last season, and the fact he just won an NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors as a young veteran that can help some of the younger players on this team isn’t a bad thing, either.

It’s unfortunate that a hamstring issue kept him out of the entire pre-season and will see him miss the opener as well, but Porter should be the Raptors’ X-factor off the bench this season because that’s what they signed him to be in the first place.

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Toronto’s projected win total is 46.5 (via Sports Interaction). Over or under? And why?

Grange: The Raptors started 14-17 last season – and that included an early five-game winning streak against a group of teams that turned out to be lottery bound — and the reasons were fairly clear: Siakam was hurt and then ineffective while he worked his way back into game shape; they were trying to manufacture a reliable second unit out of some combination of rookie Banton, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malachi Flynn; Anunoby kept getting hurt and Achiuwa couldn’t score from five feet. For the first 20 games of the season, the Raptors had the NBA’s 26th-rated defence. And they still won 48 games. Most of the optimism for Toronto exceeding that total is that everything that was true of the team that finished 34-17 — Siakam dominating; the defence hounding, Achiuwa finishing from 25 feet — is in place again, along with a more experienced Scottie Barnes and something resembling an NBA bench. And Anunoby has to play 75 games in a season one of these years, right?

Lou: Over. The Raptors played at a 54-win pace last season from Jan. 1 onward. That was when Siakam found his footing after offseason surgery and a bout of COVID, which was the biggest driver of their success last season. A full season from Siakam, a cleaner bill of health from Anunoby and VanVleet, and improved depth should put them over the 50 mark regardless of how much the conference improved. It’s always easier to talk yourself into new teams with new stars — such as Cleveland or Brooklyn — but the Raptors already went 4-4 against them last season. A healthy Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell isn’t changing the bottom line for Toronto.

Murphy: Over. Are you new here? The Raptors have hit the over in 10 of the last 11 seasons, and 10 of the last 10 when they weren’t displaced to Tampa. They return almost their entire rotation, have a number of young pieces who should improve, and are built to win a lot of regular season games.

Hamilton: Over. The Raptors were 48-34 last season after having to deal with a lot of change — settling back into Toronto coming off the Tampa season, losing Kyle Lowry to Miami, and adding new pieces such as Achiuwa, Goran Dragić and newly-drafted Barnes. The core chose to grow together in the offseason on their own time through the Rico Hines runs so that they would be able to start from an advantage point and build on what they learned last season. With the addition of Porter Jr. (who’s fresh off winning an NBA championship with Golden State), they have a combination of both young talent and established veteran leadership in all positions — which always helps in the locker room and when executing on the court.

Loung: One of the safest bets for the longest time running is to take the over on the Raptors’ pre-season win totals, so there’s no reason to not do so again. The 47-48 win total seems pretty sound for the Raptors once again.

Yes, the East looks a lot tougher again this season and there will certainly be more competition, but the teams that will be bad in both the Eastern and Western Conferences should be really, really bad while tanking for Victor Wembanyama. That means Toronto should be able to rack up a ton of wins against lesser competition. This, combined with how hard and competitively Nick Nurse always has his teams play, means Toronto should be able to clear its pre-season over/under estimate once again.

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