It was never going to be easy for the Toronto Raptors, not when you are living out of hotels and temporary residences more than 2,000 miles from your home city. Not when you dwell in by far the most top-heavy division in the Eastern Conference.

Still, the way the 2018-19 NBA champions have performed more like a bottom-feeding also-ran than a presumed title contender during the nascent stages of a challenging 2020-21 season is at least a cause for concern. And the difficult circumstances the Raptors find themselves under, playing their home games in Tampa, Florida, after being forced southward by travel restrictions by the Canadian government, does not reasonably explain all their early problems. 

It is not the sole reason Toronto has been among the league's most inept scoring teams thus far, ranking 26th in offensive rating and dead last in field goal percentage. It is not why the Raptors have been routinely steamrolled in the second half of games during their 1-6 start (their sixth loss of last season did not come until their 21st game, by the way).

No, there's a bit more to it than that. And while it is certainly not time to press the panic button just yet, there are a few areas the Raptors clearly need to improve on if they are to at least extend their current seven-year streak of playoff appearances. 

THE SHOTS ARE NOT FALLING, ESPECIALLY FROM LONG DISTANCE 

The 3-point shot has always been a big part of the Raptors' game since Nick Nurse took over as head coach, as they ranked sixth in the NBA in 3-point rate (the ratio of 3-pointers attempted to total field goal attempts) last season and 10th during their 2018-19 championship campaign. So far in 2020-21, nearly half (49.2 per cent) of Toronto's shots have come from behind the arc – the highest total in the league. 

The difference is this Raptors are not hitting those shots at nearly the same proficiency as before. Toronto's 34.2 success rate ranks 24th in the league. The Raptors finished no lower than sixth in either of the past two seasons. 

In 2019-20, the Raptors had six players with at least three 3-point attempts per game shoot 38 percent or better from long range, tied with Detroit for the most in the NBA. Only three current players (Fred VanVleet, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas) can make that claim so far this season. 

Two players who accomplished that feat in 2019-20, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, have moved on. Aron Baynes, a 35 percent 3-point shooter over the past two seasons, was signed with the intent to fill the void, but he is 3-of-16 on triple attempts thus far. Holdover OG Anunoby, just weeks removed from signing a four-year, $72million extension, is 12-of-41 (29.3 percent) after hitting at a 39 percent clip in 2019-20. 

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, PASCAL SIAKAM? 

Siakam's well-documented struggles in Toronto's seven-game loss to Boston in last season's Eastern Conference semi-finals may not have been a blip on the radar.

The Celtics masterfully neutralised the forward by deploying the smaller Jaylen Brown as his primary defender, and teams have been successfully following that blueprint during the early stages of this season. 

The plan is working so far, too. Often drawing defenders with the length and athleticism to give him problems (Philadelphia's Ben Simmons and San Antonio's Rudy Gay were particularly effective), Siakam is simply not getting to the rim with the same frequency as past years, and (see below) has been among the least efficient players of his size when doing so.

LOWEST FG PERCENTAGE AT THE RIM – PLAYERS 6'9" OR TALLER - IN 2020-21 SEASON (minimum 100 minutes played) 

Isaiah Stewart, Det .478 
Pascal Siakam, Tor .488 
LaMarcus Aldridge, SA .500 
Brook Lopez, Mil .500 
Jusuf Nurkic, Por .500 
Dwight Powell, Dal .500 

The Raptors have been outscored by an astonishing 63 points with Siakam on the court, an average of 10.5 per game that is eclipsed only by a pair of players from the likely lottery bound Timberwolves (D'Angelo Russell, Ed Davis) for the worst mark in the league. 

It has been a humbling start for the 2018-19 NBA Most Improved Player, and that frustration was no more evident than when he bolted straight to the locker room after fouling out late in a loss to the 76ers. Nurse benched him for the next game, which happens to be the only one the Raptors have won so far.

