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There are some NBA teams that, faced with even one of the factors the Toronto Raptors are going into the 2021-2022 season with—departure of a franchise icon and leader, nearly new roster, reacclimatization after a season and an Orlando Bubble away, forging a new identity—would balk at, if not outright cut and run from. But the Raptors, from the front office down to its newest players, only seem eager to get started.
The biggest takeaway from the team’s Media Day can be succinctly summarized in the word its default new leader, Fred VanVleet, kept coming back to: nuance. This isn’t a group that doesn’t grasp the number of challenges they’re facing in the long-awaited return to Toronto; if anything, they seem keenly interested in holding those challenges to light and seeing all the ways they might refract back, presenting even more potential tests and within them, chances to outwork, outwit, and win.
“It’s something that I think we’ve preached for the past five, six years that we’ve been here: How do you win, and develop at the same time?” Raptors GM Bobby Webster said, when asked how the team planned to balance the need for leadership with maintaining the space and focus on its newest players to develop into meaningful contributors, “I think we’ve had some examples of that in the past. Fred [VanVleet] was that young guy. Pascal [Siakam] was playing in the 905. Chris Boucher was there.”
“I think it comes from both,” Webster continued, “Obviously we have to talk to the young players, develop them, understand what our values are. It has to also come from some of the players who are veterans now, who have just been through that experience. So I think we lean on them as well. In the locker room, on the plane, on the road, to also be models and be examples for those young players.”
Like much of what the Raptors do when they are doing it well, that process has been relatively seamless. Both VanVleet and Siakam drew comparisons to themselves and former franchise leaders, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, even when one of those departures still feels incredibly fresh.
“I think it’s always a challenge every season,” VanVleet said, acknowledging the reality of any team’s season-to-season turnover. “This season it just so happens to be Kyle Lowry.”
“I read a quote the other day that said, ‘There are things that have never been done being done everyday,’” VanVleet added with a rueful smile. “So I’m up for the challenge, and the team is ready for the challenge.”
“If people want to count us out, great. It’s not a bad place to be sometimes, especially when you’ve got a good group.” – Fred VanVleet
The role change for VanVleet feels natural in part because he’d been encouraged to use his voice early on, in his first two seasons with the team. From there, VanVleet made it a point to be in Lowry’s ear and orbit, while simultaneously figuring out gaps in the locker room he could look to fill, one as a sounding board for his teammates.
“My first year, DeMar really wasn’t that vocal in terms of talking. Kyle’s really not as vocal as you might think on a daily basis. He speaks when something needs to be said. He checks things as they go. So there was a void there,” VanVleet recalled, “That was the road I was empowered by [Dwane] Casey and the front office—to be the guy to keep the locker room together and make sure everything was okay. As the leader of the team, it’s important to let guys be themselves. We’ve always got to keep the same focus.”
“I think Fred’s already kinda been himself, which is, he’s carried a lot of that load already,” Nick Nurse said, when asked if he saw VanVleet as the team’s natural new leader. “I think, will it expand some from a leadership standpoint? I suppose. But I think it’s gonna be probably up to a collective group of other guys to provide some of that.”
Nurse named Boucher, plus OG Anunoby, as players on the team’s former young core that have “been immersed in this culture and been here for a few years” who now, by design as much as default, have become its veterans.
“Our veterans aren’t veterans by age, but they’re veterans by number of years that they’ve been here now,” Nurse said.
It’s a testament to the tone the franchise has set throughout the years as much as it is a bittersweet parting gift from Lowry. That the team Lowry helped to shape is so sure of its identity without him is because it was crafted with the same relentless drive and care he instilled in its core group on the floor.
Still, VanVleet noted adjustments he’s going to make. “I think now I’m seeing that my actions have reactions and consequences. It’s a different feel from the other side of the room when people are looking at you versus just leading with my heart. I’m probably gonna have to be a little more calculated and patient.”
For Siakam, the shift to a firm leadership role has been an opportunity to get out of his shell, sharing that he began to check in with the team’s new players over the summer.
“I’m all about learning and if you know my journey it’s always about getting better,” Siakam said, “and I think this is the same as being a leader, it’s something that, you know, you got to just get better at.”
“I don’t like the word ‘the guy.’ I don’t like using it. I want to be the guy who wins. I want to win. That’s all I care about.” –Pascal Siakam
Part of that growth, Siakam acknowledged, is also discomfort. Not necessarily the bodily kind, as he underwent surgery on his wrist this summer in an effort to curb an injury that could’ve nagged him throughout his career, but pushing past the darker points the past few seasons have brought him, whether through struggles in his game or the volatile ire it drew from fans. Some of the disconnect Siakam felt was in the title he’d been assigned of “the guy” with his most recent max contract and not necessarily knowing how best to reconcile that expectation with reality. But Siakam has since come away with a simplified approach, scraping the moniker for what comes more natural to him: work.
