Raptors have to believe they’ll come out the other side better for struggles

Actually, playing bad is good.

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Part of playing poorly is that, well, you can only really solve it by playing well again. All of the things that you can say about Jonas Valanciunas’ defense or the reliance on Patrick Patterson are perfectly valid, but still some degrees removed from the point. The flaws are going to be what they are, but to get right, you start with the simple stuff — like good players playing good basketball again. Winning a few games in the right-now solves all of those existential questions for at least a little while.

That said, part of the way you can get right are to throw some different looks at the wall to see what sticks, and what can jumpstart a return to the good stuff. And struggling for a stretch of the season can be healthy in the long run, because then you learn a little more about what works and what doesn’t. (Actually, Playing Bad Is Good.) This is Toronto, so of course I’m drunk listening to Marvins Room and saying you could do better.

The worry is becoming legitimate, that this slump is indicative of the things that are going to doom the Raptors in the playoffs, or something like that. The lineups that were working earlier on in the season aren’t working now, and that’s kind of the difference between a hot start and a cold stretch. You’re going to overreact both ways, but somewhere in between, the stuff you do want to tinker with is right there showing itself. Dwane Casey has been searching, and maybe not perfectly, but I never thought he was perfect. I thought he was just really good.

Pascal Siakam is not a solution. He makes things happen because he’s overflowing with energy and good vibes, but he’s not a player yet. The Raptors shook it up with Jakob Poeltl starting on Sunday against the Detroit Pistons, and Poeltl can be pretty consistent within his role, but he doesn’t do a whole lot yet because soft hands and quick feet also don’t make a player. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Jared Sullinger might actually be washed up at 24, but either way, the point here is that the Raptors lean on Patterson to an uncomfortable degree.

Lucas Nogueira looks pretty good when he plays next to Jonas Valanciunas, which seemed unlikely, but Nogueira sees passes through cramped space and mostly makes his close-outs. They can be really effective together on the glass. It’s fun for me to watch, but I don’t know that Patterson and Nogueira is the power forward rotation you really want.

Maybe this slump is what it takes to send Masai Ujiri over the edge and make a trade that doesn’t have to be an outright steal to get another power forward. That’d be pretty cool.

I’m starting to wonder when Norman Powell might get a look as the starting small forward, which, I realize, is a damn Raptors panic cliché. Backing up a little bit, DeMarre Carroll looks like he’s slowly starting to put it back together — just reaaaaally slowly. His jumper is falling and he’s starting to get comfortable within the offense, which would be nice if the Raptors didn’t need him for his defense. It’s unfortunate, then, that his mobility is still bust.

Especially with Patterson out, it looks like the Raptors have just two or three good perimeter defenders. Powell has to play, right? In expanded playing time during DeMar DeRozan’s injury absence, the guy we saw was an inconsistent shooter (both in taking and making) and still a little too improvisational at the rim. But he’s a reliable player, and you know the Raptors will have their offense; any extra gains they can add on defense will matter a lot more.

All the Raptors need from Carroll is for him to get right by the playoffs, and nobody would be a better two-way guy than a healthy Carroll. But should you just keep waiting on him until April? Powell wouldn’t start yet in any perfect world (nor close, as evidenced by the Minnesota loss), but you know you’ll at least get defense from him, which would go a long way towards stabilizing. Powell’s played well, and he deserves the chance to get better in actual minutes as much as Carroll deserves the chance to get right. I think I’ve been pretty careful about not saying this as a knee-jerk thing.

You always want to ease the burden off DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, anyway, so this tenth-man-in-a-nine-man-rotation thing shouldn’t stick. Even Terrence Ross has played better than Carroll (Ross has played pretty well), but it doesn’t have to be an either-or. Any two of the three play well together, and since we’re so worried about power forward, you could even get a bit of mileage out of Carroll at that position. I never loved that idea, but it’s worked well before.

The problem with sitting Lowry and DeRozan is that they do so much for the offense that it really goes to crap without them, especially since Cory Joseph has been as hard to trust as anybody else on the roster. The apologist in me is coming out, but it seems like it makes a lot of sense to increase Valanciunas’ post touches in those minutes. The world has beat out any hope left in me of Valanciunas ever being actually complementary to Lowry and DeRozan — Nogueira showed us what a fit actually looks like — but he can probably give them a good reprieve in the middle portion of games.

(It’d be nice, though, if Casey would keep him in when he’s feeling it. It’d also be nice if he could consistently get after it on the offensive glass, where he doesn’t need structured touches to be a monster. Goes both ways. It’s a tough situation.)

Maybe if you give Lowry and DeRozan more of a break during games, they can give you a little more at the end of the close ones that the Raptors have been blowing lately. But they’ll almost definitely give you more through April, May and, if you’re lucky, June. That is, after all, when the games really matter.

As for the games now? It doesn’t not matter, but this is the time to struggle a little bit and to get a little angry and to have ideas and to remember, if you needed to, that isolating DeRozan does not win a lot of games. The Raptors should start playing good basketball again. I’m getting worried too, but they will start playing good basketball again.

They’ll get over this, and once they do, one would really like to think they’ll be better for it. If not, we can worry about bigger stuff then.

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