2020 NBA Team Preview: Where Do The Raptors Go From Here?

The Toronto Raptors battled the Boston Celtics seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals in the NBA bubble this past summer, in a series many people felt was the real East final, given that the Milwaukee Bucks had lost steam thanks to an injury to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even though the Raptors lost to the Celtics, many people thought they would have had the upper hand over the Miami Heat had the two teams met. Toronto came very close to defending its Eastern Conference championship from 2019. Now, though, a big departure on the roster has Toronto scrambling to figure out how it can rise to the top of a loaded Eastern Conference.

Offseason Changes

The Raptors lost Marc Gasol, who decided to join the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency. The Raptors would not have won the 2019 NBA title without Gasol’s defense, rebounding, and passing, all essential components of a tough and physical team which played great defense and moved the ball well. After Gasol’s departure, the Raptors brought in big men Aron Baynes and Alex Len in an attempt to compensate. Neither player is individually close to Gasol’s skill level, but having two bodies could – in tandem – give Toronto more depth and more options.

The Raptors also lost Serge Ibaka, who decided to go to the Los Angeles Clippers. Ibaka has a lot of Gasol’s qualities, but he is more able to defend wings and can shoot 3-pointers. Gasol played closer to the basket while Ibaka has more range as both an offensive and defensive player. It’s going to be very difficult to find players who can step in and provide similar value.

The Raptors also signed guard Jalen Harris, small forward DeAndre Bembry, and center Henry Ellenson.

The Raptors Will Succeed If…

They can replace Marc Gasol’s and Serge Ibaka’s production and intelligence. It’s not just the stat sheet where Marc Gasol’s and Serge Ibaka’s value emerged. Gasol was a great communicator and teammate. He has always been a very smart player who helped teammates get to the right positions on defense. Toronto’s defense was so good in its championship season because Gasol didn’t have to struggle to adjust to the system. If anything, he knew the concepts Nick Nurse wanted to implement and blended in seamlessly.

Serge Ibaka is also a smart defensive player, much like Gasol. He could also shoot 3-pointers to stretch defenses and force opponents to play Kyle Lowry or Pascal Siakam man-to-man, without having the ability to double-team the Raptors’ best scorers.

When considering what Aron Baynes and Alex Len bring to the table, they don’t have Gasol’s on-court brilliance or Ibaka’s versatility, but what’s more concerning is that they aren’t the natural learners Gasol and Ibaka are. If Nurse can help them understand exactly what Toronto wants to do, they might be able to come close to replacing Gasol and Ibaka. Yet, it’s hard to see them fully matching Gasol’s intangible qualities and Ibaka’s winning instincts. Those are things a coach can’t fully teach.

The Raptors Will Fail If…

Pascal Siakam doesn’t revive his career. It was weird and puzzling to see, but Siakam just didn’t play well in the NBA bubble. Maybe the return to NBA arenas for this season will stabilize his game. Siakam was an essential part of Toronto’s rise to the top of the NBA in 2019, and he clearly regressed in 2020. Whether defenses scouted him better or he merely hit a slump, Siakam didn’t make anything close to the contributions he provided in the Raptors’ championship run. If Toronto had gotten just 60 percent in 2020 of what it received from Siakam in 2019, the Raptors probably would have beaten the Celtics. Siakam needs to be fantastic in order for this team to reach its potential. If he flops, forget it. Losing Gasol and Ibaka gives this team no margin for error.

Outlook

The Raptors, having lost Gasol and Ibaka, are clearly not at the standard set by the Boston Celtics in the Atlantic Division. They will finish well behind Boston. The real question is if Toronto or the Brooklyn Nets will finish second. Toronto has plenty of weaknesses, but if Pascal Siakam is slightly to moderately better than he was in the NBA bubble, Toronto still has enough to beat out Brooklyn. The Raptors’ path to an NBA title, though, will be very difficult. Boston, Milwaukee and Miami all look like better teams in the East.

Prediction: 2nd in Atlantic Division

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