The Raptors Deserve To Be Good
9:02 AM EST on December 22, 2022
The Toronto Raptors broke the league's longest active losing streak Wednesday night, with a road victory at Madison Square Garden over the team with the league's longest active winning streak. Pascal Siakam, who has been carrying the Raptors around on his shoulders for every minute of this regular season, exploded for a career-high 52 points on 25 shots in 41 minutes, putting on an incredible one-man show for most of three quarters and then getting just enough help in the final frame to drag his team across the finish line for a desperately needed win. The Raptors wake up Thursday morning four games below .500 and clinging to the East's 10th seed, the bottom rung of the dreaded play-in zone.
It would be cool and fun if the Raptors were good. That's not true of every team. It would be weird and possibly deeply upsetting if the Orlando Magic or Washington Wizards ever became genuinely good. It would be much more fun if the top-heavy Lakers, who've oozed their way toward mediocrity after an abysmal start to the season, sagged back toward the bottom of the standings. The Phoenix Suns do not seem to like each other very much, have long been the property of one of the ownership class's real sleazebags, and employ Chris Paul: It would rule extremely hard if they collapsed into a Lord of the Flies type of deal.
But the Raptors are cool. They have cool players, a humongous and passionate fanbase, and both a track record for maximizing the talents of even some pretty idiosyncratic talents and a proven willingness to swing for the fences in trajectory-altering trades. They haven't been truly bad in more than a decade and have never attempted any of the more gruesome forms of rebuilding, despite having had just two picks in the NBA's draft lottery in 10 years. I am not a Raptors fan, but if I were a Raptors fan, I would feel good about rooting for this team and franchise, and they make a very good backup favorite for people who are stuck rooting for, well, the Washington Wizards.
But so far this season they kind of stink, and it's becoming a bummer. They can't shoot at all, both because of the way they've constructed their roster and because the incremental improvements they've come to expect and rely upon from supplemental shooters haven't materialized. Injuries to some key role players haven't helped, but they're facing a lot of packed-in half-court defenses, and without the space created by dangerous perimeter shooters, their deep assortment of hyper-athletic 6-foot-9 forwards is having a hard time getting all the way to the cup. As a result, their half-court offense features a lot of grinding, miserable isolation basketball, and they take a ton of pull-up jumpers from the dreaded midrange, despite being one of the very worst teams in the league at making them. Their half-court offense, according to stats website Cleaning The Glass, is third-worst in the NBA by points per possession.
Early in the season they were able to make up for that inefficiency by getting out and running, and in fact the Raptors still rank second in the NBA in transition opportunities per 100 possessions. But, worryingly, their defense, which is supposed to be absolutely hellacious due to their endless army of wiry and athletic swingmen, is starting to fall apart, perhaps reflecting discouragement seeping into the team's effort and commitment. They still lead the league in steals per game, which is how they juice up their transition attack, but over the last 10 games they've fallen back toward the middle of the NBA pack, and their defensive rebounding, which is another strength they've used to force transition opportunities, has fallen into the bottom half of the league. Their half-court defense, which ought to be the real foundation and signature strength of the team, is now 21st in the NBA by points per possession, allowing the second-highest effective field goal percentage in all of basketball. In a heartbreaking last-second Dec. 16 loss to the Nets, the Raptors allowed Brooklyn to shoot an appalling 20-for-23 from inside the three-point-arc in the game's second half.
You get the sense, watching them, that if the Raptors can just kind of hang in there and fight off despair that things will inevitably click into place, perhaps because for the better part of the last decade they always have, at least during the regular season. Last season Scottie Barnes looked like a surefire future superstar; this season he has looked like shit, struggling to find a way to thrive in the offense while lagging behind his more experienced teammates as a ball-handler and finisher, and without the acumen from deep to add much value floating around the perimeter. Fred VanVleet is having an off year from deep, which is a real problem for a guy who has only once in his six years finished a season shooting better than 42 percent from the floor. But VanVleet is a genuinely excellent pick-and-roll operator and drive-and-kick initiator, and even if his threes aren't falling right now he is still a good and proven high-volume three-point shooter. OG Anunoby has made incremental improvements to his offensive game every year of his career, but through 28 games this season his three-point accuracy and volume are both noticeably down, which is not something this space-starved offense can afford.
