Pre-Game

Gameday: 76ers @ Raptors, Dec. 13

Quick suggestion: If you ever run a blog, assign the early-morning weekend pre-games to your staff instead of saving them for yourself. That, or do them ahead of time. It is…early for a Sunday. Conor McGregor, though.

To force an analogy that doesn’t fit, the Raptors need to come out like McGregor on Sunday. Shorthanded all week, the Raptors have railed off three consecutive wins but tasked their eight-man rotation with a heavy workload in doing so. With a quick trip to Indiana for Monday kicking off a three-game road trip, the Raptors would be well-served to put the woeful Philadelphia 76ers away quickly, getting their key players some additional rest in the process.

That’s not something the Raptors have shown an ability to do. Despite their 15-9 record and eighth-ranked net rating, they’ve put a team away by half time just once. They’ve blown a couple of major leads only to hang on late, they’ve come out slowly against bad teams, and as a result there have only been two games in which Kyle Lowry’s played under 30 minutes (he played 29 in both). Toronto beat the Sixers by 16 in Philly on Nov. 11, but they surrendered a 34-point first-quarter and found themselves down until midway through the second, only turning to the bench with about two minutes left to play.

That’s a dangerous way to play, and as fun as it’s been that the Raptors can never be counted out against top teams, they need to figure out how to sweep the leg against bad ones. They enter as 12.5-point favorites Sunday despite the absences of DeMarre Carroll, Jonas Valanciunas, and possibly Lucas Nogueira, with the 1-23 76ers not posing much of a threat on paper. The games ain’t played on paper.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Andrew Unterberger of The 700 Level (and Spin!). He came correct.

Blake Murphy: We’ve talked plenty between us about The Process and how the year’s gone. But for the readers, what does the Jerry Colangelo addition signal to you, and where are you at with The Process overall?

Andrew Unterberger: There’s a bunch of plausible interpretations for the Colangelo addition — a PR move for the fans/media, a puppetmaster for Hinkie, a Process insurance policy — but I choose to believe that the Sixers’ intentions adding the legendary GM are mostly pure. Most likely, he’ll function as a senior advisor to Hinkie, he’ll talk to the fans/media when we need hand-holding, and he’ll help with the actual practical aspects of the “building” part of the rebuild. I think it does signal a certain degree of impatience with the Process, but considering we’re 1-23 in year three of our rebuild, having a finite amount of remaining patience is pretty goddamn understandable.

I’m a little bummed about it because on a theoretical level I still like the idea of seeing the purest version of Hinkie’s plan to its logical extreme, just because in purely scientific terms, it’s an experiment we may never get to see played out on this level again. But it’s more of a slight course correction for a bus veering wildly off the road than an entire new set of hands on the steering wheel. For now. I think.

Blake Murphy: The stagnation of Nerlens Noel and the somewhat uneven play of Jahlil Okafor have to be disappointing. Are you less optimistic on those two as building blocks than you were at the start of the year, or are you chalking this up to a non-representative early-season mess?

Andrew Unterberger: Nah, I’m plenty concerned at this point. Less so about Okafor — I thought it would take him the entire year to get adjusted to the size and speed of the NBA, so the fact that he’s been as productive as he has (minus the week or so after his Bad Night in Boston) has been a pleasant surprise. His lack of defensive awareness is alarming at times, and it’s a little hard to see how you build a high-functioning basketball team around him in the 2015 NBA, but he’s still only 19 and he can do some very, very impressive things.

Nerlens, I just don’t know about right now. I had such high hopes for his sophomore season, and his preseason and first week or two of the regular season seemed to justify my expectations. But due to some combination of nagging injury, poor fit with Okafor, and/or just general regression, he’s been awful for the last month — his post offense is horribly over-caffeinated, his timing on blocks, rebounds, and putbacks is totally out of whack, and his post defense has secretly been way worse than Jahlil’s. He still has his moments, but for every brilliant pass or strip on defense, there’s a rocket into the third row or a swing-and-a-miss on D that leads to a 4-on-3.

Both players still have near-franchise potential, but it’s seeming pretty unlikely that both will reach their ceiling simultaneously on the Sixers. If we had to keep one I still have more faith in Noel, but where a month ago I would’ve blindly signed him to a max deal, I now think he has to show some major on-court growth the rest in the next season-plus before he can be viewed as that kind of asset.

Blake Murphy: Conversely, Bob Covington and Jerami Grant look like real players. Ignoring that those two being the team’s BEST players is terrifying, how encouraged are you by their play so far?

Andrew Unterberger: Covington and Grant are both awesome. Neither is a franchise talent, but both are legit NBA players at this point. RoCo fits on any team — he doesn’t have a great first step, but he’s a great three-point-shooting wing (and occasional stretch four), he can handle and pass the ball a little bit, and he’s a very underrated defender. Grant is a solid outside shot away from being just as valuable, though his jumper is so wonky it’s possible he never gets there. Even still, he’s an elite perimeter defender and weakside shot-blocker, he’s a solid slasher, and he’s becoming an increasingly smart passer, too. Both would be hugely valuable on a contending team, and the best evidence of the Process’ preference for high-upside longshots over low-upside veterans being a viable free-agency system.

Blake Murphy: Kendall Marshall returned Friday, Tony Wroten was back last week, and T.J. McConnell has been a fun surprise. How many draft picks would you give up for a The Human Fly machine that could merge them into one good point guard?

Andrew Unterberger:I’d give up any two of our Lakers, Heat, and Thunder/Warriors-owed picks for a point guard that could combine the strengths of Marshall/Wroten/McConnell. A PG that had Marshall’s shooting and passing, Wroten’s legs and fearlessness, and McConnell’s rebounding and toughness would be a top five lead guard in this league, for sure. As is, no one of them is probably our future answer at the one, but all three of them would be dope backups if we ever did get a franchise point. Here’s hoping.

This one goes at 6 p.m. on TSN2. Happy Sunday, and good luck in the first round of your fantasy football playoffs.

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