With Wednesday’s tipoff of the 2023-24 Toronto Raptors season now imminent, this feels like the weirdest lead-in to a campaign in recent memory.
What are these Raptors? What do they want to be?
They’ve re-committed to player development, but still have quality veterans on hand, at least for now.
How does one define a successful season for this group?
Is the fanbase pumped? Indifferent? Full of hope, or disillusioned?
Plenty of questions. Not many answers.
The truth is, nobody yet has a clue what these Raptors are or how quickly they can become any sort of a factor in an Eastern Conference that has two powerhouses at the top (Milwaukee and Boston) and not much separating the rest of the field.
You can throw out the great pre-season, even though there were encouraging signs to take from at least two of the four games.
The Darko Rajakovic era is off to a good start, this year’s group appear to like playing with each other and moving the ball, a welcome 180 from last year’s vibes-gone-wrong failure, but the competition is about to get a lot tougher and the schedule is a bear early on. A bunch of tough opponents await right out of the gate, there’s a couple of immediate back-to-backs and a trip to start November.
There will also potentially be the season-long distractions of having the team’s best player (Pascal Siakam), top defender (O.G. Anunoby) and premier reserve (Gary Trent Jr.) all potentially heading to unrestricted free agency come July 1.
The franchise has made it clear in holding him out of trade talks for years, including this summer, that they want Anunoby around long-term. The jury is out on what they’d prefer concerning Siakam, merely one of the five best players in franchise history, or Trent, one of the few accurate shooters and skilled creators on the roster.
The team also doesn’t have a pick for the 2024 draft, unless this season turns into a disaster (San Antonio gets the pick, from the Jakob Poeltl trade, unless the Raptors finish in the Top 6 of the lottery), making a trade deadline selloff unlikely.
So, what will constitute a successful season then?
It all starts with Scottie Barnes.
The now-third-year forward was the best player on the court for most of the exhibition games. He looked bigger, faster, quicker off his feet for second jumps and saw his shots fall more frequently than in the past. If he makes a leap to all-star, or is in the running, then the season is a success.
Barnes’ ceiling mirrors Toronto’s own peak. Siakam is better now, but Barnes is far younger and has the most upside. Wherever the franchise goes, Barnes is the player by far most likely to take them there. If Rajakovic can continue unlocking his game, they will be on the right track.
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Avoiding the play-in game would be a significant positive as well.
Four teams will likely line up below Milwaukee and Boston with guaranteed playoff spots.
Philadelphia has distractions in the form of the James Harden situation and the Joel Embiid trade rumours while Cleveland looks flawed and there’s a lot of smoke about the future of top player Donovan Mitchell and whether the team’s big men can co-exist up front.
Miami is a force come the spring, but tends to underachieve in the regular season. The Knicks should be good. Brooklyn could be solid, Orlando seems poised to make a leap and, on paper, Chicago and Atlanta are good enough to make the playoffs.
But there’s no reason why Toronto can’t be in the mix for a five or six seed in this conference, providing everyone stays healthy and happy.
Finally, we think a key factor of this season being a positive or not hinges on whether the Raptors can get Siakam signed long-term, or dealt for value.
Selling off Trent for future assets and cap flexibility while retaining Siakam and Anunoby would be smart, but any decisions might have to wait until next summer. That wouldn’t be ideal, to put it conservatively.
Regardless, little will be answered quickly. There are six months of hoops to be played and it might take all of that time to get a handle on these Raptors.