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Toronto Raptors

NBA Free Agency 2019: Promise or peril? Kawhi Leonard's decision leaves the future of the Toronto Raptors in the hands of Pascal Siakam

Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam
(Getty Images)

Kawhi Leonard's time with the Toronto Raptors is up following his decision to join the LA Clippers, which means it's time for the Pascal Siakam show in Toronto.

Although Kyle Lowry remains in the fold (for now) and is coming off his fifth straight All-Star appearance, he's 33-years-old and entering the final year of his contract. Regardless of whether or not the team opts to move Lowry prior to the start of the season as it potentially weighs the option of transitioning into a rebuild, make no mistake: Siakam is not simply the future, but very much the present.

Now 25-years-old and coming off an NBA Finals in which he was the team's second-leading scorer, Siakam is still getting better and not yet in his prime.

He may have been the NBA's Most Improved Player, but the jury is still out on just how far he can climb. There's no question he has a bright future and should be in the mix for an All-Star nod this upcoming season. But can he be even more than that?

Every statistics teacher will tell you that numbers can be manipulated to paint any picture you'd like. Two different approaches towards answering the same question can lead to two drastically different outcomes based on the cherry picked data points.

With that in mind, here are stats with promise and peril to aid in evaluating the potential for Siakam moving forward. If this entire exercise feels like intentional contradicton... well, that's sort of the point.

Stat showing promise: +10.1

That was Toronto's net rating last season in the over 1,000 minutes that Siakam spent on the floor without Leonard.

If there's one phrase to define the 2018-19 regular season, it's without a doubt "load management." While the care taken in preserving Leonard throughout the regular season paid off in a major way come playoff time, it's also worth mentioning just how well the Raptors played whenever he sat. That doesn't just include games he missed completely, but also those nights when they resisted the temptation to keep him on the floor.

A major reason for that success was the lineup of Siakam, Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Danny Green and Fred VanVleet, which blitzed teams in the nearly 200 minutes together, scoring 119.2 points per 100 possessions with a net rating of +15.3.

Stat showing peril: -2.8

On/off court data can be notoriously noisy as there are tons of confounding factors that come into play.

Case in point? The Raptors with Siakam on the floor without Leonard.

Here's the thing about that first number: most of those minutes also came with Lowry on the floor alongside Siakam. Those two on the floor together without Leonard delivered a net rating of +17.2, an absurdly high number.

Remove Lowry from the equation, and that net rating plummets all the way to -2.8 in 366 minutes. That's a team headed towards a win total in the mid 30s, not one skating along merrily in the midst of a load management balancing act.

If you're looking for the true barometer of what a Raptors team might look like with Siakam leading a squad without Leonard and without Lowry, that might be closer to a realistic expectation.

Stat showing promise: 20.3

That's how many points per 36 minutes that Siakam averaged during the regular season whenever Leonard was out of the game.

In all, he delivered 20.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per 36 minutes on an efficient 54% from the field. Flirting with a 20-10 in a sample of 1,000 minutes is no joke and numbers that would land Siakam in the All-Star Game next season.

Overall, he was the Raptors' leading scorer in the games that Leonard missed due to load management, averaging 19.1 points per game highlighted by a 44-point, 10-rebound masterpiece against the Washington Wizards in February.

It's just one game but that particular outing fully summed up what the Raptors hope Siakam can be when carrying a heavier burden. He took 25 shots, got to the line 12 times and sank 4-of-5 from 3. Only four of his points came on the fastbreak, highlighting his ability to score in the half court, which is certainly a question mark moving forward.

Stat showing peril: 29%

That was Siakam's 3-point FG percentage in the games he played without Leonard, significantly down from the 40% clip he made in games alongside his superstar teammate.

No matter which way you slice it, Siakam's outside shooting fell off a cliff in the absence of Leonard.

During the regular season, his 3-point percentage dropped from 41% to 30% depending on whether Leonard was on or off the floor. The playoffs, those numbers were 29% and 20%, respectively.

