The preseason schedule is out. The regular-season schedule will follow shortly. Tea Kevin Durant saga has, let’s say, plateaued for the moment. In other words, we can start thinking about the Toronto Raptorsas they are currently constructed, playing actual basketball in the 2022-23 NBA season.
Let’s start out the process by bringing back the annual pressure index, an analysis of which player on the roster is under the most pressure this upcoming season. Within, I attempt to take several factors, including contractual situation, importance to the team’s welfare and status within the league, and assess how important the upcoming season is for each player.
16. Christian Koloko
We will know how long of a runway Koloko has when he and the Raptors agree to a contract — and I’m still leaning toward it being when he gets a deal, not if, although it’s becoming weird that September is nearing, and he has no contract. However, the Raptors knew Koloko might have a longer developmental window when they drafted him and cannot reasonably expect him to be an instant contributor in the NBA this year.
I suspect we will see a bit of him, just because his rim-protection abilities are unique on this roster. If this roster is fully healthy, though, Koloko’s most meaningful time should be spent in Mississauga.
The three veterans all have different statuses for 2023-24 — Porter has a player option, Young’s contract is only partially guaranteed while Birch’s is fully guaranteed. Still, given Birch’s disappointing season from a year ago, full of injury interruptions, it feels like Birch has the most to prove here. Birch had flashes of utility last year, but it’s very possible he’ll enter the season on the outside looking in as far as the rotation is concerned.
As for Porter and Young, they are essentially made men in this league. Porter, after a rough few seasons filled with injuries, was a key cog on a title winner, and Young is one of the most lauded veteran role players in the league. They have also both cashed in during their time in the league, with Porter now at $134 million in career earnings. They will want to contribute, but they don’t necessarily have much to prove to anybody but themselves, which is indeed its own kind of pressure.
It is weird to put Boucher, who turns 30 in January, in the same group as Achiuwa and Barnes, who will be 23 and 21, respectively, when the season starts. That seems especially true given Boucher just signed a deal that will set up himself and his family for life this offseason. However, Boucher’s developmental story is one of the most heartening in the league, and you don’t traverse his path by kicking your feet up when you establish a certain level of success.
In general, these are three players who, despite different skill types and levels, can help lift the Raptors if they bump up their batting average. Nick Nurse is fond of saying he doesn’t expect role players to be great every night, but if he can move them from two good games out of five to three or four, then that is massive for the league.
Boucher is good enough to compete for sixth man of the year, even if he would be a different type of candidate. Achiuwa’s defensive versatility could make him a future DPOY candidate should he reach his full potential. Barnes is the Raptors’ single-biggest swing factor, and while the odds are very much against it, he could put himself in All-Star consideration this year with growth on multiple fronts.
In each case, they have more time than this year to get better. However, these might be three of the four or five biggest wild cards on the team. If two pops, watch out.
Quite clearly, both players are very important to the Raptors’ ultimate hopes this coming season. Each also have player options for 2023-24, which they will likely decline in order to become unrestricted free agents. (VanVleet is the safer bet to decline his than Trent Jr. because of the point guard’s longer track record, but it would be surprising at this point if either opted in.)
From strictly a case of economics, Trent Jr. is more interesting. There aren’t many players who get to hit unrestricted free agency when they are 24, and if Trent Jr. has a big year, he could really cash in because of his youth, promise and accomplishment. Then again, he is not a lock to start on the Raptors, which could be the most fascinating storyline to follow in training camp. It’s easier to get paid as a starter than a sixth man, especially if that player is thought of as a scoring specialist. Trent Jr. showed that he can be more than just a gunner last year, but his defense is going to have to take a leap from high-risk to stout for him not to be pigeonholed in that manner.
We’ve covered the financial implications for Siakam’s season (and VanVleet’s), so no need to further expand on that here. Beyond that, he is the Raptors’ best player, and that comes with obvious pressure. Siakam wants to be great, and that entails the relentless pursuit of improvement.
Of the five players listed above, Flynn is the most assured of a roster spot. In that sense, he belongs in a different group. However, entering his third season after entering the league as an older prospect, this might be it as far as Flynn’s Raptors tenure goes. If he doesn’t crack the rotation and establish himself as at least a dependable backup, it’s tough to imagine his career with the team, and maybe within the league, lasting much longer.
Hernangómez, Mykhailiuk, Banton and Champagnie figure to be competing for three roster spots (apologies to training camp invitees DJ Wilson and Gabe Brown, who have more complicated paths to one of the spots). The former two have fully guaranteed contracts while the latter two are only partially guaranteed, but I don’t expect that to play a huge part in determining who gets the spots, considering the Raptors are far enough under the tax threshold to absorb eating the cost without dipping into the red.
Ultimately, I’m guessing the battle comes down to Champagnie, the two-way signee from a year ago who might be a low-salaried 3-and-D guy waiting to happen based on his time with Raptors 905 last year, and Mykhailiuk , the four-team, four-season veteran whose reputation as a knockdown shooter hasn’t been matched by his production. Given his season last year, Mykhailiuk probably has the steeper climb to make the team.
1. OG Anunoby
To borrow from Dawkins and Ford, OG Anunoby wants all the smoke. Sure, the trade rumors that swirled around him might have largely come from teams looking to pry the versatile forward out of Toronto, but that was the result of a largely disappointing 2021-22 season that was defined by injuries. Nick Nurse confirmed later in the offseason that Anunoby would like a bigger role with the team, and that the onus is on the coach to make that happen.
Nurse is indeed under a fair bit of pressure to diversify and improve the Raptors’ half-court offense, but that is a whole different conversation. In reality, Anunoby’s play has not deserved a bigger offensive role: Per Synergy Sports, Anunoby’s efficiency ranked in the 11th and 23rd percentiles in isolation and pick-and-roll handling situations, respectively, last year. We’re not working from a huge sample there, but it’s hard to give Anunoby more reps given that his play in those scenarios has been lacking, and half-court offense is already a weakness for the team.
The flip side: Since the offense is already a weakness, letting Anunoby get more reps and work through more mistakes could pay significant, team-altering dividends if he gets much better. Regardless, this is the difference between Anunoby becoming known as a very good 3-and-D starter and something more than that, a fringe All-Star. That’s a pretty big swing piece, for player and team both.
(Top photo of OG Anunoby: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY)