TORONTO, July 7, 2023 – There have been a lot of changes in Jurassic-land since the Raptors bowed out last spring before the real playoffs actually began. There is a new coach at the helm, fan fave Freddie VanVleet has moved on and the Raps have some new players in the fold. Let’s get you up to date with the Raptors off-season moves so far, where the team has been and perhaps where it is headed.
We The North – Raptors on Top of the World
In 2019, Toronto Raptors’ President Masai Ujiri took a calculated risk in reshaping a team that had shown consistent success during the regular season but struggled in the playoffs against LeBron James in his prime. Determined to make a change, the President made some bold moves.
Firstly, he decided to part ways with the accomplished coach and instead promoted his assistant, Nick Nurse, to head coach. Additionally, he orchestrated a trade that sent the promising young centre Yakov Peril and beloved fan favourite DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for the often injured but highly talented star, Kawhi Leonard.
It is important to note that Kawhi Leonard had previously won an NBA championship with the Spurs, a team renowned for its exceptional coaching under Popovich and its legendary players like Tim Duncan and David Robinson. While Leonard’s presence was undoubtedly a contributing factor to the Spurs’ success, it would be unfair to attribute their championship solely to him.
The 2022-23 Toronto Raptors fell short of making the playoffs and were eliminated during the play-in-tournament, with fan favourite Pascal Siakam struggling to sink free throws. The team itself had struggled throughout the regular season with an unbalanced roster, plagued by injuries, sub-par defense, and a lacklustre attitude. The departure of Kyle Lowry, the heart and soul of the Raptors, who was traded to Miami the previous year, left a void in leadership and inspiration. While Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, the team’s supposed leaders, had decent seasons, they seemed to lack that extra spark. Additionally, beyond the starting five, the bench didn’t provide much support.
Coach Nurse attempted various lineup combinations throughout the year, but none seemed to have a lasting impact. It appeared that the team had stopped responding to one of the most highly regarded coaches in the NBA. Unfortunately, as disappointing as the Raptors’ performance was, they weren’t bad enough to secure a favorable draft pick. The team was in dire need of a reset, seeking new life and enthusiasm. They desired young talent with the potential to develop into another championship caliber team. However, with the 13th overall pick, it was challenging to select a blue chip prospect, regardless of what the public relations team might claim.
The NBA Draft
In the recent draft, there were two standout players who were considered surefire picks, with one being a generational talent that may not come around again for decades. If the Raptors had given up on their playoff aspirations, they might have had a chance to land the highly touted French sensation, Victor Wembanyama.
Gradey Dick – There’s no place like ‘The North’
Finishing in the middle of the pack prevented them from securing such a remarkable talent as Wembanyama. Instead, with the 13th pick, the Raptors selected Kansas’ Gradey Dick, widely regarded as the best shooter in the class of 2023.
Dick brings a unique skill set to the Raptors’ roster, setting him apart from most of the other players. Standing at 6-foot-6, he is a sharpshooter who impressively connected on 40.3% of his three-point attempts during his single season with the Jayhawks. Alongside his shooting prowess, he also contributed 14.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. In contrast to many of Toronto’s recent draft picks, Dick leans more towards offense rather than being defensively oriented.
“He’s not solely a shooter,” Raptors G.M Webster emphasized. “He demonstrates an understanding of off-ball movement, executing backdoor cuts, showcasing good passing skills, and being an effective rebounder. He possesses a well-rounded game, even though he may initially be labeled primarily as a shooter.”
However, it is important to acknowledge that Gradey Dick will never be mistaken for Victor Wembanyama, who, according to this writer’s guarantee, will lead San Antonio to at least one NBA championship.
VanVleet leaves & Trent JR. stays
Barring any significant trades, the Toronto Raptors might face challenges in the upcoming season. Their starting guard, Fred VanVleet, decided to opt out of staying with the Raptors and instead joined the Houston Rockets. VanVleet is widely recognized as a skilled player on both offense and defense, although he is not typically considered among the elite in the NBA. Therefore, when Houston signed him to a three-year, $130 million contract during the opening day of 2023 free agency, it raised some eyebrows due to its maximum salaried nature.
