How many players would the Raptors have to lose before they stopped being a force in the East? Toronto entered this season as somewhat of a question mark after losing Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green) over the summer. How would the team fare without Leonard? Would mad scientist GM Masai Ujiri blow up the roster and start building for the future? Instead, the Raps raced out to a hot start this season, winning four of their first five games, and six of their first eight. Then Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka both got hurt during a Nov. 8 win against the Pelicans, only for Toronto to win six of its next eight games again anyway.
In one of their best victories of the season, the Raptors dispatched a healthy Sixers squad 101–96 on Monday night. As far as November regular season wins go, Monday’s was fairly significant, with both team playing their starters heavy minutes in borderline playoff rotations. Toronto was down two key vets, while Philly actually had its full complement of starters. The Raptors helped force Joel Embiid into probably the worst game of his professional career, hounding the big man and holding him scoreless on 0-for-11 shooting. As a team, the Sixers couldn’t score in the final four minutes of the game, their clunky spacing unable to break down a locked-in, perfectly orchestrated Toronto defense.
The Raptors’ balance and depth once again shined in the win over Philly. Marc Gasol played great defense against Embiid. Normal Powell and OG Anunoby hit some timely threes. And Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet did the heavy lifting on offense. While Siakam especially has been garnering most of the headlines for his improved play this season (and rightfully so), VanVleet’s performance has also been notable, as he’s picked up his level of play from a playoff run that saw him go supernova as a shooter.
VanVleet is currently averaging per-game career highs in minutes, three pointers made, free-throw attempts, free-throw percentage, rebounds, assists, steals, and points. For the first time in his career, VanVleet is a regular starter, and his insertion into Toronto’s first five is paying dividends for both parties. VanVleet has always been nimble in pick and rolls and willing outside shooter. Perhaps what’s most impressive about his numbers this season is his 7.7 assists per game. VanVleet’s playmaking and off-the-dribble game are things fellow guard Danny Green couldn’t really offer in last year’s starting lineup, and his proficiency in those areas helps account for the loss of Kawhi. With all of Leonard’s possessions having to be soaked up, both VanVleet and Siakam have done an incredible job with their added responsibilities. (And in the eight games Lowry has missed, VanVleet has averaged 21.4 points a night.)
Since losing Lowry and Ibaka, the Raptors have wins over the Sixers and Lakers, and the fourth-best net rating in the NBA over that eight-game stretch. For the season, Toronto has 7.2 net rating, fourth in the league, with both a top-10 offense and defense. The Raptors’ 12–4 record is tied for second-best in the East after Monday’s win, and four of their next five games are at home, where Toronto is a perfect 7–0. All of this leads to one question: How good can the Raptors be?
There are a couple reasons to curb any high expectations. Toronto’s quick start has been greatly aided by a cupcakey schedule, with only two wins against teams above .500. The Raptors’ four losses came against the Mavericks, Celtics, Bucks, and Clippers, which should be a little sobering as to which tier Toronto truly resides in. Siakam and VanVleet being battle tested during a Finals run should help them deal with any adversity that comes with their bigger roles, but in the event of another deep playoff trip, it’s also fair to wonder how guys like Ibaka, Lowry, and Gasol can hold up. (The latter two are firmly in their mid-30s.)
Of course, it’s easy to be optimistic about the Raptors as well. Beating up on bad teams and sometimes losing to good ones is a good formula for regular season success. And relying on guys like VanVlety and Siakam now—while still winning games—means the older guys may not have to play as big a role throughout the year, which could help keep everyone somewhat fresh for another playoff run. Nick Nurse clearly knows how to coax the most out of his roster, and Ujiri is the kind of adept risk taker who could find a way to improve this roster in the middle of the season. As currently constructed, I see no reason to believe why the Raptors couldn’t threaten to make the conference finals. So much of that could end up on seeding and playoff matchups, but Toronto hasn’t taken a huge step back of the Boston-Philly-Milwaukee pack.
What this season ultimately could be about for the Raptors is figuring out their transition to their next era of success. Leonard’s one-year Finals mission really came at the tail end of a run started by Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Now Lowry is 33, and signed only through 2021, and Leonard made his way west to Los Angeles.
Siakam and VanVleet are proving themselves to be the building blocks of a successful team, while players like Anunoby, Powell, Chris Boucher, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are providing utility in their roles. As VanVleet and Siakam mature into their primes, Ujiri may not have to rebuild the roster as much as he may have to find the next round of vets to complement the stars he already has on the team.
For now, Toronto doesn’t need to be overly concerned about the future when it’s currently one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Seemingly no matter who gets taken out of the rotation, the Raptors find a way to keep winning. With an All-Star turn from Siakam and a career year from VanVleet, Toronto may not have made up for who it lost this summer, but the Raps so far are proving to be much closer to last year’s Finals squad than a team in need of a restart.