But these are really fucking good and talented basketball players, brought up together as a core in one of the NBA's very stable and successful player development programs, and when things click for them, as they did often enough last season to generate a lot of optimism headed into this one, they can be very formidable. They can throw something like one million combined linear feet of arm length into a lineup, contest everything and terrorize passing lanes, smash and bully their way right to the front of the cup from every angle, and stitch the whole thing together with just enough accuracy on the open looks they generate from collapsing opposing defenses. When it works, the formula seems like it can't possibly ever fail to work. Siakam, Anunoby, and Barnes can seem downright cruel and rude, physically overwhelming your team's guys at both ends, shouldering them out of the way and then jumping over them, treating them in general like small annoying children.
When it doesn't work, as it largely has not this season, it falls to Siakam to do genuinely astounding, heroic shit in order to give the Raptors a fighting chance, often in vain. In a Dec. 19 overtime loss to the 76ers, Siakam scored 38 points, with 15 rebounds and six assists. In the closing seconds of regulation he hauled in a difficult defensive rebound, took the ball the length of the floor, beat defensive specialist P.J. Tucker to the cup, and dropped in a difficult game-tying layup. He then immediately took on the assignment of guarding Joel FREAKING Embiid in isolation at the other end, forcing him into a tough contested pull-up jumper and pretty much single-handedly sending the game to overtime, in what Raptors beat writer Eric Koreen described as "one of the greatest individual sequences in Raptors history." That's arguably not even the best wasted Siakam performance of the season: Back on Oct. 21, the Raptors lost another nail-biter to the Nets despite Siakam putting up an efficient 37-point triple-double.
So it was nice to see Siakam's heroics lead to a win Wednesday. He had the whole repertoire working against the Knicks: pull-up jumpers, catch-and-shoot threes, that fun signature pirouetting spin in traffic, and plenty of bullying drives into the paint, which led to a season-high 18 free-throw attempts. Thibodeau's Knicks have been defending better than ever of late, but they had no answers for Siakam, because when he's rolling the only player you'd expect to give him trouble everywhere he's comfortable is Giannis Antetokounmpo:
This is not going to be the long-term formula for success for the Raptors. For one thing, as pointed out by Koreen, most nights they will not have an outrageous advantage in number of possessions, as they gained Wednesday night by dominating the offensive glass and committing only four turnovers. For another, head coach Nick Nurse is currently going Thibodeau-mode on his rotations—VanVleet, Anunoby, and Siakam are now third, fourth, and 11th in the league, respectively, in minutes per game—and eventually all this smashing into packed-in defenses is going to wear out the team's best and highest-use players. Eventually they will simply have to start making some jumpers, most especially from beyond the arc, in order for their offense to work, for defenses to loosen up and open up some space for their preferred brand of bully-ball, and for the Raptors to get their groove back.
But time is a factor. The Raptors are currently just four games in the loss column better than the Houston Rockets, who currently hold that all-valuable third spot at the top of the upcoming draft lottery. It's still very hard to give up on the idea that this all should work and eventually will work, with enough reps and a little bit better injury luck and a few more 50-50 balls bouncing their way. As frustrating as the first third of this regular season has been, the Raptors are a perfectly respectable 16th in net rating, and Cleaning The Glass says their record is already two losses worse than it would be with average luck. If they can just dig in and stay within shouting distance of the East's deep playoff pack, some things are bound to go their way, and if they're the right things—if Barnes makes a leap, or VanVleet's shooting comes around, or Precious Achiuwa returns and definitively solidifies their center position, or all of the above—it still seems like the Raptors can be really good!
In the meantime, Siakam kicks huge amounts of ass. The circumstances that require these heroics might drive a Raptors fan to the bottle, but they're also bringing out the very best of one of the NBA's cooler swiss-army-knife point-forwards, and he in turn is buying some time and breathing room for everyone else to figure out how it's all supposed to work. The league and season will be better and more fun the sooner they get it all straightened out.