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Toronto Raptors X-Factor: Pascal Siakam

Pascal Siakam was a Second Team All-NBA honoree two seasons ago. That feels like a distant memory at this point, as the ensuing year and a half has been unkind to him. All-NBA teams were voted on before play resumed in the Bubble, a context he struggled mightily in offensively. Then, he spent the duration of last season away from Toronto, as the Raptors were tucked away in Tampa Bay, Florida, and battled through COVID-19. While his 2020-21 was better than the narrative surrounding it suggests, it was still a notable step down from his pre-Bubble 2019-20.

As the Raptors embark on the post-Kyle Lowry Era, a return to the Siakam of old would be a significant boon. Siakam will open the year sidelined as he recovers from a torn labrum, but when he does suit up, his scoring, playmaking and rangy defense will be integral to Toronto’s chances of competitive basketball that possibly rubs shoulders with the play-in.

The Raptors’ roster is flush with mobile, sprawling, multifaceted wings and bigs. What it lacks, though, is scoring and creation juice — that’s why they were constantly running the break during preseason to seek easier offensive contexts. Although Siakam is somewhat of an overextended initiator, he is capable to degrees none of his Canadian contemporaries are. How this team consistently scores in the half-court before Siakam reappears is a dubious endeavor. Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Goran Dragic will be tasked with lead duties. Gary Trent Jr., might also shoot his way into some responsibilities, but as their opener against the Wizards showed, this is a team with a creative need.

Siakam can significantly lighten the load for them if he resembles the All-NBA forward of yesteryear. Even if he’s closer to the guy we saw past December of last season, he will help substantially . But a full-fledged revival of sorts probably puts the Raptors in a position to balance a short-term playoff race — led by him, VanVleet and Anunoby — with the development of its various younger guys who fill the gaps on a quality team.

Prospects like Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa will greatly benefit from others bending the defense and allowing them to capitalize as rollers, cutters and connective facilitators (Barnes, mostly, on the last point). Siakam figures to be this team’s supreme bender of defenses. Success in that job hinges on what version of Siakam emerges this season.

Moving forward, how exactly Siakam accelerates Toronto’s developmental players and immediate aspirations could determine his future with the franchise. If he’s good enough to secure or truly vie for a play-in spot to accrue postseason reps for everyone, that likely means he’s a star who provides vital stability. If he’s guiding the Raptors to the purgatory of an 11th- or 12th-place finish, maybe the idea of leaning all the way into a rebuild becomes more alluring for the organization, while the 27-year-old Siakam prefers a situation that invites increased short-term winning.

All of this is speculation, but feel like sound outcomes and situations to expect this year. And all of it is contingent on who Siakam is in 2021-22 and how that impacts this team’s crossroads season.