Raptors Roundtable: What we’ve learned from the first half of the season

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) and forward Pascal Siakam (43) celebrate during second-half action against the LA Clippers, in Toronto, Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. (CP/file)

Though it came a little later than it was originally scheduled to — hello, postponed games — the Toronto Raptors have hit the midway point of the season with a respectable 21-20 record.

So far, this Raptors team has proven to be something of an enigma with injuries and health and safety protocols derailing much of the first half before it looked like the team had managed to turn things around and get things together after getting its core players back from the injured list.

It feels like there have been two different kinds of Raptors clubs that have played over the first 41 games. So then, which Raptors team is the real one?

To help better answer this question, Sportsnet has assembled a group of its basketball experts to answer a few big-picture queries about the team with the second half about to begin.

The Raptors have seemingly turned their season around and look like they could make a strong push for a playoff spot. What has changed for them since their early-season struggles? How sustainable is their success?

Donnovan Bennett, staff writer and digital host: Pascal Siakam.

The team is finally healthy with the disposal of all of their six-foot-seven-to-six-foot-nine switchable playmakers and rim runners. But the player who at this point has the best balance of tricks in his bag offensively and suffocating length defensively is Siakam.

Last season was a disappointment because he set such an incredible all-star level standard. Missing the first portion of the season might preclude him from consideration, but he’s back to an all-star and probably All-NBA level now.

Michael Grange, senior basketball insider: The biggest difference is they’ve got a little more healthy and it coincided with both a mushy part of their schedule and their two best players – Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam – making all-star pushes.

I think staying competitive with teams in the play-in range is sustainable and making a run at sixth place and a first-round guarantee is possible, but it’s hard to envision anything more than that given this team’s lack of depth, shooting, quality size and secondary playmaking. And it’s worth noting they could just as easily slide the other way.

Steven Loung, NBA section editor: It’s two things that are related to each other, I believe.

One, they’ve returned to nearly full strength and have their seven best players available to them just about every night. Secondly, of those players they have available to them every night, two of them are named Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.

The Raptors’ two best players by quite a wide margin are both putting up all-star-level numbers and, more importantly, are raising the floor of this Raptors club whenever they step onto the court.

Eric Smith, Raptors play-by-play announcer on Sportsnet 590 The FAN: I’d put health at the top of the list.

From Siakam missing camp and the start of the season, to others like Khem Birch and OG Anunoby being in and out of the lineup, it was impossible to develop chemistry and cohesion – and certainly hard for Nurse to settle on a rotation, too. Add to that mix, the absence of Goran Dragic and, more importantly, losing a ton of guys to health and safety protocols and it’s easy to see why it took a while to right the ship.

They’re now looking a lot like the team I thought they’d be: Scrappy, a tough out on a lot of nights for most opponents and a team that should absolutely be in the mix for a post-season spot.

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Fred VanVleet is garnering some much-deserved all-star recognition and most signs are pointing towards him being named an all-star reserve, at least. However, Pascal Siakam has been nearly as good but doesn’t have the same level of buzz around him. Do you think he’ll be selected as an all-star?

Bennett: Do I think he should? Yes. Do I think he will? No.

And I’m not sure VanVleet is a lock because of the surplus of great guards in the East and the NBA coaches might be reticent to give two selections to a team far from the top of the standings.

Grange: I think it’s unlikely Siakam earns an all-star nod unless his current standard of play continues right to the end of the month when the coaches’ votes are in, but the Raptors have to keep winning and, say, put pressure on Cleveland for sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

Team success is critical because it will be hard to give two coaches’ choice selections (presuming VanVleet gets one) to an eighth- or ninth-place team. If Siakam sustains his current level through the end of the season, and the Raptors can climb to sixth or even push for fifth, Siakam could get some All-NBA consideration.

He’s been averaging 23 points, 9.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists on 48.4 per cent shooting since Dec. 1. Keep that up and, over time, that will be hard to overlook.

Loung: Unfortunately for Siakam, unless the Raptors run the table until the end of the month when the coaches make their all-star selections, he likely hasn’t played enough games to garner an all-star nod this season – no matter how deserving he may be.

As a consolation though, should Siakam keep playing at the level he has shown of late – likely the best stretch of all-around play of his entire career – then another All-NBA selection could be in the cards.

Smith: Both Siakam and VanVleet are deserving of all-star spots, however, I think team records will (and should) factor into the selection process.

The Raptors are climbing up the standings, and if they can keep the winning ways going maybe more eyes will open before voting (and ultimately the coaches’ selections) is finalized.

However, if Toronto continues to hover around where it is right now, I believe only one will make it and it’ll be VanVleet. Kudos to Siakam, though. He silenced his early-season critics (who were way too premature in jumping on him) in a big-time way.

Nick Nurse has experimented with his bench, going big more often than not of late. What do you think of this decision and Nurse’s rotation, in general, at the moment?

Bennett: Does Nick Nurse have a rotation? What makes the Raptors tough to advance scout and play against, but also tough to follow, is he will seemingly play anyone in any situation.

Going big off the bench is a natural byproduct of going smaller to start of late, but I’d caution anyone trying too hard to read into Nurse’s rotation as it’s bound to change based on the opponent, team health and the experimenter-at-heart that makes him special.

