Toronto Raptors may be home, but pivotal season could determine team's ultimate direction
VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby the core of mercurial Toronto team
The last three seasons were far from average for the Toronto Raptors.
The 2021-22 iteration of the team might be exactly that.
There was the championship season in 2019, followed by a title defence that was stilted by COVID-19 and finished in the Disney bubble, and finally, a mostly disastrous season played out of Tampa, Fla., due to pandemic-related restrictions in Canada.
Now, the Raptors enter a season free of championship expectations and nearly devoid of playoff ones. At least they'll be back in Toronto.
The season begins on Wednesday against the Washington Wizards, and — after local capacity restrictions were increased — in front of what is expected to be a sold-out Scotiabank Arena.
WATCH | North Courts previews Raptors season:
But it is a much different team than the one that last played in Toronto in February 2020.
Gone is heart-and-soul point guard Kyle Lowry, whose talents were traded to South Beach and the Miami Heat, where he signed a three-year, $90-million US deal.
In return, the Raptors received young centre Precious Achiuwa, an athlete who fits the long and versatile team vision, and veteran point guard Goran Dragic, a mid-season trade candidate if the Raptors find themselves on the outside of the playoffs at the deadline.
With the departure of Lowry, six key players from the 2019 title team are now elsewhere. For his part, Lowry will go down as the GROAT (greatest Raptor of all-time) — the man who once had his bags packed, ready to be traded, only to stumble into a winning formula alongside DeMar DeRozan.
Kyle Lowry’s first Heat preseason game 🔥 <a href="https://t.co/IhQn2V9ixL">pic.twitter.com/IhQn2V9ixL</a>—@HeatvsHaters
Also gone from the championship team are Kawhi Leonard (who led the Raptors to their first NBA title in 2019), Serge Ibaka (signed with Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers), Marc Gasol (set to play in Spain this season), Norman Powell (traded to the Trail Blazers) and Danny Green (still with the 76ers).
But the underdog hero from that team — Fred VanVleet — the guard who seemingly gained superpowers with the birth of his son, remains with the team, ready to take the reins from Lowry.
Now in his sixth season, VanVleet is the undisputed starting point guard. His steady demeanour will be essential on the court alongside a plethora of younger wing players, while his defensive toughness is a distillation of the team identity, like Lowry before him.
WATCH | VanVleets pours in franchise-record 54 points:
The other core championship player still standing is Pascal Siakam — though he's slated to miss around a month to begin the season as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
Siakam struggled in the bubble ahead of a roller-coaster campaign in Tampa, where he contracted the virus before getting hurt in the final games of the season.
His status as a player worthy of a maximum contract has been questioned, but both the potential and production remain. A return to the 36 per cent three-point shooting of his all-star season would help after Siakam's shot cratered last year.
Can’t wait to be back out there with the fam 💙⏳💯 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/humblehustle?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#humblehustle</a>🙏🏾👏🏾 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/doingitforyou?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#doingitforyou</a>🙏🏾 <a href="https://t.co/nKVOCdZuIz">pic.twitter.com/nKVOCdZuIz</a>—@pskills43
Before that all-star season, there were optimistic whispers of what Siakam could, and eventually would, accomplish. Those same tones are now struck in talk around OG Anunoby, who based on the pre-season appears to have added efficient offensive shot creation to his top-notch defence and shooting.
WATCH | Anunoby scores 17 points in 17 minutes against Rockets:
An Anunoby emergence might be the biggest wild card in the Raptors' season. If he reaches that potential, paired with a Siakam rejuvenation, the Raptors suddenly have a playoff-worthy top three with depth to spare.
But if he settles in as an elite role player, the Raptors' search for a superstar is only more amplified. And in that scenario, eyes would surely refocus to Scottie Barnes, the Raptors prized rookie picked fourth overall in the latest draft.
Barnes is the consolation prize for the season spent in Tampa wilderness, a six-foot-eight would-be forward who instead played guard in his lone year at Florida State. Based on pre-season, Raptors coach Nick Nurse appears to have a similar vision for the 20-year-old.
Before you equate six-foot-eight point forward with LeBron James, Barnes has a fatal flaw: shooting. It's why he wasn't selected even higher in the draft, and it's what could limit his potential in the NBA.
The Raptors also come armed with a trio of Canadians: springy forward Chris Boucher (born in St. Lucia, raised in Montreal), centre Khem Birch (Montreal) and intriguing second-round rookie Dalano Banton (Rexdale, Ont.).
The Raptors' projected win total, per multiple sportsbooks, is 36.5. But there are signs that number may lean too heavily on last season's results, which were unlucky (based on the virus outbreak and the team's point differential, which indicated a better record) and maybe just plain weird in Tampa.
Still, the ever-contending Raptors may be a thing of the Lowry-DeRozan past.
WATCH | Canadian NBA players to watch this season:
The newest Raptors appear more middling — an interesting spot to be in for a team with a president in Masai Ujiri who said "play-in for what?" in reference to the newly installed play-in tournament for the seventh and eighth playoff spots in each conference.
"Our route is to grow our young players and be excited about what we have, and rely on Nick [Nurse] and his great staff," Ujiri said in August.
That doesn't indicate an executive who is pushing all his chips to the middle of the table just yet. Instead, Ujiri could opt to sell like last season en route to another high draft pick.
But the Raptors players and coach are also talented enough to avoid that fate with winning results.
They may be back home, but the Raptors haven't picked a direction quite yet.