Revising the Raptors
Everything begins (and ends) with Scottie Barnes
BY DAVID THORPE
The dream from 2019 is starting to feel like a hallucination.
The Raptors won the NBA championship on the coattails of two incredible wing talents: Kawhi Leonard, the world’s best player when he was healthy, and 6-8 phenom Pascal Siakam. Sure, they had a true quarterback in Kyle Lowry and a rim protector in Marc Gasol, but that wing dominance ushered in a totally new approach. The Raptors would be huge, athletic, and skilled at just about every position.
But then Kawhi turned down the Raps’ offers for the Clippers; a year later, Gasol signed to the Lakers. Both left for nothing. Shortly thereafter, Kyle Lowry was shipped out and the keys went to backup Fred VanVleet, another shorter guard whose defense helps him seem bigger.
Siakam became the primary option, with 6-7 power wing OG Anunoby growing into the role Siakam had served in their title season. When the Raptors drafted Scottie Barnes, both the internet and NBA back rooms went nuts: The Raps had tripled down on playmaking wings who can defend multiple positions. The concept looked promising: Siakam made his second All-NBA team; Barnes won Rookie of the Year in spectacular fashion; Anunoby rivaled for the best young 3-and-D wing in the league. The 2021-2022 squad won 48 games, but failed to make a mark in the playoffs.
The Raptors seemed just one key move away from contention. Trading for conventional center Jakob Poeltl last season seemed like an admission from team president Masai Ujiri that the “all big wings” approach might have holes. The Poeltl Raptors went 18-12 over their final 30 games with that last loss coming to the Bulls in the Play-In. Many, including myself, believed the Raptors would be a good team this year.
But then history repeated itself: The front office failed to convince VanVleet to stay, and once again the Raptors developed a fine player and then got nothing in return. (Anyone remember Chris Bosh?) Darko Rajaković, who’d never run an NBA team, was hired to replace Nick Nurse as head coach, and the Raptors signed Darko’s close friend, FIBA World Championship MVP Dennis Schröder, to fill VanVleet’s void. Only Anunoby, Siakam, and bench player Chris Boucher remained from the 2019 title team—and rumors started to surface that Anunoby was unhappy with his role.
Since the beginning of the 2020-2021 season—a year before drafting Barnes—the Raptors have a losing record. This season, the Raptors started 12-18. In other words, the Raptors went from constructing the Death Star to death by 1,000 paper cuts.
Last week, though, the Raptors benched Schröder and then dealt Anunoby—a pillar in their positionless-wing paradigm—to the Knicks for Toronto native RJ Barrett and speedy sharpshooter Immanuel Quickley.
What’s left after the dust settles is that the Raptors are building around Scottie Barnes. But if you’re building around Barnes, do you need Siakam? And how do Quickley and Barrett fit in?