Blake Q&A

Raptors Mailbag: Cavaliers fallout, big-picture questions for 2017-18, and more

Flat earth, speedos, dead cat valets, and everything else you need to know.

We’re all basically sitting on our hands until late September now, barring some minor moves, and so I figured an #RRMailbag to pass the time and recalibrate for the rest of the offseason was a reasonable idea. We’ll continue to try to do mini-mailbags when time allows during the offseason, at least until they draw repetitive (spoiler: they probably will immediately). You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here, if, for whatever reason, you wanted to read old mailbags.

Before we go ahead: A reminder that we have a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. If you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do (and try to do even more). You can also follow me on Twitter for, uhh, tweets, and on Facebook for all of my writing/podcasting/radio stuff. Validate me. You can also ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between.

Alright, let’s get this money.

Cavs fallout

Cleveland’s margin for error would definitely shrink in that scenario, but I’m not sure the downgrade from Kyrie Irving to Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, and Kay Felder (plus a lot of time with LeBron James as the de facto point guard) swings a four-game sweep to a seven-game loss for Cleveland’s perspective. Simply removing Irving closes the gap and makes it more likely Toronto could upset them, but Cleveland’s also going to get back a fair amount for Irving, from the sounds of it. I’d even argue that some of the proposed frameworks – which are just hypotheticals and might be overshooting Irving’s value – make Cleveland a little better in a one-year window.

We’ll have to see exactly how it shakes out. I think the biggest takeaway from all of this, from Toronto’s perspective, is the instability of the Cavaliers right now. It seems more and more likely James could leave in 2018, and that Cleveland would be in disrepair if he did. Part of the Raptors’ decision to keep the core together was based on the idea that things can change quickly in a conference’s power structure, and that’s more obvious now than maybe ever, with a secondary star trying to orchestrate his way off of a roster with LeBron freaking James.

I would be surprised if there was a name that hit the market that Masai Ujiri didn’t make a call on. It’s his job. I doubt the conversations got very far, though – Cleveland reportedly wants a young player who can contribute now, another rotation piece that can help, and picks. The Raptors can’t put that package together, and they shouldn’t.

The Kyle Lowry question is a more interesting thought experiment in a similar way to the DeMar DeRozan-for-Paul George was. The logic would go something like this: The Raptors would get younger and be paying less, while the Cavs get a similarly capable shooter and someone perhaps more willing to play that No. 2 role. But Lowry’s salary being $11 million or so higher than Irving’s would be tax hell for Cleveland and they may not want to invest three years into someone with the James uncertainty, and the Raptors would be cutting their window short a year and locking in to being a pretty terrible defensive team (you can argue for either Irving or Lowry in a vacuum, but I think the Raptors are better with Lowry based on construction). And if the reports of Irving’s reasons for wanting out are true, he probably wouldn’t love sharing touches and attention with DeRozan, anyway, though it’d be a fun and dynamic backcourt.

The amount that people seem to still want to trade Valanciunas, not value him at all, and think he’d be a useful piece in multi-team scenarios that land the Raptors another big piece kind of astounds me. If Valanciunas could help you land a player like Kevin Love, Valanciunas would be gone by now. He’s a useful player, but I can’t fathom a scenario in which a team is trading a star and is okay with Valanciunas as the return, and the Raptors don’t have much for sweetener – they can’t afford to lose Norman Powell, none of their prospects will move the needled a ton, and they can’t trade a pick earlier than the 2020 draft. On top of which, they don’t have the financial wiggle room to eat extra salary.

As I’ll write a bunch in February, I’m sure, the Raptors are not built particularly well for trades the rest of the season. Those traded player exceptions could be huge in early July next year, but they’re probably not going to be in the mix for any huge names that hit the market until that point. (Unless Ujiri works some magic, an always necessary caveat.)

Big-picture questions

I’ve had some readers tell me I’m way too optimistic about this roster and that I’m way too pessimistic about this roster, so I’m feeling pretty medium. I think my take on the moves and the current construction is colored a bit, because I’ve been expecting the offseason to play out this way for a while. Basically since the trade deadline, I’ve been trying to warn that the kind of cost-cutting moves we’ve seen would be necessary if the team was going to retain Lowry and Serge Ibaka and that it’d be tough to fortify this summer. Other than losing P.J. Tucker, things have more or less gone to form.

