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Patreon Mailbag: An offseason review of sorts

Been a while for one of these.

With the dead of offseason upon us – I’m not going crazy unsure of how to use free time, not at all – I figured it was time to offer those who support the site via Patreon the smallest of gestures, in the form of an #RRMailbag. Now, I realize this is a fairly silly gesture, given I have never once not answered a mailbag question from any reader yet, but the wonderful people who support us deserve something other than my very conditional love and appreciation. 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 our Patreon page can be found 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 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 (using the hashtag insures I won’t lose track of the question over time, so do that).

Alright, let us get on with it.

Reader: It’s not really an article idea per say, and it’s hard, but with all the Canadians coming through the system maybe an ongoing pinned thing of like how RJ, Lindell, and any other upcoming possibly drafted Canadians are doing. Maybe like box scores of recent games how they are doing in ESPN draft rankings if they are projected to be drafted and a short blurb of how they’ve been playing. Nothing major just a quick ongoing hit on Canadians we can expect to hear from in the future.

Blake: I’ll talk to Zarar about getting some sort of tracker going on a subpage, though it’d probably only be as simple as their recruiting rank, and maybe the stat line for any NCAA players.

As for coverage of the national program in general, it’s something I’ve tried to ramp up over the last couple of years. Last summer, we covered pretty much all of the major events. This summer, we covered the boys U-19 finals, the senior women’s gold-medal game, Canada’s AmeriCup, and any Raptors in international play. We obviously can’t cover everything these guys are doing, but I’m committed to doing major U-19 tournaments and any meaningful games for the senior teams. As best I can, anyway.

I’ll see once the season gets going whether there are enough updates on players to warrant a monthly roundup post.

Reader: Not a question, but a request: Can you update the Instagram and Twitter feeds on your page with the new team members and sub out the old ones? That would be appreciated.

Blake: Done! You can find the updated Twitter list here (or just follow it here) and the updated Instagram list here. (I’ll take the guys who don’t make the roster off later.)

Reader: Who fills the Cory Joseph sized void in Canadian advertising?

Blake: You’d have to think Kyle Wiltjer is angling for that as the lone Canadian presence on the team. It is kind of funny/weird how Joseph was basically in EVERY commercial during his time here. I get it, I just didn’t think local advertisers cared that much about it being a Canadian face. Since it doesn’t look like a Canadian will crack the 15-man roster, my guess is that Norman Powell steps into the marketing void Joseph’s left behind. He’s coming out of his shell a bit and is poised for a big year – advertisers should jump now while he’s still affordable and willing to do, I dunno, like, Maple Leaf Foods ads and stuff.

Reader: A way too in depth scouting report of the player whose useless rights we acquired for CoJo.

Blake: How dare you call the rights to Emir Preldzic useless? Who are you to doubt Emir Preldzic? This is a man who the Phoenix Suns thought enough of in 2009 to select him 57th overall, surely knowing he’d develop into a legitimate prospect over the years. Now 30, Preldzic has been traded in separate deals for cash, Antawn Jamison, DeJuan Blair, Stanko Barac, and, now, Cory Joseph. You don’t command those kinds of returns if your rights are useless.

(In seriousness, his rights aren’t entirely useless, as it’s helpful for teams to have the stashed draft rights to at least one international player at any given time. League rules stipulate that both teams must send something in a trade, and players like Prelzic or DeeAndre Hulett are helpful accounting chips.)

As for the player himself, he once sounded fairly intriguing. He’s a 6-foot-8 wing with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, was playing an important role at a young age for a high-end team in Fenerbahce prior to his draft year, and he looked the part of a potential point forward, according to draft reports from that time. He didn’t quite pan out to the NBA level thanks mostly to never developing 3-point range (until the last two years, anyway), but he’s carved out a really solid international career – he ranks in the top-40 all-time in EuroLeague games and minutes played and top-50 in total rebounds and assist percentage. Now with Galatasaray in Turkey, his offensive role is somewhat diminished and he’s no longer a member of the Turkish national team (he previously played for Slovenia, too).

I hope this is deep enough.

Reader: How does JV fit into the future of this team and by extension the NBA? Is this team better without him?

Blake: The team’s definitely not better without him. He’s not a perfect fit with Serge Ibaka or as a defensive anchor in the modern NBA, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still a good, useful player. He’s in a weird place where his most ardent supporters won’t be happy unless his offensive role increases dramatically (it should increase a little on dives to the rim and tricky cuts underneath but not necessarily in straight post-up volume) and his detractors won’t be happy unless he’s banished altogether. The truth is that he’s quite good in the defined role he’s played the last four years – score at a good clip on garbage buckets, set some of the best screens in the NBA, and rebound like hell.

