It may not be a popular sentiment within the Toronto interwebs, but Raptors swingman Norman Powell has clearly demonstrated he does not deserve a starting role in the rotation. Let’s look at his most basic stats at face value. He’s averaging 9.0 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 2.2 apg and 1.2 spg on 23.8 mpg. He’s also shooting 41.9 FG%, 30.8 3P% and 83.3 FT%. For a starting SF (of a supposed top-tier Eastern Conference team) — irrespective of the minute count — those numbers are not inspiring and point to a multitude of issues. Powell came into this season fresh off a lucrative contract extension worth $42 million over four years. Thus far, fans and pundits alike have attributed his massive struggles to a multitude of factors.
Firstly, a brand new system being implemented. To be fair, Norm wasn’t and isn’t the only Raptor struggling in this ball movement-friendly scheme. Lowry has had his early struggles, while DeRozan at times seems to curl back and indulge into his isolating heyday of old.
Second, this was Powell’s third season — one that fans of many sports naturally deem the “take a step forward” season. In his third season, Dwane Casey placed on him a responsibility that all NBA bench players strive and claw for — a place within the starting five. That place became available after the departure of one of the most overpaid Raptors in franchise history, DeMarre Carroll. During the offseason, Toronto executed a sign-and-trade for sharpshooter CJ Miles to compete for that position. Long story short, the Raptors decided that Miles was better served as the ‘dad’ of the unusually young bench rotation, providing instant scoring ability off the bench. Norm hasn’t handled the massive amount of pressure that comes with being a starter very well.
And finally, those 42 million loonies. Players in any sport coming off big-money contract extensions (relative to their respective role) give fanbases equal amounts of relief and distress. Just about everyone believed there was no reason for Powell to mail it in (like some athletes do as soon as the ink is dry) because… Well, that isn’t who Norman is. Plus, this is his first contract extension in the NBA. There’s still a ton of room for Norm to prove himself to the rest of the association. From an organizational standpoint, the extension was a calculated leap of faith. Masai Ujiri and Toronto’s front office knew Norman possessed an abnormal work ethic coupled with the raw tools to become a potential game-changer. The kid was always quiet, but worked like a madman.
Let’s make this clear, nobody is disputing the contract extension handed to Powell. It’s far too early to critique the front office decision-making in this case. What I am disputing is the notion that Powell should continue to start beside the four other entrenched Raptors starters. For the advanced stats crowd, Powell is sporting a PER or Player Efficiency Rating of just 11.6 (down from 14.0 last season — league average is 15.0), and a PIE or Player Impact Estimate of 6.3 (down from 8.7 last season). One faint ray of light is Powell’s increased plus/minus from last season — 2.2 up from 1.1. Although that is a positive sign, it’s not a large enough discrepancy where it forces you to question all the other statistics that point to Powell’s down year. Moreover, Powell’s three highest recorded plus/minus games this season came versus the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trailblazers — recording a +17, +14 and +11 respectively. Individually, he played atrociously in those games, recording a combined line of 13 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists on 4 for 20 shooting. This further proved that in these games, the Raptors played well in spite of him rather than because of Powell.
So what’s the solution, you may ask?
Who steps in and embraces the starting small forward role?
If you ask me, it’s Raptors rookie OG Anunoby. Keep in mind, we’re in mid-November and initially, this was supposed to be the time where we’d see Ogugua making strides in his eventual return to basketball. As most of us generally know, rehab for ACL tears are grueling — especially for young athletes. Anunoby has shown thus far in the season he can be a genuine difference maker for the Raptors now — not next season, or the season after — but now.
Most Raptor fans knew what tools they were getting when Anunoby’s name was announced on June 22nd, but didn’t expect immediate return on investment. That’s exactly what OG has brought to the Raptors rotation — instant impact in the form of defensive versatility, cutting, hitting open shots, brimming athleticism and most importantly for Toronto, generating complete havoc on defense. Unlike most rookies, he rarely looks out of place on the floor, quickly becoming one of Casey’s trusted rotation players. Anunoby’s skillset and personality would fit perfectly beside Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka and Valanciunas. It allows him to take on the best offensive wing player on a nightly basis, and puts him squarely in a ‘PJ Tucker’ role offensively — cutting to the basket and hitting wide-open three when need be. Shooting an impressive 37.9 3PT% this season, that shouldn’t be a problem for Anunoby. Neither should stepping into a starting role for Toronto while teammate Norman Powell takes a backseat — focusing on getting back into a rhythm.