The Toronto Raptors seem to have made a habit out of proving doubters wrong.
Few pundits picked them to go on their championship run in 2019 and when their Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard left the team less than a month after they hoisted the trophy, many predicted they wouldn’t even make the playoffs the following year.
They did, of course, coming one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals before an uncharacteristically bad year in 2020/21, when they played all of their home games in Tampa Bay due to COVID-19 border restrictions.
But, that 27-win season is what delivered them last year’s rookie of the year, Scottie Barnes, who immediately helped lead the Raptors back to the playoffs, something few top-five draft picks do.
Now, the Raptors are set to begin their regular season tonight at Scotiabank Arena against the Cleveland Cavaliers, with questions that need answering if they’re going to outperform expectations once again.
Here are five of them.
Will Barnes hit a sophomore slump?
Scottie Barnes put together an incredible rookie campaign, even after many Raptors fans were sceptical of the pick.
A 6’9 forward, Barnes joined a team not exactly lacking in that department, with All-Star Pascal Siakam and swingman OG Anunoby both fitting a similar description.
But Barnes found a way to stand out and earned minutes in head coach Nick Nurse’s often tight rotation.
“When you look at a rookie season where you get rookie of the year and do all the things he did at the age of 20, now 21, I think you’re probably looking at somebody who’s heading towards multiple All-Star [appearances] and he’s got a little superstar in him already,” Nurse told reporters earlier this month.
The entire Raptors organization expects Barnes to take another step forward this year, adding things like improved long-distance shooting and ball-handling to his repertoire.
But there are fears that Barnes could hit the second-year wall that many successful NBA rookies run into, seeing their production fall short of the lofty expectations placed on them.
“I’m just going to be who I am on the floor… so I’m not really overthinking it. I know what I can do and how I can impact the game on both ends of the floor,” said Barnes at Raptors media day.
Can they stay healthy?
Health has been an issue for the Raptors over the past few seasons, with many key players missing extended time due to injury.
They were able to weather the storm last year, but injury concerns lingered even into the playoffs, with Barnes and starting point guard Fred VanVleet each missing two games in their first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
When asked about nagging injuries to Raptors players last season, Anunoby told reporters that he never wants those injuries to happen to any of his teammates and that he hopes everyone can stay healthy this year.
“This year, we have a lot of guys back so I think it will be smoother at the start, for sure,” he added.
At training camp, Nurse said that Barnes was playing ‘catch-up’ after dealing with a minor ankle injury, but according to the team’s latest injury report, he and all other Raptors starters are good to go for the season opener.
Can they hold it together at center?
Since the departure of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors have had trouble finding a consistent starting center.
Montreal natives Khem Birch and Chris Boucher have been successful in stints, but have mostly played better in bench roles, while 23-year-old Precious Achiuwa, who the Raptors acquired from Miami in exchange for Kyle Lowry, is still a work-in-progress.
The Raptors added another young center in the draft this year, Christian Koloko, who the team hopes can provide much-needed size as Toronto’s only seven-footer.
“I’m here to play. I’m here to do whatever coach wants me to do and I’m going to be ready. I just want to win,” Koloko said during training camp.
Will they rely on depth or will they consolidate?
The Raptors have one of the deepest teams in the league, with a bench that will include one of Anunoby or sharp-shooter Gary Trent Jr., along with Boucher and off-season addition Otto Porter Jr.
The slew of productive rotation players that the Raptors have led to speculation that they could put together an enticing trade package for superstar Kevin Durant, who requested a trade from the Brooklyn Nets over the summer, but has since rescinded it.
Whether team president Masai Ujiri decides to make a move for another star will depend on many things, but he’s proven that he’s not afraid to shake things up if there’s a trade on the table that he thinks will make the team better.
Can they keep up with a fast-improving Eastern Conference?
The Raptors aren’t the only team with playoff aspirations in the Eastern Conference, in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team without them.
Long thought of as inferior to the star-studded Western Conference, the east has steadily improved, shifting the balance of power and compiling some of the biggest stars in the league.
Kevin Durant, James Harden, Donovan Mitchell and Dejounte Murray are all stars who made names for themselves in the west but have recently joined Eastern Conference teams.
Mitchell was traded to the Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal over the summer, joining a young core that narrowly missed out on the playoffs last season. The Raptors will have their hands full with him on opening night.
Toronto will be in a race against Cleveland and other middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference teams to finish in sixth place or higher and avoid the play-in tournament.
But Ujiri says he’s confident that the Raptors will win this year despite not making the same high-profile moves as other teams.
“We play sports to win. It’s simple. We expect to win. It doesn’t matter what phase we are at as a team,” he said.
“Are we good enough to win a championship? I don’t know that we’re there yet. Are we good enough to grow and to make a jump? I think so.”
Raptors-Cavaliers tips off at 7:30 p.m. on TSN.
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