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Raptors Mailbag: Johnson, bench scoring, D-League usage, and more

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Happy Friday, everyone. And if you’re an American reader, Happy Thanksgiving. Plenty to be thankful for, not the least of which is content. And so on a relatively quiet Friday afternoon, I decided to answer some reader questions while I sit at the Mississauga Sports Complex waiting for Raptors 905 practice to conclude.

Let us.

Johnson, trades, and the 2nd unit

The Raptors don’t have much in the way of trade assets, something that’s exacerbated by the Knicks getting out to a good start to the season. They appear to be at least a fringe contender for a playoff spot, which would serve to decrease the value of the pick the Raptors are owed (which, as a reminder, could also be the Nuggets’ pick, as Denver has first dibs after the draft lottery).

Part of the issue with including so many prospects on the 15-man roster is that those players don’t have a great deal of value. Most teams tend to value their own assets more than other teams would, a bias known as the endowment effect. The Raptors have more information about their prospects, a better idea of where they are on the development curve, and perhaps a subconscious pull to see them through, lest they trade away an asset that ends up flourishing elsewhere. Young players also have small salaries, making it hard to work out deals for key contributors involving only a prospect and a pick.

So yes, if the Raptors are going to make a move, one of Patterson or Johnson would probably be included. The issue with Johnson is that his value probably isn’t very high, and his salary isn’t substantial enough for the Raptors to bring back a mid-level player in return. With Patterson, a team would have to be in the rare position of not competing this year but wanting to compete next year, as Patterson would eat into 2016 cap space. The availability of picks (the Raptors have four first-rounders over the next two drafts) makes this somewhat easier, but it’s pretty difficult to find workable trades for the Raptors, at least this early.

I wouldn’t put it past Masai Ujiri to make a move, probably one I’m not seeing as a possibility, but I think it would happen closer to the deadline, when more teams are sure of their 2015-16 outlook. This is a long way of saying “maybe, but I’m not optimistic.” 

I disagree that the bench offense is depressing entirely, because a lot of that had to do with Bismack Biyombo. Biyombo’s defense is important and valuable, but he’s a much better fit with the starters than the reserves, as there’s enough space and offensive talent to work around his shortcomings. Cory Joseph has struggled to run the team’s offense operating the pick-and-roll with Biyombo, especially without Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan on the floor, and that’s little fault of his own (look at how the Cavaliers defended Lowry on Biyombo pick-and-rolls late Wednesday).

Playing James Johnson in the post is still an option I agree with. I’ve been pretty vocal about a Patterson-Johnson frontcourt being an interesting small-ball front court duo the team could experiment with, and such a look would see Patterson stay outside while Johnson gets to freelance a little more inside the arc. The issue with post-ups, I’d anticipate, would be that the only lineups where it makes sense to give Johnson post touches would also be lineups in which he’s being guarded by a big man. It’s tough to send Johnson into the post when he’s playing the three unless Patterson’s on the floor and the team can invert the offense, too, as there aren’t enough shooters around him to maintain floor balance otherwise.

In any case, I think it’s something worth trying, if as nothing more than a chess move to throw a new wrinkle at an opponent.

No. Jordan is very talented. Biyombo isn’t on the offensive end, and he doesn’t have the hands or touch to warrant plays being run for him. Basically, how they treated him Wednesday was correct – he has to set screens because he’s the center, but he dives as a safety valve only, and you just hope he picks up enough trash around the rim to be a net-positive.

Joseph has been excellent, especially alongside Lowry, and the performance of the second unit isn’t entirely on him. His shooting percentage is probably going to come down to earth, but hopefully that’s met by a slight uptick in his 3-point percentage that helps make up some of the efficiency loss. Even if he’s not scoring quite as much, his forays to the rim have been incredibly effective and should stay as such – drive data suggests he’s Tony Parker-adjace in terms of scoring on drives, and even a bit of regression would have him in very elite company.

When it regresses some, though, bench scoring will be magnified as the issue it was expected to be before the season. As mentioned above, Biyombo’s a tough play with a second unit that lacks for offense, and it can put too much pressure on Joseph as a facilitator when head coach Dwane Casey takes both Lowry and DeRozan off the floor at the same time. So Biyombo starting may help the bench offense to a slight degree by forcing Casey to better stagger his substitutions and use more smaller lineups, but then the question you’re asking may become about the team’s leaky defense behind the point of attack.

