I make bold predictions about the Toronto Raptors before the start of every season. Here is how I fared in 2018-19, and below is an evaluation of how I scored for the 2019-20 campaign. My predictions can be found here.
Incorrect: Fred VanVleet outscores Kyle Lowry
I called the breakout year from VanVleet, who bumped his scoring average from 11.0 to 17.6 points in his contract year. VanVleet was sensational from the second half of the 2019 Eastern Conference final onward, and head coach Nick Nurse named him as a starter from the outset of training camp. Between the tangible improvements in VanVleet’s game, the starting gig and the amount of shot attempts left over from Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green’s departures, VanVleet was poised to capitalize.
But I underestimated Lowry, who continues to defy both age and expectations. Lowry’s scoring dropped for three straight seasons between 2016 and 2019 which gave the impression of an aging player in transition. There was also very little historical precedent for six-foot guards scoring effectively into their mid-30s, but both Lowry and Chris Paul broke that trend this year. Lowry was sensational, delivering 19.4 points per game while also rediscovering his slashing game that had receded into the background in previous seasons. Lowry doubled his free-throw attempts as compared to 2019, and took over a fifth of his shots within three feet of the basket for the first time since 2016.
One other consideration was health. My assumption was that the younger VanVleet would play more games than Lowry and therefore catch him in total points scored. But Lowry was remarkably durable outside of an ankle sprain early in the year, whereas VanVleet carried various minor injuries that ultimately led him to miss more games than Lowry. The final tally for the regular season was 1,126 points for Lowry compared to 952 points for VanVleet, although he did slightly edge out the veteran in playoff scoring (216 to 95).
Correct: Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol stay put
There were whispers the Raptors may look to blow up their championship core after Leonard left, but that was hardly the sense around the team. Yes, they had three veteran players in Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka on short-term deals who could contribute to any playoff team, but there was a genuine desire to defend the title. All the talk was that Leonard and Green (who was still a productive starter despite his playoff shooting woes) didn’t define the team, and there was plenty of evidence the Raptors could win without them. Perhaps not at the highest level, but Toronto went 17-5 in the 22 games Leonard missed due to load management on his tricky knee. This is a championship organization with a lot of pride and they weren’t going to blow it up over a few protected first-round picks.
Ibaka and Gasol went on to form the backbone of Toronto’s second-ranked defence. Gasol battled lingering hamstring issues and was never able to score consistently or stay healthy, but he was always excellent on defence. Ibaka provided cover as an overqualified reserve and was excellent both with the starters and coming off the bench. Odds are the Raptors will lose one or even both players to free agency, but that’s the price of winning in professional sports. Regardless of how things play out, Ibaka and Gasol will always be celebrated as Raptors legends for what they contributed towards the championship and to the title defence.
Incorrect: Ibaka finishes second in scoring
They are bold predictions for a reason. Ibaka was indeed excellent as a starter, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds across 27 starts, but this was just a long shot. The Raptors are a perimeter-oriented team, and Ibaka was never going to get enough touches nor log enough minutes to become the secondary scorer. Ibaka finished fifth in scoring average, and fourth in total scoring. Between Lowry’s resurgence, VanVleet’s breakout year and Norman Powell emerging as a legitimate sixth man, there were simply better options than Ibaka to feature on offence.
Mostly incorrect: Raptors win between 50-53 games, claim third seed
This doesn’t look that bold in hindsight, but most predictions had them under 50 wins — some even had the Raptors missing the playoffs altogether. The graphic below of NBA TV’s Dennis Scott and Sam Mitchell should be framed somewhere inside Scotiabank Arena.
When Dennis Scott predicts the Raptors not making the playoffs pic.twitter.com/Ey82SXZ7Jq— SH (@RetroBoominati) November 2, 2019
Technically, I was bang on with the Raptors finishing with exactly 53 wins, but that was in a shortened season. Over the course of a regular 82-game schedule, the Raptors were on pace to win 60 games and break their previous record of 59 set in 2018. I also had them as the third seed behind Milwaukee (correct) and Philadelphia (wildly incorrect), while the Raptors secured the second seed with ease.
My expectations of the Raptors were higher than most, and my assumptions mostly held true. Every player in the rotation graded out between average and excellent on defence, and teams who finish top-five in defence almost always win 50-plus games. Toronto also had more continuity than most teams in the East, while Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Miami, Boston and Indiana were incorporating new pieces. Given the previous assumption the Raptors weren’t going to offload their veterans, it wasn’t hard to see the Raptors would be among the best teams in the East once again.