Instead of comparing this roster to the start of 2016, let’s compare it to how 2016-17 played out (sorted by minutes for last year):

Shift guys around as you see fit, and the five traditional positions are obviously a bit outdated, but you see the point. The Raptors are losing a third-season of Tucker, two-thirds a season of Terrence Ross, three-quarters a season of Patrick Patterson, and a full season of Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll. In their place, they’ll hope for better health for Lowry and DeRozan, get an extra two-thirds a season out of Ibaka, add a full season of C.J. Miles (they should probably only bet on 70 games or so), and hope like hell their young players are ready to step into more meaningful roles. The biggest things that stand out here are a lack of shooting and high-end defenders. The shooting they might be able to cobble together with more ball movement, development from their young players, and simply a greater willingness to shoot them. Defensively, though, it’s hard to look at this roster and see how they wind up back in the top 10 at that end.

The roster today isn’t as good as the one that closed the year last year, but it’s on par with the one they started last year with. The amount of youth on the roster could make for some bumpy stretches, but it also creates some room for upside. They’re probably fighting for the title of third-best regular-season team in the East on paper right now.

I don’t think MLSE would have any issue eating money still owed to Dwane Casey (which is about $12 million over two years). I get that dead money looks a certain way, but it’d be strange management to commit to spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $350 million over this three-year window and then shying away from losing a few million on a coaching change.

With that said, I would say Casey’s seat is only warm, not hot. The Raptors committed to keeping with him, and Ujiri does not seem the type to favor a mid-season coaching change, when options are incredibly limited and, historically, most of the post-change improvement teams see can be chalked up to regression. Jerry Stackhouse was surely a candidate to take over had the Raptors gone in a different direction this summer, but a mid-season coaching change where a coach not even on the NBA staff gets promoted without the benefit of a training camp to install a system, where Raptors 905 have to find a new coach, where Nick Nurse and Rex Kalamian are jumped over…it all just seems like instability that’s antithetical to how the Raptors have been run.

Casey’s a fine coach. I was a little skeptical of keeping him at the helm while trying to execute a “culture reset,” but they’ve made that decision and shouldn’t be too reactive out of the gate as the Raptors try to navigate those changes (if they make them). It’s more a mid-season story than a pre-season one.

Gosh, Blane, do you want the Raptors to blow it up? Why have you never said so?

The Raptors committed to this core for three years. But they’ve maintained a pivot foot by keeping all three of their big pieces on short-term deals that should be movable and by keeping the roster flush with youth. I can’t really fathom a situation in which they blow things up before the 2019 trade deadline (trading their 2018 picks sends a pretty clear message about the near-term commitment), and even then, I don’t think they’d really give up on things before the summer of 2019 unless disaster struck. If you want them to blow it up in Year One of a three-year re-up, you probably need to hope they miss out on home court and get pretty decisively throttled in round one.

(If you were pro-tanking, it might be worthwhile to just set that desire aside for a year or so. They’ve made their decision, and it’s going to be a really boring and frustrating season if your response to every win, loss, injury, or move is anchored in wishing they had blown it up. Be a fan however you want to be a fan, but you’re not getting your wish for a couple of years.)

To recap: The Raptors tried to shop Valanciunas for financial relief, found teams only willing to take him for free rather than giving assets back, and decided to unload other salaries instead. The fit is not perfect, but Valanciunas is a useful piece, the Raptors like him, and they’re not going to give him away, especially now. The financial gain of trading him at this point is more limited (it would still help with 2018 flexibility and open up the option to use one of their trade exceptions, but it’s not as if they could make a big free agent splash suddenly), and having Valanciunas is significantly preferable to having nobody in that spot. They’ll probably keep their finger on the pulse of the center market to see if things change and they might revisit things next summer, but Valanciunas is a Raptor for now. It would only really make sense to trade him at this point in a “basketball trade” that better balances the roster and makes the team better – you’d need someone back who can play in the rotation for you.

