Asking for genuine self-reflection in the immediate aftermath of failure is perhaps a doomed endeavor.
Once the Raptors went down 3-0, the odds of them coming back to win their best-of-seven first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers were infinitesimal. It is easy to know that on the outside. If you feel that way on the inside, though, you’ve already lost.
“It’s really hard right now because we just lost,” said Chris Boucherwho seemed particularly hard hit by the defeat.
“I’ve obviously been on two teams that have been swept, so I know what that Game 4 feels like,” Fred VanVleet added. “The guys, they really showed up and didn’t pack it in. They deserve credit. That’s commendable. But I’m not really here for moral victories or anything like that.”
Perspective is hard-won, the product of soul-searching and the passage of time. That doesn’t mean the Raptors don’t know what’s coming next. As the players went through their exit interviews with the coaching staff and management to wrap up the 2021-22 season, they provided some clues on what the future might look like.
Here were the five most insightful, interesting or clarifying comments.
“I definitely know that there are things out there that I need to get better at. I think one thing that I’ve always wanted to do is be a complete player, play at all levels of the game — go all the way to the rim, mid-range and then be a threat at the 3-point line. I think that literally, for me, is what makes me a complete player, and then ball handling. I think those things in general are what I see.” — Pascal Siakam on his off-season work
Once upon a time, Siakam was known for improving in the offseason. In 2019, the Raptors had a short summer because they won a title. In 2020, the bubble meant an even shorter offseason. In 2021, Siakam had shoulder surgery.
Accordingly, this figures to be Siakam’s first “normal” offseason in a long time. That isn’t an excuse; it’s just reality. The last time he had one, he followed it up with a most improved player trophy.
That isn’t to say that is coming now. He’s 28 now, and he was 24 then. Perhaps the most notable thing he said was about his three-level scoring of him. While Siakam was actually a fine catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter, going 36.5 percent when stationary this year, his pull-up game from deep basically disappeared. He took 40 3s off the dribble, making just nine. In 2019-20, he took 167. (Admittedly, his percentage fell off a cliff after the hiatus. Since the bubble playoffs, he has shot 23-for-116, or 19.8 percent, on pull-up 3s. In the 2019- 20 regular season, he was at 34 percent on those shots.)
Siakam enjoys being a well-rounded player beyond just scoring. However, if he wants to diversify his scoring package, the pull-up 3 will be key.
“I think most of it, honestly. I really do. We’re seeing more parity than ever around the league. Teams that we thought were favorites didn’t end up looking that way. There are a lot of things happening in the league. It’s changing that way. (I think we’re pretty close) with the group that we have, if we can polish it up and maybe make it make more sense for playoff-style basketball, add a couple pieces or things we might need in certain scenarios that might help .” — Fred VanVleet on how much talent required to reach the next level is already on the roster
There are very few players who can see the full picture as clearly as VanVleet. That could make him an excellent executive one day, although he obviously is not done playing.
His point about how some of the championship favourites, such as the Nets and Lakers, flamed out, points directly to the Raptors. Did anybody think Phoenix was going to become a championship contender two seasons ago, even after Chris-Paul came aboard? Who had the Celtics as the odds-on favorite to come out of the East four months ago, let alone at the start of the season?
Why not believe in a team that had the third-best record in the regular season in the conference in 2022, especially one that has two players, in Scotty Barnes and Precious Achiuwa, who are at the very start of their development curves? That doesn’t mean VanVleet believes the roster is a finished product — in fact, he went further in saying the Raptors would be better suited to diversify their player type than the front office will — but he does think they are at a pretty good starting point.
It’s hard to argue with him. Having an All-NBA-caliber forward (Siakam), a top-10 point guard (VanVleet), a rookie of the year with superstar upside (Barnes) and a high-end 3-and-D wing with a higher ceiling than that (OG Anunoby) is a solid foundation. In the absence of having a surefire superstar, the Raptors are in a good place.
“(I’m) not really going to speak about our conversations we have behind closed doors, but I think, all in all, it was a pretty top-heavy year, as we all know. And that didn’t help when you have nicks and bruises. Other than that, it is on me to be better.” — VanVleet on whether he has had conversations with management and the medical staff about how to stay healthier
No team relied more on its top players this year than the Raptors. Without the type of load-measuring data that teams keep to themselves, it’s impossible to draw a straight line from the minutes VanVleet took on this year and the injuries that kept him from being his first-half self after the All-Star break. A lot of good players have suffered soft-tissue injuries that have limited them or completely removed them from the first round. It is not just VanVleet.
With that said, among players who played in at least half of the regular season’s 82 games, the Raptors starters ranked, individually, first, second, seventh, 12th and 17th in minutes per game. No other team came close to relying on its starters nearly as much. if you count james hardenthe 76ers had four of the top 36. Nobody else had four in the top 50.
