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Reintroducing the Contenders: Toronto Raptors

Can Pascal Siakam continue to fill the Kawhi Leonard void? And how will the reigning title holders respond to their bubble competition? We’re looking back and ahead for the Raptors going into the NBA’s restart.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Four months is a long time. So we’re getting reacquainted with the title race by looking at the nine NBA teams with at least a 1 percent chance of winning the title, according to our in-house playoff odds (a.k.a. Zach Kram), plus the 76ers, who defy all math and logic, leading up to reopening night on July 30.

The Basics

Team: Toronto Raptors
Record: 46-18 (2nd in the Eastern Conference)
Numbers: 111.3 offensive rating (12th in NBA), 104.9 defensive rating (2nd), 6.4 net rating (tied for 3rd with, ironically, the Clippers)
Seeding opponents (in order of schedule): Lakers, Heat, Magic, Celtics, Grizzlies, Bucks, 76ers, Nuggets

Last Time, on the Raptors …

The Raptors came into the season exuding the same energy as “the ex who says they’re doing great”—but it turns out they actually are doing great. Even while suffering injuries to nearly every player on its roster, Toronto was scorching before the season got suspended, going a ridiculous 21-4 over the team’s last 25 games, including a 15-game winning streak.

Given the circumstances beyond those injuries—you know, how Kawhi Leonard bolted to the Clippers after winning the title last season—the fact that the Raptors are somehow turning out to be the second-best team in the East, and the third-best team in the league by record, is one of the best stories of the season. Even without Kawhi, they couldn’t be denied. Now the question is whether they can win in the playoffs, and in this unique bubble situation, without him.

How They’ve Spent Their Quarantine

The Raptors had an interesting return-to-play situation given that they are an international team. Because they were coming from Canada, they had to travel to Florida two weeks early to begin their quarantine. Whether that should better prepare them for the long months ahead or simply add more time away from their close comforts remains to be seen.

Beyond that, though, some players, like Marc Gasol, used the time to get slim:

While Pascal Siakam did … well, not much.

“I’ve been quarantined for months in my house,” Siakam said after a practice in Orlando last weekend. “I didn’t go out of the house for three months.”

Seeding-Games Goal: Don’t Fall to the 3-Seed

Beyond staying healthy (we’ll get to that in a bit), the Raptors’ only job during the eight seeding games is to avoid losing the three-game lead they have on the Celtics. If they don’t, they’ll have to play either Philly, Indiana, or Miami in the first round—all of whom are tougher opponents than the Magic or Nets as a 2-seed. In other words, instead of having to beat either the Celtics and Sixers, they would have to beat both on their way to likely facing the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.

Toronto’s seeding game schedule isn’t doing the team any favors. According to the numbers, the Raptors have the toughest stretch of games inside the bubble, facing only teams that are currently in the 16-team playoff field, including the Lakers, Bucks, Sixers, and Celtics. It’s not going to be easy by any stretch, but Toronto also has a decent-sized cushion to work with, so barring a disaster, they should be the 2-seed.

Biggest On-Court Bubble Question: Can They Stay Healthy?

Like I mentioned before, the only real speed bumps the Raptors have had this year have been injuries. The problem? It’s affected nearly everyone on the team. Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Patrick McCaw have all missed time this season. The upside? The near-four-month layoff seems to have allowed everyone to get healthy. As Fred VanVleet said last weekend after a team practice in Orlando, “If everything goes right, it’ll probably be the longest time we’ve had a full team.”

Player in the Spotlight: Pascal Siakam

Siakam has stepped into the Kawhi-sized void this season in a way that has not only met expectations but exceeded them. He went from the third fiddle on a title team to a certifiable All-Star who’s averaging nearly 24 points, eight rebounds, and four assists a game, all while holding an effective field goal percentage above 50 percent. His increased usage has proven that Siakam can take on a bigger challenge, which is exactly what the Raptors needed to find post-Kawhi.

Lowry may be the team’s heart and soul, and Marc Gasol may be the stabilizing veteran, but Siakam is the shooting star. Despite the fact that Toronto is deep and versatile, Siakam’s performance is the biggest indicator of how the Raptors will do.

On a Scale From Wizards to 10, Where 10 is the Best Shot at a Title, What Are the Raptors’ Odds of Winning the 2020 Title?

8. A cut below the true contenders (Bucks, Clippers, Lakers), but the fact that they’re right behind them is a victory in itself.