The Toronto Raptors are officially 10 games into defending their title.
The closs loss to the Clippers on the second night of a back-to-back marked their 10th game of the season. At 7-3, the Raptors are once again hovering near the top of the Eastern Conference.
Coming off that hard-fought game against former Raptor and 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, we figured that the 10th game provided an opportunity for a progress report on how the Raptors have looked so far in the first few weeks of the 2019-20 regular season.
Here's everything we know - or THINK we know - about the Raptors so far.
This team can make the Finals, again
I'm just going to come out and say it: this team is still good enough to get to the Finals.
I don't think anyone would've thought that about the Raptors coming into this season. I mean they lost their best player and arguably their best shooter and so far haven't missed a beat.
Pascal Siakam is proving that he's capable of carrying the offensive load. He's averaging 26.3 points, 9.5 rebounds shooting 48.5% from the field. The fear of what he'll do on a nightly basis when defences key in on him is gone. Case in point his 24-point, 11-rebound performance against the Lakers. Siakam struggled for a large part of that game, but as All-Stars do he found a way to turn a bad start into a quality game leading his team to victory.
He's been getting it done defensively too. With Siakam on the floor, Toronto's net rating is +9.5. With their leader off the floor, it's -9.7 according to NBA Stats.
There's a lot of talk about Siakam again winning the league's Most Improved Player award - not to discredit the award but we're past that. Siakam is an MVP candidate and it's time we collectively acknowledge that.
And it's not just Siakam who's been playing great either. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and before his injury Serge Ibaka are all carrying championship confidence with them in the early part of the year. OG Anunoby is also showing improvements in multiple aspects of his game. And don't forget about Nick Nurse as he continues to be the steady hand for a team that's full of potential.
The playoffs may be a different story, but these Raptors are showing that so far, they have enough compete at a high level and can certainly make the Finals.
- Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay)
Pascal Siakam could win MIP again
No player in NBA history has ever been named the league's Most Improved Player twice. Could Pascal Siakam become the first?
He's making one heck of a case.
A big reason Siakam was named MIP last season is because he went from being a solid bench player on a competitive team to the second-best player on a championship team. Now he appears to have made another leap, this time to superstardom.
Based on how he's playing right now, Siakam is a shoo-in for this season's All-Star Game. He's also well on his way to making one of the three All-NBA teams. He probably wouldn't make it over LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, but it's hard to name two more forwards who have been better than Siakam through the first month of the season.
There are some clear signs of improvement for Siakam as well. Beyond an increase in points, rebounds and assists - all of which are important - he's become a much more versatile shooter. He's expanded his range to the top of the 3-point line and he's shooting jump shots off the dribble, both from the perimeter and midrange.
Additionally, Siakam is quietly shooting 85.2 percent from the free-throw line, an improvement from 78.5 percent last season and 62.1 percent the season prior.
It's not that Siakam is just doing more with more opportunities. He's made legitimate improvements in areas he struggled last season. And for that, he could very well make history.
- Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles)
Kyle Lowry is The Logo
Yes, Kyle Lowry is out for a few weeks with a thumb injury.
Yes, there's a chance he may need some time upon his return to find his groove.
Yes, Lowry's ceiling will play an integral role in determining just how much damage the Raptors can do come playoff time.
But allow me the opportunity to shed some light on just how strong of a start the 33-year-old point guard was off to prior to sustaining that thumb injury against the Pelicans. Lowry scored at least 20 points in six of his first seven games and was averaging a cool 24.0 points per game. Just how rare is that for a guard at this stage of his career?
There are a grand total of three guards to ever score that many points after turning 33.
One of them is considered by many the greatest basketball player of all-time.
One of them is the only player to have two jerseys retired by one franchise.
One of them is "The Logo."
That's right, the only guards 33 or older to know what it's like to get buckets like Lowry pre-injury were Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Jerry West. At a time when Lowry is supposed to be slowing down, he was speeding up and charting course for a career year. He's as tough as they come and if he picks up where he left off, Lowry will have the Raptors once again firmly in the hunt in the Eastern Conference.
- Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13)
Don't forget this team is good
Listen, things could get rocky without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka in the lineup.
Depth has been one of Toronto's biggest issues early on in the season - they ranked in the bottom-five in bench scoring before the back-to-back in LA - and without Ibaka's consistency on that second unit and with Norman Powell sliding into the starting lineup, that will likely continue to be their biggest issue until two of their most reliable players return to action.
Unless of course what happened in Sunday's win over the Lakers is a sign of things to come in which case The Bench Mob is back, baby!
But even if that was merely a flash in the pan, don't forget how good this team looked prior to Lowry and Ibaka going down.
Recency bias is big in the NBA. Both the fans and the media get caught up in the day-to-day storylines and if the Raptors slide even a bit, their early-season success might be forgotten.
This team was 6-2, holding down second place in the Eastern Conference before Lowry and Ibaka got hurt. According to NBA Stats, their 6.5 net rating ranked fourth-best in the NBA and they joined the Milwaukee Bucks as the only two teams in the league that ranked in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating.
They were counted out the minute that Kawhi Leonard decided to sign elsewhere and they proved those doubters wrong with a strong start to the season.
We'll learn just how much the Raptors can rely on Pascal Siakam while they're short-handed. We'll see what Fred VanVleet is capable of as the full-time operator of the offence and more than anything, we'll see just how much they can ask of Powell or someone like Chris Boucher or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
But above all, it's important to remember that this team looks like a true contender in the Eastern Conference again when they're at full strength.
- Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_)
Good luck scoring inside
The Raptors are a handful inside.
There's no denying that losing someone of Leonard's calibre on the defensive end of the floor stings. He's pound for pound the best perimetre defender in today's game (and maybe ever) and someone that's strong enough to guard essentially anyone from LeBron James to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But guess what?
Marc Gasol is still here. Serge Ibaka is stll here. Pascal Siakam is still here. Heck, even Chris Boucher is still here! And before you smirk at that last point, just ask both the Lakers and Clippers, in particularly, Montrezl Harrell.
🚫CHRIS BOUCHER PROTECTS THE RIM!🚫#WeTheNorth@NBATV pic.twitter.com/sJoLlMIbgx- NBA (@NBA) November 12, 2019
So far this season, opponents are shooting just 51.0 percent against the Raptors inside the restricted area, by far the stingiest mark in the league. Ibaka in particular has been a menace protecting the rim as opponents have shot just 16-44 against him at the rim according to player tracking by Second Spectrum. That's the best mark in the league by any of the 50 players who have contested the most shots at the rim.
Ibaka is out indefinitely with a sprained ankle which is for sure a blow. But fear not! If early returns are any indication and carry any staying power, Boucher appears ready to fill Ibaka's role. Check just this out !
Kawhi might be gone, but scoring on the Raptors is still a chore and then some.
- Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13)
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the NBA or its clubs.