Season Review: Toronto Raptors
Everyone has to start from somewhere, and for these three key Raptors, last season they were an afterthought to superstar Kawhi Leonard, before blossoming this season into the most important players on a championship contender.
Photo via SB Nation

Note: All grades are relative to previous seasons and expectations, one player getting a higher grade than another does not mean they are better, just that they had a more productive growth or that they played their role better. 

Head Coach- Nick Nurse: 46-11, 13th ranked offense, 2nd ranked defense

Nick Nurse came from out of nowhere last season to lead his first-year Raptors team to their maiden championship, and he has followed it up by leading an even better season sans their best player. 

Nurse has mastered their defense, taking advantage of the height and length that they have to make a formidable interior presence. 

But, he has also helped their potency along the perimeter, where he has turned a backcourt of two players 6 foot 1 and under into two defensive pests that can easily dominate defensively in the modern NBA with their larger than they look attitude, utilising players with long arms like Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Mrs. Incredible himself, Chris Boucher aswell. 

The team still isn’t as great offensively as a championship-level team would be, but they have enough players that can take over the game when it matters most, and they have a lot of scoring options to rely on. 

Nurse’s famed coaching moment came when his squad was down 30 to the Mavericks, and he chose to implement a tactic used primarily in high school, pressing in a diamond formation and bringing his team back from the brink in a classic game that will be remembered when evaluating his coaching career.

He is a Coach of the Year candidate for a reason, which is plain to see when watching the Raptors play. We are watching before our very eyes how far they have come since the COTY season of Dwayne Casey just two years ago, Nurse the catalyst for change they needed. 

Grade- A+
 

 

Power Forward- Pascal Siakam: 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 55.9% TS

Most Improved once, maybe again? It would be miraculous, unprecedented, yet highly possible. Siakam earned his first All-Star appearance this season for his leading role in this surprising Raptors unit, after breaking out into a crucial part of the championship team just last year. 

He’s a slender, athletic slasher who’s potency on both sides of the ball goes relatively unmatched by any others of his position. 

Defense is his calling card, long, tough and athletic with great reflexes and smarts, he masters in containment over all else and isn’t particularly flashy. 

His increased role has reaped benefits in terms of his scoring, but he is making significantly less of his shots, which is to be expected when transferring to a higher role. The primary reason for this is the shots he is taking, going from quick one on ones and open threes to post-up double teams and step-back triples.

He’s not always the most consistently accurate scorer, but he’s so good at getting into the paint that it isn’t a huge problem, and he has clearly become the best scorer in this lineup.

Giving Siakam anything but an A+ grade would be insulting.

Grade- A+
 

 

Shooting Guard- Norman Powell: 16.4 points, 1.3 steals, 62.9% TS

Powell proved in his 22 proper starts this year that he is a victim of playing on too great of a team for his own good. The games which he did start were incredibly good, to the tune of 12 20+ point games and 3 with over 30, along with a player of the week award to his name.

Unfortunately, Norman was stricken with injury on every occasion when he would start to get it going, including the game right before the NBA’s suspension, where it only took him one minute to be on his way back to the locker room. That came straight after a 5 game stretch averaging 28 points per game.

While his three-point volume has something to do with his rise this season, it is more a result of the transition proficiency he possesses, and his scoring game reaching a more versatile stage, with strong moves inside becoming a more consistent feature of his game.

He understands how to score around bigger, smaller, stronger and faster players, and his shot selection has become much more selective and interior-heavy.

He gets his A+ because he has made a huge improve to match his increase in minutes, so it seems only fair that I reward him for that.

Grade- A+
 

 

Shooting Guard- Terence Davis II: 7.7 points, 39.6% 3PT, 59.8% TS

To make the NBA after going undrafted is no small feat. Let alone becoming a high-level role player on the reigning champions. Congratulations, Terence Davis. 

It took only 7 games for him to earn consistent playing time, and since then he has been a regular in the rotation, missing a grand total of 0 games thus far in the season, amazing consistency for a team that has had a rough time with injuries over the last year.

He is a prototypical 3 and D player, but it’s obvious he has more to offer that is slowly getting unlocked, piece by piece. 

When he is on, he is on, but he can have some low games, including 39% of his games being without a 3-point make, and averaging 1.6 attempts in those games.

On the flip side, in his 15 games with 3 or more triples made, he is hitting 56.7% of his shots.

He may not be the perfect 3 and D guy, but he’s certainly a great reward for the Raptors belief in him, and A is the lowest grade I could give him considering his circumstances. 