Well, we’ll see, right? I think the biggest change to their playoff potential comes on the defensive end, where they’re far improved. I don’t believe that the axiom that whistles go away in the playoffs is actually true, and while DeRozan is a guy who can be game-planned for, there’s not a ton to do about a red-hot Lowry. The Raptors could use an additional shooter to help keep the ball moving and keep the drive-and-kick game effective. It’s kind of too early to answer this, as the answer lies in how flexible the Raptors are in changing their style, particularly with DeRozan late in games. I’m guardedly optimistic that their offense will be at least good enough to let the defense win them some games.

Lucas Nogueira

I’m going to leave the Johnson part of the question out, as we’ve covered it in pretty great detail this week. Check out this post and the links within for my thoughts on Johnson’s situation.

As for Nogueira, I’m skeptical he’s going to see much of a role, even with Jonas Valanciunas out. I’m not down on him as a prospect, even if he’s already 23, but I think his weaknesses are ones that Casey probably finds unacceptable right now. Namely, Nogueira is still adjusting to the team’s new pick-and-roll coverages. He’s a long, nimble guy who is well-served hedging on guards and contesting pull-ups, but unlike a year ago, that’s no longer what the system is asking of him. His instinct is to get out onto whoever is open, and the result in the D-League was occasionally that he’d lunge out at a guard taking a long-two, only to be put on his heels when the guard attacked the close-out.

There’s still room for optimism. He passes like few 7-footers can, he’s a quality rebounder, and his instincts around the rim on the defensive end are strong (despite grasping the new pick-and-roll scheme somewhat slowly, he remains a solid weak-side help defender). He can also step out nearly to the 3-point line.

Right now, it’s a case of a lot of little pieces not adding up into a total package yet. He isn’t exactly young, and I understand that people see “former ACB Defensive Player of the Year” and think he should be ready to play more. Maybe he is, but I think he’s going to have to show that to Casey in very small minutes to start.

Raptors and Raptors 905

I’m not sure the quality of Carroll’s looks have been quite good enough to suggest he’ll be back around the 40-percent mark, but it’s certainly possible. I’m planning to do a larger breakdown of where Carroll’s shots are coming from compared to his time in Atlanta, so I’ll have a better answer for you sometime in the near future.

As for Ronald Roberts and Anthony Bennett, I think Roberts may have more utility at the NBA level right now. I’m pretty high on him and think he could be an energy big on the end of someone’s bench. With that said, Ujiri was clear that the Bennett signing was not a one-year move but something with an eye toward his long-term development and potential. I think they’re committed to him for the season, and Roberts’ best shot at landing on the Raptors is if they make a two-for-one deal at some point and clear a roster spot.

I’ve written a fair amount about Wright this week – check this post out and the links within. To summarize quickly, I was pretty high on Wright at draft time and thought he might be able to contribute in small minutes right away. Obviously the team’s roster construction is such that they don’t need him to do that, but the 905 game was a good confirmation of what he is and might be: He’s funky enough to score in traffic despite not being the fastest or most athletic, he’s a disruptive defender, and he has plus court vision.

The big question for him is whether he’ll develop his shot enough to play off the ball with another point guard and whether he can add enough size to do the same on defense. I think the talent is there, but it’s tough to know how he’ll fare when he’s up against someone better than Brandon Fields.

Unfortunately, sending a player to the D-League doesn’t give you room to add another player. It’s not like the AHL or MLB where they’re off the active parent club roster once assigned, so sending three players at a time means the Raptors are out three players for games. With Jonas Valanciunas sidelined, assigning Norman Powell or Bennett would mean Casey has only 11 healthy players. That probably won’t matter most nights given how tight he’s kept his rotations, but it could matter in a blowout or if injury strikes. With that said, I’d expect those two and Wright to take turns making short trips like the one Wright is currently on.

Rap beef

William Lou is the center on account of being the only one with any size; someone mistakes his giant head for a basketball. We bring Garrett Healey back from Yellowknife to play the four. I take the role of James Johnson with a conscience at the three, hurting our floor spacing but trying really hard and banging into stuff. Sam spots up outside the 3-point line as the two-guard and never steps foot inside either arc. The Talking Raptors crew share point guard duties and argue over who should start. I have no idea how big Kiyan, Shyam, Matt, Andrew, and Michael are, but there’s your bench mob. Tamberlyn is a Steve Kerr-like shooting specialist who also serves as an assistant coach. Tim Chisholm coaches. Zarar is in the Stripes costume.

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