10 burning questions facing the Toronto Raptors this season

Alex Wong
·8 min read

Just a little over three months after they finished the longest title defence in NBA history, the Toronto Raptors start their 2020-21 season on Wednesday at home against the New Orleans Pelicans. It’s the same home opener matchup as last season, except, well, everything else is different. The Raptors will be in Tampa Bay, and not Toronto. They won’t be raising a championship banner and the roster looks a little different.

Here are 10 questions about the Raptors heading into this season:

What constitutes a successful season for the Raptors?

The championship run is in the rearview. The title defence without Kawhi Leonard is over. Now what? This feels like a transition year for the Raptors, but it also feels very familiar, because this franchise under the guidance of Masai Ujiri has always charted two simultaneous paths of contending while developing for the future. This year feels more of the same, with an emphasis on development. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s extension with Milwaukee means there isn’t a quick path back towards title contention for this team, and where the Raptors go over the next five years will depend on Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet. A successful season would mean seeing each of them take another step forward in their development. It’s not as exciting as raising Larry OB at the end of the season, but that’s where the Raptors are at as the season starts. While it doesn’t mean the Raptors can’t make a playoff run, it does mean thinking about what success for this team means outside of winning a championship.

What are realistic expectations for Pascal Siakam?

It is useful to remember Siakam averaged 22.9 points and 7.3 rebounds last season, was an All-Star starter and was named to the All-NBA second team. The lasting memory of Siakam’s breakout season was how woefully lost he looked in the second round against the Boston Celtics. The midseason layoff and the pandemic clearly impacted Siakam, who vows to bounce back this season. The best version of Siakam is one that is playing with joy, which we saw before the shutdown, and not one that feels like he’s burdened by the expectations he’s shouldering, which we saw in the bubble. He’s never going to be Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James, but if Siakam can take another step forward on the offensive end, adding to his already stellar defence, it will help erase the memories of last season’s playoffs.

Is OG Anunoby more than just an elite role player?

On the other hand, OG Anunoby showed flashes of brilliance on offence in the bubble and is getting considerable buzz as a potential Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and possibly even an outside chance at an All-Star selection. Among the three core future pieces (Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby), OG has the potential to take the biggest leap this season. How big that leap is will be the key to unlocking a much higher ceiling for this Raptors team moving forward.

Can the Raptors win 50 games in the regular season again?

Technically, 44 wins in this season’s 72-game schedule would constitute a 50-win season in the usual 82-game schedule, but even with the roster turnover, and question marks about the team’s half-court offence, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Raptors were to win 50 games again this season. They’ve surpassed that mark the past five seasons and it’s honestly been as easy as if Kyle Lowry is running the show, the Raptors win 50 games. If Lowry is healthy, this team has enough talent and continuity to ace another regular season exam. If the Raptors can even maintain a top-10 defence (they finished second in the league last season), they should approach 50 wins again this season, and we’ll go through the process of everyone being surprised at where the Raptors are at in the standings by midseason.

As long as Kyle Lowry is healthy, the Toronto Raptors should still be among the best teams in the Eastern Conference. (Photo by Scott Audette/NBAE via Getty Images)
As long as Kyle Lowry is healthy, the Toronto Raptors should still be among the best teams in the Eastern Conference. (Photo by Scott Audette/NBAE via Getty Images)

How will being the Tampa Bay Raptors affect this team?

The biggest wrinkle about the regular season is Toronto will not be home at all. The championship banner is hanging in the rafters at Amalie Arena, but that’s about the extent the Raptors will feel at home this season. There will be no Drake dancing courtside (although no one should put it past him to make this happen), no Herbie Kuhn, no Scotiabank Arena crowd to cheer them on. The Raptors are travelling the most miles of any team in the league and are the only NBA team not playing in their home city this season. We know about the character and make-up of this team, but we also shouldn’t ignore how this might affect their play, especially as the season moves along. The Raptors have one of the best home court advantages in the NBA, which they’ll give up this season as the league forges ahead in the middle of a global pandemic.

Is Norman Powell a Sixth Man of the Year candidate?

Norman Powell averaged 23.6 points while shooting 54.7 percent from the field and almost 40 percent from 3 in March before the regular season was suspended. Those numbers will be hard to replicate over the course of a 72-game season, but it doesn’t mean Powell can’t come close to them and be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. There’s been a lot of chatter about Powell as the most obvious trade candidate on this team, given the need to balance the roster and his contract. There’s also an argument to be made on the contrary. If Powell carries over his performance from last season, he is just as valuable to the Raptors’ future than what he can fetch on the trade market. Either way, if Powell does have a strong season, it will present the Raptors with a good problem to figure out.

Which bench player will step up this season?

The rest of the bench is full of question marks. It feels like Matt Thomas, Chris Boucher and Malachi Flynn will have the best opportunity after Powell to establish themselves. Thomas’s shooting has been as advertised, and Nick Nurse seems intent on giving him every opportunity to earn a regular rotation spot. Boucher will get more minutes this season out of necessity. His per-36 numbers are impressive, but it doesn’t mean they’ll translate with a bigger role. Flynn has drawn rave reviews so far in training camp and his preseason play has been promising. He’s still just a rookie, but it isn’t far-fetched to see him as part of the team’s top eight by the end of the season.

Will the Raptors regret not bringing back Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol?

There’s still enough above average to elite individual defenders in Toronto’s starting lineup, which means their defence should be able to withstand Marc Gasol’s absence, even if they do take a small step back. The offence is the bigger concern. At times last season against top competition, and especially in the second round against the Celtics, Toronto had to fight for every point in the half court. This is where they’ll miss Serge Ibaka the most. The centre position is a huge question mark for this team heading into the season. The Raptors traded cap flexibility versus the ability to bring Ibaka and Gasol back. It means they’ll need one of their centres to exceed expectations this season.

When will we get clarity on Ujiri’s future in Toronto?

Leonard choosing the Los Angeles Clippers was a setback. Ibaka and Gasol leaving via free agency was unfortunate. Antetokounmpo signing an extension with the Bucks was disappointing. Ujiri leaving the Raptors would be something else entirely. At this point, we all know the specifics: Ujiri’s contract is up at the end of the season, MLSE would be happy to cut a blank cheque tomorrow to sign him long term, but Ujiri has continually pushed the conversation elsewhere when asked about a potential extension. For all of the questions surrounding this team, from the development of the young core to Lowry’s future, it all takes a backseat to Ujiri’s future. Until that is settled, Raptors fans will brace for the worst and hope for the best.

Where will the Raptors be by the end of the season?

This is, in a way, a literal question. Is it possible, with the vaccine and potential curbing of the pandemic by the middle of next year, the Raptors will be back playing in Toronto (it would likely still be without fans, or limited fans) by the postseason? It’s also a question of where the Raptors will be in the standings by the end of the season and heading into the playoffs. I still expect them to finish in the top four in the East (I’m going to say they finish with 50 wins and the third seed), but the bigger question will be: will we see enough improvement from Siakam and Anunoby and other potential surprises on the roster to recalibrate our playoff expectations for them? We’ll find out starting on Wednesday.

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