The fundamental appeal of the Raptors is that they’re sewer socialists. Kawhi breezed through, they won a title, and that’s great, but sublimity is not what they do. It’s something they achieved, savored for a while, and then put back like a Rick Owens jacket once you’ve glanced at the price tag. The Raptors are boring conscience, the health benefits of walking to work, the rubber-capped jaggedness of therapized arguments. The grounded heights Studs Terkel surveyed are where they live. Actually, let’s not overstate it: in a spectacle where nearly all the participants are millionaires, they come as close to realizing a working class ethic as you possibly can. But sometimes actors seem to embody people better than the people themselves. The hyper-reality of symbols. Chris Cooper in Matewan comes to mind. And anyway, there is something janitorial about Kyle Lowry. Radiates a sense that he could wax a floor in a way that would make you not want to spoil it with your shoes.
So maybe it’s fitting that Pascal Siakam looked like a suitable Kawhi replacement, tweaked his groin, and then spent much of the playoffs careering into pyramids of loose-lidded paint cans. If his ascendance were easy, he wouldn’t belong in Toronto. He’ll be alright, he’s a lot better than he showed in Orlando, but he’s got work to do. What’s wrong with Kawhi is that there’s nothing wrong with him. Even his deficiencies are rooted more in lack than error. He’s not the best passer, so he simply doesn’t try to be. He never appears to be afraid. Siakam occasionally looks like fear is all that’s moving through him, his blood evaporated and the oxygen expelled. He’ll pump fake until he’s corkscrewed himself neck-deep into hardwood. If he shows up for the 2021 playoffs steadier, plays the way he’s capable of when not besieged by invisible wasps, that has the shape of a story. The sort that comes out of Toronto all the time: Area Man Incrementally Less Terrified. Nick Nurse is a fantastic coach who always looks like he’s living through the third act of Election. He understands that it’s rough out there, that being alive is brutally embarrassing. He’ll help Spicy P get where he needs to be.
Toronto’s title defense was perfect, tonally spot on, right down to the part where Nurse outcoached Brad Stevens, the players emptied themselves of effort, and they came up short in the Eastern Conference Semis because the Celtics were a little bit too talented. That’s not good, but it’s fine. Living, for normal people, is accumulating failures that won’t destroy you. Events you can look back on and say you made an excellent account of yourself, even if it wasn’t enough. That Game 3 pass Kyle Lowry made, where he arced it over the entire defense like a soccer fullback switching play, and O.G. Anunoby’s game-winning jumper, which barely touched the palm of his hand before he fired it bucket-ward, will endure in the memory much longer than the fact that they lost the series.
The Raptors are in an interesting place. (Metaphorically. Physically, they’re in Tampa.) There was an assumption that Masai Ujiri might tear the roster down to the studs and begin the full-scale rebuild he’s been threatening for years. But he mostly stood pat while keeping his options open, letting Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka join the L.A. teams, but locking up Fred VanVleet long-term. Kyle is 34 and entering the final year of his contract. O.G.’s due for an extension. It’s anyone’s guess what moves Masai will make next, and sometimes a being a good exec means being highly cynical, but romance has its practical applications too. This calendar year has kicked everyone’s ass, and any familiar comfort is welcome. This Raptors core has been together for a while now, and it’s a welcome sight, them hanging together and trying to assemble one more productive season. Who wants to watch what might be the last of Kyle Lowry, Raptors Legend marooned in a sea of young anonymities and cap-clogging junk? If last year was an obliging victory lap, this one is simply keeping a healthy workplace intact.
Which is where we circle back on Siakam. The Raptors, with everything else more or less fixed, will be as extraordinary as he is. There’s a whiff of the regular season star about him, like he gets a significant share of his numbers because he’s going full-throttle in February, and when everybody else is dialed in during the playoffs, he has no next level to find. But the guy also looks genuinely nervous when the games matter most, and that’s a problem that typically lessens over time. It’s why title contenders like to have vets in the middle of their rotation. Rajon Rondo ain’t what he used to be, but his hands won’t quake in the Conference Finals. Siakam just broke out two years ago, a champ but still relatively green. And it would be foolish, given the rapid and juddering pace of his development, to be surprised by anything he’s suddenly capable of. He is the Raptors’ sole unknown quantity, just the right amount of chaos to contrast against their characteristically sound craft. He’ll make the necessary effort, that’s for sure, and we’ll see how far that takes he and his like-minded pals.
More 2020 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2019 Histories: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Houston Rockets | Golden State Warriors | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards
2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic
2017 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2016 Futures: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Golden State Warriors | Houston Rockets | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards