As summer rolls along the euphoria of the first major sports championship in the country for 26 years remains evident on the faces of Canadian sports fans. That unbridled joy was damaged in the early morning hours of July the 6th. The hero of the Toronto Raptors championship run, the city’s “fun guy”, Kawhi Leonard, departed for his Southern California home. Dashing the hopes of fans in the North dreaming of a repeat from coast to coast. Still, there are plenty of reasons to remain excited in “the Six”, and the future may yet shine bright.
Pascal Siakam, not the infamous “number 2“, is the hero this team needs. The former seminary student has become quite the revelation in just his third professional season. Unbelievably, this last year marked just his eighth playing organized basketball. Reflect on the absurdity of that statement for just a moment. The NBA’s Most Improved Player, just completed only his eighth year of playing the game in a structured setting. Having finally fulfilled his late father’s dream while playing a starring role on a championship team, Spicy P is destined for superstardom.
This is no time to panic for the pre-historic squad. President Masai Ujiri surely is not. The Nigerian demi-God of Canadian basketball fans channeled his inner Bill Belichick recently, telling reporters “it’s on to the next”. While re-iterating to Raptors fans to not “lose a second of sleep”. The team architect remains confident his current squad still has what it takes to compete in a league now stacked against them.
Upon further review, Ujiri may be right. The Toronto Raptors could challenge the NBA’s elite, even without Leonard and sharpshooter Danny Green. Canada’s darlings outscored opponents by 21.6 points per 100 possessions in the time Kyle Lowry and Siakam logged without the two former Spurs. Of course, statistics can always be misleading in small samples. Nevertheless, plenty of reasons for optimism remain within this Raptors squad.
Marc Gasol, the lynchpin of the Raps stifling defense around the rim, returns to play his first full season in red. Along with key reserve Fred VanVleet, who reprises his role off the bench. If Serge Ibaka can carry-over his outstanding play from the playoffs, the Champs have as much upside as any team in the East. Perhaps most importantly, promising young wing OG Anunoby moves back into the lineup after recovering from an appendectomy. The British national still possesses elite 3-and-D potential, and will look to mirror the rapid rise of Siakam with a breakout third season. Let’s not forget who was given the unenviable task of guarding LeBron James in the 2017 playoffs. Anunoby could easily be next year’s Most Improved Player.
Toronto’s recent additions of Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson add defensive wing depth. Neither player is Kawhi Leonard, but both can be valuable contributors during a long season. The Raptors quietly will trot out a rotation with the size, strength, and experience to compete with any team in the Association. Don’t look now, but head coach Nick Nurse carries a championship pedigree, and a litany of potential lineup combinations into training camp.
All things considered, the Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby pairing has as much upside as perhaps any in the NBA. A top three seed in the East isn’t out of the question for this Raptors team. Bullheaded veteran point guard Kyle Lowry will lead the team into the playoffs once again. As all fans know, once you’re in the tournament, anything can happen. In the long run, Ujiri remains one of the most prudent basketball minds in the league, and with Lowry, Ibaka and Gasol’s expiring contracts, maintains the flexibility to re-tool on the fly. This championship version of the Toronto Raptors is far from finished. Prepare for another spectacular basketball campaign in the Six! #WetheNorth