Grade- A
 

 

Shooting Guard- Matt Thomas: 4.5 points, 46.7% 3PT, 65% TS

Matt Thomas is the least used in a long line of great undrafted Raptors, but unlike VanVleet, Terence Davis or Boucher, Thomas is a pure yet dangerously potent shooter, who, in his limited minutes, made a huge impact. 

To start off the season, he showed a lot of promise, but as the starters began to heal, he became an afterthought, despite shooting 54% from three in his 12 games before thanksgiving.

He then missed 21 straight games for reasons varying from injuries to lack of a place in the team, and he crept in and out of the rotation until early February, not performing at his best but still making 37.5% of his threes.

Then he dropped 15 in his first game with over 20 minutes played, but still he got nothing but garbage minutes in the next three games. 

And that’s the story of the season for Matt Thomas. A really, really good player who is about as consistent as you are going to get for a shooter. But he’s just on a great team. 

And, sadly for him, just as the opportunities were beginning to come, the NBA was suspended and his hot streak put on hold, meaning we will have to wait a while before we can see how good he can really be.

Grade- A-
 

 

Point Guard- Kyle Lowry: 19.7 points, 7.7 assists, 58.9% TS

Lowry has also had his role furthered since last season, playing third fiddle to Kawhi Leonard and Siakam turned to second in the pecking order only to Pascal. He has always been a star throughout his time as a Raptor, but never truly been THE star. 

But, he’s fine with that (especially when it leads to a championship). He’s at his best being a high-energy player on both ends of the ball ready to put his body on the line at the drop of a hat. 

That shouldn’t suggest that he is untalented, he’s a great shooter and great at using his body to manipulate on the inside despite his small size. And, his most underrated aspect, his playmaking, which is a constant threat thanks to his basketball smarts and jumpy, jagged nature. 

To say he is a disruptive defender would be an understatement and a half. He takes charge after charge, is constantly poking at the ball and can even defend bigger players, something he has gotten used to, running around like a jackrabbit every possession without fail.

His importance as a locker room leader can be seen with his constant chatter on the court, whether it be to referees, opposition or his own teammates, Lowry will always stick up for his colleagues and passionately hates to lose.

This season, with his shooting a requirement for the team’s offense more so than last year, he has stepped up, shooting by far a career high volume of threes, scoring inside becoming somewhat of an afterthought. 

He gets his grade because he has transitioned so perfectly from lower-usage to high and has been a key cog in an amazing team.

Grade- A-


 

Center- Serge Ibaka: 16 points, 8.3 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 59.3% TS

Serge Ibaka has had another great season at age 30, upping his scoring average to a career high(!), career high in assists and improving his 3 point percentage to yet another career high. And his second best rebounding output. And his second best TS%. All of this being done as a fourth option offensively at best.

Bottom line? It’s been a great season for the Raptors star.

He has been tasked with taking more and more big-time shots and having a much heavier offensive duty, but he hasn’t let those expectations get to him in the slightest.

Ibaka is one of those perfect role players that doesn’t come around very often. He is not only a great scorer, but he plays his role immensely and can be a team catalyst on both ends of the floor, keeping composed no matter the situation. Basically all the great role player stuff, plus an added bonus of his ever-improving scoring.

The Raptors would definitely be glad they traded Terence Ross for him.

Grade- A-

 

 

Small Forward- OG Anunoby: 10.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 59.8% TS

The improvements that OG has made in his two-way game have gone under the radar with the rest of the improvements by the rest of the team, Siakam, Powell, Terence Davis and almost everyone else.

Not only did he become a much better and more consistent three point shooter, but his development on the defensive end continued from two years ago, strengthening on the interior to the point where it is a major weapon alongside his perimeter prowess.

He is a much more variant player than just someone who shoots and defends, which is summed up by his timing off the ball, alongside his brute strength as a finisher when put in tough situations.

Off-ball cutting and finishing is an important step for a young player to understand, especially for someone who is mainly a role player, realising that the best way for them to help the team while they are still developing is by playing without the ball in their hands.

The hope for Anunoby is that he becomes more consistent from three, summarised by his two different 16-game stretches shooting 18 and 29 percent from three respectively. But for right now, Raptors fans should be happy where he is.

Grade- A-

 

 

Point Guard- Fred VanVleet: 17.6 points, 6.6 assists, 54.6% TS

Following a 6th Man of the Year level season last time out, expectations were sky-high for his first full season as a starter. Injuries were unkind to VanVleet, but he still managed to start 48 games, many of which were played as a sort of Shooting Guard in a double PG rotation.

The one ever-reliable aspect of his game is his shooting, either spot-up or off the dribble, and he has had no problems with that throughout the season, still an invaluable threat to have curling off screens or eccentrically stepping-back.