I know I was a proponent of shifting Valanciunas to the bench role in the playoffs last year, but I don’t think that makes a ton of sense over 82 games. You’re not trying to maximize every minute from October to April, you’re trying to maximize 48 over 82. And bringing Valanciunas off the bench, while likely a nice fit for him, threatens your depth a bit. Start Ibaka at center and the team is woefully thin at power forward and Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira are buried on the bench. Starting Poeltl over Valanciunas might make some sense defensively, but Valanciunas is an elite rebounder and screen-setter, and the offense would take a hit for that gain. You could sell me on that – the idea of staggering Lowry and DeRozan so that each bench unit has Valanciunas to help the offense and where his defensive limitations are masked against inferior opponents – but Valanciunas is still good, and he and Ibaka spent almost no time together when Lowry was also healthy. Starting Ibaka at center the way the roster is currently constructed just doesn’t feel like the right allocation of players, even if individually he’d be best off there.

As for Valanciunas’ numbers, I think they’d probably be about the same in a bench role. His usage rate was 20.5 percent with both stars on the court last year, 18.6 percent with only DeRozan, 25.8 percent with only Lowry, and 24.3 percent with neither. His overall usage rate was more or less in line with his career norms, and his efficiency was fairly similar. You can definitely make a case for a higher usage rate in a bench role (or even just with the rotation staggered such that he sees more time with the second unit), particularly if he improves as a passer. He’s not going to see this massive usage spike, though, and most of his points are still going to come from offensive rebounds and rolls to the rim.

Do I buy a team talking up their own player? Considering just two months ago they were doing the same about Carroll, umm, no. There are reasons to be optimistic about Valanciunas because he’s a young, talented player with some elite skills. He’s also been more or less the same guy for a while now, save for some skill progression. I’m not sure how much he could fundamentally change his body, quickness, or ability to read the game at the defensive end, but he can probably continue stretching his range out, improve as a passer, and get back to his 2014-15 levels posting up. He’s still young – he should probably come back a little better.

As for what shape he’ll be in, it’s hard to say. Up until last summer, Valanciunas didn’t really have a bad reputation for this – his Lithuanian coach questioning his commitment and then Valanciunas taking some time off and coming to camp with a few extra pounds around the midsection definitely looked a certain way, but it seems like it’s been retrofitted to his earlier years, when he did a great job of bulking up quickly and was instrumental for his national team. This is Valanciunas’ 11th consecutive summer playing for Lithuania in international competition, and he’s played about 900 extra minutes in those tournaments since being drafted. He takes some time off after the season, for sure, and he should probably have a better August and September than he did last year, but the idea that he’s not committed to basketball has always struck me as disingenuous (and that coach was promptly removed from his post, by the way).

This is a really interesting question and a tough trade-off for the Raptors to manage. Assuming the rest of the starting lineup is Lowry-DeRozan-Ibaka-Valanciunas, you’re left with a difficult choice: Insert your best wing defender and tertiary attacker but be light on spacing, or insert your best shooter and be really light on defense. Miles is an adequate defender but not what you’d call a good one, and DeRozan is DeRozan on that end. Starting Miles would give the offense a ton of breathing room, but that’s a lot of Miles or DeRozan guarding elite scorers. If I had to guess right now, my money would be on Powell for defensive reasons. He’s also earned a chance to run with a bigger role (he’s going to play 30 minutes a night regardless of whether he starts or comes off the bench), and if he and DeRozan both improve as shooters, the Raptors’ offense might be a little more dynamic with the extra slashing and moderate shooting.

DeRozan has played some point guard the last few years, anyway, the team just hasn’t called it that. The DeRozan-and-bench groups had DeRozan initiating instead of Joseph plenty, and even Lowry spent plenty of time spotting up off the ball when the stars shared the floor. DeRozan held the ball nearly five seconds per-touch last year and was fourth among all non-point guards in average time of possession. Casey’s comments, to me, just seem to indicate they’ll continue testing the boundaries of that set up and maybe give DeRozan more opportunity as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (if his passing in the pick-and-roll can improve, that would be big). I doubt there will be many minutes spent with DeRozan as the nominal point guard without one of Lowry/Delon Wright/Fred VanVleet, but he’ll run the offense plenty.

I expect all of my sweet young boys to make enormous improvements. (It’s actually a hard question to answer because young players are supposed to get better and we won’t really know how much of their “improvements” are just from getting more playing time, but a random guess: Wright comes back as an average 3-point shooter.)

As for Wright at the three, I’m skeptical we’ll see it much. That happened some last year because the Raptors had such exceptional point guard depth and were thin everywhere else. That won’t be the case this year, and while VanVleet is a nice player and could infuse some additional shooting, it’s hard to think of a scenario in which the Raptors would go with three point guards (that would mean at least two of DeRozan, Miles, and Powell are on the bench, and those are all good fits in a four-out unit). Wright will probably play in two-point guard lineups plenty and he has the size to defend some wings. He’s a nice, versatile piece, and I’m excited for what he’ll look like in a bigger role.

Lower in the rotation

Nogueira’s in a bit of a tough spot. His advanced metrics last year were really strong when he got to play and he’s the most unique and dynamic of the centers on the roster. He’s weirdly in a place where I would absolutely like to see him play more, but I understand why he doesn’t – he’s inconsistent, they’re invested in Valanciunas and Ibaka and Poeltl, and Poeltl hasn’t done anything to lose the job since taking it around the All-Star break. The team will probably call the backup center job a competition in camp, but it’s Poeltl’s to lose (Nogueira has lost 12 pounds and is down to five-percent body fat, for whatever it’s worth).

As for dealing him, I could see it, but not necessarily to balance the roster specifically – the Raptors can’t add even a minimum salary right now without pushing across the tax line, and with a $2.95-million salary, Nogueira’s probably the guy the salary they could unload easiest if they needed an extra shred of wiggle room. I’m not sure he gets you a rotation player back. Giving him away would be tough – you need three centers over the course of the year, and Nogueira is good! He’ll be a restricted free agent next summer, but if the RFA market this year and cap projections for next year are any indication, it might be tough sledding for him (and the Raptors might want to keep that option open in the event they eventually deal Valanciunas). There’s no rule that you have to deal all pending free agents or have X number of players at each roster spot. I’d be in no rush to unload him unless it helps facilitate something meaningful.

I think Bruno Caboclo will get some minutes this year. He’s done two seasons in the G-League now, and while he’s still young and not a finished product, the Raptors will probably want to see how he looks against NBA competition at some point. He slots into the depth chart as maybe their fourth wing or third power forward right now, and I think power forward is where he’s best off – he’s done a great job adding size over the last few years, and he’s looked better there than on the wing with the 905. He can probably defend either forward spot – I actually think Caboclo’s defense would be something close to fine in the NBA right now, with the usual caveats of inexperience – but at the four, his offensive limitations are harder to exploit.

If he could come in and give the team 11th- or 12th-man minutes, with some 905 time sprinkled in to keep him growing, I think that’s a logical progression for him at this point. Remember: This was always a four-year experiment, he’s still only played maybe a year-and-a-half worth of professional minutes, and he remains very young. The situation, the contract, and the draft pick color things, but Caboclo would be pretty intriguing if he were stripped of that context and looked at in a vacuum. Maybe it doesn’t work out. It’s way more fun to root for Caboclo to figure it out and wind up a decent bench piece, and there’s a path to that if things click a bit this offseason.

I’m not sure Kennedy Meeks will factor in much at the NBA level. They’re clearly intrigued, and the team thinks he can eventually be a power forward if he continues to work on his body (his shot is much nicer than he ever got to show at UNC). That’s going to take some time, though, and there’s no clear path to minutes at the center position while he makes that transition. Macolm Miller is more interesting because the two things he does well – shooting and defending – are in high demand on the roster. The ankle injury is a tough break and he probably won’t get to make a case for time during Raptors’ training camp, but with his length, positional versatility, and malleability in terms of role at both ends, it’s not that difficult to see Miller playing a role at some point.

(As a reminder: Two-way players are allowed up to 45 days on the NBA roster, plus any time before G-League training camp and after the end of the G-League regular season. That time does not count toward the cap/tax. Two-way deals can be converted to regular NBA deals at any time, and then they’d count for cap/tax purposes.)

