Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam
Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Most figured the Toronto Raptors were going to be in for a season of transition after losing reigning NBA Finals MBP Kawhi Leonard in free agency. Toronto did not go out and add anyone near his caliber. Instead, the defending champs would rely on unproven talents in that of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. 

Look at this team now. Toronto heads into Friday’s game against the Detroit Pistons with a 34-14 record and riding a nine-game winning streak. This team looks like a legit contender to compete for another NBA Finals appearance. 

Here’s why: Everything seems to be coming together at the right time for Nick Nurse’s squad. Siakam has morphed into a superstar. VanVleet has emerged as the face of the backcourt. Kyle Lowry is playing great ball, too. Depth remains a major asset for the Raptors. 

Pascal: Toronto would be nowhere near this position (second in the Eastern Conference) without Siakam emerging into a star right in front of our eyes. 

  • Coming off earning his first starting appearance in the All-Star Game, Siakam is averaging  23.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists on 46% shooting from the field. He’s been a tremendous force on defense, too. 
  • What’s crazy here is that Siakam’s numbers compare favorably to what we’re seeing from Kawhi Leonard in Los Angeles. The Claw is averaging a split of 27.4/7.6/5.2 on 46% shooting from the field. 
  • For all intents and purposes, Siakam has replaced Leonard as the dominant figure many thought the Raptors were losing months after winning the 2019 NBA Finals. 

The Lowry/VanVleet dynamic: After struggling in last year’s playoffs (a common theme throughout his career), Lowry has picked up his game this season. Meanwhile, VanVleet is at another level after a solid performance last spring. 

  • Lowry is averaging 19.9 points and 7.3 assists on 41% shooting from the field. While his percentage is down, Lowry is putting up the most points since his career-best 2016-17 campaign.
  • A former undrafted free agent from Wichita State, VanVleet caught national attention with his performance during the 2019 NBA Playoffs. He’s now added another layer to that, averaging 18.0 points,6.9 assists and shooting a ridiculous 40% from three-point range. 
  • Even with Leonard in the mix, former iterations of these Raptors struggled to an extent from the outside. Remember, DeMar DeRozan was known for his mid-range game. With VanVleet shooting at a high percentage and Lowry there to take some of the ball-handling onus off him, this seems to be a perfect match. 

The bench: Toronto favored keeping together a deep rotation rather than going out there and adding another star to replace Leonard. It has paid off big time.

  • Here’s a squad that can go 10 deep. In fact, Toronto has 12 players averaging double-digit minutes. That is an exception to the rule in an NBA that’s now defined by super teams.
  • Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Terence Davis are not household names by any stretch of the imagination. But all four bench players have had major impacts this season.
  • This foursome is averaging a combined 44.6 points, 20.3 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game. That’s some next-level stuff right there.

Bottom line

The likes of Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia get more national attention from the Eastern Conference. They were considered the top contenders to unseat Toronto en route to an NBA Finals appearance this June.

While the Bucks are dominating at a level that compares to the Bulls of the 1990s and the recently-ended Warriors dynasty, there are question marks with the Celtics and Sixers. They are no longer seen as a cut above the defending Eastern Conference champs.

Toronto ranks in the top five in points allowed, defensive rating and defensive efficiency. It has five players averaging 15-plus points per game and a legit MVP candidate in Siakam.

Deep. Talented. Defensive-minded. Well-coached. Add these four factors together, and the loss of the reigning NBA Finals MVP doesn’t seem to be too much to overcome.

There’s absolutely no reason to believe that Toronto can’t come out of the Eastern Conference for a second consecutive season. In fact, I firmly believe this squad represents the Bucks’ biggest threat.