After starting their 2017-18 campaign off with a pair of rousing home victories, the Toronto Raptors head out to face what will likely be their biggest test of the entire season: A six-game road-trip against some elite Western Conference competition, a two-week fire of adversity from which they’ll look to forge an early chemistry and their new offensive identity.
There is never a good time for a six-game trip, and really no good time to face teams like San Antonio, Golden State, and the entirety of the west playoff bubble. Getting it out of the way early is probably preferable, all things considered, and the Raptors will have the lightest travel schedule in the league from there on out. That’s hardly a comforting thought while it’s ongoing. This will be tough, and the Raptors are also working with an injured starting center, so after two fairly easy outings, challenges now abound. And that’s good. This team needs to be challenged early. It’ll be fun, and they’ll be better for it.
Things get going against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday. The game tips off at 8:30 on TSN 2 and Sportsnet 590.
Blake Murphy: The Spurs seem like they’ll always be good no matter what bad breaks befall the. With that said, Kawhi Leonard entering the season with tendinitis and limping up airplane stairs has to be concerning. 14-4 over their last 18 without him or not, Leonard dictates the heights this team can reach. He’s their MVP – a perennial MVP candidate – and he’s their ceiling. What is your level of concern as Leonard ease’s into the season?
Gareth Gibbins: Zero. Zilch. Nada. This is the luxury that comes with being a Spurs fan as Popovich excels when the team is not a full strength. Kawhi’s injury will open up some minutes for others to step up and establish a role for themselves early in the season. While Kyle Anderson, who started in the Spurs’ first two games of the season, remains a question mark, Kawhi’s absence presents him with a huge opportunity to earn a regular spot in the rotation for the remainder of the year. With more minutes to go around we might also see the plethora of guards on the Spurs roster get more burn if Pop decides to go with some small ball lineups. I am intrigued by the possibilities.
On a side note, the social media storm following the video of Kawhi hobbling up the stairs to board the plane to Chicago was hilarious. In about 15 minutes Twitter went from “it’s the end of the world” to rationale explanations like “Kawhi had treatment on his leg right before boarding the plane”. You have to love NBA Twitter!
This answer does come with a disclaimer – I will admit that if you are asking me the same question when the Spurs and Raptors play again in January, my answer would be markably different (*starts praying to the basketball gods*).
Blake Murphy: Despite rumblings that he maybe wasn’t entirely happy in San Antonio, LaMarcus Aldridge agreed to a three-year, $72-million extension with the Spurs that will keep him on the roster through 2021, barring a trade. What was your reaction to locking in a good piece on what seems like a slightly risky deal?
Gareth Gibbins: It has been a bit of rollercoaster this summer when it comes to Aldridge and the Spurs. If the extension was signed before the pre-season started I would feeling a little sick to my stomach. That said, the heart-to-heart that Pop and Aldridge had at the end of the summer (Pop said 98% of the blame was on him) and the way Aldridge has approached things during the preseason has made me cautiously optimistic.
As the season tips off, I am even more optimistic. In the season opener Aldridge looked like a totally different player. In addition to moving with and without the ball, he was not forcing the action while at the same time taking control and taking ownership of carrying the team with Kawhi out. Not only did Aldridge put up 25 points and 10 boards, he also had 4 assists and a game leading +15. True, it was just one game but a very positive sign to start the season.
If you are looking for some good reading on Aldridge’s new contract, one of the best articles I have read is by Mike Finger from the San Antonio Express-News who compared the Spurs and Aldridge to a married couple who, at the end of day, were better off sticking together than getting a divorce. Mike’s astute observations include: (1) the fact that the Spurs have had 67 and 61 win seasons with Leonard and Aldridge as their top two players; (2) although Spurs were scheduled to have cap room next offseason, Aldridge is the only “premier” free-agent who has ever signed with the Spurs (i.e., it was a gamble to bank on being able to sign on a top tier player); and (3) Aldridge’s contract is actually a “good” value when you consider he will make less than Paul Millsap (-$7 million) and Steven Adams (-$2 million) and barely more than Serge Ibaka (+$600k) and Ryan Anderson (+$2 million).
Blake Murphy: Every year, a Spur seems to come out of nowhere and prove himself an undrafted gem, an off-radar Euro find, or a reclamation project made good. Who will that player be this year, and does he look like me or is Alex Wong tripping?
