To meet their goals, the Raptors need Siakam to play like one of the NBA’s best

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam drives to the basket. (Noah K. Murray/AP)

The downside with making bold pronouncements, the kind that trend on social media and become discussion points for days, is that they linger out there and can boomerang back every once in a while.

For example: we’re about six months removed from Toronto Raptors star Pascal Siakam saying on the opening day of training camp that he wanted to be a top-five player in the NBA.

“It’s all about getting better this season,” the seven-year veteran said back in late September. “I just felt like, yeah, it’s time to take another step. I always do that. And I try every [year] to take a step up. I think for me, after the year that I had [in 2021-22], just accomplishing that level of play — I’ve been All-NBA, I’ve been an All-Star, I wanna be a top-five player in the league. I wanna be one of the best, and I’ll do everything I can to make that happen.”

Well, after 68 games, it hasn’t exactly worked how anyone might have hoped. Siakam set the bar high for himself but hasn’t managed to speak or play his goals into existence.

Siakam rode a strong start to being named an injury replacement for the Eastern Conference in the NBA All-Star Game – his second all-star appearance to go along with two all-NBA awards since 2019-20. But the grinding, night-in, night-out, season-long excellence – not to mention team success – that earns players first-team all-NBA consideration and gets them mentioned in MVP conversations hasn’t been there.

More concerning is that the Raptors are in a game-by-game fight to preserve a spot in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament, and Siakam has gone missing lately.

Over his past five games – coinciding with Toronto’s 1-4 road trip – Siakam was a non-factor, playing some of his least effective basketball of the season as he averaged 15.8 points on 42.3 per cent shooting.

In addition to his drop in production, his passivity has been notable. His usage rate – which had been 28.5 per before the road trip – was just 22.5 per cent during the five-game jaunt, and a season-low 16.4 per cent in Toronto’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday. It’s the only time Siakam’s been below 20 per cent this season. His other two lowest usage games for the year were at the beginning of the trip in two games against the Wizards.

A pre-season focus was on getting to the free throw line, and after some early success that’s been trending downwards, he took nine free throws over the five-game trip.

“I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “I’m not getting to the free-throw line at all. I don’t know if it’s me or something else. Yeah, definitely a shift.” 

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The Raptors have more than one problem. Perimeter shooting continues to be an issue, so does their half-court defence, and their bench production – spotty all season – has been non-existent recently. But given the Raptors’ struggles, it’s not an ideal time for the team’s leading scorer to retreat.

When asked about the turn his season has taken lately the Raptors leading scorer for the past four seasons sounded uncertain about why or what’s happened or how to fix it.

“I think I just gotta figure out the flow of the offence and how we play, things like that,” said Siakam after the Raptors practised at OVO Centre in advance of hosting the Denver Nuggets to kick off a crucial stretch of seven games in their next eight at Scotiabank Arena. “Some things are different, but I think I just have to continue to find my spots, continue to find a way into the offence and find my spots without doing too much or overplaying.”

It’s a surprising thing to say given the stage of the season and Siakam’s status on the team.

An all-star musing about role definition in March? Hmmm.

Or maybe Siakam didn’t want to get into specifics with regard to how he’s being used or the changes that have taken place. One trend that emerged over the trip is that during the fourth quarter of games, not only did the offence run increasingly through Scottie Barnes, but it seemed to come at the expense of Siakam.

Barnes’ usage rate in the fourth quarter on the trip – which featured five relatively close games – was 28.1 per cent, the highest on the team and the highest of any month of the season for the second-year forward. Meanwhile, Siakam’s was just 16.8 per cent, sixth on the team and the lowest by him in a single month since November 2018, when Siakam was still an emerging role player.

It’s not reading too far between the lines to see that something seems off, at least from Siakam’s standpoint.

“The main thing is having fun with the game, this is my joy and the thing that gives me the most peace: being on the floor, being on the basketball court. Coming in the gym every single morning, getting in my routine, seeing the people I work out with every single day, that’s just my peace, it’s what makes me happy,” he said.

“Finding a way to keep that peace no matter what and have that joy no matter what and it’s challenging. That’s my biggest challenge, understanding that this is my place, this is where I feel the most at peace and happy and I have to keep that. Sometimes that can fade a little bit which is normal, we’re humans, but I just gotta be able to have that and make sure nobody takes that away from me.”

You can’t take Siakam’s overall season away from him. He may have swung for ‘top-five’ and missed, but he’s been very good. Barring something strange over the remaining 14 games of the regular season, Siakam will post a career-high scoring average (24.4 now vs 22.9 in 2019-20), a career-best for assists (5.9 now vs. 5.3 last season) and a career-mark for free throw attempts (6.9 vs. 5.6 last season).

His efficiency is where he falls a little short. His effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the relative value of two-point and three-point field goals) is 51.1 which is down from last season (52.5) and below the league average (54.4) while his True Shooting percentage (which includes free throws) is also down. Where last season he was at 56.5 he’s a 56.2 this year, which is a fractional difference, but also comes as the league-average mark (58.1) is at an all-time high.

It profiles a very good player having a very good offensive season – the only other players averaging at least 24.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists are the league’s best: Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, and LeBron James. The difference is that the other three are averaging – on aggregate – 29/10/8 with a TS% of .631.

Siakam’s on the same island, but in a different time zone.

The various ‘catch-all’ numbers – statistical models that try to correlate box score data while accounting for lineups, quality of competition, defensive impact, and other variables – tell a similar story. According to a recent post by Andy Bailey, who took an average of player rankings across 10 different models, the top five are Jokic, Doncic, Joel Embiid, Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Siakam ranks 36th as of Friday.

But with 14 games left the Raptors need Siakam at his best, such as he was this time last season when his surge drove Toronto’s late run up to 48 wins and the fifth seed in the East, developments no one saw coming and which were crucial in Siakam earning third-team all-NBA honour after a slow start hurt a chance at being named an all-star at mid-season. Siakam was outstanding during Toronto’s final push as he averaged 26.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists while shooting 52.1 per cent from the floor over his last 17 games, during which Toronto went 14-3.

For the moment Siakam’s slippage and his struggle to maintain the joy that’s so important to him are mysteries, or at least subjects he prefers not delving into too deeply.

“I think a lot of things could do that,” he said when I asked him why the fun part of the job has faded lately. “A lot of things from energy around or a lot of things from losing, it’s a lot of things that can make that fade away a little bit just because I care so much about the game and I care so much about wanting to get better and wanting to win but, also, I have to keep that balance which is easier said than done.

“It’s the hardest thing but I think I’ll be okay.”

That’s the thing though. For the Raptors to meet their goals in the near term and beyond, they need Siakam to be what he set out to be this season: one of the best players in the game.

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