Longer term, his contract being what it is and the team’s asset base looking as it does, he’s probably still not a lock to be on the roster for 2018-19. Unless the Raptors bid goodbye to Norman Powell as a restricted free agent or are fine with an enormous luxury tax bill, some salary will probably need to be shed, and they’ll probably test the market for Valanciunas as a result.

I’ll probably write about this more in the preseason. Until then: Valanciunas being shopped does not mean he’s bad, nor does him being imperfect or an imperfect fit. He’s an entirely useful player.

Reader: Did the team get better this summer? Additions vs subtractions? What are reasonable expectations for the team this year? Is Masai settling with this team? Good but not great? Is that not a contradiction of his mantra of not settling for mediocrity that he pledged when he first took the job? Is there a legitimate chance this team overcomes the Cavs in 7 games?

Blake: This is one I’ve kind of tackled over the course of all of the offseason coverage I’ve done.

Quickly, they’re probably worse at this moment than they were last year, but they have some potential upside baked in with a young back of the roster, and we still haven’t seen Lowry-DeRozan-Ibaka together much. They’ll be at roughly the same level as the last four years – good, not great, a gatekeeper to the second tier, and a team likely headed for a second-, maybe third-round exit if things break right. They’re not beating Cleveland barring injury, and they’ll be hard-pressed to make meaningful additions by trade. They are what they’ve been the last few years.

And that’s entirely fine. Sure, Ujiri said mediocrity wouldn’t be accepted, but I’d argue that building the best stretch in franchise history and turning the team from a bit of a laughing stock in competitive terms into a very well-respected organization is not mediocrity. Being good is good, and given the other options – compete with a half-dozen other teams to race to the bottom and hope to be this good again three or four years down the line – I understand why they did what they did. I understand those who wanted to blow it up for a chance at a better chance at the big victory, too, but all 30 teams can’t be in the two buckets of “tanking” and “true contending,” and the Raptors have chosen to continue to build organizational equity and stay competitive for the next two, maybe three seasons.

Reader: It seems every team has spent up to the tax this summer. What will be the consequences of the ludicrous contracts handed out the last 2 offseasons? How does this affect the raptors? What does the raptors cap sheet look like with their core locked up for the next 3 years?

Blake: I went pretty in-depth on how the shifting market factors caused a greater financial crunch than expected for The Athletic this summer, but as a refresher: Basically, teams in 2016 operated as if the huge cap spike wasn’t a one-time deal, and while it wasn’t, the cap has plateaued much more dramatically than anticipated since that summer. The three- and four-year deals that were handed out all over are still on the books, and contracts with the maximum allowable annual raises are rising at a rate faster than the cap, taking up a greater proportion of it. The market was cool for a lot of guys in 2017, and the way the free agent landscape projects for 2018 is likely worrying a lot of potential free agents (and teams who could have substantial luxury tax bills).

For the Raptors, the biggest impact was the market for bigs turning, making what was once a solid deal for Valanciunas look difficult to move. DeRozan’s contract is at least smoothed out evenly, but Lowry and Ibaka will take up a greater share of the cap moving forward. Those four have a combined $96 million committed to them for next year, and that’s before factoring in any deals for Powell, VanVleet, Nogueira, and Caboclo, all of whom are restricted free agents. That the team doesn’t have any draft picks in 2018 makes this even more difficult, because there’s no (clear) supply of inexpensive labor on the way.

What this probably means is another summer where the team looks to shed some money somewhere, which is why I mentioned Valanciunas taking up permanent residence on the trade block earlier. It would be extremely difficult to keep the top three guys, Valanciunas, and Powell. It is possible, however, depending on what happens in the East landscape (read: with LeBron), and the Raptors may be toeing the luxury tax line for this year with a budget for the next two years in mind. (Hypothetically, they could have a three-year budget for this window, so avoiding tax payments and even receiving tax disbursements this year, when their ceiling is quite clear, could give them a bit of additional flexibility next year.)

In any case, it’s an ugly spot, and it’s one a lot of teams are going to be sharing. Teams with cap space can probably enter the summer looking to extract assets for taking on deals like the Nets did this year, and some free agents could seek shorter-term deals to re-enter the market in a more favorable environment.

Reader: Is Dwayne Casey a sitting duck/scapegoat if things head south this year? How do you feel about Masai sticking with him as long as he has?

Blake: I’ve been fine with Ujiri sticking with Casey. The only year I really thought he was in trouble (and should have been in trouble) was after the Wizards series, when the team seemed to quit a bit and there was no semblance of a defensive plan. At the time, though, it doesn’t sound like an obvious replacement was necessarily available (this is part of what I mean when I speak of organizational equity above – being a good enough franchise to attract high-end candidates). Casey has done a better job the last two years, particularly in terms of the general flexibility of his approach. He is imperfect, of course, but he’s not anywhere near as bad in the macro as some fans make him out to be because of the occasional highly noticeable micro (mostly: redundant end-of-game play-calling). He’s a really solid coach, just not an elite one, and there aren’t elite ones on the market right now.