No player on the team benefited more from Leonard's presence when it came to keeping teams honest from outside. Kawhi routinely drawing doubles or at the very least commanding eye balls and attracting help defenders a step closer into the paint without a doubt led to more open 3s for everyone, particularly Siakam, who feasted on open corner 3s.

According to NBA.com, just eight of his 214 attempts from beyond the arc came with a defender within four feet. Throw in the fact that he shot just 28% on above the break 3s and went just 1-8 the entire season on pull-up 3s, it becomes clear that while he can be a capable threat when taking advantage of others creating, to expect that as a primary option offensively is at this point a fool's errand.

Stat showing promise: 42%

Here were the players guarding Siakam predominantly over the final three rounds of the playoffs:

  • Joel Embiid, who defended him on nearly 80 more possessions than any other Sixer
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, who defended him twice as much as any other Buck
  • Draymond Green, who defended him nearly four times as much as any other Warrior

That's arguably three of the five best defenders in the entire league. If you tally up all of his offensive possessions during those tough series, he spent 42% of the time matched up against one of those three all-world defenders.

Despite those assignments, he still managed to pour in 18 points per game across those series on a respectable 45% shooting. His postseason showing would have been largely impressive no matter the opponent but when factoring in opposition and personnel, Siakam's ability to expand his game and willingness to take on the challenge speaks volumes about his resolve and toughness.

That shouldn't be taken lightly and not everyone is up for the challenge. Just ask Nikola Vucevic, who struggled mightily against Marc Gasol. Or Karl-Anthony Towns, who at times looked lost in 2018 against Clint Capela.

Stat showing peril: 5th

Let's revisit that top non-Kawhi lineup for a minute, the one with Siakam, Lowry, Ibaka, Green and VanVleet.

Care to guess where Siakam ranked within that 5-man lineup in scoring? 5th.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to assume that any non-Kawhi minutes moving forward would feature Siakam as the go-to option and perhaps that's true. But if you're looking towards last season's valiant play in the times that Leonard sat, Toronto's most successful version of life without Leonard didn't lean on Siakam at all.

He didn't get to line much, shot 2-14 from 3 and assisted on fewer buckets than both Lowry and VanVleet.

Siakam In Top Non-Kawhi Lineup
Rank
Points 72 5th
FG pct 46% 4th
Rebounds 46 2nd
Assists 26 3rd
Turnovers 11 2nd
FT attempts 13 3rd

Sure, it's dangerous to read too much into a 187 minute sample. But if the goal is to remain competitive in the immediacy of Leonard's departure, perhaps it's unwise to pin all of Toronto's hopes and dreams of a respectable title defense on the shoulders of Siakam.

Stat showing promise: 25

Let's end by keeping this simple: Siakam is just 25-years-old.

Some might point to his age and say that's actually a bad sign, that we're already close to seeing the finished product. For most, that's probably true. But Siakam's story is unique, and he's not your typical 25-year-old that's playing the game and practicing his trade for his entire life. That Most Improved Player award was not merely a product of more opportunity or more polish, but representative of a player that added entirely new dimensions to what was essentially a blank canvas.

When he exploded for a team-high 32 points in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, that may have been a sign that Siakam's star has real staying power. Players his age or younger don't just waltz into Game 1 of the NBA Finals and casually drop 30. Over the last four decades, the list of 25-year-olds to do it consists of Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Kevin Durant...

...and Pascal Siakam.

When he capped off Toronto's stunning title with 26 points in the Game 6 clincher, that was yet another sign of his staying power. Players his age or younger don't just close out championships by dropping 25. Over the last four decades, the list of 25-year-olds to do it consists of Kyrie Irving, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Scottie Pippen, James Worthy, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird...

...and Pascal Siakam.

Which means he's one of two things.

Either he's a historical outlier living in the company of all-time greats that caught lightning in a bottle.

Or he's the next bonafide face of the franchise, ready to run it back with the Raptors as they turn the page on the Kawhi Leonard era in Toronto.

The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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