“I don’t like the word ‘the guy.’ I don’t like using it,” Siakam stressed, “I want to be the guy who wins. I want to win. That’s all I care about. If it’s playing more defence, if it’s scoring more points, if it’s being more of a vocal leader or someone who leads by example, that’s what I want to do. I just want to figure out what my role is. Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
It’s that fluid, chameleon capability that is going to serve Siakam best this season alongside a new roster that, in terms of height and build, looks eerily like him. The Raptors are stacked with strong, tall and athletic players going into this season with new draftees Scottie Barnes and Dalano Banton as well as pickup Precious Achiuwa, plus the late-last-season additions of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie. Along with the mainstays of Anunoby and Boucher, Toronto looks, essentially, looming.
“I really like the size and the length,” Nurse said, catching himself with a chuckle. “You’re probably gonna hear me talk about that a lot this year. I think when you start looking at some of the athleticism, speed, again, just the size of guys in different places, we should be very versatile.”
Achiuwa, who Nurse noted doesn’t grab rebounds so much as “takes them,” can play the floor “coast to coast” with a physicality that will lend to Birch’s length but less domineering size, at least compared to some of the league’s more imposing bigs. And while Anunoby’s growth was apparent toward the end of Toronto’s Tampa season, taking on a bigger and needed offensive role, it was Webster’s simple and smiling confirmation of, “We’re all looking forward to OG,” that gave the most insight into the front office’s expectations.
Nurse said one of his themes for the team this season, beyond returning to Toronto’s brand of pestering, smothering defence, is to figure out rosters that “can play a lot of different ways on both ends of the floor, or always”—rosters that can, in effect, always be switching. To “get in there and jar the ball loose and change patterns and cut offences off.”
A big part of that disruption is going to be Barnes. Nurse (and Webster, and VanVleet, and well, everyone) are eager to see what Barnes will bring to competition given his development even with his short stint with the team since Summer League. Siakam said Barnes reminded him of a young, even more explosive version of himself, Webster praised Barnes’ IQ and feel for the game, and Nurse confirmed that Barnes’ role was “going to be huge.”
“From day one, [I’m going] to give him as many minutes and reps and all those things that he can handle,” Nurse said. “I think his impact of defending, rebounding, running, spirit, enthusiasm, size, all that stuff gets him in the mix, early and often. And he’ll stay in there, often and late, I would imagine.”
As far as early season snags, one, Nurse confirmed, will be guys vying for rotational spots, with “real battles” for positions as the coach moves through likely even wilder and weirder lineups than the past two seasons saw; another is scoring, with Siakam out for some of the early season. But both problems have potential silver linings long term. Changing rotations will only ensure early team versatility and chemistry, and give Anunoby, Boucher, Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., and Malachi Flynn more offensive minutes to fill.
“What’s our identity? Well, we like to play really hard and like to guard really hard and like to attack on offence, and we like to do it on a nightly basis.” –Nick Nurse
For the Raptors, at least early on this season, team leadership and growth will be necessarily intertwined, with the balance of team direction and development toggled between depending on what the team needs. It might sound ambiguous, in terms of establishing a new team identity, but if anything, it’s continuing to build on the tenets Toronto’s used all along.
“What’s our identity? Well, we like to play really hard and like to guard really hard and like to attack on offence, and we like to do it on a nightly basis,” Nurse said when asked what this Raptors team’s character would be. “And that is all I’m striving for with any team. The start of any season I sit here and try to get the team to max out its ability. It’s no different this year than it was three years ago.”
There’s a full-circle mentality in the way the team’s new and ready leaders see where they go from here, too.
Siakam, who was entirely confident, bright and candid with media, saw the Raptors making a name for themselves this season as new league menace. “We want to go out there and want to have people not wanting to play us,” he said. “That’s kind of the mindset you gotta have, being that team that you know, I just don’t want to play against because of the length and athleticism and energy, and all those things together.”
“If people want to count us out, great. It’s not a bad place to be sometimes, especially when you’ve got a good group,” VanVleet said, when asked about the team’s old chip on the shoulder mentality. “I think that chip should grow every year that you don’t win.
“Do we have to have more patience? Yes. Do we have to manage the expectations? Probably. But at the same time, the goal is gonna be to win, and that’s set from the top down. This is not a franchise that’s accustomed to having the type of year that we had last year, but I think we’re on the track to get right back to where we need to be.”
In terms of what nuance will mean for Toronto this season, take your pick. Growth, as much as getting back to basics, restraint and calculated control as much as flashing teeth. A team on the rise likely to face some missteps, rife with energy, enthusiasm, and potential, but a team, above all else, with options.