As for how hot his seat is, you’d have to think it’s at least a little warm, even if it’s only because there’s nothing else the team can really try to change about this core if things go poorly. Ujiri has always been hesitant to make in-season moves, and I think that would apply to the coaching staff, too – it’s going to be hard to attract an outside candidate mid-season when they won’t have an offseason or camp to install their system, it’s probably too much turmoil to promote your G-League coach mid-season, and they’d probably just make Nick Nurse or Rex Kalamian the interim coach (both are good, mind you).

Historically, studies have found that mid-season coaching changes don’t have much of an impact once you account for expected regression. I don’t think it’ll come to this, and will once again be a matter to be pondered in the offseason. A June tradition.

Reader: Why can’t DeRozen improve his defense? I guess first, do the Raptors think his defense is that bad? They must not think its as bad as RPM does (-2.04), or they wouldn’t have given him an almost max contract. You hear about DeRozen getting to the gym early to work on his offense. Does he work that hard on his defense? If not, why not? Because of the obvious reason, that you can get an almost max contract without playing defense?

Blake: The Raptors are definitely aware that DeRozan is a poor defender. Casey has even joked about it in the past, and P.J. Tucker didn’t exactly hide his feelings about it. They surely know the player better than we can with publicly available data, but I’d be shocked if anyone tried to earnestly tell you he’s not a poor defender.

As for why, there are a few things at play, none of which excuse it. The biggest one is that DeRozan carries one of the heaviest offensive loads in the NBA, consistently among the league leaders in minutes played, miles run, usage rate, and free throws (a reasonable enough barometer for how often you’re hit). The Raptors probably don’t want him expending full effort on every defensive possession because they need him so much on offense, which is why he almost always draws the least dangerous perimeter player on the other team. Offense is also just a lot easier to work on in the offseason than defense, I think – you can do footwork drills, shooting drills, dribbling drills and the like on your own or with a trainer, but the only thing you can really do to improve your defense is work on your body/conditioning/athleticism, which he already (obviously) does. On top of all of that, some people are just poor defenders, prone to lapses or without the requisite defensive awareness (or whatever you’d like to call it).

Again, none of this excuses poor defense. DeRozan is big and exceptionally strong for a wing player, and he’s paid like a star. The Raptors need him to be better on that end of the floor, full stop, and he can be (not to the point of being a lock-down guy, but better, for sure). As for how you get a near-max deal while a poor defender, well, market factors, mostly. Buckets, and all.

Reader: Why doesn’t the NBA pay higher salaries for the G league so the good players stay and it acts as a farm system? If you look at the 905 players, many of the good players from last year are off to Europe. I assume because of salary. Couldn’t the NBA devote more money to the G league? Will the two way contracts help this?

Blake: First, they’re definitely heading to Europe for financial purposes. Even the guys who got bonuses for being in camp last year only made about $75,000, and while you can make up that money pretty quickly if you get a 10-day or a two-way deal, guys have to be realistic about their chances of doing so. You have a limited window to make money in your career, and the E.J. Singlers and Brady Heslips of the world can command high-six-figure salaries overseas.

Two-ways will help with this, for sure. A guy can earn nearly $300,000 on a two-way if everything breaks right for them, and those deals can also be converted to real NBA contracts at any point. It’s also two extra roster spots where other teams can’t sign your G-League guys away, which is huge from the team side (your investment in player development isn’t helping someone else).

It’s going to take time for the NBA to get the development system to where we’d like it, though. Not even all 30 teams have a G-League affiliate yet (2019-20 looks like the earliest this will happen), and the NBA is probably right to expand the system in modest increments. The union might also push back if teams get too much control over the NBA chances of prospects, as the AHL and MILB setups can sometimes withhold a player’s agency a little long. Still, I’m confident the G-League is growing fast enough and teams are realizing the importance of player development enough that within five years, everyone will have an exclusive affiliate and NBA teams will be able to focus on the long-term development of at least a handful of players, knowing they’ll reap the benefits.

And yes, base G-League salaries need to increase regardless. Hopefully the “G” sponsorship helps to that end.

Reader: Remember when Demar was going to sign with the lakers because he could get extra money by signing a Chinese shoe deal? I know the whole Houston connection- and Kyle used to have a deal but did it just expire and not get renewed when he came to the raps?  Will Toronto ever get that sweet Chinese shoe money?

