DETROIT – Pascal Siakam, wearing a camouflage sweatshirt, jokingly hid behind a Raptors staffer to duck his post-game interview. Siakam said he was promised a respite from the sometimes-tedious responsibility. A reporter replied that the hiatus didn’t apply when Siakam scored 30.
Of course, Siakam soon came out and dutifully answered questions.
He has been front and center as Toronto’s go-to star all season.
The Raptors have faced rarely precedented upheaval for a defending champion. Toronto lost players responsible for nearly a third of its 2019 postseason minutes. That’s high, but not unique, for a title team. The 1969 Celtics, 1998 Bulls, 2003 Spurs and 2011 Mavericks lost more. But the Raptors became the first defending champion to lose an unquestioned star to another team.
In 1998, Chicago knew it was rebuilding after Michael Jordan’s retirement. In 2003, San Antonio still had Tim Duncan. In 2011, Dallas still had Dirk Nowitzki.
Kawhi Leonard signing with the Clippers created an identity crisis in Toronto. The Raptors had come to rely heavily on Leonard, but they still wanted to win this season – just without their best player.
Boston in 1969 provided a depressing example. Bill Russell retired after the Celtics’ championship. Even with John Havlicek, Boston went just 34-48 the next season.
But Siakam knew where Toronto would turn without Leonard: Siakam.
“Being a max player,” Siakam said, “you expect that.”
Siakam, who signed a max contract extension last fall, looks the part.
His blistering start to the season put him in the superstar conversation. He’s the engine behind the Raptors’ 40-14 record. Voted an All-Star starter, Siakam even had captains Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James bantering about who’d get to select him while MVP candidates Luka Doncic and James Harden remained on the board during the All-Star draft.
Except Siakam is far from a typical max player.
His contract status, age, entry to the NBA and incredible rise tell a distinctive story. The next chapters will shape Toronto for years to come.
Since the NBA adopted the current format with the 1999 rookie class, 32 players have signed max rookie-scale extensions (defined by starting salary). Just eight of those deals were shorter than the longest-allowable length:
- LeBron James (Cavaliers in 2006)
- Dwyane Wade (Heat in 2006)
- Chris Bosh (Raptors in 2006)
- Chris Paul (New Orleans in 2008)
- Deron Williams (Jazz in 2008)
- Kevin Love with (Timberwolves in 2011)
- DeMarcus Cousins (Kings in 2013)
- Pascal Siakam (Raptors in 2019)
In every previous case, the shorter extension signaled underlying turbulence:
- LeBron, Wade and Bosh wanted to hit unrestricted free agency sooner. Though Wade re-signed in Miami as part of the star team-up, the main priority seemed to be joining forces with LeBron and maybe Bosh. It just happened with the Heat rather than Bulls.
- Following the lead of his friend LeBron, Chris Paul took a shorter extension. Two years later, Paul pressured New Orleans to trade him. A year after that, the team acquiesced, sending Paul to the Clippers.
- Deron Williams, widely viewed as Paul’s peer, also took the shorter extension. Fearing the disgruntled star bolting, Utah traded Williams to the Nets.
- The Timberwolves infamously saved their designated-player extension for Ricky Rubio, upsetting Love. The Minnesota-Love relationship never recovered, and he worked a trade to the Cavaliers a few years later.
- Sacramento was reportedly troubled by Cousins’ behavior and unwilling to commit a fifth season on his rookie-scale extension. On the verge of giving him another extension years later, the Kings got cold feet and instead traded him to the Pelicans.
On the other hand, Siakam looks stable in Toronto. There are no known concerns about his attitude. In fact, it appears exemplary. There has been no chatter about Siakam looking to leave, either.
Most players who can secure a max-salary extension also seek maximum security, especially on their first big payday. Siakam was no exception. His agents originally asked the Raptors for five years.
Toronto offered four, and Siakam accepted. There can be advantages to the shorter deal – namely getting to another, potentially higher-paying, deal sooner.
Where many players would have pushed for the larger guarantee, Siakam was comfortable betting on himself. He and his agents, Jaafar Choufani and Todd Ramasar, just prioritized a max salary rather than the very most years.
“There’s so much that comes with that in terms of respect among your peers, in terms of your placement with the franchise,” Choufani said.
So, why did the Raptors want the shorter extension?
In 2016, the Bucks signed Giannis Antetokounmpo to a four-year extension worth slightly less than the max. A five-year extension would have required paying the full max.
Think Milwaukee would rather have the Most Valuable Player locked up an additional season rather than get the salary savings?
The Raptors could have similar regrets in a few years. Siakam is now headed toward 2024, rather than 2025, unrestricted free agency.
But there’s a key difference between Siakam and Antetokounmpo. In fact, there’s a key difference between Siakam and nearly every other player to sign a max rookie-scale extension.
Siakam is much older.
When his extension kicks in, Siakam will be 26. Only Steve Francis was older to begin a max rookie-scale extension.
By the third season of his extension, Francis looked like a shell of himself. After the fourth season, he agreed to a buyout. He was out of the NBA altogether before the end of what would have been the fifth season of his extension.
Of course, Siakam isn’t Francis. Siakam isn’t like anyone we’ve ever seen.
Entry to NBA and incredible rise
The Raptors drafted Siakam with the No. 27 pick in 2016. Even that low, he was widely viewed as a reach. Siakam looked like just a hustle player, and his age appeared to limit his ceiling.
Only three years later, Siakam became only player selected outside lottery to receive a max rookie-scale extension.
“For those kids out there that want to see how good you can be, go watch him in the summer time,” said former Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who now coaches the Pistons. “Not worried about load management. The kid worked three a times a day, him and Rico Hines out there in L.A.”
Siakam went from barely used to key reserve to Most Improved Player. By the end of Toronto’s title run, he was playing like a star.
Most of Siakam’s all-in-one numbers are down this season. He’s not shooting as efficiently as last season. His defense – still elite when necessary – isn’t quite as imposing.
But Siakam has shouldered a massive offensive burden, which is exactly what the Raptors needed.
“Now, he goes out with the idea that he is the primary guy, right from the jump and not waiting to see how the flow of the game goes or Kawhi has it going or whatever,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “He kind of just takes it right from the opening tip and goes with it.”
Even after winning Most Improved Player, Siakam continues to add facets to his game.
Casey described Siakam’s previous approach as, “Shooting was his last resort.” Now, Siakam – who faces far more attention than ever – says, “I feel like I can always get whatever I want.”
This continued development explains why I wouldn’t have picked Siakam for Most Improved Player last season. De'Aaron Fox grew more in a single year, the timeframe for the annual award.
Siakam’s progress spans multiple years – and is therefore also far larger in summation. That deserves its own recognition.
Just 16 players have set a career high in points per game then increase their scoring average by at least 15 within two seasons. Siakam – who has gone from 7.3 to 16.9 to 23.7 points per game, an increase of 16.4 – is on pace to become the 17th.
Here’s everyone to do it:
Siakam’s journey from Cameroon to New Mexico State to the NBA was already an amazing story. Add this newfound level of stardom, and it’s jaw-dropping.
Just not to Siakam.
“I always understood the level I could get to, and I understand the level I can get to,” Siakam said. “I’m not there yet, and I’m going to continue to work to get there.”
What is that level?
“I think the sky’s the limit,” Siakam said before correcting himself. “There’s no limit at all.”