Siakam did look more like his old self in Wednesday's outing at Phoenix, when he put up 32 points and shot over 50 percent from the field for the first time this season. It goes without saying the Raptors need him to return to his All-Star form, as they were 19-1 when he scored 25 or more points in a game in 2019-20. 

LEADS ARE SLIPPING AWAY 

Six teams have lost multiple times when holding a double-digit lead in a game so far. The Rockets, Hawks, Wizards and Pistons have done so twice, the Grizzlies three times. The Raptors have five such losses through their first seven outings.

Starting well hasn't been a problem - Toronto is outscoring opponents by an average of 4.3 points in the first quarter, the second-best mark in the NBA behind only Milwaukee. Starting the second half well has been a real issue, however. The Raptors have been outscored by an average of 5.4 points in the third quarter, with only the Timberwolves and Cavaliers having been worse.

In contrast, the Raptors outscored foes by 4.3 points per game in the third quarter (fourth-best in the NBA) while going 53-19 last season. They ranked second in the league during their 2018-19 title run.  

So what's the reason for the dramatic drop-off? Is it because Toronto fields one of the league's older rosters? The Raptors are one of only three teams with two starters (Baynes and Kyle Lowry) aged 34 or older. One of the others is the Lakers, however, so there goes that theory. 

A lack of depth is the more plausible answer. The Raptors rank 27th in the NBA in bench scoring, though they also had one of the league's least productive second units last season. That was less of an issue in 2019-20 because the starting five was often so good. With Siakam, Anunoby and Baynes all underperforming thus far, it has quickly become a more pressing concern. 

THE BOTTOM LINE 

There's no cause for alarm yet for Toronto fans just yet regarding their snowbird team. If not for a few bad stretches, the Raptors could just as easily be 5-2 instead of 1-6, and a defense that is still among the NBA's better units has kept them in every game in spite of their inefficiencies on the other end. 

There is enough of a track record throughout the roster to suggest that the offense will come around. It needs to as well for a team that has been built on the premise of winning now and whose window may be closing soon.

Lowry, the Raptors' unquestioned heart and soul, is in the final year of his contract and turns 35 in March. Does team president Masai Ujiri consider moving him at the trade deadline if Toronto finds itself fighting for merely a playoff spot instead of a division title? 

The next two months should be very intriguing in Toronto. And Tampa as well.  

All eyes were on the Toronto Raptors after winning their first NBA championship in 2018-19.

Could the defending champions do it again, even without superstar Kawhi Leonard following his switch to the Los Angeles Clippers?

The Raptors were tipped to slide in 2019-20, but with Nick Nurse leading the way, Toronto (53-19) defied the odds as they finished second behind the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference.

Still boasting championship winners Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka and benefiting from the emergence of Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher, the Raptors reached the Conference semi-finals before losing to the Boston Celtics in seven games inside the Orlando bubble amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With the season done and dusted, there are now doubts over whether VanVleet, Gasol and Ibaka will return as they enter free agency.

Nurse experienced similar at the end of 2018-19 after Leonard and Danny Green departed for the Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers respectively via free agency.

As the Raptors look ahead to 2020-21, we review the team's 2019-20 season using Stats Perform data.

 

Nurse no one-season wonder

The 53-year-old has not missed a beat since his appointment ahead of the 2018-19 campaign, delivering a maiden NBA title in his first season in Toronto.

Nurse has overseen 134 victories, including playoff wins, for an overall 134-55 record in two seasons as Raptors head coach.

Only Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr (171 from 2014 to 2016), former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson (141 between 1989 and 1991) and ex-Phoenix Suns coach Paul Westphal (137 in 1992 to 1994) managed more victories from their opening two campaigns in the league.

Nurse's work has not gone unnoticed. The Canada head coach was named the 2020 NBA Coach of the Year, while he signed a "multi-year" contract extension with the Raptors last month.

 

Siakam and VanVleet emerge

Two of Toronto's biggest stars have experienced significant improvements.

