Toronto Raptors await a special delivery as they play host to the Charlotte Hornets in their last game before the All-Star Break.
If misery loves company then the Toronto Raptors welcome the perfect companion to the Air Canada Center this evening in the form of the Charlotte Hornets. Both teams enter the night on 3-game losing streaks. Neither squad has relished 2017, with the Raptors registering a 10-14 record, and the Hornets suffering an even more abysmal 5-16 record.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room – -when I selected my Eastern Conference playoff seeds in the preseason I had no doubt the Charlotte Hornets would sit among the masterclass. (Bet you didn’t think that was where I was headed –don’t fret, we’ll get to that shortly).
Charlotte completed last season as one of only two East teams ranked in the top ten on defense (9) and offense (9). Cleveland was the second and the Raptors missed the defensive cut by one spot. Surely, this Hornets squad I thought, would be among the East’s major players in 2016-17. Defensive stalwart, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was healthy, the immensely talented Kemba Walker was ascending, plus critical free agents Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams had been retained. Moreover, Steve Clifford, one of the few coaches with no discernible weaknesses was back at the helm.
Despite maintaining thier core continuity, the Hornets have inexplicably floundered. Hey, it wasn’t as if I was out on a limb alone in this prediction. You would be hard pressed to find a reputable pundit who didn’t forecast success for Charlotte. Considering what was expected and where they are, from my perspective, the Hornets have been the most disappointing East squad to this point in the season. Still, the Hornets have been extremely adept at playing possum. Last season they went on a 2-10 streak to start the year before flipping a switch to turn their season around.
Comparing the teams’ efforts versus last season demonstrates how much offenses have ballooned in 2017. No doubt, the escalation of perimeter scoring plays a role, but the defensive end of the floor is also dramatically altered.
In 2015-16 the Raptors finished ranked fifth offensively (107.0) while the Hornets were ninth (105.1). Those levels this season would rank 13th and 18th respectively. In terms of defense the Hornets completed 2016 ranked ninth defensively (101.8), while the Raptors ranked 11th (102.7). In this new three-ball dominant era, these performances would place Charlotte and Toronto second and fourth on the defensive ladder. I bring this up to highlight how quickly the game is evolving, and the many facets of the game which have to be accounted for. And, while ‘old school’ fundamentals like field goal percent, assists and rebounding speak to consistency, ball movement and defensive aggression there is much more to consider in the modern game.
Hornets handed Raptors worst loss since Casey’s inaugural season:
It would be hard for the Raptors to have forgot their last meeting versus the Hornets when they handed Toronto their worst loss of the year (113-78). In fact, in the Duane Casey tenure the Raptors haven’t lost by this wide of a margin since his inaugural season.
Toronto did have major disadvantages entering the contest missing Patrick Patterson, Lucas Nogueira, and of course Jared Sullinger still wasn’t active. Not that Sully would have offered much assistance in stopping the mastery of Kemba Walker as he picked apart the Raptors lack of interior defense. When he wasn’t driving, he put Jonas Valanciunas through his paces in his least favorite activity of defending the pick and roll. The guards weren’t very successful at stopping the Hornets in transition either. By far, it was the worst game the Raptors have played all season. The irony is despite the big moves made Tuesday and a Patterson sighting at shoot around, there is no guarantee the lineup tonight will be any different then the one we saw last night in Chicago.
Changes in Rosters since January 20th:
Both sides have altered their lineups since their last meeting. The Hornets off loaded Spencer Hawes and Roy Hibbert to the Bucks in exchange for Miles Plumlee. In addition, the Hornets took the injured Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen off the Cavaliers hands for cash and a second round pick.
As for the Raptors – oh right, the other elephant in the room. Mr. Ibaka.
So, I’m chatting with a colleague yesterday on line who happens to always be in the know about trades. I ask him, “be straight up with me what are the odds the Raptors can get Serge Ibaka without giving up the farm?” He responds “well who would that entail for you?” My response was (and keep in mind this was at 11:00 AM): “Well if the Magician (Masai) could dangle one of the two first rounders, Terrence Ross and I guess we might have to throw in Fred VanVleet, though I love that kid, I think you’d have to call that a steal.”
Eight minutes later he messages me and asks if I’m psychic. Suffice to say I’m pretty amped about this trade. Serge Ibaka will afford our lineup so much more versatility and the defense should reap immediate benefits.
I played arm chair coach all day imagining the iterations of lineups the Raptors can utilize, and had visions of the block brothers: Nogueira and Ibaka clogging the paint, Jonas fulfilling a similar role to that of Steven Adams (albeit less so defensively but better offensively) and absolutely salivated over the prospect of Patterson and Ibaka in late game situations.
Is there now a depth issue at small forward? Absolutely. But, far less worrisome than the issues the Raptors have had at the four. Besides, I can’t very well keep chirping about Norman Powell needing to get consistent minutes and then complain when he will. It’s also reasonable to assume Masai Ujiri will still be looking to add depth back at the small forward position and in the form of a proficient shooter. My preference would be to target Al Farouq Aminu, who doesn’t necessarily meet the Raptors shooting needs, but he has a well developed skill set, is a character guy and is on a reasonable contract. Neil Olshey has to do something to lower the second highest salary, so why not take a stab.
Bottom line, I’m excited to see this squad on the floor, and equally pumped the break comes precisely at this moment. Beyond the Raptors needing to recharge, having a full week to get a jump start on working Ibaka into the system is a huge bonus.
Toronto Raptors vs. Hornets Statistical Comparison:
Review of the teams key stats pinpoints areas to focus on. Charlotte don’t turn over the ball, but they also rarely create steals. They are one of the poorest shooting teams from the field and from the perimeter. The key will be staying in front of Walker and forcing him and his cohorts to shoot. The area of focus will be rebounding where the Hornets rank second on the defensive boards.