As currently constructed, the Raptors have 13 guaranteed contracts, one partial guarantee (Alfonzo McKinnie), one two-way (Miller), and one Exhibit 10 (camp deal with a bonus if he goes to 905; Meeks). That means they have four roster spots left for training camp – you can probably bank on another two-way and at least one more Exhibit 10, and they’ll probably push the camp roster to the full 20 as they get longer looks at guys, whether it be on non-guaranteed deals, Exhibit 10s, or whatever.

As for specific names, it’s pretty hard to guess on the non-guaranteed market, because there are just so many names and teams. Jordan Loyd is probably the most likely from the Summer League roster to get an extended look (the 905 would have to acquire his rights if they wanted him there after camp). I know the Raptors had moderate levels of interest in a handful of undrafted free agents and holdovers from their free agent mini-camp, but Dan Tolzman and company have always liked to let that market settle a bit after grabbing the guys they really liked. We’ll probably hear some of these names in the next couple of weeks.

As for Melvin Ejim, I’d love to see him get an NBA look at some point, but he just signed a new deal overseas.

Outside of those fliers, the Raptors could try to sign a veteran to fortify the roster. That veteran would either push the team slightly into the tax or replace McKinnie as the 14th man (McKinnie has only a small guarantee and could be waived after camp if the Raptors are set on avoiding the tax). The names remaining are pretty uninspiring – I don’t think I’d even burn the bi-annual exception on any of them and would shop just at the minimum. The Raptors probably can’t get in the mix for any of the notable restricted free agents (their teams would just match the offer sheet), and while they have trade exceptions available to facilitate sign-and-trades, it would seem unlikely this late. Among the names out there are Arron Afflallo (no longer the defender his reputation suggests but a great shooter and decent fit), Gerald Henderson, Tony Allen, Dante Cunningham, and a bunch of guys who either don’t shoot, don’t defend, or don’t fit. I’m probably missing some names, but it’s an uninspiring list.

Miscellaneous

Training camp begins the fourth week of September.

I’m not clear on exactly what this question is asking. If it’s just the worst player in the NBA that I think will get regular rotation minutes, it’s a tough question, because many of the “worst” players in a given year are young guys that it would seem unfair to hit with that designation just yet. I don’t really feel like being this negative.

Seattle is definitely at the top of the list. And now that Las Vegas has an arena and that infrastructure (as bland as it is), they’d probably be on there – I’ve always felt the NBA made more sense there than the NHL from a spectacle perspective, and the league already has some roots there with Summer League. I’d probably throw one Louisville’s way, given the love for basketball in that general area, though there are market size concerns. I know people probably want me to say Vancouver as the fourth, and it’d be on the table, but I just gave the Pacific Northwest a team back, so I won’t lock that in. The fourth would probably be between Vancouver, Mexico City, and maybe Kansas City/St. Louis, depending on where the first three land. Heck, given Chicago a second team. I don’t know.

Yes. I’m not sure why it’s never gotten more buzz or traction, but with the infrastructure in place and the sport growing here, I don’t see why there wouldn’t be one sometime in the future.

I haven’t been watching anything other than the matches I’m told I have to go check out (it’s just too much wrestling, even for me), but the handful I’ve seen have been awesome, and I’ve read the results from each night. As for a prediction, there are so many different ways it can go, it’s hard to peg down. The markiest part of me wants Kenny Omega to win it again so we can get Omega-Okada III (technically IV because they’ll meet in their G1 block) at WrestleKingdom (with Omega-Ibushi as the G1 final!), but there’s also the interesting Omega-Cody Rhodes story bubbling, the Naito-Okada storyline that’s been building for years and would conclude really nicely with a Naito G1 victory setting that match up, and some other stories they could tell going with a non-Omega/Naito winner (Ishii shocking the world only to later lose the briefcase might make him the most sympathetic babyface in the company). If I had to guess, I’ll go Omega over Naito.

Sadly, we have two months and probably 20 of this exact same mailbag until then.

As a reminder, if you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, we’ve started a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. Any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do, and try to do even more.

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