No, it’s not an instinctive reaction to a terrible loss for the Orlando Magic last night. It’s not me saying that Toronto Raptors are a lottery-related team either. It’s also not going to be a room where I talk down certain players and discuss how they let the team down. It’s just me asking a question.
In life, as soon as you are able to do a certain task, that is your new bar to reach.
If you can finally bench press 225 pounds, you expect to progress from there, not drift down or hit a plateau. If you have completed Grade 10 math; you are then expected to move on to grade 11 math.
Unfortunately, in the sports world, things don’t always happen that way. There are so many factors to put in place.
The first is that growth is not always linear. Sometimes athletes learn best and improve by digressing first. Of course, monsters of nature like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic exist, which manage year after year to take steps in the right direction.
But when Scottie Barnes won rookie of the year, the expectation was that it was only from here. I’ve even heard talk centered around All-Star status for the 21-year-old second.
In the past five seasons, there have only been three players to make the all-star team as second-year players: LaMelo BallLuka Doncic and Sion Williamson. Two of them should be Lifetime MVP candidates barring injury, and the third in Ball who was an injury substitute. To be fair, he also got into those same “future MVP” conversations in the eyes of a lot of people.
You can watch a player like Andre Wiggins in comparison. He was an absolute monster in high school, which turned into a very good but slightly underwhelming college player. Wiggins then followed his number one pick status with the Rookie of the Year award, but then quickly declined to “worst contract in the league” status. Just to return it with the Golden State Warriorsstart in the star game and play a crucial role in a champion team.
Do you see the roller coaster his career has been on? He is only 26 years old and still has a career year! The only point I’m trying to get across is that just because Barnes hasn’t made that leap doesn’t mean he never will. In fact, the main thing that has put this season in such a negative light is the unrealistic expectations fans had for him leading up to the season. Yes, he sometimes gets lost on defense, and yes, he forces shots, but that’s part of the growing process.
There were other players who were also disappointing. Fred Van Vleet followed its best season with an extremely slow start, and Gary Trent Jr. was up and down.
One bright spot that no one could expect is the leap Pascal made. The way Siakam ended the season last year was the best I’ve ever seen him play, but he was still missing crucial elements to his game. A mid-range pull up and the ability to be a true threat from 3 points.
He came back this season, and not only worked on those two areas, but he absolutely thrived there. This propelled his game to the top and he entered into legitimate MVP status.
In the first 26 games of last season, the Raptors’ 48 wins were actually slightly worse than this season, starting 12-14. Almost identical to this season, Siakam has missed 11 games during this streak. This year, he missed 10 because of his adductor injury. Much like this year with OG Anunoby, VanVleet last season had taken his game to a new level and looked like a star contender.
This year it’s more due to injuries, but the bench was a big question mark last year, just as he’s been through some big surges this season. The first 26 games of both years have looked almost identical.
Personally, I still think this Raptors team can put together a season similar to last year. This is a team that can compete with the best teams one night and be far too competitive with the worst teams the next.
It’s completely frustrating, but maybe that’s where this team is at. Building on internal improvement is possible, but difficult. It’s especially difficult when you’re expecting a big leap in internal improvement in one season.
Not only that, but it’s even more difficult when teams that were below you in the standings last season have made moves in an effort to strengthen their team ahead of yours.
The brooklyn nets got their guys back from injury and whatever else sat them down. The Cleveland Cavaliers added Donovan Mitchellthe Atlanta Hawks exchanged the house for Delete Murray. Even teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacerswho had made big mid-season trades, were able to enter a full season with their new guys.
It wasn’t inevitable that the Toronto Raptors would take a big leap based on internal improvement, when a ton of their Eastern opponents went the route most reliant on external improvement.
Even despite that, it seemed like every member of the media was hammering Toronto’s preseason win total. Vegas placed their over/under at 46.5, which would keep it very similar to last season’s record. All I could hear was how Toronto was going to not only hit the bet, but smash it.
Prior to this season, the Raptors had exceeded their projected win total in 9 of the last 11 seasons. 9 of the last 10 if you take out Tampa’s season where they basically only played road games.
The most could still be the movement. I still think it’s realistic for Pascal Siakam to be rewarded with an All-NBA Second Team honor, lead this team to the top 6, win 47-49 games, and have a competitive playoff game in the first round.
At this point, that seems like a realistic expectation. I know it’s fun to dream of dark horse conference finals or multiple stars, but it seems the Raptors have a few flaws they need to work through.
Defensively, it looks like everyone but Anunoby is at risk of getting blown up, and with limited rim protection, that’s a recipe for disaster. Offensively, “give that to Pascal” can’t be the only reliable game plan. I know Nick Nurse would like to channel his inner Will Ferrell and just “give it to the Italians”, but there are very few players who can win with this role every night. Also, having Precious Achiuwa and Otto Porter Jr. who are arguably their two best bench players back from injury, would provide a massive assist.
So you don’t have to be happy when Toronto loses tragically to the Magic, or when they don’t even seem to be on the same turf as the New Orleans Pelicans; that’s what being a fan is. You are expected to surf very hard in the extreme highs and lows.
Stay patient, enjoy the growth of this team, and know that Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office are seeing exactly what we’re seeing, and I can promise you they’re more unhappy with the lackluster expectations than we are.