Just a few months after their memorable championship run captivated a nation and altered the landscape of the NBA, the Toronto Raptors are about to make history again, only this time it’s bittersweet.
When they raise the banner, hand out the rings and begin the defence of their first– ever title on Oct. 22, they’ll have to do it without the player most responsible for making it all happen, Kawhi Leonard.
It’s only the third time in the last 50 years that a team will open the season as defending champs without having the reigning Finals MVP on its roster, and the first time said Finals MVP will be playing for somebody else.
The 2019-20 campaign will be a strange one for the Raptors and their fans.
They’ll have plenty of opportunities to look back and smile – from the opening night celebration of a championship few saw coming, to the nostalgic return of the original purple pinstriped jerseys to honour the team’s 25th birthday.
They’ll give Leonard a hero’s welcome when he returns with the Clippers in December and then bid farewell to another franchise icon, Vince Carter, who’s finally planning to call it a career after his historic 22nd season.
There will be fun subplots and interesting storylines along the way, and probably more wins than most are expecting from a team that still figures to be competitive in a wide-open Eastern Conference.
However, unlike just about every champion that came before them, their chances of repeating are slim, and their future – both in the short and long-term – is uncertain.
Only two players from the team that won the title three months ago are currently under guaranteed contracts past this season (Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw, with OG Anunoby’s fourth-year option certain to be picked up and Pascal Siakam eligible for an extension before opening night).
Without Leonard, the Raptors go from contenders to a team in transition. What comes next and how do they find their way back to the top of the mountain? That’s something president Masai Ujiri, general manager Bobby Webster and the team’s brass will spend the season trying to figure out.
Over the next couple days we’ll take a look at some of the key questions facing the Raptors going into training camp, which opens on Sunday in Quebec City.
Can they avoid a championship hangover?
First of all, we have to ask ourselves: Is there such thing as a ‘championship hangover’? And we’re not talking about the splitting headache Marc Gasol must have had the day following the Raptors’ parade or after winning the FIBA World Cup crown with Spain this month.
Theoretically, the championship hangover is when a team comes out sluggish the season after winning a title. Does it exist and, if so, will it impact Toronto’s returning players?
Let’s take a look at the previous 10 title teams. On average, their record in the first 20 games of their championship-winning season was 16-4. Their record in the first 20 games of the following season was 15-5, a very slight drop off.
Three of those 10 teams improved on their record. One of them fared the exact same through 20 games. Of the six that saw their record drop off the following season, only two slid by more than two wins.
Of course, none of those teams lost their best player between seasons. The 2011 Dallas Mavericks – who had the biggest drop off, starting 16-4 during their championship season and 12-8 the next – may actually be the Raptors’ closest comparison. They lost their starting centre and defensive anchor Tyson Chandler.
Overall, there’s very little evidence to support the hangover theory. However, it is fair to wonder how some players might respond coming off of shortened summers, especially the veterans.
First-time champions Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Gasol certainly wouldn’t complain about their abbreviated off-seasons, but the long title run did alter their training and conditioning routines some.
Not only were they working until late-June – almost two months later than the year prior – but when you factor in the well-earned celebration period and extra recovery time, the obvious question becomes: What shape will they be in coming into camp?
In the case of Gasol, who turns 35 in January, he only had a week off before joining the Spanish national team for the World Cup. That event ran until mid-September, giving him roughly 10 days off before reporting to the Raptors ahead of camp.
Head coach Nick Nurse has already said he’ll be mindful of the toll the past year has taken on his vets, particularly Gasol, meaning we could see some form of load management throughout camp and early in the season.
Even if the aforementioned Lowry, Ibaka and Gasol aren’t in tip-top shape, they shouldn’t be lacking for motivation. All three vets – in addition to Fred VanVleet – will be unrestricted free agents next summer.
How they start the year could be crucial in determining what their next contracts look like, but it could also dictate which direction Ujiri decides to take his team in as early as this coming winter.
Ujiri intends to exercise patience, like he’s done time and time again, and give this group a chance to succeed together. If they do, maybe next summer’s makeover is more of a retooling than a rebuild. If they struggle, maybe he’s more inclined to shop those big expiring contracts ahead of the trade deadline.
Is Siakam ready to be The Guy?
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Siakam take a step forward in his third year – most expected him to be among the league’s most improved players – but few could have imagined him taking that big a step.
Last season saw the 25-year-old blossom from an intriguing bench player into the third most important piece and second scoring option on a championship-winning team.
Now, with Leonard gone and Lowry settling into more of a complimentary role, the Raptors need Siakam to make another jump, and this is the hardest one to take.
They want to see if he can develop into a featured player, the next face of the franchise and the type of star worth building around for the foreseeable future. More than anything else, that’s what this season is about, and they’re going to give him every opportunity to grow into that role.
That’s a lot to ask of any player, let alone one with very little exposure to that level of volume, responsibility and pressure.
In 21 games without Leonard last season, Siakam averaged 19.1 points (up from his season average of 16.9) on 55 per cent shooting. The Raptors went 16-5 in those games. Some of his best playoff performances came on nights in which Leonard struggled to play through injury or illness.
Siakam has shown the ability to step into the lead role when needed, albeit in a small sample. The question is can he do it full-time, with a higher usage rate and, most importantly, with opposing teams game-planning for him more than ever before?
It’s fair to be skeptical. His career arc is almost unprecedented. However, that’s why it seems foolish to put a ceiling on him now. Look how far he’s already come against all odds. There is still untapped potential in his game – he famously picked up the sport later than most – and he has the work ethic and mental approach required to get the most out of his already versatile skill set. Those are the guys you want to bet on.
It will be fascinating to see how and when the Raptors make that bet. Siakam will earn $2.35 million this season – the final year of his rookie deal – making him, arguably, the biggest bargain in the NBA. He’s eligible for an extension before the season. If he doesn’t get one ahead of the Oct. 21 deadline he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer.
Make no mistake, Siakam’s future is in Toronto. It’s just a question of how he and the team decide to play this.
The Raptors have engaged in preliminary talks with Siakam’s representatives, according to sources, but there’s no indication that a deal is imminent. Siakam’s camp is surely looking for an extension at or close to his maximum of roughly $170 million over five years, as they should. The dialogue is ongoing and both player and team are hopeful they'll reach an agreement prior to the deadline, TSN is told.
For the Raptors, the benefit of signing Siakam to an extension would be to buy some goodwill with the player and make a very public statement – in the aftermath of losing Leonard – to both him and the fan base that he’s the future.
However, unless they can agree on a price, which would probably have to come down to something less than his max, it might make more business sense for the team to wait this out.
Siakam’s max is likely to be similar as a free agent next summer. Even if he gets and chooses to sign a max deal from another team, the Raptors would have the right to match the offer. There’s little downside in that regard. As long as they’re willing to pay market value he’s not going anywhere, and waiting until the off-season to lock him up would allow them to maximize the cap space they’d have to work with next summer.
They would also have another full season of data – and one in which he’ll be used in a featured role – to help them evaluate whether or not he’s a max player.
One way or the other, Siakam is a big part of the Raptors’ long-term plans – they’ve been very clear about that. In the short term, how he develops in his expanded role should go a long way in determining how good the team is this season.
Part 2 of Josh Lewenberg’s Raptors training camp preview will be posted Friday on TSN.ca.