Pressure is rarely tangible, and yet you can almost reach out and grab it in its most intense moments. In sports, the way in which an athlete responds to pressure can shift the narrative around their career. To be the best, you have to perform in the biggest moments, and elevate your game when your teammates and fanbase need you the most. Oftentimes the ability to deal with pressure comes with experience; it’s the most common criticism you can hear about a young team: ‘they aren’t ready for the pressure’. In that case, the absence of pressure can be a beautiful thing for a roster made up of young players, and that is the situation that the 2021-2022 Toronto Raptors find themselves in. For the first time in nearly a decade, the burden of expectation and pressure has been relieved, and has instead been switched to optimism, and an excitement that Canada’s team is finally returning home.
It hasn’t been easy for the Raptors since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. In the midst of what was a great regular season following their 2019 title, the Raps along with the league’s other top contenders were forced into a bubble to complete the playoffs, where they fought valiantly and eventually fell in the second round to the Boston Celtics in 7 games. Even after losing both of their big-name centres in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, the consensus around the 2020-2021 Raptors team was that they were still geared to make the playoffs, and that anything less would be a disappointment. After major struggles with injuries, COVID, and having to relocate for the entire year to Tampa Bay (where they would routinely get booed during home games), the Raptors missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012. This past offseason they parted ways with their franchise GOAT Kyle Lowry, marking the official turning over of the franchise.
Flash forward to now, and the Raptors don’t have much expectation tied to them. They are a young roster with talent for sure, but they haven’t done much to fix the glaring issues from last season; notably in the rebounding department. This is undoubtedly a team in transition, and the lack of pressure on this group should allow them to slowly begin to piece things together. If they can figure it out quicker than many pundits predict, this is a team that could fight for a playoff spot. If they don’t this is a team that could end up right back in the lottery. The interesting thing about this season though is that both of these outcomes could positively affect the organization moving forward.
In this 2021-2022 Toronto Raptors season preview we will discuss the new additions, the team’s leadership core, ideal starting lineups, and go over realistic expectations.
There’s No Place Like Home
It’s been a year and a half since the Raptors have played a regular season game at Scotiabank Arena, the longest time frame between home games out of anyone in the league.
The Canadian government has allowed for the Raptors to come back and play, but maybe even more importantly, they are allowing full capacity throughout the season for vaccinated fans. The Raps will finally regain the home-court advantage that has pushed them so often in the past, and the old adage of ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ will likely reign true: the building will be rocking.
From a fan perspective this is obviously a massive win, but it has a big impact on the players as well. It’s been hard to find a preseason interview that hasn’t contained a Raptor gushing over the opportunity to play in Toronto again, and rightly so. This is a growing team that is trying to find its new identity, and it will be much easier to do that in front of your loyal fans rather than a mishmash crowd in Tampa Bay.
The Youth Movement
With the departure of Lowry this past offseason and Ibaka/Gasol the year prior, the Raptors got a lot younger. All of a sudden, the leaders of the team became players who have only been in the league for half a decade like Fred VanVleet, and the team’s drafting position this past offseason meant the average age on the roster was hitting a steep decline.
The Raptors have 4 rookies on the roster heading into opening night, their two draftees and two signings they made afterwards.
Fourth overall pick Scottie Barnes had a shaky first impression as a surprise selection with guard Jalen Suggs still on the board, but the Raptors faithful quickly warmed to him. Barnes is an athletic 6’9 player that can line up at any position, which seems to be the brand of basketball the Raptors are looking to play. Barnes even ran the point this past year at Florida State, and so expect to see the Raptors fit him into the rotation as often as possible, especially considering his preseason performances thus far. Moving forward, he’ll need to get more consistent with that jump shot, but the Raptors development staff is one that can be trusted in that department.
Second round pick Dalano Banton sent shockwaves through Raptorland immediately, becoming not only the first Toronto-born player to be drafted by the Raptors, but the first Canadian in general. Off the court he’s a charismatic kid that reps Toronto to the fullest, and on the court he’s an animal, bringing energy and easy chemistry on both sides of the ball. Although he has had a few nice performances in the preseason, expectations should be tampered a bit for Banton. The hype is this large undoubtedly due to his Toronto roots, but at the end of the day he was a mid-second round player, and will need some time to get adjusted to the NBA level.
