Toronto has been the NBA’s biggest surprise this season. The top two seeds in the Western Conference are of course the two Los Angeles teams. The Bucks are first in the East, but nobody expected the Raptors to have a firm grasp on the No. 2 seed.
With the departure of Kawhi Leonard, who led Toronto to a championship last season, nobody expected the Raptors to contend for another one this season.
Pascal Siakam has taken a massive leap forward. He made his first All-Star game last year, but this season he earned himself a starting spot. He is essentially replacing the production that Leonard provided last season. But who has stepped into that No. 2 role?
That’s a trick question, because the answer is basically everyone else. Kyle Lowry, perhaps the teams most important player, boosted his scoring from 14.2 points per game last season to 19.7 this year, also increasing his percentages in the process.
Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka have also stepped their games up. They’ve all increased their scoring outputs by 6.6, 7.8 and 1.0 points per game, respectively. All are over 16 points per game this season.
OG Anunoby played sparingly last season, and got minimal playing time in the playoffs. With Kawhi’s departure, he has been the one that has filled the whole at forward in the starting lineup and has been excellent. He averages 10.7 points per game, shoots great percentages from the field (50.7) and from 3 (38.1) and above all else, plays world-class defense comparable to Leonard’s.
NO CHANCE, FAM pic.twitter.com/41H2vJtT24
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 10, 2020
When you factor in Marc Gasol, head coach Nick Nurse and of course superfan Drake’s impacts, the Raptors are bona fide title contenders. If seeding stays the same come mid April, the Raptors would draw a tough round two matchup with the winner of the Celtics versus 76ers series. They would be able to match up with either team pretty ideally.
We aren’t sure if jumbo-point guard Ben Simmons will be returning this season, but even if he does, the Raptors have enough size to match up with the league’s largest starting lineup.
With Ibaka and Gasol locking down the paint, the Raptors have an abundance of good defensive wings with plenty of length and strength, Siakam, Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and if you reach further down the bench, Chris Boucher, Oshae Brissett, Malcolm Miller and even Stanley Johnson give Toranto a ton of flexibility against large teams.
Even if Simmons isn’t back and Raul Neto is running point, Lowry will effortlessly put the clamps on him. In the more-likely scenario that they matchup with the Celtics, they can defend those skilled wings and that pesky Kemba Walker, too.
Walker is a pro at making slow bigs pay on mismatches, but the Raptors have lineup options that don’t include anybody slow. They can run Siakam at the five, and the Celtics don’t have any big centers good enough (sorry Enes Kanter) to make them pay for it.
9 YEARS AGO TODAY
Kemba Walker had one of the greatest ankle-breaking game-winners of all-time!
"Everybody in the world knew that ball was coming to me. I wanted to take that shot…I knew McGhee was going to switch. So I knew if I had him, it was going to be time to go." pic.twitter.com/qEMj6yPsY3
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) March 10, 2020
Jayson Tatum may be a worldeater right now, but with any and all of the good defensive wings that the Raptors have, they can keep him off balance with all sorts of different defensive looks.
In a potential conference finals matchup with the Bucks, a Siakam-versus-Giannis Antetekoumnpo will be the center of attention. There aren’t many NBA players equipped with the physical gifts and defensive prowess to defend Da Freak. But if anybody has them, it’s Siakam.
Neither Powell (6-foot-3) now Vanvleet (6-foot-1) make a great match up for Middleton (6-foot-9), but Anunoby and Hollis-Jefferson do. With Lowry and Eric Bledsoe matched up, a series between Milwaukee and Toronto would be fantastic.
Man, I can’t wait for the playoffs.