7 Raptors storylines to follow as they begin the NBA season in Tampa
It hasn’t been very long since the Toronto Raptors last suited up for an NBA game — 102 days to be exact — but it isn’t any less exciting to be able to say, for the second time in only a handful of months, basketball is BACK!
The [Tampa Bay] Raptors are preparing to tip-off their 2020-21 season on Wednesday at 7:30 pm ET/4:30 pm PT against the New Orleans Pelicans and, despite being unable to defend their 2019 championship in the Orlando bubble, expectations remain high for this year’s squad to make another playoff run.
For the upcoming stunted 72-game season, the Raps will be bringing back most of their core young talent that has been key to the club’s success in the past few years.
Fred VanVleet opted to return during free agency. OG Anunoby has been extended for another four years. Pascal Siakam is locked down until 2024. And Norman Powell and Chris Boucher will be filling valuable bench minutes for the next couple of years.
With Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka leaving for different teams this offseason, however, and pending 2021 superstar free agent Giannis Antetokounmpo — a player rumoured to have had an interest in Toronto — re-signing with the Milwaukee Bucks, the roster feels it still might be a piece or two away from building back a championship contender.
With the arrival of a new season and some unanswered questions still lingering, here are the seven key storylines to follow during the 2020-21 Toronto Raptors season.
1. The final free agent: Masai Ujiri
First and foremost, one of the biggest questions about Toronto’s future isn’t surrounding any player or coach, but rather the President of Basketball Operations, Masai Ujiri.
Ujiri took the helm in 2013 and built a franchise that has made seven straight playoff appearances, including the team’s first-ever championship in 2019.
Making savvy moves and taking big swings — such as trading for Kawhi Leonard — he cemented himself as a fan-favourite and an iconic executive over the greater portion of the last decade. This season, however, Ujiri’s contract with the Raptors is set to expire.
Fans, owners, management, and players would love to see him return, but Ujiri typically keeps his cards close to his chest.
Will he opt to move on to his next great project? Or will he re-sign with Toronto and keep the franchise in his beloved and trusted hands moving forward?
2. Will Pascal bounce back?
During the 2019-20 season, Pascal Siakam emerged as an up-and-coming star, earning his first career NBA All-Star nod and landing on the All-NBA Second Team.
Regardless, the wheels appeared to come off during the league’s restart in Orlando.
His points per game dropped from 22.9 to 17.0 in the NBA bubble, while only shooting 39.6% from the field (down from 45.3%) and an abysmal 18.9% from three (down from 35.9%).
The recency bias might have fans asking themselves whether the bubble performance was an anomaly or if he can really be Toronto’s number one option of the future?
This season should provide answers and fans will be eager to see what player shows up for Wednesday’s opener.
3. Tampa Bay, border restrictions and heading north
A question that will remain unanswered until midway through the season is whether or not Toronto will play in Canada this year.
The Raptors will begin their season in Tampa Bay due to Canadian border restrictions and national quarantine rules, implemented due to COVID-19.
Vaccines are being rolled out across Canada, however, the coronavirus isn’t going away anytime soon.
It will be interesting to see if there is any chance the team makes a return north of the border to play at Scotiabank Arena — with or without fans.
4. Next rookie sensation: Flynn-sanity
That's confidence right there 👀 pic.twitter.com/mBiYhbY6tW
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 15, 2020
Toronto’s 29th overall pick in the 2020 draft was guard Malachi Flynn, who already put fans on notice during the preseason.
Despite a small stature (6-foot-2), Flynn is a scoring machine with pesky defensive skills and playmaking abilities that other Raptors bench players just don’t offer.
He will have a chance for key minutes behind Kyle Lowry and VanVleet and could be the latest lovable franchise draft steal.
5. Big men minutes
After the departure of Ibaka and Gasol, Toronto’s front office went fishing, bringing in two new bigs in Aron Baynes and Alex Len, while also resigning Chris Boucher for two more years.
Baynes brings some toughness and three-point shooting, while Len adds athleticism and rim protection, but these two are merely a band-aid that doesn’t quite heal the losses of Gasol and Ibaka.
Barring a trade, it seems the Raptors could feature several small-ball lineups this season that include Siakam at centre and Anunoby at power forward. These lineups could be fun to watch, but the Eastern Conference features dominant bigs like Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and powerful finishers like Antetokounmpo.
Reigning NBA Coach of the Year Nick Nurse is known to get creative with his lineups and — at the very least — it will be entertaining to see how the front-court minutes get utilized this season.
6. Is there still a BIG splash to be made?
Ujiri is not shy of seeking out elite talent (see Kawhi Leonard) and, with the aforementioned Antetokounmpo now off the table, he could be looking at other star options.
Multiple sources around the league suggest that one superstar — Houston Rockets’ James Harden — is unhappy with his situation and is seeking a trade. Leonard is also slated to become a free agent again at the end of this season.
The superstar rumour mill will be turning all season and the Raptors have the pieces to at least start a conversation.
Could management make a move for the chance at a title run? Or will it be a ‘build-for-the-future’ approach?
7. Lowry, Lowry, Lowry
It only seems fitting to end with the greatest Raptor of all-time.
Lowry’s contract is set to expire at the end of this year. Currently the highest-paid player on the team, he has become the heart and soul of Toronto basketball.
Everyone wants to see him stay, but at 34 years old and on an expiring deal, will that be the best option for both parties?
He has heart, talent and hustle left to give, so a title contender may be inclined to trade for him. Lowry himself might want to chase another title at the end of this year and opt to sign somewhere else. The organization might choose to go in a younger direction.
Fans will keep their fingers crossed for more of #7, but if this does turn out to be Lowry’s coronation season with Toronto, they should be ready to enjoy every last minute of it.