May 25, 2020, 12:27 pm
Let’s put things in perspective before we jump into the nitty-gritty of the Raptors’ 2019-20 fantasy experience thus far. It’s fair to assume that the majority of us are aware that the Toronto Raptors are the current NBA Champions. This was one heck of a journey from laughing stock to NBA Champion though.
After Chris Bosh made his way to South Beach the Raptors missed the playoffs for five straight seasons. Nonetheless, it took the team one season of Kyle Lowry integration to suddenly turn the corner into a perennial playoff team. After turning the corner into the postseason the rest of the climb was no easy feat. Many names came and went before the Raptors broke through for the title. Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valancuinas, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, to name a few. They all played a part in building the culture and bringing in the assets to create an NBA champion.
Going the Distance
After losing a tightly contested first-round matchup versus the veteran Nets in 2013-14, the Raptors struggled mightily when it mattered in the playoffs for several years. Getting swept by the Wizards in the first-round in 2014-15, in what was supposed to be a tightly contested 4-5 matchup, was the first embarrassment. The whispers quickly followed, and would never dissipate as long as Masai Ujiri was the General Manager. This was the same GM known for tearing down the Carmelo Anthony-led Denver Nuggets, and a similar line of thinking was often assumed when evaluating his thinking in Toronto. After being swept aside by the Wizards, would Ujiri deal away DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry?
The answer in 2015-16 was ‘not yet.’ The squad had a bounce-back run in the playoffs and even tied the Cavs in the Conference Finals at two games apiece, after which LeBron James got serious and the Cavs had a couple of laughers to close out the series.
That season was a blip on the radar compared to what was to come for the Raptors. In 2016-17 they met the Cavs in the Conference Semifinals, and in a sign of things to come, LeBron was already grabbing a beer from a vendor during a break in the action of Game 1. In Game 4 of the sweep, LeBron was nailing lefty jumpers (note: he’s not a lefty) while the Raptors were helpless to stop him.
By 2017-18 the odds were against this version of the Raptors running it back here they were. Once again Lowry, DeRozan, and now the top-seeded Raptors… ran into LeBron James and the Cavs. A 59-win regular season may have fooled some of us, but yet again James was too strong, too fast, just too damn brilliant for the Raptors to handle. Game 2 at home was ugly as the city was infamously relabeled “LeBronto” by ESPN’s Mark Jones, and after a game-winner to take the third contest, the Raptors were roadkill in game four.
At this point winning 59 regular-season games didn’t matter, it was time for a shakeup, and Ujiri, now team President, was ready to shoot his shot. Coach of the Year Casey was let go, fan-favorite DeRozan was dealt with Poeltl for Danny Green and the mercurial Kawhi Leonard. At the time it was easy to view the maneuver as an all-in deal by Ujiri, but he was ahead of the curve on this one. He knew re-signing DeRozan to a max-extension would be an overpay, and taking a one year flier on an MVP-caliber player was the ultimate boom-bust option. The bust in this situation was tolerable, as he would be able to rebuild with clean books once Leonard found his happy place elsewhere.
We all know how it went from here. The Raptors had another stellar regular season, Kawhi was able to play when he wanted and gradually gel with his teammates. Marc Gasol joined the effort for a title run, the Magic made for a nice warmup, four bounces finally sunk the Sixers, the Raptors’ team approach flipped the script on the Bucks in the nick of time, and the Warriors were running on fumes as the Raptors rose to the occasion to end the dynasty in Golden State.
Looking back on the team’s performances over the years lets you appreciate what a journey it was. This isn’t a super team by any stretch, but the team was built and the Klaw arrived to deliver the talent it needed to grab a title. This one will be a fun champion to reflect on in the history books. Just look at the regular-season over/under, the actual wins, the playoff lessons that followed, and how it all concluded in a magical run!
2013-14 Over/under 36.5 Wins Actual – 48 Wins (Lost First Round 3-4 vs Nets)
2014-15 Over/under 49.5 Wins Actual – 49 Wins (Lost First Round 0-4 vs Wizards)
2015-16 Over/under 45.5 Wins Actual – 56 Wins (Lost Conference Finals 2-4 vs Cavs)
2016-17 Over/under 49.5 Wins Actual – 51 WIns (Lost Conference Semis 0-4 vs Cavs)
2017-18 Over/under 48.5 Wins Actual – 59 Wins (Lost Conference Semis 0-4 vs Cavs)
2018-19 Over/under 54.5 Wins Actual – 58 Wins (Won NBA Finals 4-2 vs Warriors)
Despite bringing home the title and proving that this team deserved all the chances it got to prove the doubters wrong, the 2019-20 edition found itself facing the skeptics once more. Kawhi Leonard always wanted to choose his destination, and he did just that in the offseason, leaving another championship-level squad in order to build a new title contender with Paul George and the Clippers. Green also departed to join another contender out West in the Lakers.
