Raptors season preview: A return to Eastern Conference prominence?

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The 2020-21 NBA season was a tumultuous one for the Toronto Raptors, mired by having to play all of its home games in Tampa, Florida due to COVID-19 restrictions in Canada, as well as by missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13.

There was also a good amount of turmoil surrounding the Canadian franchise, primarily around Pascal Siakam and head coach Nick Nurse, with the former a consistent source of trade rumors throughout the campaign.

The Raptors will be hoping a return to Toronto and growth from their promising young pieces will be enough to allow them to return to prominence in the Eastern Conference, despite the loss of Kyle Lowry.

Below, check out our preview for the 2021-22 Raptors campaign.

Roster changes

Returning: Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Chris Boucher, Khem Birch, Malachi Flynn, Freddie Gillespie and Yuta Watanabe Additions:Goran Dragic (Miami), Precious Achiuwa (Miami), Isaac Bonga (Washington), Svi Mykhailiuk (Oklahoma City), Reggie Perry (Brooklyn), Scottie Barnes (Florida State), Sam Dekker (Turk Telecom), Dalano Banton (Nebraska), Ishmail Wainright (SIG Strasbourg), David Johnson (Louisville) and Justin Champagnie (Pittsburgh) Subtractions: Kyle Lowry (Miami), Aron Baynes, Rodney Hood (Milwaukee), Stanley Johnson (Chicago), DeAndre Bembry (Brooklyn), Paul Watson (Oklahoma City) and Jalen Harris (Cremona)

Strengths

* They have an excellent head coach... The 2019-20 NBA COY, Nurse has quickly become one of the most well-respected head coaches in the game – tactically, as a leader and as a developer of talent, the latter of which might actually be his biggest strength, Nurse does it all at a very high level. There's a reason why the Raptors won 58 and 53 games in their first two seasons with Nurse leading them and took home the 2018-19 championship. Sure, guys like Lowry, Siakam and Kawhi Leonard did most of the heavy lifting, but Nurse's leadership was key during that stretch of excellence by Toronto. * They have a strong rotation at point guard... Part of the reason Toronto was willing to let Lowry walk (besides his age and how much money he wanted) was that Fred VanVleet has looked like a borderline All-Star over recent seasons, including last year when he averaged 19.6 points and 6.3 assists. Add Goran Dragic to the mix (at least for however long he'll be there), a veteran floor general with something still left in the tank and experience as a key reserve, as well as Malachi Flynn, who showed promising flashes last season, and you could have one of the strongest point-guard rotations in the East, if not the league at large. * Their promising young players might shine in bigger roles... Players like Flynn, shot-blocking, three-point-heaving Chris Boucher and newly acquired big man Precious Achiuwa could all thrive next season in bigger roles, but no player on the Raptors is set up better for an explosion next season than OG Anunoby, who has star two-way potential on the wing and looks ready to take off in 2021-22. If the former Indiana standout has a similar jump next season to the one he had last year, Toronto will have a 20-plus-point-per-game player on their hands, one who doubles as one of the most disruptive wing defenders in the league. * Scottie Barnes will be one of the most ready-to-go rookies... The No. 4 pick in the latest NBA draft, Scottie Barnes out of Florida State has a game that should translate right away in the NBA, as although his scoring is raw and his three-pointer unreliable, he's got prototypical size and athleticism for modern wings, unreal length with a near-7-foot-3 wingspan and is a high-effort player who does what it takes to win. On a team with various capable scorers, Barnes will be able to do what he does best: create for others, pick up extra possessions and defend his tail off. * Returning to Toronto will be huge for them... Besides having their entire lives uprooted for over five months having to play in Tampa, the Raptors also lost out on one of the best home-court advantages in the league last season. Returning to Canada will provide the team a huge boost for its home games.

Weaknesses

* They're nowhere near as talented as the other top teams in the East... Even the biggest Raptors believers wouldn't argue that point, as although a nucleus of Siakam-VanVleet-Anunoby is quite solid, that trio also once had an in-prime Leonard and Lowry around them the year they won the title. Even without those guys, Toronto could (and probably should?) still field a decent team, but there's no doubt the top of their rotation and reserve unit lacks the elite talent of other contenders in the East. And unless there's an unforeseen explosion or two from their young pieces, that will likely be the case all season long. * They lack the leadership they had when Lowry was there... Most consider Lowry the greatest Raptor of all time, and during his time in Toronto, he became an all-important leader for the team, someone young players could look up to for advice or take charge when things got messy on the court. With him now on the Miami Heat, that left behind a huge hole in the leadership department for the Raptors, and though VanVleet could become that guy at some point, he hasn't been that kind of leader to this point. Neither has Siakam, who was even suspended for a game last season for undisclosed reasons. That could be an issue. * Their best player has clear question marks around his game... Siakam built off of Toronto's 2018-19 title run, one in which he played a key part, by having his best campaign in 2019-20, averaging 22.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists, earning All-Star honors for his efforts and being named 2nd Team All-NBA by year's end. However, Siakam took a clear step back last season even if his raw averages hovered around the same level, missing multiple game-winners, failing to make the same impact he did the year prior and even causing some trouble in the locker room. Will a return to Toronto help Siakam regain his elite form from 2019-20? That could be the difference between a playoff appearance for the Raptors or another disappointing campaign. * They are a bit light in the frontcourt...Khem Birch has proven to be a solid, hard-nosed player at center who can finish in the paint and protect the rim. Boucher, meanwhile, is efficient thanks to his three-point shooting and shot-blocking, and it feels at times like Nurse hasn't even fully unleashed him yet. The Raptors' frontcourt also features Siakam, who we've discussed ad nauseam. But outside of those three players, Toronto's big-man rotation is lacking in proven pieces, as Achiuwa struggled more than he shined as a rookie. Even with Achiuwa progressing next season, the Raptors are still left with a lot of light, skinny bigs who could get bullied on some nights by bigger frontcourts.

Depth chart

Possible moves

* The Raptors head into training camp with a full roster. Of their 17 players on standard contracts, five are non-guaranteed and only three of them can make the final roster. That group includes Yuta Watanabe, Isaac Bonga, Sam Dekker, Freddie Gillespie and Ishmail Wainright, all of whom have partial guarantees ranging from $50,000 to $375,000. We previously discussed Toronto’s roster crunch in a recent episode of the HoopsHype podcast where we agree that they will favor familiarity and upside when deciding on these players. The Raptors will be hovering around the luxury tax line for the time being. They are currently $4 million over the luxury tax and will still remain over it if they only waive two players.* Toronto might be in somewhat of a holding pattern in terms of figuring out what direction to go towards in terms of roster building. One may think that if they have a rough start to the season they may decide to blow it up, but that doesn’t really make sense considering their core is so young. Both Siakam and VanVleet are only entering their age-28 seasons. The Raptors are clearly in developmental mode but also happen to have several starters who still fit the timeline with the rest of the young players who also keep the team competitive. Toronto will likely stick to their strategy of identifying talent and developing them, which is a wise plan if you look at their track record of finding diamonds in the rough.* The Raptors acquired Dragic in exchange for Lowry and his status with them has been reported as potentially headed towards a buyout. While Dragic is too talented to simply be waived, the Raptors will be hard-pressed to find a team eager to pay him $19 million this season. He could be headed towards a buyout if he’s still on the roster past the trade deadline. Alternatively, he could be used as salary ballast as part of a larger deal and then subsequently bought out by his new team.- Yossi Gozlan

Salaries

Prediction

5th in the Atlantic Division, 12th in the Eastern Conference

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