Grange: I think the rotation problem they have is they don’t have enough good players or enough playing well.

Going big off the bench at least gives their opponent’s second units some different problems to solve and, with limited options, is worth the experiment. Keeping two of Gary Trent Jr., Siakam and VanVleet on the floor at all times is important, otherwise, the Raptors’ shot creation options are limited.

Life would become easier if one of or both Yuta Watanabe and Svi Mykhailiuk could take the considerable opportunity they’ve been given and prove they are NBA players.

Loung: It’s a little funky but it’s better than any other alternative coming off the bench that we’ve seen thus far, so Nurse may as well keep it rolling.

In particular, the use of both Siakam and Barnes as “point guards” or just offence initiators has been an eye-opening sight and could serve as a big developmental step for the two of them and the rookie Barnes, in particular. So, the more reps while playing big, the better, I say.

As for thoughts on Nurse’s rotation, in general, as fun and scrappy as this team has proven to be, it still isn’t the most talented. Unless the front office can find a gunner to add to the bench this might be the best look the Raptors have got with its second unit.

Smith: I’d be doing the same thing, particularly because the bench has been inconsistent, at best, for much of the season. Lately, however, we’re starting to see a couple of guys emerge from the pack (i.e. Chris Boucher, Justin Champagnie, Precious Achiuwa) and they’re being rewarded.

As a coach, I’d want guys that can play, guys that are going to provide consistency and energy. That’s what I’d want from a second unit and if they happen to be six-foot-nine and not six-foot-two, then so be it.

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Obviously, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam have been outstanding, but outside of those two, who has been your Raptors MVP so far this season?

Bennett: Scottie Barnes. He’s got a real shot to be rookie of the year and/or make an all-defensive team. Remember, the draft position debate we were having? That lasted maybe a week or two and then it was squashed because Barnes has been undeniably valuable on both ends.

Grange: It’s pretty slim pickings after those two.

Anunoby has played well, but between missing so many games and just so-so shooting (by his standards) it doesn’t feel like he’s been at the level most would hope he’d reach by now. Scottie Barnes has been very good, obviously, but has slowed recently and seems to be having a hard time asserting himself with the Raptors starters all back. So, I guess that leaves me with Gary Trent Jr., who has been roughly as expected on offence and exceeded low expectations on defence.

Loung: Scottie Barnes. The kid is in the running for Rookie of the Year having come exactly as advertised and even more.

The athleticism, the defence and the playmaking are all exactly as his collegiate scouting report said he would be. However, the book on him was he couldn’t shoot, something that has proven to be grossly exaggerated as his ability to shoot the ball – both from the midrange and three – coupled with an advanced post-up game has risen not only his ceiling and expectations but those of the Raptors as a whole.

There are still growing pains that need to happen with Barnes looking sometimes unsure of himself out there playing with VanVleet, Siakam and Anunoby, but he’s both talented enough and has shown enough this season to get the benefit of the doubt to believe he’ll figure it out, and when he does the Raptors will become a better team.

Smith: How do you take out the two best players and then say give me the MVP? But in all seriousness, how could you not say OG Anunoby?

As well as Barnes has played, OG was the go-to guy on a lot of nights early in the season when Siakam was still sidelined. Though he has battled injuries and protocols, too, he’s still averaging nearly 20 points per game – a career-high – and his assists per game are a career-best as well.

Digging deeper, Anunoby’s rebounds, blocks and steals are right in line with his last few seasons, too, and he continues to be an outstanding two-way player.

Toronto wouldn’t be the same without him.

The trade deadline is very close. Do you think the Raptors will be buyers, sellers or stand pat?

Bennett: I don’t know if they’ll be sellers in the traditional sense. It’ll be more like Facebook marketplace where you throw something you no longer want up and if someone is willing to drive to your house and take it off your hands, then God bless them.

Grange: What they will do, I can’t say.

I would, however, advocate for them to be buyers if there are opportunities to add some players at positions of weakness – size and playmaking depth or shooting – that have years left on their deal and fit in with the age profile of Siakam and VanVleet, who will both be 28 by season’s end. This is the prime of their career, and if the opportunity presents itself to leverage that over the next couple of seasons, it should be taken.

Loung: Given the way the Goran Dragic situation unfortunately unfolded, there likely isn’t a big move for the Raptors to make as Dragic looks to have about as much trade value right now as the lint in your pocket. Therefore, I believe the Raptors will just be cautious and stand pat at the deadline, particularly because this is a team that’s still figuring out what it is, exactly.

I would like to see the Raptors be a little more aggressive and try to pursue a scorer to come off the bench to help shore up that uncertain unit. Maybe target someone like Terrence Ross? A reunion would be neat, and his skill set would fit a need this team has.

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Smith: My gut tells me the Raptors will make a move or two in an attempt to improve their bench or at least find more scoring and/or consistency overall with that second unit.

I don’t anticipate a major shakeup or a blockbuster deal, but who knows?

There are worse things than moving forward into the next few seasons with Van Vleet, Siakam, Barnes, Anunoby, Trent and more. That’s a solid core to build with, I believe.

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