In contrast, Gary Trent Jr., another guard for the Raptors, chose to remain with the team and exercise his $18.5 million player option on June 20 instead of exploring the free agent market. While Trent Jr. is seen by some NBA pundits as more suited for a bench role rather than starting, VanVleet’s departure leaves a void, as he was not only a better player but also a respected leader on the team.
McDaniels signs on
After an impressive season, Jalen McDaniels enters the next chapter of his NBA career. The 25-year-old player showcased his skills with both the Charlotte Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers, delivering the best performance of his four year stint in the league. Throughout the season, McDaniels displayed his versatility, averaging 9.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.0 steals per game. He showcased his efficiency, shooting 45.5% from the field and 33.2% from beyond the arc in a total of 80 regular season games. Excitingly, the Toronto Raptors have now officially announced the signing of McDaniels signalling a new chapter in his NBA journey.
The New Coach for the Raptors
Darko Rajakovic couldn’t contain his excitement after being named the 10th head coach in Toronto Raptors franchise history. The 44 year old Rajakovic steps in to fill the vacancy left by Nick Nurse, who was relieved of his duties on April 21 after the Raptors finished the season with a 41- 41 record and an early exit in the play-in tournament.
“We’re genuinely thrilled about this day,” said Raptors president Masai Ujiri, seated alongside Rajakovic on a stage set up outside the team’s downtown arena. “I know change can be difficult, but we believe that change is good, and it’s good for our organization and ballclub now.”
“He’s highly intelligent, meticulous, and organized,” Webster praised. “He brings a wealth of diverse experiences, both internationally and in the NBA. He has worked with numerous organizations and directly with high caliber players, and it all just fell into place. He exceeded our expectations and left a lasting impression on us.”
Born and raised in Serbia, Rajakovic has been involved in coaching since his teenage years. He coached in Spain before making his way to the United States. Rajakovic spent two seasons as a head coach in the G League (formerly the NBA Development League) before joining the Oklahoma City Thunder as an assistant coach in the 2014 – 15 season. He served as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns during the 2019 – 20 season before joining the Memphis Grizzlies the following year.
“It means the world to me,” Rajakovic expressed. “It means a lot to the Serbian community here in Toronto. Many people have reached out to me. It means a great deal to my family back home and the entire basketball community in Serbia.”
Rajakovic’s introduction as head coach coincided with the four year anniversary of the Raptors’ historic NBA championship win, their first and only title. The Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in six games in the 2019 Finals, Nurse’s inaugural season as coach.
Beam us up Scotty
Now, what’s next for the Toronto Raptors? At first glance, one might question why anyone would watch the Raptors at all. They don’t have the star power of the Lakers with LeBron James or the firepower of the Golden State Warriors with Stephen Curry, Andrew Wiggins, and Chris Paul. The Raptors lack players like Nikola Jokic or Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they no longer have Fred VanVleet. Some believe Pascal Siakam has the potential to be a superstar and showed flashes of brilliance throughout the NBA season, but he has yet to prove he can lead the Raptors back to the NBA Finals. OG Anunoby is an exceptional defender with trade value, but he will never be Kawhi Leonard. The question remains: how can the Raptors regain their status as a winning franchise?
The answer lies with Scott Barnes. As he enters his third year, Barnes has shown versatility, playing both point guard and small forward positions. He is always a scoring threat and a dominant defender, with vision comparable to top NBA players. It is clear that he needs to elevate his game and become the Raptors’ next Kawhi Leonard. As Barnes continues to grow and assert himself on the court, the Raptors must surround him with a roster of sharpshooters, similar to the style of the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets. Additionally, they need a reliable big man who can protect the rim, play solid defense, grab rebounds, and provide an offensive presence in the paint. These types of players are not easy to acquire through trades or the draft. They are rare gems that successful basketball organizations either develop internally or scout from all corners of the globe.
The Raptors may not necessarily need a dominant centre in the mold of Shaquille O’Neal, although it wouldn’t hurt, but it is crucial for them to do everything in their power to find a skilled centre who can create space for Scott Barnes and his arsenal of three-point shooters. It may take another five years for the team to become perennial contenders once again, but if they build around Barnes, improve their three-point shooting, and find a formidable big man, there will always be hope for a bright future.
by Myles Shane