Raptors counting on internal improvement, better health in quiet offseason

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If you’ve ever wanted to make easy money, just bet over on the Raptors win total. For the past seven years, ever since they became a perennial playoff team, they have outperformed their preseason win total set by the bookmakers. Not even a global pandemic could halt that streak. 

This season, the Raptors’ win total has been set to 41.5. It’s easy, as a Raptors fan, to scoff at that and claim Vegas is disrespecting them again, since that total puts them as the sixth-best team in the East. But unlike in previous years, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about them hitting their total. For starters, they might have to go on a 72-game road trip. They also lost two key pieces of last year’s 53-win team in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. 

Though perhaps the biggest factor was that, while the Raptors stayed mostly quiet in free agency, the rest of the East got better. The five teams that are ahead of them — the Bucks, Celtics, Nets, 76ers, and Heat — made moves in free agency to put themselves ahead of the pack. Or in the case of the Nets, their biggest offseason move was getting Kevin Durant back on the court. 

However, Raptors fans have seen this movie before. Last offseason, they lost two even bigger pieces in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and all they did was finish with a better winning percentage without them. The biggest reason why was internal improvement, and they’re hoping that will again be the case this year.

The biggest leap we saw came from Pascal Siakam, who went from Most Improved Player to a legitimate top-10 guy. His struggles in the bubble were well documented, but nobody knows that better than Siakam, and he will do everything in his power to put those behind him. 

As a full-time starter, Fred VanVleet improved on every statistical metric, and he’ll be looking to do the same now that he’s been handsomely compensated for all his efforts. Same goes for OG Anunoby, who was out injured for the entirety of the Raptors’ championship run, but played almost every game last season and evolved into one of, if not the best, wing defenders in the NBA. His playoff contributions included the second biggest buzzer beater in Raptors history, and a willingness to play small-ball center. 

Norman Powell, meanwhile, is the perfect sixth man for the Raptors, and his internal improvement included a torrid stretch that earned him Player of the Week right before the season shut down. And in the playoffs, he saved the Raptors’ season with a heroic performance in Game 6 against the Celtics — where have we heard that before? 

And of course, we can’t forget about Kyle Lowry, regarded by many as the ‘Greatest Raptor of All Time’. He turned back the clock with some of his performances last season, and will want to make the most of his final years in Toronto. These five guys make up the Raptors’ core, and they were who coach Nick Nurse turned to in the playoffs to close out games. If they can play to the same level as last season, or even better, they’ll be in good shape. 

And it’s not like the Raptors did nothing to replace Ibaka and Gasol. Many teams, including last year’s title-winning Lakers, proved you don’t need to spend big on centers. Aron Baynes and Alex Len should prove capable of what Nurse wants from them. And it’s not unreasonable to expect improvement out of them, either. During media day, Nurse said Baynes is “a much better shooter” than he envisioned. Considering he had a game where he shot 9-of-14 from deep last season, that’s got to be highly encouraging.

Another thing the Raptors will be hoping for is improved health. They were one of the most injured teams in the NBA last year, and had to use 18 different starting lineups, per Basketball Reference. One of their most injured players, Gasol, is now gone, but they had to deal with almost all of their key guys missing at least 10 games. Ironically, Anunoby was the picture of health, having only missed three games all year. Hopefully, they will get more time out of everyone, which will lead to better results.

But perhaps the Raptors’ biggest move is one they haven’t made yet. Ever since Channing Frye tweeted that Toronto would be the best place for James Harden, Raptors Twitter has been going crazy. The fake trades have been popping off again recently, with Harden doing everything in his power to ensure he plays on a different team to start the season. The offseason isn’t over yet, but it remains a huge pipe dream. Still, it’s hard not to get excited over the prospect of this.

Pulling off that move should comfortably put the Raptors above 41 wins. But you should feel confident in betting the over even if they don’t land the big fish, since it would be ludicrous to call this team 12 wins worse without Ibaka and Gasol. We should see improvements across the board from all of the Raptors’ core guys, as well as from players like Chris Boucher and Matt Thomas who should get more opportunities this season. Because, after seven years, we’ve expected nothing less from this team.

Written by David Rouben