The rest of the title winning rotation remains in place for the Raptors. They offer a versatile mix of veterans still near their peaks, such as Lowry, Gasol and Serge Ibaka, alongside youngsters with intriguing room for growth following impressive playoff runs, including Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. No single player could replace Leonard, but the Raptors have beaten the odds so many times before, it should not be a surprise that this 2019-20 unit has also produced more than the sum of its parts. They stand at 46-18 at the stoppage of play, a safe bet for the two-seed out East, and only need to go 8-10 to close out the season with a victory total above their over/under of 53.5 victories.
A New Duo Emerges
Despite having to constantly adjust his game to the talent around him, Kyle Lowry continues to find ways to make the Raptors click. Undoubtedly, his intangibles are the straw that stirs the drink in Toronto. He can score, pass, be a defensive pest, defer to a hot hand, Lowry just knows how to play winning basketball. It took some time for his fiery personality to settle into a steady enough presence that his team can count on, but it has become clear that he is one of the most underrated players in the NBA.
He’s pumped up the offensive juice this season, at 19.7 points and 2.9 3-pointers, to accompany 7.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. His free-throw attempts have nearly doubled to 5.7 FTA this year, and that kind of usage on .861 shooting is elite. He’s been a top-30 player in fantasy yet again. Lowry’s long-term outlook can be called into question, but he’s delivering the kind of consistent year-to-year numbers that make you ask fewer questions every time.
Nonetheless, Lowry can’t be the only solution to the Raptors’ continued success. With DeRozan and Leonard gone, reigning Most Improved Player, Pascal Siakam, has stepped into the spotlight. Siakam’s minutes took a jump from 32 to 36, but his field-goal attempts leapt from 11.8 to 18.9 per contest. With all of those extra shots Siakam has turned into an offensive force and across-the-board contributor for the Raptors.
While his shooting from the field has taken a notable decline from .549 to .459 percent, a lot of that can be explained when you account for the difficulty of the shots, as well as the extra 3-point attempts (6.0 vs 2.7 last season). Combining Siakam’s scoring load of 23.7 points and 2.2 3-pointers, with 7.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.9 blocks has made him into a reliable fantasy option that has no holes in his game.
Proving that his 3-pointer is a weapon he can break out at any point in the playoffs would be a key step in Siakam’s transcendence into stardom. By the Conference Semifinals last year he had lost his confidence against a tough Sixers defense, and Siakam never believed in his jumper the same way for the rest of the Raptors’ playoff run — though it would make brief cameos and he was still able to have some big games, including a 32-bomb in Game 1 of the Finals. Lowry has never been able to carry the offense all by himself, and while the rest of the roster can get hot for moments, they will need Siakam to pull off his best Kawhi impersonation whenever the shot clock is running down against elite competition.
Defining Fred VanVleet
Amazingly enough, Fred VanVleet outplayed Siakam on a per-game basis this season. He made an even larger jump from year three to year four in comparison to Siakam as well. VanVleet went undrafted in 2016 after spending four years at Wichita State, but was signed by the Raptors and made himself known by year two in Toronto. The 3-point shooting was never in question, but VanVleet’s improvements as a playmaker made him into a key contributor off the bench with 27.5 minutes per game during his third season, and this season he is basically a starter with nearly 36 minutes per game.
While his contributions had been a luxury before, this team now relies upon his ability to create with regularity. It has all added up to an impressive season that has made VanVleet a steal as he was going in the eighth or ninth round in many fantasy drafts.
FVV currently sits at 17.6 points, 6.6 dimes, 3.8 rebounds, 2.7 treys, 1.9 steals, and 2.3 turnovers on .409 shooting from the field and a healthy .843 performance from the charity stripe. He’s a clear top-50 play with even more upside when the Raptors are missing pieces, which has been a regularity this season. The team has been healthier of late and that has led to VanVleet’s activity levels taking a hit, but his ability to deliver plentiful quantities of 3-pointers and steals is going to keep him locked into mid-round production.
VanVleet would have been due a sizeable raise when he hit unrestricted free agency this offseason. The two-year, $18 million contract he is on has been a bargain for the Raptors, and VanVleet is bound to have suitors. Unfortunately, the economic realities of our times are going to be a major factor in the process, but in a normal market, it is easy to imagine a team offering a Terry Rozier-like contract (three years, $58 million) if they have an opening for a point guard to orchestrate the offense. He’d be happy to return to Toronto this offseason, but nothing is set in stone. His game should translate into fantasy results wherever he ends up though.
The Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka combination came together beautifully for the Raptors last season. Each one carries different strengths, and Gasol’s mastery as a passer and low-post defender meshes nicely with Ibaka’s mobility as a defender and reliable mid-range touch on the offensive side. It’ll be interesting to watch how the team handles both players’ looming free agencies.
We’ve seen the Raptors debate this proposition previously with Ibaka, and they were able to come to terms on a three-year, $64 million extension last time. The 30-year-old is averaging a surprising career-high of 16 points this season on a .518 field goal percentage. Efficiency is the name of the game here, although Ibaka’s .748 free-throw percentage would be his lowest number since 2011-12. Ibaka also has added a reliable 3-pointer back into his fantasy package, which has helped to cover for the drastic drop in blocks that used to be his pathway to early-round value. Ibaka had settled into 1.3 or 1.4 blocks for the last three seasons, but the measly 0.8 average for this season has firmly moved Serge into the late-round territory for 12-team fantasy leagues.
Ibaka is no longer receiving major minutes like in his heyday, and questions about his age can make for difficult projections. He remains interested in returning to the Raptors, and if he is willing to sign at a fair rate it would make sense for him to stay in Toronto where the international makeup of the team mixes well with the Democratic Republic of Congo native.
If we agree Ibaka is past his prime, we have to go another level down to tab Marc Gasol. Another player that is willing to sacrifice for the greater benefit of the team, Gasol’s fantasy game has undergone a major transformation since departing Memphis at the trade deadline last season. He was never a huge counting stats player, but he was such a focal point in everything the Grizzlies did that he couldn’t help but rack up numbers. However, with the Raptors he’s an afterthought as a scorer, putting up a measly 7.6 points on a career-low .419 field goal percentage.
Gasol’s capacity to help everywhere else is keeping him just outside the top-100 in 9-Cat settings based upon average stats, but his hamstring has forced him to miss about half the season already. When you account for the injuries and lack of scoring touches as a Raptor, it’s hard to justify targeting Gasol on draft day next season. He’s just a glue guy doing the little things, and unfortunately fantasy does not have enough stats to reward his on-court value. If the Raptors can’t come to terms with Ibaka they may turn to Gasol for a one-year extension that allows them to maneuver as they see fit after the 2020-21 campaign.
The Promise of Youth
The Raptors have been packed full of fantasy options this year. We’ve already run through Lowry, Siakam, VanVleet, Ibaka and Gasol, but we still haven’t mentioned OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, both putting up top-75 lines for the season. Anunoby in particular had some sleeper buzz coming into this season, but with all of the injuries up and down the roster, there have been plenty of opportunities to make things happen. Similar to the franchise’s success over the last six years, both have exceeded expectations thus far.
Anunoby’s defensive play was already strong, and unlocking a major role was always going to come down to his ability to sync into the offense. We are still not seeing a major jump in usage, but Anunoby made enough of a jump from deep (1.3 3-pointers on a .381 clip) that he’s averaging 10.7 points on .507 shooting overall. He is already swiping 1.4 steals per game and the 0.7 blocks make for a nice boost from the small forward position. Just 22 years young in his third season, Anunoby has shown enough growth that the Raptors can view him as a future cornerstone. That jumper will make or break him as a player, but the steals, 3-pointers and blocks are going to let him hang around the top-100 at minimum, with plenty of room for improvement as he gains more confidence on the offensive end.
In the first four years of his career, Norman Powell never cracked 20 minutes per game. He wasted his sophomore and junior campaigns when his 3-pointer completely abandoned him, but last year he flashed his potential with 1.1 3-pointers on .400 shooting from deep. A jump in minutes was in order for Powell and he cashed in on that opportunity and then some this season.
Injuries have slowed him down with just 44 games thus far, but Powell is now fully recovered from a left ankle sprain, and when on the court he’s been outstanding with 16.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks and 2.1 3-pointers on top-notch percentages. The .502 field goal percentage (11.7 FGA) in combination with a .838 free-throw percentage (3.0 FTA) are potent with Powell’s steady guard stats. He’s locked in with the Raptors for another year with a player option in 2021-22, and his role is only likely to grow alongside Anunoby.
The Raptors could easily bring back VanVleet and at least one of Ibaka/Gasol, while also banking on growth from Siakam, Anunoby and Powell for next season. They have an excellent foundation in place, and perhaps the public will start taking this organization seriously and give it the respect it deserves if they can win the Eastern Conference without Kawhi Leonard in one of these next two seasons.
The Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Celtics have NBA lore and plenty of young talent, the Sixers have the divas, but the Raptors have the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. If the rest of the East isn’t careful they could find themselves scratching their heads as the Raptors make it back to the NBA Finals yet again. As we’ve seen over the years with this squad, they have a knack for rolling with the punches and exceeding expectations.