Gareth Gibbins: While I am guessing this question was a lead-in for me to talk about Davis Bertans or Joffrey Lauvergne, I’m sorry Blake, you do not look like Bryn Forbes. 🙂
Signed by the Spurs last summer after two seasons at Michigan State, Forbes spent the 2016-17 season shuffling between the big league club in San Antonio and the Austin Spurs in the G-League (long live the D-League). Forbes averaged 23.4ppg in 19 games with Austin, shooting 50.2% from the field and 45.9% from deep. While Forbes playing time in the NBA was inconsistent he can go off at any time – as demonstrated by his explosion for a career high 27 points against the Mavs last April.
This summer I was in Las Vegas to witness Forbes 2017 All-NBA Summer League Second Team performance first hand. Forbes led the Summer League in scoring, averaging 26 ppg, and was a little bulldozer in the lane after noticeably bulking up after hitting the weight room. Since then I have been all in on the #SummerofBryn (and not just because I invented the hashtag!).
I am writing this response as the Spurs are playing the Bulls and Forbes has just checked in for some first half playing time which is a very positive sign for us members of the Bryn Forbes fan club. After his first basket, the Spurs play-by-play crew noted that Forbes has a green light from the coaching staff to fire away. Indeed, after one preseason game Becky Hammon remarked that “his light is very green” which has to be my favourite Spurs quote of the year so far. I recommend keeping an eye on Forbes as the season moves along.
Blake Murphy: Raptors fans reallllly want to make OG Anunoby-Kawhi Leonard comparisons. Even if they’re joking, a little part of them means it. Having watched Leonard over the years and now getting a glimpse at Anunoby, what similarities do you see, if any?
Gareth Gibbins: I admittedly did not catch much of the Raptors during the preseason but was at the ACC on Thursday for the home opener and I’m definitely looking for a seat on the OG bandwagon. That said, I’m not seeing the comparisons with Kawhi Leonard. At least not yet. The height and length is definitely there but Leonard is such a unique player both in terms of both his development over the years and the type of player he is today, dominating on both sides of the floor. If you haven’t seen his Jordan Brand commercial from last spring – The Kawhi Question: Could Kawhi get buckets on Kawhi? – run, don’t walk, and go watch it on YouTube! Raptors fans, myself included, can only hope that OG approaches Kawhi’s level of play.
The big question hanging over the start of this trip is obviously the status of Jonas Valanciunas. The team announced Sunday that Valanciunas “only” has a left ankle sprain, a bit of a relief after he was sent for a post-game MRI on Saturday night. The Raptors are only saying that he’ll be re-evaluated regularly, and the fact that the traveled for the trip is encouraging – he can probably be considered game-to-game. It would be a little surprising if Valanciunas is out there Monday, given he was still limping and swollen Sunday. If he can’t go, Lucas Nogueira would figure to start so that Dwane Casey can keep his bench rotation in tact. Nogueira, Poeltl, and smaller minutes with Serge Ibaka at center are nice contingencies for the loss of a starting center.
Elsewhere, K.J. McDaniels has been waived and Malcolm Miller and Lorenzo Brown have hung behind for the start of Raptors 905 training camp. Miller and Brown can only spend 45 days on the NBA roster between now and the end of the G-League regular season.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo
C: Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl
TBD: Jonas Valanciunas
905: Malcolm Miller, Lorenzo Brown
San Antonio does a nice job getting out ahead of injury statuses, and so we learned Sunday that Kawhi Leonard won’t play in this one. Leonard has been dealing with a quad injury and is yet to play this year, but the Spurs have continued their recent trend of dominating without him, beating Minnesota and Chicago early on. They’ve also been without Tony Parker, who is aiming for a potential return in December following offseason quad surgery.
Those injuries have opened up more time for the very exciting Dejounte Murray and long-time Summer League demigod Kyle Anderson. Anderson and Murray have both been problems helping on the glass so far, and the Spurs are a top-10 rebounding team at both ends early on as a result. The Spurs have also turned the ball over less frequently than any team in the league and rank in the top 10 in all four defensive four factors. Small-sample caveats certainly apply, and Raptors fans are well aware what kind of matchup the Bulls present, but this won’t be easy sledding just because Leonard is out.
PG: Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills, Derrick White
SG: Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Bryn Forbes Brandon Paul
SF: Kyle Anderson, Rudy Gay
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge, Davis Bertans
C: Pau Gasol, Joffrey Lauvergne
OUT: Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker
Austin: Darrun Hilliard, Matt Costello
The Spurs are 3-point favorites, a line suggesting the sides would be roughly equal on a neutral court. The over-under is 206.