The Toronto Raptors are done for the year, but there’s little doom and gloom.
It was less than 24 hours since they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Philadelphia 76ers, but Pascal Siakam expressed optimism on Friday as the players cleared out of their practice facility. He wasn’t the only one.
That’s in stark contrast to how the star power forward felt entering last off-season. A year ago, the Raptors missed the playoffs, and Siakam had a badly injured shoulder to show for his lacklustre season – one the Raps spent in Tampa, displaced from home. Tough times were ahead for Siakam, including shoulder surgery and months of rehab.
That “felt like the bottom,” says Siakam of last off-season. It feels so different now. He’s healthy and ready for a productive summer following his fifth NBA season. Siakam is part of a young Raptors team with intriguing players and potential. Many of his teammates expressed that too.
“It’s hard to say ‘positive’ because we lost. … We could have we could have done more and achieved more,” Siakam said. “But also optimistic, just knowing where I came from in the season and how I was able to evolve. … I feel like having an off-season that’s a little longer, where I’m not just rehabbing my shoulder, like I’m working on my game, it’s gonna definitely help me.”
The Raps finished this season 48-34 and landed a No. 5 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. While they didn’t make it out of the first round, they did join a small list of NBA teams – just 14 in the league’s 75-year history – to force a Game 6 after slipping into a 3-0 series deficit.
Game 3 still irks some of the Raptors – a contest they led all game at home, before letting it slip away in overtime on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by 76ers star Joel Embiid. That made the series 3-0 for Philly instead of 2-1.
“Game 3 hurts a lot, because if we got that one, I think it’s a different series,” Fred VanVleet said.
VanVleet, like many on this team, are excited about what this collection of players could become.
“We have the pieces,” VanVleet said. “Now, how do you put those pieces together? Can you add a few pieces around the board? How does it make sense to be the most efficient, lethal team you can put on the floor? I think we can definitely get better within, without adding anything.”
VanVleet earned his first all-star appearance this season. He had his best campaign yet, in numerous statistical categories – averaging 20.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He doesn’t expect the strained hip that ended his season in Game 4 to drag on too long. He’ll explore new routines and treatments to help his body better withstand the rigours of an NBA season.
“I want to be known as a championship player,” VanVleet said. “That’s my No. 1 goal is getting us back to championship level.”
The other feather in Toronto’s cap this season was rookie-of-the-year honours for Scottie Barnes. The fourth overall draft pick played more minutes than any other rookie in the league this year, and averaged 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
“I’m ready to get back to work,” the eager 20-year-old said with a chuckle when asked if he’ll perhaps unwind a little this off-season after a whirlwind couple of years that saw him drafted after a single college season.
“I already took my deep breath. It’s time to keep going. Just keep putting the foot on their neck.”
He’s one of several who took strides – including Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa and Gary Trent Jr. The Raptors roster should look largely the same when next season opens. They have a handful hitting free agency – including Boucher, Thaddeus Young and Yuta Watanabe. They don’t have a first-round pick in June’s NBA draft, since they traded it away, but they do have a second-round pick, 33rd overall.
“The sky’s the limit for every individual on this team. … This team can be really, really scary,” said Young, a 34-year-old veteran of 15 NBA seasons.
The Raptors didn’t have a traditional seven-foot big man on the roster. Instead they often rolled out multiple guys who stand 6 foot 8 and 6 foot 9 – versatile players nimble and athletic enough to do many things well. Young points to Toronto winning games against the NBA’s best centres this year – Embiid, and Denver’s Nikola Jokic.
“I think this team is on the cusp of doing something that’s very unique, but it’s effective,” said Young of the tactic. “We’re able to win games with a bunch of 6-8 guys. And the good thing about this group is there are a lot of interchangeable pieces that can play a lot of different parts.”
The group now has six games of playoff experience to study and build upon.
“That was a problem for a while – there was no point of reference for a while for a young team,” VanVleet said. “And now we have that.”