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2020-21 NBA SEASON PREVIEW: TORONTO RAPTORS

@TheWillBaldwin

Predicted finish: 6th in the East (4th in the Atlantic, 9th in the power rankings)

Last seasons conference finish: 2nd

Overview:

Last season the Toronto Raptors became one of the most beloved teams in recent NBA history. After losing the franchise’s only NBA Finals MVP, another key starter to free agency and countless injuries, the team somehow managed to finish with a better regular season record than the one of the team that won the title the year before. Now in this new season, the team has lost two more key contributors from their title team, both in the front court, and face a litany of questions on if they can replace them. As important as those questions are, they aren’t the most pressing ones with the team. Kyle Lowry is a 34 year-old point guard who will turn 35 in the season. The list of players who have excelled at that age in all of NBA history at that position is one: Chris Paul last season. At some point he’ll slow down you’d have to imagine, the question is, will it be this year? A similarly pressing question comes for All-Star forward Pascal Siakam. After his second straight breakout season, Siakam was probably the most disappointing player in the entire NBA in the bubble. Until he plays well again, questions of Siakam being a one hit wonder will remain from his critics. Unfortunately for the Raptors, they to face similar critiques from naysayers. Luckily, if any franchise is used to answering the haters, it’s this one. 

The big question for the franchise: What will the summer of 2021 bring to Toronto? 

It’s hard to find a team with more riding on next summer than this one. The franchise’s two biggest names, Lowry and Masai Ujiri are free agents in a time when they hope to attract a marquee one. As important as this upcoming NBA season is, it’s impossible to ignore that this organization is more focused on winning the summer of 2021 than the 2021 NBA title. Being good this season helps their pitch to the Giannis’ of the world so don’t expect them to mail this season in per say but, with such franchise altering pieces with uncertain futures, it’s hard to focus on much other than that right now. We saw in the playoffs they’re a superstar piece from being a title contender again and next summer could be the answer to that. Of course, that’s assuming they don’t lose other integral pieces before that moment on the way. 

One move I want to see them make: Resign Masai Ujiri 

This team isn’t winning a title in 2021 but they have enough talent to be interesting in 2022 and on with the right moves. That starts with bringing back Ujiri long term. The man who built this organization to what it is now needs to be back in the fold going forward. He’s as important as any player who’s on the roster right now is to their long term success. Ownership needs to find a way to offer him something he can’t refuse. Find out what he’s targeting and give him more. It sounds blunt but the truth is Ujiri is that important to Toronto’s future and not worth messing around with in any capacity. Locking him down indefinitely would be more important than any trade they could realistically pull off this season and it’s time ownership recognizes this and acts. 

Offseason Grade: B-

Losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol is a tough pill to swallow. Not only were the two integral pieces on the floor but more importantly, they helped build the championship culture that won the ring in 2019 and stuck around in 2020 to help them be one of the best teams in basketball. As good as Aron Baynes is as a replacement for Gasol, the hole those two will leave in the locker room will be tough to fill. Luckily, they managed to keep Fred VanVleet on a long deal, had a draft that holds a ton of  promise and locked down Nick Nurse indefinitely as the coach of the organization. Overall, losing Gasol and Ibaka hurts, no doubt about it and they’ll be worse off. Moves though like the draft, VanVleet and Nurse set up the franchise beyond 2021 and that’s probably more important for where this franchise is heading into this season. 

Young player I’m excited for: OG Anunoby 

The forgotten man in the 2019 playoff run had a breakout defensive season in 2020 with flashes of All-League potential on that end. Offensively, especially in the bubble, Anunoboy’s handle looked better than it has at any point in his career and his jumper continues to come along. I’m super excited to see how he progresses because it feels like he’s still only scratching the surface at just 23 years-old. Look for him to run some small ball centre this season, get some more offensive opportunities and overall just continue to grow. After his consistent improvement over the course of his career thus far, I’m just excited to sit back and see what he blossom’s into moving forward. 

Final Thoughts: 

The Raptors are in a weird place. If the playoffs didn’t do it then the losses of Gasol and Ibaka all but confirmed this isn’t a title contender in 2021. That said, it feels like the organization’s NBA championship is the summer following the season, trying to lure a big name up north. For now, with talents like Lowry, Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby still on a roster coached by the best in basketball, they’ll be good. It just feels like 2021 might be a slight step back for the potential of more. Will the gamble on free agency be worth it? Only time will tell. All we know now is the most beloved team in basketball is back with a slight refresh and that’s something to keep the fans happy even as the summer looms.

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