The Toronto Raptors are going to look quite different in the 2021-22 NBA season.
Not only is Kyle Lowry now a member of the Miami Heat, but the Raptors acquired Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa as part of the sign-and-trade for Lowry, and the franchise selected Scottie Barnes with the No. 4 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
With that in mind, who should start for the Raptors next season? Our NBA.com Staff debates.
Note: Pascal Siakam is expected to miss the start of the season while he continues to recover from undergoing shoulder surgery, but we're not removing him from the equation for this exercise.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): At full strength, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are going to be three of the starters, that much we know. The real debate is who should start at shooting guard and center.
There are some solid options at both positions, but I'm guessing the Raptors will at least start the season with Gary Trent Jr. at shooting guard and Khem Birch at center.
While Trent was a little up-and-down after joining the Raptors, he provides some much-needed shooting and is more of an off-ball player than Dragic and Malachi Flynn. Birch, meanwhile, brings some much-needed size at the five and showed the sort of impact he can make in his short time with the Raptors last season, averaging 11.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.
Dragic could very well start next to VanVleet in the backcourt, and yet I like the idea of him leading Toronto's second unit, which ranked dead last in scoring last season. (Plus, just because he doesn't start games doesn't mean he can't finish them. As I wrote recently, Dragic does check some important boxes for the Raptors). Chris Boucher and Achiuwa are options at center, but Boucher thrived coming off the bench last season and Achiuwa, I think, still has some developing to do before he's a full-time starter.
Of course, the Raptors could also go small with a frontcourt of Barnes, Anunoby and Siakam, but I think a starting unit of VanVleet, Trent, Anunoby, Siakam and Birch has good balance on both ends of the court while a bench featuring Dragic, Flynn, Barnes, Boucher and Achiuwa has the potential to solve one of the team's greatest weaknesses last season.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): The Raptors should start VanVleet, Barnes, Anunoby, Siakam and Birch.
It's safe to assume that VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam are locks for the starting lineup once Siakam is healthy. That trio makes up Toronto's core, and they have been mainstays in the starting five over the last few seasons. That leaves two wildcards, and I'm going with Barnes and Birch.
Not only does this form what is likely the Raptors' best and most versatile defensive lineup, but it also gives VanVleet the opportunity to still play off-ball at times, with Barnes and Siakam more than capable of initiating offence and pushing the pace in transition. When the front office picked Barnes with the No. 4 pick, that was a commitment to making the 20-year-old a part of the franchise's core building block, and the best way is to learn through experience, so start him as soon as possible.
Even though they just paid Trent $54 million over three years in free agency, it feels like Barnes' ability to play point guard and his defensive prowess make him a better fit for the starting lineup, whereas, with Trent, I feel like he could really make his biggest impact as a microwave scorer off of the bench. He'll get as many shot attempts as he'd like with the second unit and can be the first sub off the bench, making a strong run for Sixth Man of the Year.
As for Birch, he more than earned his keep at the end of the season last year, putting together a solid run as the team's starting center. Although we've seen that Anunoby is capable of playing small-ball five, Birch adds the size and physicality that Toronto's frontcourt could use, and if last season was any indication, it appears that head coach Nick Nurse prefers to go with Birch as a starter and Boucher off of the bench to fill that void in the middle.
A lineup of VanVleet, Barnes, Anunoby, Siakam and Birch could lack halfcourt scoring weapons at times, but if that becomes evident after a trial run, Nurse could always go to a sharpshooter in Trent or a playmaker in second-year guard Flynn to solve that problem. With a defence-first mentality, I wouldn't be surprised to see the starting five I selected get a fair chance, though.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): While we all know Nick Nurse is one to tailor lineups to matchups, I think VanVleet, Trent, Anunoby, Siakam and Birch should be Toronto's five.
I was really tempted to toss the rookie in there, but I opted against it for a few reasons.
One, I think it's pretty clear that Anunoby, Siakam and VanVleet are locks. They're three of the four remaining members of the title team and each have been full-time starters for at least the last two seasons.
Two, I like Trent in the starting unit slightly better than other options because he's the type of player who looks more comfortable when he has the opportunity to get going right away. Trent's ability to be a spot-up shooter gives this lineup more than enough spacing, and he should thrive off of the creation of VanVleet and Siakam.
I rounded things out with Birch because I loved how he looked as a starter last year. He's not the tallest center, but he makes up for it with his athleticism and instincts on both ends of the floor. I like having Boucher as the first big off the bench and think he's much better suited as a super sixth man.
While the type of talks surrounding the Raptors leading into the upcoming season vary, it's encouraging that they have seven or eight starting-calibre players depending on who's counting. I like the thought of second unit lineups centred around Boucher, Barnes and Dragic. Opting for that starting lineup above gives the team balance in a sense that any of those three reserves I mentioned can come in to provide a spark, which they're each more than capable of doing.
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