As much as the Hornets have won just once in their last 11 outings (and that was against the lack luster Nets) this team is one that matches up well against Toronto’s deficiencies. Would that be a complete different story if Patterson and a certain big man are in the line-up – probably, but we can’t count on that. Another oddity, the tenth place Hornets continue to rank top ten on defense (7), despite not translating that asset into victories.
Downward Spiral Contagion:
Let’s be clear, our favorite team in red is definitely in a slump and the frustration has led to uncharacteristic mistakes, and losses of a nature fans haven’t witnessed since before the magical run began. There have been some extenuating circumstances over this period. Of the 14 losses Patterson has not been in the lineup for half. His absence has been especially difficult on team defense. Moreover, the bench has suffered with players flitting in and out of the starting lineup.
Presumably the switch to Jakob Poeltl came for one of a number of reasons: Patterson (or management) isn’t ready to bring him back yet, Sullinger isn’t in game shape yet, Siakam isn’t providing enough on either end of the court (can we please get him some time with Stackhouse and the 905, by the way) or perhaps it had something to do with the impending Ibaka deal. To wit, could Masai Ujiri be looking to feature players to pique GM’s interests for potential additional trades prior to the deadline. Read: let’s assume Ujiri may still be looking to add depth at the small forward position, and may be shopping some of the young assets for that purpose.
- Of the Raptors 12 back-to-back sets this season all but four of their opponents were awaiting them on one to three days rest. Charlotte like two other teams (Golden State, Houston) were sitting in Toronto awaiting the Raptors return. Side note: both games the Raptors played in Boston they were on the tail end of a back-to-back series with the Celtics resting. Although that has no relevance to the ‘Hornets, I thought it was an interesting tidbit to share given Boston now occupies the seed the Raptors had for the majority of the season.
- Of the Raptors 14 losses since the New Year, half have been by less than 3 points or lost in overtime.
- Kyle Lowry is playing the most minutes per game in the NBA. To that end, Delon Wright sure looked great in his brief stint on the court in Chicago. Here’s hoping for an expeditious uptick in performance with the revamped roster, so Raptors fans can see a lot more of Wright. Not only will an increase in playing time be helpful for Wright to gain in game experience, but his presence should allow Casey to rest primarily Lowry, but also Joseph.
Point Guard: Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
Shooting Guard: Norman Powell
Small Forward: Bruno Caboclo (see notes)
Power Forward: **Patrick Patterson, Jared Sullinger, Pascal Siakam
Center: Lucas Nogueira
- The past two games Casey has gone with Jakob Poeltl at the four, which is frightening specifically against Walker (and given Valanciunas pick and roll defense).
- Though we’ve witnessed Patterson on the practice court and looking fit, there is no update on if he”ll play or the team will choose to rest him through the break and get him as close to 100 percent (which no player is at this point in the season).
- The burning question on everyone’s mind is whether Serge Ibaka will be able to process through a physical, and required paper work in time to suit up. And, even if he does get clearance, it’s possible the Raptors will wait until after the break, so they can have him go through some practices with the team.
- It’s a stretch but could Casey be forced to utilize Bruno Caboclo (nah). But, with the lack of depth at small forward the young Brazilian’s growth under Stackhouse will undoubtedly draw more attention again. And, could Bruno himself recognize the window of opportunity has opened wider? It’s unlikely to transpire this season, but there is definitely more incentive for Bruno now that Ross is gone.
HORNETS STARTING 5:
Point Guard: Kemba Walker
Shooting Guard: Nicolas Batum
Small Forward:Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Power Forward:Marvin Williams
Center: Frank Kaminsky
Point Guard: *Ramon Sessions, Ray McCallum Brian Roberts
Shooting Guard: Marco Belinelli
Small Forward:Jeremy Lamb, Treveon Graham
Power Forward: Christian Wood
Center: Mike Tobey
- Miles Plumlee is listed out until after the break with a sore calf
- Ramon Sessons is listed as out until today, so he could suit up
- Cody Zeller played last Thursday after missing seven games in-a-row due to an injured quadricep, but he’s since missed the past two games and is expected to miss tonight’s match as per Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.
- The loss of Zeller is significant as per John Schuhmann of nbacom: “They’re 2-13 without Zeller, with one of the two wins being a four-point victory (on Tuesday) against a team (Brooklyn) that has lost 23 of its last 24 games.”
Recent History: The Hornets hold the all-time record 41-30. Over the past nine games which goes back to the 2014-15 season the Raptors hold the slight edge 5-4. Toronto’s most recent contest versus Charlotte resulted in the Raptors worst loss of the season (they lost by 35 points).
Referee Assignments: Sean Corbin (#33), Tyler Ford (#39), and Josh Tiven (#58)
The Venue: Air Canada Center, Toronto, Ontario
The Tip: 7:30 PM EST
Radio: Sportsnet 590 The FAN
The Line: The line opened with the Raptors favored by 6.5 points and over-under of 213 but dropped to 6.0 and 212.5 this morning.
Make sure to check back 75 minutes prior to game start for Blake’s News and Notes Game Updates. In fact, it would behoove you to stay in touch with Raptors Republic all day as Blake will surely be updating on the progress of Serge Ibaka through the process of arriving and any updates to his status.
Follow me on Twitter @TTOTambz and my facebook page Tamberlyn’s Tip-Off. When I’m not writing for Raptors Republic I’m passing my days as Editor for Thunderous Intentions as well as 16 Wins A Ring. My articles appear at both sites and coming soon, I’ll be relaunching my podcast at 16 Wins A Ring.