Both forward Siakam and guard VanVleet were both averaging under 5.0 points per game as recently as 2016-17. Now, Siakam is averaging 22.9 points per game (+18.7), while VanVleet's scoring average is up to 17.6 (+14.7).

No players in the NBA have had a bigger scoring increase since then, with New Orleans Pelicans star Brandon Ingram (23.8ppg from 9.4ppg – +14.5), Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics (20.3ppg from 6.6ppg – +13.7) and Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie (20.6ppg from 7.3ppg – +13.3) coming closest.

 

Raptors lack bite and roar

For all of their success, the Raptors still do not really have a dominant scorer or rebounder, especially since Leonard's exit.

In this season's playoffs, Toronto's leading scorer was VanVleet at 19.6 points per game, and their leading rebounder was veteran Ibaka at 7.7 rebounds per game.

Since rebounds were first tracked in 1950-51, there has never been a team to win the NBA championship while having no players average 20.0-plus points per game and no players average 8.0-plus rebounds per game in the postseason.

When it comes to Siakam, while he has grown, there are still teething issues, especially with his three-point shooting.

Taking more attempts from beyond the arc, Siakam was decent in the regular season but the 26-year-old did not shoot the three well in the playoffs. His three-point percentage (18.9 per cent) in the postseason was the second worst of all time (minimum 50 attempts), only behind Lindsey Hunter (15.1) in 2000-01.

If you look at the three-point percentages for Raptors players in the 2020 postseason, you can see that the guys who shot the ball the most had some of the lowest percentages, while some others shot the ball well but did not get as many shots.

Ibaka shot 51.1 per cent, better than Powell (42.3), Terence Davis (42.1), Matt Thomas (41.7), Anunoby (41.5), Boucher (40.0), Stanley Johnson (40.0), VanVleet (39.1), Lowry (31.9), Siakam (18.9) and Gasol (18.5).

The Raptors will need Siakam to improve with his three-point shot or else the team might want to attempt to re-distribute their three-point shots more toward the players who are better shooters from deep.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis were both named in the All-NBA First Team on Wednesday as the Los Angeles Lakers prepare to face the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

The All-NBA selections were announced as the playoffs hot up in Orlando, although the Lakers duo were the only remaining members of the First Team.

James and Davis were joined by James Harden, whose Houston Rockets they beat in the second round, along with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

MVP candidates James and Antetokounmpo were both unanimous votes.

The Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard and playoff nemesis Nikola Jokic headlined the Second Team. Jokic led the Nuggets past the Clippers on Tuesday to complete another remarkable series fightback.

Damian Lillard was also included after carrying the Portland Trail Blazers into the postseason, alongside veteran Chris Paul, who impressed following his trade from the Rockets to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Pascal Siakam - disappointing in the playoffs for defending champions the Toronto Raptors - made up the selection.

Meanwhile, in the Third Team, the Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum and the Miami Heat's Jimmy Butler are both still alive as Eastern Conference Finals opponents.

Russell Westbrook, part of the Paul trade, got recognition, too, and was joined by Rudy Gobert and Ben Simmons, the latter ending the season injured.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was not happy to be ejected following an altercation with OG Anunoby during Monday's loss to the Toronto Raptors, declaring: "Next time I'll do justice myself".

The pair clashed during the closing stages of the game at the Vivint Smart Home Arena, initially coming together at halfway as the Raptors looked to break.

Gobert took exception to Anunoby's flailing arm towards him, leading to the duo shoving each other away close to Utah's basket with the ball on the opposite side of the court.

Both were ejected following a review of the incident, with the Raptors going on to triumph 101-92 on the road.

"He tried to elbow me in the face and the guy [referee] that’s getting paid to protect us, the players, didn't do his job," Gobert said after the game. 

"There was a little altercation and we both got ejected when I didn’t do anything back pretty much, which I don't understand. It doesn't make sense to me. 

"Next time I'll do justice myself so the official can eject me for a reason."

Toronto were without Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet due to injuries, while Norman Powell left in the first quarter with an ankle problem.

However, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka scored 27 points apiece to help the reigning NBA champions clinch a 46th win of the campaign.

Gobert, meanwhile, was limited to just six points and four rebounds through his 32 minutes on the court.

"We obviously knew the lobs and all those things that he gets, so we tried to take him out of that," Siakam said of the Raptors' efforts to restrict Gobert's impact on proceedings.

"Then it was about boxing him out. He's really a force down there and we did a pretty good job of that."

Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard headline Team LeBron, while Team Giannis includes Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam for the NBA All-Star Game.

LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo finalised their teams for the showcase event, which will take place at the United Center in Chicago on February 16.

James used the number one pick to draft Los Angeles Lakers team-mate Anthony Davis to Team LeBron, while reigning MVP Antetokounmpo countered by selecting Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Team LeBron's starting five consists of James, Davis, Los Angeles Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard, Dallas Mavericks sensation Luka Doncic and Houston Rockets star James Harden.

Antetokounmpo, Embiid, Toronto Raptors star Siakam, Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker and the Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young are the starters for Team Giannis.

Team LeBron reigned supreme last year – James' squad winning 178-164 over Team Giannis in Charlotte.

 

Team LeBron

Starters: LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers), Anthony Davis (Los Angeles Lakers), Kawhi Leonard (Los Angeles Clippers), Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks), James Harden (Houston Rockets)
Reserves: Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers), Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), Chris Paul (Oklahoma City Thunder), Russell Westbrook (Houston Rockets), Domantas Sabonis (Indiana Pacers)

Team Giannis

Starters: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks), Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers), Pascal Siakam (Toronto Raptors), Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics), Trae Young (Atlanta Hawks)
Reserves: Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks), Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat), Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz), Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors), Brandon Ingram (New Orleans Pelicans), Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)

LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo will return as NBA All-Star team captains after leading the vote for February's showpiece contest in Chicago.

Three newcomers – Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Pascal Siakam – will also take the floor for the 69th edition of the annual exhibition game.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar James captained Team LeBron to victory over Team Giannis in 2019 and the pair will renew their rivalry at United Center on February 16.

James, an All-Star for the 16th year of his illustrious career, will have the chance to draft Dallas Mavericks sensation Doncic onto his team for the first time, the MVP contender a walk-up selection amid a brilliant sophomore season in the NBA.

All-Star regulars James Harden, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard round out the Western Conference starter pool.

Atlanta Hawks guard Young topped the count among Eastern Conference backcourt options to secure a start alongside the Boston Celtics' Kemba Walker.

The pair gained selection ahead of four-time All Star Jimmy Butler and the Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons, who scored poorly in the fan portion of the vote.

Siakam's selection comes after averaging a career-best 23.5 points per game for the Toronto Raptors this season, while injury troubles failed to prevent Joel Embiid from sealing a frontcourt berth.

Fan ballots were weighted at 50 per cent, while current players and the media contributed 25 per cent of the starter vote.

Captains James and Antetokounmpo will select their teams from the eight other starters, while NBA head coaches will be responsible for choosing the 14 reserves that will be announced on January 30.

 

Eastern Conference starters:

Trae Young (Atlanta Hawks), Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics), Pascal Siakam (Toronto Raptors), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks), Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)

Western Conference starters:

James Harden (Houston Rockets), Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks), Kawhi Leonard (Los Angeles Clippers), LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers), Anthony Davis (Los Angeles Lakers)

The Toronto Raptors have agreed to a four-year, $130million extension with Pascal Siakam, according to reports.

ESPN claimed the Raptors have come to terms on a max deal for Siakam, a key player in Toronto's run to a maiden NBA title last season.

Siakam had a breakout year for Toronto last season and was named the NBA's Most Improved Player for his efforts. The Cameroonian averaged 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.

Siakam finished the NBA Finals, in which the Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors 4-2, averaging 19.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

Drafted by Toronto with the 27th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the New Mexico State product spent most of his rookie season in the G League where he won Finals MVP and the championship with Raptors 905.

 

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