Both Justin Champagnie and David Johnson were signed by the Raptors following the draft, and have made it through the final cuts and into the opening day squad.
Besides rookies, the Raptors have Precious Achiuwa (acquired in the Lowry trade) who is in only his second NBA campaign, one in which he could have a breakout season north of the border. The other second year man is Malachi Flynn, who Raptors fans will be long familiar with at this point. Flynn seems to make positive strides every time he touches the floor, and it will be interesting to see what he can do in extended minutes this season with Lowry out of the picture.
Leadership, Leadership, Leadership
Almost every contending team in the NBA strikes a balance between young players and experienced veterans to gel the locker room together. Veteran leadership is crucial to success, and the Raptors are in an interesting situation where a majority of their leadership group will be under the age of 30.
Goran Dragic is the Raptors most experienced player by far, but he didn’t have the warmest introduction in Toronto, originally complaining in a Slovenian newspaper about how he didn’t want to play for the Raptors. Since then though, things have seemingly smoothed over and it looks as if Dragic will be all-in come opening night, and will certainly be a veteran presence in the locker room, especially for the young point guards.
Outside of Dragic, most of the Raptors leadership will be coming from the players that have been here the longest: Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby.
Although VanVleet is only in his 5th year, he’s experienced beyond his years, and it’s very clear that he will continue to become a great leader as he gets older. Even at 27, VanVleet has gone through so much adversity in his career, and will definitely command the respect of the locker room this year if he doesn’t completely have it already. Siakam is another player that has been through the trenches with this franchise and will be a great leader especially for a young forward like Barnes. While Anunoby is not the most vocal player, he can lead with his actions much like Kawhi Leonard does, and if preseason is any indication, it looks as if this is going to be a big year for the 4th year forward.
The Centre Dilemma
The Toronto Raptors were abysmal at the centre position last year, finishing third last in the NBA in RPG. They tried a variety of different players, starting with a failed Aron Baynes experiment at the start of the year. Chris Boucher had a great season last year, but his slender frame makes it tough to be an effective everyday five, and the combo of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie was nice, but not good enough to make a serious run at things.
This year, Boucher and Birch return, but the five spot comes with a shiny new option in the form of Achiuwa. The second-year man acquired in the trade for Lowry is only 6’8, but is more than capable of playing the center position in small ball lineups.
Given the recent draft history and comments made by management, it seems as if the Raptors are moving towards playing positionless basketball; having five guys on the court that can switch and cover almost any position. In that case, it should only be a matter of time before Achiuwa gets regular time at the center position, especially since he seems primed for a breakout season. Birch will be solid in that role as well to provide more rebounding, and Boucher will still be there for his shot blocking ability and big play potential.
The five is probably still the weakest spot on the team, but the options are a bit more refined this season for the brand of basketball that the Raptors are looking to play.
When discussing the realistic potential for this Raptors team, it’s important to get rid of the extremes on either side. Barring a collapse, this Raptors team is not a bottom dweller, and is not likely to finish in the bottom five of the league. At the same token, this Toronto team is not even close to being able to contend for a title, and that’s likely why the pressure on this group is so low.
The likeliest range for the Raptors this season is to bounce around near the play-in positions. If everything goes right, the Raptors could likely finish as high as 7th in the Eastern Conference, but could also fall to as low as 13th should injuries and bad performances creep in.
There are numerous ways that the 2021-2022 season could go for this group, but the positive thing is that there is light at the end of the tunnel either way. If the Raptors sneak into the playoffs this year, Raps fans will get the opportunity to see their team play postseason basketball after only a year off, all while the team continues to retool and get better. Should the Raptors miss, they will have another chance to climb in the draft lottery and further expedite the process of becoming a contender. Either way, this is a season that Raptors fans will not want to miss.
The absence of pressure can be a beautiful thing. Not all 30 franchises can have extreme pressure on them every season, but the Toronto Raptors were one of the best organizations in the league in the 2010’s, and to have a season where most fans are ready to go with the flow can be comforting.
This team will have some big character wins this season, and they will also have some head scratching losses. What’s important though is that this team is back to going in the right direction after only a one season detour, and that says a lot about the kind of front office and culture that exists in Toronto right now.
There may not be much pressure on the Raps this season, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t excitement. Raptors Basketball is back in the 6.