Stylistically and strategically, the 2023-24 Raptors — whose season tips off Wednesday against visiting Minnesota — promise to be a far cry from previous iterations.
Better ball movement, more movement off the ball, more sets initiated from the high post — the game’s tenets preached by rookie head coach Darko Rajakovic aren’t exactly revolutionary.
Whether a team is coming off a .500 record and dismissed in a play-in game, or has made franchise-changing moves in the off-season to take that next step or whether a team is hoping to defend a title, the goal — at least offensively — is to create enough open looks with the hope of making more shots than the opposition.
Defensively, the NBA has evolved in this era of three-point shooting and shot-making to the point where getting stops down the stretch is all that matters.
The fundamentals of keeping an opponent to one shot, getting back in transition, closing out on shooters and communicating on switches will never change.
What has changed in Raptorland cannot be easily overstated.
It begins with Rajakovic, but it also extends to every aspect of the operation.
The days of competing for a championship are long gone. The days of posting 50-win seasons, which the Raptors managed to reach during a five-year run that began with Dwane Casey at the helm and culminated with Nick Nurse in 2019, also are long gone.
It’s a new day for the Raptors, a new era under Rajakovic and, in reality, a new way of measuring the team.
It would be foolish to look at win totals, given the obvious roster deficiencies.
Nurse also was a rookie head coach when he succeeded Casey, but the circumstances were much different than the one Rajakovic inherits.
There’s no bombshell trade on the horizon, no sense in even beginning to imagine this Raptors team competing with the likes of Milwaukee or Boston for top seed in the East.
More than anything, the 2023-24 season will be one of development and also reclamation.
Success for Rajakovic will be gleaned in how Scottie Barnes emerges in a halfcourt offence, how Barnes regains the joy he clearly possessed during his rookie season and if he’s able to knock down three-pointers.
Under Rajakovic, success will be gleaned in how he manages Pascal Siakam, the team’s best player who begins his eighth season in Toronto in what could arguably be his last here unless a long-term deal is made.
In recent years, when the ball was in Siakam’s hands with a game on the line, there have been more instances when shots didn’t drop.
There’s no Fred VanVleet to help shoulder the leadership role, but more shots will be available with VanVleet now residing in Houston with the Rockets.
There’s also the matter on how Rajakovic is able to expand O.G. Anunoby’s game, especially on offence. The defensive versatility remains but so do the questions on offence and whether Anunoby is capable of taking his game to another level.
For what it’s worth, one of the primary beneficiaries of Rajakovic’s coaching during the pre-season involved Malachi Flynn.
One must avoid the temptation of looking too much when exhibition games are played, but Flynn looked less encumbered and seemed to play with much-needed excitement under Rajakovic.
Gradey Dick has shown a flair, but the kid is a rookie and it remains unknown how and when Rajakovic will unleash the sharpshooter.
The signs of any good coach arrive in the execution of sets following timeouts, how quarters end and how minutes get doled out.
Far too much has been made of Dennis Schroder’s play at the recent FIBA World Cup as he led Germany to gold and being named tournament MVP. By any standard, Schroder is an average NBA point guard who is often looking for his own shot.
For now, he’s the best option at that position for the Raptors, who have talked quite openly of using Barnes as the primary ball handler.
“We’re talking to our players a lot about quality of shots,” a refrain Rajakovic expressed often leading up to opening night. “Not every mid-range shot is a bad shot.
“There is a time and place when the defence is giving you certain coverage, when you catch the ball in good position and we want to take those shots.”
Unless there’s some dramatic shift in ideology, one player to watch is Jakob Poeltl when the ball is in his hands in the high post. Poeltl is a good passer for a big man and he’s also smart with the ball. The elbow area is where Poeltl could use his passing skills and size to locate cutters going to the basket.
When he was sent to San Antonio with DeMar DeRozan in the franchise-altering package that landed Kawhi Leonard, Poeltl played in a Spurs system that emphasized ball movement and player movement.
“Especially my last season in San Antonio, I feel like it’s a very similar play style,’’ Poeltl said of what he has noticed under Rajakovic. “A lot of playmaking through (the) trailer or high-post positions.
“I feel like it’s something I’m comfortable with. It’s something I enjoy doing. I like trying to find my teammates in situations like that.
“It’s not unnatural to me. I think there’s still some room to grow for me, to make those reads, get them right almost every time.”
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One will also follow Rajakovic’s evolution in how well Poeltl embraces his role.
If we are to judge the 2023 Raptors by wins alone, look no further than Siakam and how he handles late-game situations.
“He’s doing a great job of cutting and playing without the ball and spacing, and you cannot hide the talent on the floor,” Rajakovic said of Spicy P. “He is extremely talented and (an) extremely high-quality player. The ball is always going to find the best players on the court.”
Barnes is the team’s second-best player, followed by Anunoby.
But as a new season and as a new era begins, it’s best to judge the Raptors by Rajakovic’s growth as a coach and how well he’s able to extract the very best out of his players.