If you go by total minutes, Barnes, Siakam, VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr., ranked 11th, 13th, 21st and 23rd, respectively. the Knicks (four in the top 43) and Sixers (four in the top 46) were the only others with four in the top 50. The Raptors were certainly flirting with danger all year, and are probably lucky that none of the players appear to be headed for significant offseason surgery.
Nick Nurse was hesitant to rely on about half of the roster by the time the Raptors got to mid-season. As the Raptors fill out their roster, they need the coaching staff and management to be on the same page so that when injuries happen, nobody is pushed beyond their limits. And injuries always happen.
“I already took my deep breath. It’s time to keep going.” — Scotty Barnes
This quote right here? Fan catnip. fan nip? Is that a thing?
Barnes said he was still formulating his offseason plan, but the very fact he wants to get right back in the gym is one of the most important things for this franchise. Obviously, the key to Barnes’ offseason will be to work smartly as well as working hard. The way that the Raptors lost in Game 6 showed how far Barnes has to go as a shooter and a playmaker in the half court.
“I feel like the motivation for me, I can’t speak for anyone else, it’s just the loss,” Barnes said.
He has so many tools that working on everything might be inefficient. Barnes will bring the energy, but it’s up to his coaches from him, both on his personal development side and with the Raptors, to bring the focus.
“He can be whatever he wants to be,” Trent said of Barnes.
“I heard that last season, too.” — Precious Achiuwa on whether it is nice to be part of a team that looks like it has a stable core moving forward
Achiuwa is 22. That is way too young to be so cynical — unless you come from my family.
You can understand where Achiuwa is coming from, though. His rookie season in Miami had highs and lows, but he played 61 games for the Heat, starting four times. For the 20th pick in the draft playing for a playoff team, that is pretty significant. Why wouldn’t you think your short-term future was predictable at that point?
Obviously, Miami ended up moving Achiuwa in the Kyle Lowry sign and trade. It made sense for Miami, a team that is trying to maximize a window in which Jimmy Butler is likely exiting his prime and Bam Adebayo is entering his. That doesn’t make it an easy lesson for a young player to absorb.
So, yes, the Raptors’ six most important players — VanVleet, Siakam, Barnes, Trent, Achiuwa and Anunoby — are all under contract for next year. Frankly, I’d be pretty surprised if any of them weren’t on the roster in training camp. Masai Ujiri and company move quietly, though, and they have a similar tightrope to walk as the Heat: Siakam and VanVleet are moving toward their 30s, Barnes, Trent and Achiuwa are still in their early 20s and Anunoby is right in the middle. If there is a move to nudge the Raptors a little closer to one timeline or the other, they would have to at least consider it.
“Well, it’s time. It’s time now,” VanVleet said. “That’s about as much building as we all want to do. I think we have the pieces, and now (the question is) how do you put those pieces together.”
• I referred to VanVleet questioning, if not rejecting, the Raptors’ strategy of acquiring as many 6-foot-8 players as possible, so this is exactly what he said. It’s pretty insightful.
“We’ve shown a little bit of everything. I think there’s room for that in every game,” VanVleet said. “I think what we’ve been best at around here is having multiple tools in the toolbox. Let that be one thing, maybe not the only thing. We use those lineups for an extended period of time, and then we might go big, we might go small. You just have to have everything (at your disposal). I think we saw it have a lot of success. But I think, again, basketball is such a flexible sport that you’ve got to have different options. Different things call for different matchups. Different series, having options never hurts.”
• Thaddeus Young said he declined to have surgery on his left thumb, which he hurt in Game 1, during the series, even though doctors presented it as an option. He has not decided on a course of action to deal with the injury now that the offseason has arrived, but he said it affected his ability to score, his left hand being his dominant one.
• It sounds like Young made a huge impact on several Raptors, and on Achiuwa in particular.
“You could take a crazy-ass shot, and he’d be like, ‘You (are) good,” Achiuwa said of Young.
“I’ve always told him from Day 1, ‘Hey, you’re the most athletic (player) on the team, let’s use that. Let’s use your athleticism,’” Young said. “Let’s make sure if you’re … on the defensive side of the basketball, you’re blocking shots, you’re rebounding, you’re getting your body into guys, defending multiple positions. And then when you get shots and you’re open, (you are) taking ’em. If guys close out hard on you, drive ’em, straight line-drive ’em to the basket. So try to keep it simple.”
• Young on his priorities in free agency: “Obviously my family, that’s number one overall. My kids and my wife are number one. And (then it’s) just looking at the team’s build, and their structure, and what we’re trying to do and where we’re going, and the focus on the future.”
• For his part, Boucher said he hadn’t thought about his free agency at all, but that he owes the Raptors and the city his career. It seems like in his heart he would love to stay with the team, but this is also likely to be his best chance at a multi-year contract. We’ll see.
• VanVleet and the Raptors can discuss a three- or four-year contract extension as of July 8.
“I love having conversations. I love having conversations,” VanVleet said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
• Nurse and Ujiri are both expected to speak to the media next week.
(Top photo of Scottie Barnes: Mark Blinch/Getty Images)