Blake: Terrence Ross actually wears Li-Ning shoes, so the Raptors were getting in on that Chinese shoe money not all that long ago.

As for DeRozan, there was also speculation that going to the Lakers would convince Nike to give him his own shoe (not just the Kobe AD10 P.E. he got last year, which was exceptional). These factors absolutely exist, but I think they sometimes get overstated as the cycle of free agency looks for reasons to discuss potential drama. Right now, DeRozan remains Nike and Lowry remains adidas.

Reader: (There were a few similar questions about how the site operates, what our process is, whether Will is my real son or only adopted, how I go about writing a breaking news story or trying to break news, and so on.)

Blake: I’m not going to answer these here, but please know I took note of them and am trying to think of the best ways to answer without writing something naval-gazing. If those people who asked have more specific questions about certain elements, please feel free to follow up over email.

Reader: It seems to me that for the Raps to advance any further, they need at least the threat of three-point shooting.  How can they achieve some, given what they have to work with?

Blake: This is another one I wrote a lot about over the course of the summer. The answer is multi-faceted, but the big one is C.J. Miles, who is a phenomenal fit for the Raptors’ offense. They’ll also hope that DeRozan gets better, that Powell continues improving, that a full season of Ibaka helps, and that some of the other youngsters push to respectability. They’ll also talk a lot in camp about moving the ball more to create better open threes (I wrote about the “culture reset” not too far back).

A lot of it will be stuff you’ve heard before – the energy of the ball, not everyone can be the Warriors, can’t change who guys are, and so on. So skepticism is understood until the season begins.

Reader: Kind of an off topic question but will there be a raptors republic Fantasy Basketball league?  If so (I realize this is a selfish suggestion but…) would patreon contributors get first dibs?

Blake: Absolutely. I’ll be sending out invites for the Patreon fantasy league sometime soon, and making a post on RR for the public leagues around the same time. I finished 4th, 7th, and 9th (out of 20) in the leagues last year, but I would like to reclaim my title in at least one of them.

Reader: During the free agency period, there were a few good teams that would have been a good fit to pursue Kyle, like San Antonio. From what I understand, there was no sniff by anyone of consequence, which was not a knock on Lowry’s talent but perhaps a question mark on his alpha dog mentality to fit in or perhaps take a backseat to the coach and the system. I do not think Kyle would react well to a chewing out by Popovich that he regularly gives any of his players, including his stars. He generally gets his way with Casey. 

So, after this long explanation, does Lowry recognize that and take a further step in his development to address this, or does he still play out as if he knows best? The theme this summer was culture reset and this rests on Casey to change his style of coaching, his play calling and player mix (more Norm…PLEASE!) but Lowry is the biggest person that needs to buy in and change his mindset. He should have been a valuable piece to be pursued, but it did not seem to happen. Thoughts?

Blake: I haven’t spoken with Lowry personally since he re-signed (I was at Summer League when they held the press conference), but all indications are that Lowry knows where he can get better. He wanted a five-year max and, if not that, a four-year max, and while market factors were a big part of those deals drying up, it has to be at least a little humbling and motivating regardless.

Now, I’m not sure your characterization of him is entirely fair – he’s an emotional guy, for sure, and that can look a certain way and have a certain impact on a room, but he’s also usually a quality teammate and a respected leader outside of those moments. That doesn’t excuse it, and he can improve as a leader moment-to-moment, and that matters. I’m sure that was a big part of conversations between him and DeRozan, Casey, and most importantly Ujiri this summer, and I’m sure Lowry would like to do whatever it takes, on the court or off of it, to give them a better chance of winning.

On the court, Lowry probably doesn’t even need to change much. As a strong playmaker, a great pick-and-roll operator, and an elite shooter, he’s the most versatile offensive piece they have. (They did run their motion sets a bit more when he was out, but I’m inclined to believe that was out of necessity than any belief they don’t fit with Lowry.) Whatever style tweaks they make, he should be just fine. He’s very, very good.

Reader: Could the CoJo exception be used to facilitate Jonas-for-Carmelo? What about flipping Jonas for Brandon Knight to use the injury exception to open up space?

Blake: The traded player exceptions the Raptors have from the Carroll and Joseph trades can not be combined or combined with a player to take on even more salary. You can take back what they’re worth, plus $100,000. Useful tools, but they can’t be leveraged together for one major move. (The Joseph TPE could come in handy around the deadline, but my gut is that the Raptors will hold onto them until next July, when they could be much more valuable since the team won’t be subject to the hard-cap any longer.)

As for Knight, only the team a player is on when he gets hurt can apply for a disabled player exception for him. So if Phoenix deals him anywhere, that team won’t get any cap relief/exceptions. Only Phoenix can get that exception.

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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