It was eight months ago this week that the basketball world left the Toronto Raptors for dead. In those disappointment-soaked days of July, when the L.A. Clippers celebrated the arrival of Kawhi Leonard and the L.A. Lakers plucked Danny Green, it was easy enough to buy into the pessimism.
Even Toronto’s keen-eyed front office pondered the long-range possibility of a sell-off of expiring contracts. To some eyes, the title defence was over before the championship banner was hung. The conventional wisdom, after all, is that the NBA championship was effectively won via soap opera — that the power of star-player movement trumps the best-laid organizational design. Which may turn out to be true.
Luckily for Canada’s only NBA franchise, an important group of people didn’t see the situation as grimly. Toronto’s players, to a man, clearly saw those exits in free agency as big-stage opportunities.
And eight months on, with the Raptors sitting third in the league standings, two games ahead of Leonard’s Clippers as of Wednesday afternoon, it’s worth asking: Who deserves the bulk of the credit for filling the obvious void? Or put another way: Who exactly is the most improved Raptor?
The image of Pascal Siakam immediately pops to mind. He’s the reigning holder of the NBA’s most improved player award. And he’s expanded his game in ways that go a long way toward explaining why Toronto is on pace to win 59 games — one more than they won with Leonard in town — despite being the league’s most injured squad by a number of metrics.
Before the season began, critics wondered if Siakam’s jump shot was sturdy enough to befit an NBA lead dog. Maybe that’ll still be a question come playoff time. But this season he’s averaging more than twice as many three-point makes as he did a year ago. Two years ago he was a pitiful 62 per cent shooter from the free-throw line. This year he’s making a career-best 80 per cent. Which is one of many reasons he’s being trusted with the ball in his hands and the game on the line.
“Has anyone won the most improved two years in a row?” Mike Malone, the Denver coach, was wondering earlier this month. “This guy just continues to amaze.”
As glowing as Siakam’s reviews have been, let’s be clear: A Raptor isn’t likely to win the NBA’s most improved player award this season, at least not according to the oddsmakers. Brandon Ingram of the Pelicans, Luka Doncic of the Mavericks, Jayson Tatum of the Celtics — they’re all currently listed as short-odds selections to claim the award. Siakam, the top Raptor on many futures boards, is listed in some books as an 80-to-1 long shot to repeat.
If there’s an individual award in the offing in Raptorland, it’s not hard to guess who’s getting it. Nick Nurse is currently the heavy favourite to become the third man in franchise history to win the Red Auerbach Trophy as coach of the year. Given how Sam Mitchell lasted all of 99 games after he picked up that trophy and given how Dwane Casey was fired before he even was announced its winner, Nurse will be forgiven if he contains his exuberance.
Nurse and his staff justifiably get a lot of credit for Toronto’s success. The Raptors lost two of their best defensive players, after all, and yet they’ve put together the second-best defensive rating in the league behind the Milwaukee Bucks.
But it’s a players’ league. And Toronto’s players, almost to a man, have made competitive jumps that weren’t exactly pre-season givens. Who saw Serge Ibaka averaging a career-high 16 points a game past age 30? And yet Ibaka’s uptick in dependability, only a couple of seasons after his form appeared on the decline, is a huge reason why the Raptors have prospered.
Who saw Norman Powell emerging as a dependable provider of vital offence for a team that’s often challenged to create shots? A season ago, there were times when it wasn’t unreasonable to question the wisdom of the four-year contract extension that kicked in as 2018-19 began. Powell was the team’s ninth man as measured by minutes per game and points per game. Now that he’s averaging 16.4 points a game — a 91 per cent year-over-year increase — his $ 10-million (U.S.) salary is a bargain compared to what he could command on the open market.
As cost-effective performers go, maybe nobody matches OG Anunoby, the third-year swingman earning $ 2.3 million. Anunoby has enjoyed something no regular starter can claim: near-perfect attendance, on hand for 63 of Toronto’s 64 games. That he’s also evolved into a defensive force who shoots 38 per cent from three-point range — up from last year’s 33 per cent — means he’s gone from occasional liability to a model of reliability.
Fred VanVleet doesn’t automatically pop to mind in most-improved conversations — a guy who got Hubie Brown’s vote as Finals MVP doesn’t scream “work in progress.” But if you compare VanVleet’s year-over-year regular-season stats, he’s upped his scoring production a whopping 60 per cent to 17.6 points a game.
Ditto Kyle Lowry. Perennial all-stars who’ve made a career of doing little things that don’t get noticed in the traditional boxscore don’t scream “season-over-season evolution.” But Lowry’s boxscore numbers are looking awfully evolved. The point guard has jacked his scoring average to 19.7 a game (up from 14.2 a season ago). He’s a different player than the one who averaged 12.2 assists a game in Toronto’s championship season — specifically, a more aggressive one. He’s getting to the line far more often. And a year after he humbly handed over resident alpha status to Mr. Load Management, Lowry ranks third in the NBA in minutes per game, logging nearly 37 a night. Never mind that he’ll turn 34 later this month.
Rookies aren’t traditionally considered for most-improved honours. But Terence Davis can make an unconventional case. A year ago, he shot 77 per cent from the free-throw line as an NCAA senior at Ole Miss. This year, he’s shooting 87 per cent. A year ago he was a 37-per-cent three-point shooter against NCAA defences at the shorter NCAA distance. This year he’s residing a shade under 40 per cent against NBA defences at the NBA’s longer distance.
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Add it all up, player by player, incremental rise by monumental leap, and you’ve got the complicated answer to an obvious question that’s going to be posed a lot between now and the approach of the playoffs. How did the Raptors weather the loss of their best player and a dependable starter?
Maybe no one on Toronto’s roster is going to be named the NBA’s MIP. But Toronto’s incumbent roster can easily make the case it’s the NBA’s most improved program, no big-fish free agents required.
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