The last time the Toronto Raptors were relevant for playing basketball, as opposed to being relevant as a reliable content provider for the NBA’s never-ending off-season news cycle, things didn’t end well.
To rewind: Toronto’s 41-41 regular season culminated with a ninth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, earning the Raptors the honour of hosting the first play-in game, which they promptly lost to the Chicago Bulls in large part because the home side shot an unfathomably inept 18-of-36 from the free throw line.
The lasting image was Pascal Siakam finishing off an otherwise exemplary game — 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists on 13-of-22 shooting — by missing three free throws with 12 seconds left, and the Raptors trailing by two points.
It was the Raptors’ season in a nutshell — and Siakam’s too. The team over-promised — the plan was to build on the 47-win season of 2021-22 — and under-delivered. Toronto’s year was mostly notable for being the most talked about team around the trade deadline as a possible league-shifting seller before team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster doubled down on a so-so core and traded a future first-round pick for Jakob Poeltl. The centre played great, but wasn’t able to single-handedly move the needle for team that just seemed off-kilter all year.
The off-season was no better. The Raptors chose not to trade Fred VanVleet at the trade deadline, only to lose him in free agency. Once again the Raptors were at the heart of the rumour mill with Siakam as the most prominent name. It was awkward enough that he chose not to join the team for workouts in Las Vegas at Summer League.
It was the final verse on a season than never quite rang true for Siakam. His self-stated plan was to complete his incredible trajectory from late first-round pick to all-NBA status by becoming one of the league’s top five players.
It was an audacious goal, but a worthy one: pull it off and Siakam would certainly gain all-NBA recognition again and make himself eligible for a ‘super-max’ extension worth 35 per cent of the team salary cap.
It didn’t quite work out. Siakam had a great season — he averaged 24.2 points and 5.8 assists, both career highs and was one of five players to average at least 24 points, five assists and seven rebounds. The others — Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo — are pretty good.
But did his play shift the Raptors’ fortunes? Was his best enough to make an otherwise flawed lineup measurably better?
It’s hard to make that case, given the Raptors’ limp through the Eastern Conference, though hanging that all on Siakam is unfair. Looked at another way, who knows how bad the shooting-poor, depth-challenged Raptors would have been if Siakam hadn’t been bringing it for a league-high 37.4 minutes per game?
There have been plenty of players with hall-of-fame credentials who haven’t been able to galvanize a team with sub-par talent. It’s a tough league.
But the bottom line is winning, and the Raptors’ struggles in that category perhaps provides some insight as to why Toronto seem to be at an impasse with its best player, a homegrown success story.
As good as Siakam has been and as remarkable as his transformation has been, it’s evident that the Raptors and Ujiri aren’t yet confident that committing money (roughly $200 million) and years (four years) to him as he starts his age-29 season is the right investment.
Why? Well Ujiri didn’t exactly come out and say that Siakam was part of the problem last season on a team that he said was undone by selfish play, but he didn’t exactly absolve him either: “We do believe in Pascal,” he said Monday when asked why he hasn’t talked about an extension with his returning all-star. “[But] we believe that a lot of our players didn’t play the right way last year and we want to see them play the right way. I said that we were selfish, I’m not running away from that. We were selfish and we did not play the right way. So let us see it when we play the right way.”
Not surprisingly, Siakam pushed back hard on the suggestion that he was part of the issue.
“I’ll speak for me, personally, I’ve never been a selfish player in my life,” Siakam said. “I’ve always played the game the right way and that’s from the first time I started playing basketball. I’ve always been a team player. All the things that I do on the basketball court is about the team and I’ve been like that my whole career … I think me evolving my game and being in a position where you get attention — and there’s a lot of attention — you have to make the right plays and I feel like I’ve always made the right basketball plays.
“When I’m out there on the court sometimes, it could look different because I feel like I always have two people on me every time I’m on the court,” he continued. “So sometimes it might look like I’m shooting over two people, but it is what it is. But I’ve always played the game the right way. I don’t have any selfishness in me. I’ve never really had coaches tell me that I wasn’t coachable, or I wasn’t listening, or I wasn’t doing the right things on the floor.”
But money talks in the NBA.
For all that Siakam has accomplished, the Raptors aren’t yet ready to pay him like he’s a foundation piece for their immediate future.
The tough-love message, fair or not, remains ‘prove it’.
But the future starts now. And while media day and training camp generally herald new beginnings and rosy futures, the Raptors seem to be heading into a new year with a lot of the questions from last year still lingering.
For all the intrigue about what rookie head coach Darko Rajakovic can bring or a full season of Poeltl will mean or the potential of new point guard, Dennis Schroder, who can attack the paint in the way no Raptor guard has since TJ Ford, might offer, the season begins where last year ended.
What will the Raptors do with Siakam? In a perfect world Siakam delivers his best season yet and meshes perfectly on a team where third-year forward Scottie Barnes promises to have more touches and more responsibility than in years past.
If it happens, Ujiri will look prescient. But the risk is the new season picks up where last season ended, with the Raptors — and Siakam — both falling short or stated goals and objectives. In that case, the Raptors will once again be most relevant for what happens off the floor, rather than on it.