The two most underrated parts of his game are both left out of the equation when evaluating him as a player, dimming his overall value in the eyes of many fans:

Firstly, his interior scoring is particularly overlooked, he has an attack mindset and is exceptionally strong in the way that he chooses to penetrate, as well as being one of the strongest finesse finishers in the game.

Secondly, his defensive work has been impressive, a part of his game usually thought to be below-average. He and Lowry have worked extremely hard to become a good defensive duo, showing off grit and determination despite their height to guard much bigger players than themselves.

None of this is even mentioning his great passing, proving to be a high-level mover and consistent decision-maker, which is all that’s really required from someone sharing a backcourt with an elite playmaker like Kyle Lowry.

Overall, it’s been a great first starting season for VanVleet, especially in terms of scoring and defense, increasing his points and steals per 36 minutes by 3.4 and 0.7 respectively. This was about what was expected of him, though, with the higher role, so his grade is not quite as high as some of his other teammates.

[IU]Grade- B+

[B]Power Forward- Chris Boucher: 6.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1 block, 57% TS
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Redefining the ‘stretch’ four, Chris Boucher has one of longest wingspans, highest jumps, and he looks like the tallest player on almost any court he steps on despite being only 6 foot 9.

His length goes a long way for his defense and shooting, the two things he is proficient at, especially blocking jump shots along the perimeter and getting his shots off from a high point. And, of course, it gets him rebounds too.

His minutes have been a bit choppy over the season, some games getting a big chance to shine, others where he doesn’t take the court, but it’s still undeniably a huge improvement from when he wouldn’t even get minutes at all.

When Boucher gets to the free throw line, good things really seem to happen, as he makes a high percentage even though he doesn’t get there that often, mainly due to his struggles to create his own shot.

His 3 point shot hasn’t even been falling that much, but it’s a credit to the rest of his ever-expanding game that he still gets minutes despite that, and he will continue to get the opportunity to contribute if he keeps up this level of play.

Grade- B
 

 

Small Forward- Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: 7.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 53.3% TS

Rondae Hustle-Jefferson, as he has been correctly dubbed, doesn’t leave anything to be desired. He puts in 100%, then just keeps putting in. He is truly a professional. 

The issue is just that he doesn’t have a lot of talent. He can shoot occasionally from mid-range and he’s got the strength and length to be a great defender, but there isn’t much scoring or playmaking he can bring to the table.

He’s a good finisher, but doesn’t know how to get inside in the first place, so most of his interior buckets come from offensive rebounds, a stat in which he has recorded a career high even in his lowest minute output.

And that’s the way you make it on this Raptors team, put in lots of effort and make it obvious that you will do anything for the betterment of the team. Rondae does that, the coaches know it, and they reward him with regular minutes. 

For a guy that has made 2 threes all season, it really shows how much else he contributes to this Raptors squad that he remains one of their most important bench contributors despite his inaptitude at one of Toronto’s most valued skills- hitting the three point shot.

Grade- B-
 

 

Center- Marc Gasol: 7.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 54.6% TS

While Gasol has not quite been up to standard in terms of his scoring in the limited games he has played, the rest of his game shone out, especially his post defense, which is saying something for a former Defensive Player of the Year.

The first two months was truly horrible for him on the offensive side of the ball, barely breaking 35% from the field despite shooting almost the same from three. 

After his injury, he came to life, including a two game stretch hitting 9 of his 11 threes and another game making all 7 shots, before he was again tampered by injury, making a one game return just two games before the hiatus.

His most important role will be during the playoffs, though, and it shouldn’t really matter how he performs during the regular season. He has and will always be one for the big moments, which remains his primary role on this team. 

Grade- C 
 

 

Shooting Guard- Patrick McCaw: 4.6 points, 1.1 steals, 50% TS

The three time champion is going for number 4 in just his fourth season in the league, and he could certainly be on a worse team to do it than the Raptors.

In terms of what he provides to the group, he plays like majority of the other Raptor role players, 3 and D with a grind it out mentality.

This season hasn’t been as great as he may have wanted for him personally, but he’s out there to make the occasional big shot and get hot sporadically when the team needs him the most.

He has got opportunities time to time to play really meaningful minutes, including 3 games of 42+, where he has showed some ability to be more than just a shooter, playmaking, rebounding and making plays to get buckets for himself.

You don’t quite know what you are going to get game to game with McCaw, but he is developing at a nice pace and clearly is very adept at being part of a winning culture from his years as a Warrior.

If he and the Raptors can manage a championship this year, his 4 rings in the first four years of his career would be truly monumental, Robert Horry level monumental.

Grade- C- 

 

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