TORONTO — A new era of the Toronto Raptors will dawn on Wednesday when they kick off the 2023-24 NBA season. But just what this new version of the team will look like is still unknown.
Nick Nurse was fired as Toronto's head coach on April 21, shortly after the Raptors were bounced from the play-in tournament by the Chicago Bulls. Months later, veteran point guard Fred VanVleet, Toronto's de facto captain for the past three seasons, left the team for the Houston Rockets via free agency.
Those two departures effectively brought the championship era of the Raptors to an end, although some key players like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby remain from the 2019 NBA Finals team.
New head coach Darko Rajakovic and recently signed point guard Dennis Schroeder will lead a very different team on to the court Wednesday when Toronto hosts the Minnesota Timberwolves at Scotiabank Arena in both teams' season opener.
"I wish our fans could really see our team in the gym in the last couple of weeks and through training camp to see how much togetherness we have, how much individual sacrifice for the team good we have," said Rajakovic following practice Tuesday. "Guys are doing an amazing job with the buy-in and we've got to stay on that path.
"Win or lose, we've got to continue building that kind of culture."
Changing the Raptors' culture is an important part of Rajakovic's job.
When Nurse was fired, team president Masai Ujiri said that he did not enjoy watching Toronto play Ujiri doubled down on that sentiment at a news conference ahead of the pre-season, saying that the Raptors would not be a selfish team anymore.
Schroeder says that re-emphasis on "togetherness" will be evident on the court.
"Everybody's touching the ball, everybody's moving," said Schroeder of Rajakovic's new offensive system. "They won a championship four years ago and they've still got a championship mentality as a team.
"But at the end of the day, we're playing a little different. And I think it's really hard to guard (when) everybody can be aggressive on the offensive end."
Siakam led the team with 24.2 points per game last season and was second with 7.8 rebounds per game, behind centre Jakob Poeltl. He said that Rajakovic's arrival in Toronto reminds him of when Nurse took the team over from former head coach Dwane Casey in the 2018 off-season.
"They are going to have their own philosophy, they are going to have the things they think about and how they want to do it," Siakam told reporters on Sunday. "They want to implement what they want and that’s how it is with anything that is new.
"We've got to figure it out. There’s a lot of teaching, a lot of questions, and wanting to get better and I think I’ve seen that from everyone so that’s good."
Toronto was a perfect 4-0 in pre-season exhibition games, beating the Sacramento Kings 112-99 on Oct. 8, Australia's Cairns Taipans 134-93 on Oct. 15, Chicago 106-102 on Oct. 17, and the Washington Wizards 134-98 last Friday.
Siakam, however, thinks the Raptors need to be tested in an actual NBA game before they can really start to understand Rajakovic's new systems.
"It’s hard to see, hard to tell," he said. "Wednesday is going to be a good test, first game of the season, we'll take some real notes and see how we do as a team."
SCOTTIE PLAYMAKER — Scottie Barnes started his career with the Raptors as a power forward, then shifted to small forward last season. But toward the end of the 2022-23 campaign he was often the floor general who carried the ball up the court for Toronto, leading to speculation that he'd play as a point guard entering his third year in the NBA.
"Wherever they put me on the floor, I love doing it. Been doing that my whole life," Barnes told reporters on Sunday. "I just like being versatile on the floor, being able to feel out different parts of the game, different positions."
DEFLECTIONS — Rajakovic has said throughout the pre-season that his version of the Raptors will be focused on deflections. He wants to harness Toronto's length and athleticism, especially on the wings, to disrupt other team's offence by knocking away their passes. Rajakovic said the goal is to have more than 32 deflections per game.
"It just keeps our guys engaged, keep us focused on all the small things in pick-and-rolls, using your hands," said Rajakovic. "It’s so easy to overlook positioning of the hands to take away pocket pass, to get deflections."
PASCAL MINUTES — Siakam averaged 37.4 minutes per game under Nurse, tied with guard Kyrie Irving for the most in the NBA last season. VanVleet was fifth with 36.7 minutes per game, Anunoby was 16th at 35.6 and Barnes was 26th at 34.8. Expect Rajakovic to spread the playing time out more evenly between starters and bench players this season.
FREE AGENTS — Forward Previous Achiuwa and guard Malachi Flynn did not have their contracts extended by the Raptors ahead of Monday's deadline. They will join Siakam, Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Otto Porter Jr., Thad Young and Garrett Temple as likely free agents next off-season.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2023.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press