Raptors were relying on Siakam more than ever
Multiple options available to replace Siakam in starting lineup
Raptors about to hit soft spot in schedule
The NBA is nothing if not unpredictable. And the start of Pascal Siakam’s season is proof.
The Toronto Raptors forward said ahead of the 2022-23 season that he wanted to be a top-5 player in the league and he hit the ground running, averaging 24.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists on 47.9 percent shooting through nine games. Siakam was playing the best basketball of his career, putting up at least 20/5/5 in seven straight games, and doing just about everything possible to power the Raptors to a 5-4 start.
Early last week, Siakam put up 31/12/6 in a 30-point win over the Atlanta Hawks, with “MVP” chants erupting from the Toronto crowd. And then, a couple games later, Siakam slipped on a wet spot at the American Airlines Center in Dallas and strained his right groin. He will miss at least two weeks with the injury, and the Raptors will be hard-pressed to stay afloat without him.
“It’s certainly a bummer that it happened,” head coach Nick Nurse said about the injury. “He’d been playing great. And how it happened, on a slip on a wet floor, is disappointing.”
Pascal Siakam will not return tonight vs. Mavs due to a strained right groin. pic.twitter.com/GeENMhh0h8
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 5, 2022
On the bright side, the Raptors already played the toughest part of their schedule through the first seven games, coming out of a gauntlet of tough Eastern Conference opponents with a 4-3 record. The next two weeks project to be relatively easy in comparison. After a back-to-back with Chicago on Sunday and Monday, the Raptors play four opponents who are a combined 11-27 this season.
But that’s where the brightness ends. Siakam is said to be out at least two weeks, and considering he has had groin injuries in the past (missing over three weeks the last time he sprained his groin) and that the Raptors tend to be overly cautious with their players, two weeks seems optimistic. If Siakam does indeed miss more time — or even if he comes back in two weeks but needs some games to work his way back into a rhythm — the Raptors' schedule becomes very difficult beginning Nov. 23rd, when they play the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Nets again.
Losing a top-10 player is a deadly blow to most NBA teams. And while there are players on the roster who appear ready to step into bigger roles, this isn’t just a matter of the next person on the hierarchy stepping into Siakam’s position. Because unlike last season, when the Raptors withstood injuries to all of their best players, this is a fundamentally different team — one that relies on Siakam more than ever.
Siakam’s 33.3 usage percentage is a career high and a six percent increase from last season, when he also led the Raptors. He is taking approximately one more field goal and two more free-throws per game, while assisting on 2.4 more baskets (his career-high 35.0 assist percentage is the highest mark of any “forward” in the league). Offensively, the Raptors are 13.9 points per 100 possessions better in the half court and 4.7 points per 100 possessions better in transition with Siakam on the court, helping prop up the fourth-best offence in the league through 10 games.
Plus, Siakam is rebounding 20.7 percent of opponent misses when he is on the floor, another career high. In summary, Siakam has been the team’s best rebounder, its best playmaker, and its best scorer, responsible for holding the offence together in both the half court and in transition. That is not going to be easy to replace, especially considering it was intentional in the first place.
Last season, with Siakam recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and rookie Scottie Barnes coming into the league, the Raptors didn’t exactly know how they were going to look. The coaches and front office were open about it being a year of trying different schemes and gathering data to see what worked and what didn’t. And by the end of the season, they learned what worked best was Siakam having the ball in his hands as much as possible.
This season, the Raptors built their team’s personnel and their systems around Siakam (or at the very least with Siakam in mind), showing confidence in him as the team’s primary scorer and a facilitator.
For example, they brought in Otto Porter Jr. to help with the spacing after the Philadelphia 76ers cramped the paint and Siakam didn’t have enough trustworthy shooters to pass to in the playoffs. Plus, the Raptors made Siakam their de facto point guard even when Fred VanVleet was on the floor, running the offence through him and using the pressure he put on the rim to free up shooters and cutters, with VanVleet’s usage falling from 25.8 to 20.7 percent.
“Probably a little bit [different than last season],” Nurse said of Siakam’s upcoming absence. “We had a lot of practice time, a lot of preseason, a lot of games to work into it [with him as the primary guy this year]. He has been such a focal point, played lots of minutes… It’s not like it’s totally foreign, but it is new at this point, for sure.”
VanVleet returned on Sunday evening in a 113-104 win against Chicago after missing three games with lower-back tightness, scoring 30 points and 11 assists. He picked up right where he left off the last time we saw him run the team (with the added wrinkle of having Christian Koloko as an effective pick-and-roll partner). But not every opponent is a great matchup for VanVleet.
O.G. Anunoby, who wanted a bigger offensive role coming into the season, has been in a great rhythm these past five games, averaging 20 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 4.2 steals and 1.0 blocks on 51/39/82 shooting splits. He will be asked to do more with the ball in his hands while continuing to stifle the opponent's best offensive players, but his assist-to-turnover percentage has taken a dramatic drop this season, and he will need to be more careful with the ball.
Barnes will continue playing point guard, especially when VanVleet sits on the bench, and will need to be a more consistent two-way player over the course of 48 minutes, which is asking a lot of a 21-year-old. Gary Trent Jr. can take on more on-ball responsibility, too, but he has been at his best when playing off of Siakam rather than when trying to create himself.
But even if all four of the Raptors' other starters step up in Siakam’s absence, the team still has a lot of questions to answer. Firstly, who starts in place of Siakam? Is it Koloko, who has struggled to rebound and avoid fouling against more physically imposing bigs? Does Precious Achiuwa get the start, with all the ups and downs that come with him? Or do the Raptors decide to go with a more stabilizing option in veterans Thad Young or Porter Jr., who can act as glue guys for the other starters? Plus, where do Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton fit into things, if at all?
On a team level, how do they put pressure on the rim and avoid settling for jump shots? And who closes games for them down the stretch?
“Every year I've been in the league, there's been a guy hurt for periods of time. So just next man up and everybody just stay ready and stay prepared,” VanVleet said about his message to the team. “There's gonna be opportunities across the board. I think if you're on the end of the rotation, your eyes should be big and your mouth should be watering ready to go out there and be hungry. And we got some guys that are gonna do well with the opportunity.”
As concerning as Siakam’s upcoming absence is, the Raptors have not shown signs of defeat so far. In fact, they have continued playing to their strengths, playing extremely hard, forcing turnovers and getting out on the run. According to Koloko, they have the recipe for success.
“We haven’t really talked about it,” Koloko said about Siakam missing time. “We’re a team. We already know what we have to do. We have to play as a team, share the ball, play extra hard on defence and just try to be ourselves.”
“We know if we play like that we can beat anyone in this league.”
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