Toronto Raptors’ Slow Start Brings Tough Questions into Focus

Toronto Raptors - Pascal Siakam (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Pascal Siakam (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

A slide in the improved Eastern Conference was expected this season for the Toronto Raptors, but a disastrous start that has them near the Conference basement is now prompting some uncomfortable questions about the state of the franchise.

Major problems have arisen for the Toronto Raptors in the midst of their bumbling 1-5 start, and no amount of “it’s still early” or “they’ll turn it around” is going to fix them. Sure, hints of the winning clubs of recent years are there – the (ultimately futile) comeback in New Orleans, the play early of Kyle Lowry. But four losses in their first five games has done nothing to quiet the thought that losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol has pushed them further away from relevancy.

With even a slightly better start, the Raptors may not be looking like the 53-19 world-beaters of a year ago, but they’d sit comfortably amidst a conference rife with slow-starting contenders, including Boston, Miami, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn. Instead, their slump out of the gate has compounded some larger insecurities about the direction of the franchise to bring some uncomfortable questions to the forefront.

1) What is Pascal Siakam?

To suggest that Pascal Siakam is struggling this season might actually be the optimistic perspective to take. The longer those struggles continue, the greater the concern grows that his All-Star campaign last season (22.9 points on 45.3% shooting, 7.3 rebounds) might be the bigger anomaly than his play early on this year and back in the bubble. Sure, the 26-year-old Cameroon native’s 2018-19 campaign netted a Most Improve Player award, but he was also a distant third option behind Kawhi Leonard and Lowry at the time.

Toronto Raptors
The Raptors need continued improvement from OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Chris Boucher, seen here trying to defend Brandon Ingram of the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

Likewise, Fred VanVleet has seen his shooting and assist numbers tail off this season, especially in minutes spent as the lead guard with Lowry on the bench. The defensive performance of both typically strong defenders has also regressed from what we saw last season, even as their ages (Anunoby is 23, VanVleet is 26) would suggest a natural improvement. The pressure on Siakam shouldn’t lessen any expectations of his cornerstone teammates, who signed contracts worth a combined $157 million this past offseason (Lowry is not being included as part of the core given his uncertain status as a pending free agent).

3) Has the League Figured Us Out?

The NBA isn’t merely a stream of 48-minute games spread across a season. Competing in the league, as in all pro sports, requires dedication and commitment to researching opponents and developing tactical strategies based on how they play. That legwork appears to have paid off for some of the Raptors’ early-season opposition.

Offensively, the Toronto Raptors have struggled to create space in their transition game, as they’ve traditionally preferred to do. They managed to escape much of last season without their deficiencies in the half-court being exposed, at least until Boston came along in the second round. Now, it seems, the secret’s out. Likewise, opposing offenses are showing less reluctance to attack the basket without an Ibaka or Gasol manning the paint, freeing up more shooters and creating more opportunities at the line.

4) What is the Best Case Scenario Now?

The most likely scenario in play at this point for the Raptors would seem to be enough of a rebound from the early season woes to at least qualify for the Play-In Tournament, if not a more ambitious target. Still, for a fan base spoiled by the recent legacy of winning, this seems like a fairly underwhelming outcome.

Because Toronto’s regression coincided with the solidifying of a new Eastern hierarchy, recognizing the team appears to have fallen back to NBA middle-class status is a bitter pill to swallow. After all, as long-time Raps fans know only too well, the middle pack can be a death sentence, offering little hope beyond a possible one-and-done playoff spot and no clear path back to contention via high draft lottery odds.

For as dire as the current situation seems in the immediate present, this piece isn’t intended as an expression of panic. The organization remains well-structured, built around a group of players mostly in their mid-twenties who are signed long-term and have been a part of a winning culture. As the late stages of the Pelicans game showed, they still boast the leadership and self-belief to rally.

Next. Rights and wrongs with Toronto Raptors after another discouraging week. dark

That said, it’s awfully hard to look at the current state of the franchise with optimism when what’s in front of us — in both short and long-term — looks pretty grim at the moment.