The Toronto Raptors enter the second half of their season a disappointing 17-19. Considering their start to the season, it might not actually be that disappointing, but two games below .500 at the midway point is not where anyone thought the Raptors would be prior to the season.
It's been a rocky road to get here and there are still plenty of questions lingering with the second half of the season scheduled to tip-off Thursday night.
1. How Big Of A Setback Will COVID-19 Be?
The Raptors put themselves behind the eight ball with their 2-8 start and haven't given themselves very much room for error the rest of the season. Now, COVID-19 issues have thrown a wrench into their plans moving forward with Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet all scheduled to miss at least their third straight game and potentially a few more on the horizon.
Toronto has already dropped two straight games without three of their starting five and their upcoming games against Atlanta, Charlotte, and Chicago become a lot more difficult if that trio remains out for much longer. The Raptors can't afford to start dropping some of their easier games, especially with a very difficult schedule upcoming.
Even once their starters are back, it might be a while before Toronto's trio is fully back to normal, especially if any of them have tested positive for COVID-19. Jayson Tatum and Mo Bamba both took months to get back to normal and even two months after his COVID diagnosis, Tatum said he still isn't fully back to his old self. If the Raptors don't have their key contributors available or fully healthy in the second half, Toronto is going to have a very difficult time making noise in a jampacked Easter Conference.
2. How Will the Centre Rotation Play Out?
The Raptors settled for Plan B this offseason signing Aron Baynes to replace Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol and it hasn't quite gone as planned. Baynes hasn't been much of a difference-maker for Toronto and he's played his way out of the Raptors starting lineup.
Fortunately for the Raptors, Chris Boucher has stepped up to help shore up the backcourt rotation. He's been one of the team's biggest breakout stars this season, but he can't do it alone. The problem for Toronto is there aren't very many talented centres available at the deadline and the Raptors don't have a track record of luring talented buyout options mid-season. While Toronto has been able to find hidden gems during offseason dumpster diving, finding a diamond in the rough to shore up the frontcourt mid-season might prove to be quite a bit more challenging.
3. Which Pascal Siakam Is Toronto Going To Get?
COVID-19 issues aside, Pascal Siakam has had a very up-and-down start to the season. He averaged 18 points on 44% shooting through his 15 games of the year before turning things around in his next 15, averaging 22 points on 46% shooting.
At times this season, he's looked hesitant to attack the rim, which he attributed to not feeling like himself. If those issues are behind him, he could be in store for a really impressive second half. His playmaking appears to be much improved with his assist numbers way up this season. The key will be staying aggressive and nailing his 3-pointers at a higher clip. He's shooting below 30% from behind the arc this year, but those percentages have inched up to 40% over the last ten games.
4. Who Will Step Up From the Bench?
Chris Boucher has certainly provided a boost off the bench this season, but Toronto is going to need more than six trustworthy players down the stretch and into the playoffs this year.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has flirted with the idea of resting some of his players to manage the load in a chaotic second-half schedule and that'll mean Toronto is going to need a little bit more bench production from a few more players. So far DeAndre' Bembry, Terence Davis, and Stanley Johnson have seen the most playing time in Toronto's second unit — Boucher aside — but none of them have proven reliable enough to get consistent playing time. If Nurse can't trust them in the second half of the season, he might be forced to wear his starters down just trying to make the playoffs.
5. Is Heart and Hustle Good Enough?
The top of the Eastern Conference is a murderer's row of former and future MVP caliber players. The Brooklyn Nets have a three-headed offensive juggernaut with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, the Philadelphia 76ers are led by potential 2020-21 MVP Joel Embiid, and the Milwaukee Bucks have the two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo at the helm.
So far this season the Raptors have held their own against the East's best. They're 3-3 against those top three teams with wins against each of them, but it hasn't been easy.
"I think we can compete with anybody," Kyle Lowry said Wednesday night. "Competition is just going out there and playing your butt off, and go out there and understand the game plan, understand who you play against, understand what you got to do."
The Raptors have all the heart and hustle in the world to hang on the court with the Eastern Conference's best teams, but more often than not basketball comes down to star power, and in that department, the Raptors just can't compete.