What I didn’t see coming was how smoothly the Raptors would navigate the ups and downs of the regular season. Not only did all their prospects take a sizeable step forward, but they also masterfully dealt with injuries throughout the entire season. The likes of Chris Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Matt Thomas and Terence Davis all stepped up at various points when called upon and helped the Raptors win games they had no business being in. Without the 30-point comeback, or holding Joel Embiid scoreless when Lowry and Ibaka were out, the third-stringers winning in Los Angeles, or the Christmas revenge win over Boston without Siakam and Powell, the Raptors would have likely finished third, but they showed a signature toughness and resilience that got them through so many mundane nights on the schedule.
Correct: Pascal Siakam makes the (third) All-NBA team
Most of the predictions build on each other. If the Raptors were to win 50-plus games, then someone on the team would be in consideration for All-NBA honours. Siakam was the obvious candidate, as he had just signed a maximum extension and Nick Nurse hailed him the No. 1 option heading into training camp. Siakam came out of the gates averaging over 25 points per game until his groin injury in December, and he was still very productive until the second round of the playoffs.
It was also an easy call given the competition at the All-NBA forward slots. Blake Griffin, Paul George and Kevin Durant represented half of the All-NBA forwards in 2019, and all three were hampered with injuries heading into the season. Durant didn’t play at all, Griffin was a shell of himself before being shut down and George proved to be fraudulent once again, so there were openings for the next crop of young forwards that ultimately went to Siakam, Ben Simmons and Jayson Tatum.
Correct: OG Anunoby makes more starts than anyone (other than Siakam)
Anunoby was the obvious successor to Leonard at the small forward position. There were no expectations that Anunoby would replace the full production of the Finals MVP, but he made his mark as a pivotal 3-and-D player. He put together an impressive bounce back season after a difficult sophomore year, showed tangible improvements, and it culminated in the miraculous game-winner with 0.5 seconds left in Game 3 to keep the Raptors’ season alive.
Anunoby finished the year with 68 starts, eight more than any other Raptor. Much of that speaks to health, as Anunoby was always available outside of a nasty eye poke whereas the other four starters all missed at least a month. But it also reflects on Anunoby earning Nurse’s trust. In a pivotal Game 6 win in double overtime, Nurse played Anunoby for 50 minutes, including a third of those as a smallball centre. Anunoby not only delivered on defence, he also assisted and hit a 3 to seal the win. There is more to come from the 23-year-old forward.
Correct: Masai Ujiri is a buyer at the trade deadline
Toronto didn’t make any significant in-season additions, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The Raptors definitely wanted to add pieces to fortify the run and there just wasn’t a good deal to be made, for two reasons. One, they had a solid seven-man rotation that was difficult to crack. Two, the Raptors didn’t have many tradable contracts to match salary for any piece worth adding. Looking back at the deadline, there weren’t any players that would have significantly moved the needle for the Raptors.
Correct: Nick Nurse finishes top-three in Coach of the Year voting
Nurse not only finished top-three, he was the runaway winner for Coach of the Year, drawing 90 out 100 first-place votes to secure the award. The argument for Nurse was easy to make: Toronto finished the year with a higher win percentage despite losing two key starters in the offseason. Tack on month-long injuries to six of its top-seven rotation players, and it was clear Nurse deserved the award.
But it was Nurse’s innovative tactics that turned this award race into a blowout. Toronto had the second-ranked defence in the league without a single All-NBA Defensive Team player on the roster. Nurse got the best out of his team by being more creative than the rest of the league. He regularly ran zone defences, whether it was the 2-3 look that bothered Boston, the box-and-one, or even a triangle-and-two. He also used a full-court press to fuel the 30-point comeback, on top of all the standard strategies like switching or trapping. Opponents had no idea what the Raptors were going to run, because sometimes the Raptors would use all of it. In just the first two games of the Brooklynn series, Nurse had used seven different defensive strategies against Caris LeVert’s decimated Nets team.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Nurse’s fellow coaches voted Mike Budenholzer and Billy Donovan ahead of him for Coach of the Year, but they didn’t hesitate to copy Nurse’s strategies. After scouting the conference semifinals, the Heat leaned heavily on zone defences to eliminate the Celtics. The Warriors pulled off a stunning upset over the Rockets on Christmas Day in a game where Steve Kerr copied Nurse’s bold strategy of trapping James Harden at halfcourt. Even the lowly New York Knicks tried to deploy a box-and-one defence in one of their losses to the Raptors. Nurse took outdated concepts and adapted them to the modern game, and it helped him not only win Coach of the Year but also to secure a lucrative extension with the Raptors.
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