With a new roster, the Toronto Raptors will look to remain in the contention conversation in the NBA
By Zach Worden, Sports Editor
After a 2020 title defence that went on much longer than many expected, the 2019 NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors, are set to return to action in a year that will look different than any before.
After losing finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and starting shooting guard Danny Green, the 2019-20 edition of the Raptors featured the remaining pieces from the team’s championship run in 2018-19.
After a strong regular season followed by the COVID-19 shutdown, the Raptors, along with the other top 22 NBA teams, made their way to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida to play in the bubble. In the bubble, the Raptors continued their winning ways before the playoffs started.
In the playoffs, the Raptors swept the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round of the playoffs. The series was the first time in franchise history the Raptors swept their opponent.
In the conference semifinals, the Raptors lost in seven games to the Boston Celtics, ending their reign as defending champions.
Coming into the new season, the Raptors will be forced to play in Tampa Bay due to the Canadian government declining the Raptors’ application to play in Toronto.
After the postponed 2019-20 season, the NBA moved back the start of the 2020-21 season until December. The season will be 72 games instead of the usual 82, which will help the league schedule more time between games and prioritize player health.
The Raptors had a busy offseason as three members of their playoff rotation were unrestricted free agents. Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol all played key roles in the team’s championship run and a big part in the record-setting 2019-20 season. Team President Masai Ujiri said that re-signing the three players was the team’s top priority entering the offseason.
The most important player for the team was VanVleet and the Raptors rewarded him for his play the last few seasons. He signed a four-year $85 million dollar contract to return to Toronto. The contract is the largest an undrafted player has ever signed.
After getting VanVleet to re-up with the team, their attention turned to their two big men, Ibaka and Gasol. The Raptors have been operating with all eyes on free agency 2021, where some of the top players in the league will hit the open market.
This led to the team making good but modest offers to both Gasol and Ibaka, who ultimately decided to head west to join the title favourite teams in Los Angeles. Ibaka signed with the Clippers, joining former Raptor Leonard, where he will play a big part in giving the team a rim protector and floor-spacing.
Gasol will look to provide the same things to the defending champion Lakers, who moved on from centers Javale McGee and Dwight Howard in favour of Gasol and Montrezl Harrell.
Once the two announced they were signing elsewhere, the Raptors moved to replace them in a matter of minutes. Aron Baynes and Alex Len were both signed to come in and take over the minutes left by Gasol and Ibaka, while Canadian and fringe rotation player Chris Boucher was brought back on a bigger contract.
Despite the center position looking completely different, everything else should look the same for Toronto.
Kyle Lowry, VanVleet and first-round draft pick Malachi Flynn should eat up the majority of the guard minutes for the team.
Lowry, the six-time all-star will continue to be one of the winningest players in the NBA. While not having the gaudy stats of some of the top stars in the league, Lowry impacts winning like no other. He will be the leader of the Raptors yet again as they try to remain among the best in the east.
Norman Powell and OG Anunoby are the two main options on the wing for the Raptors. There will be some minutes up for grabs for players such as Oshae Brissett and Stanley Johnson.
Anunoby enters the biggest year of his three-year career. After proving himself as one of the top defenders in the league in 2019-20, and showing some ability to create off the dribble in the bubble, he will have the opportunity to prove what he can do with a larger offensive role. With his rookie deal set to expire at year’s end, his offensive production will determine how much money he gets next offseason.
Inside, the Raptors will look a lot different in 2020-21. Between Baynes, Len and Boucher, the Raptors will have to figure out who fills the team’s mandate for defense and outside shooting. Pascal Siakam will be a mainstay in the Raptors rotation for years to come after his performance in the last two seasons.
The All-NBA second team member won the Most Improved Player award in 2018-19 and only continued to improve last year. He was also named an Eastern Conference all-star starter for his performance in that season. Despite struggling in the playoffs, Siakam has proved himself to be an extremely hard-worker who has improved each year over the course of his career. He should be back and even better in 2020-21.