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Gameday Extra: Talking Wizards-Raptors with Truth About It

When the Toronto Raptors stood opposite the Washington Wizards in the first round of last year’s playoffs, Raptors Republic had the opportunity to do a few collaborative works with Truth About It, the ESPN True Hoop blog for the Wizards. (The year prior, we got to do the same with The Brooklyn Game and the most excellent Devin Kharpertian.) With the Wizards set to visit the Raptors on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., TSN 1/3/4), the gang at Truth About It reached out to rekindle those email collaborations.

What follows is a back-and-forth with Rashad Mobley from TAI, though I already regret immensely failing to ask him about Jarell Eddie.

Truth About It: William Lou, a good writer (formerly) over at Raptors Republic came out and said that Kyle Lowry is the best guard in the East. I realize I’m talking to two biased writers here, but support Lou’s argument.  And more specifically make the case for Lowry over Wall.

Raptors Republic: Lowry and Wall are very close, both in terms of overall track record and on the season so far, but Lowry’s deserving of the starting nod at the point in the East. (Even if it were dead-locked, tie goes to the host team, right?) As a stage-setter, a quick look at the catch-all metrics (which need to be taken with a grain of salt): Lowry is first in the East in Win Shares and sixth overall; Wall is 34th and 70th; Lowry is first in the East in Daily RAPM Estimate from Nylon Calculus, Wall is 13th; Lowry is second in the East in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, Wall is ninth. Again, these aren’t the be-all, end-all, but the fact that they all agree and see Lowry as the best player in the East so far (or at least the best guard) is telling, I think.

Looking at their individual production, Lowry owns a slight edge in points, rebounds, steals, turnovers, 3-point shooting, and free-throw attempts, while Wall has a significant assists edge and shoots better inside the arc. If you’re making the Wall argument, it’s probably that his assist production outweighs the slight edges Lowry has elsewhere, especially since Wall is probably a better defender (Lowry’s played generally strong defense this year but I’d suggest Wall is superior). Offensive efficiency metrics give Lowry an edge (PER, TS%, O-Rating), and while you’re mileage may vary with PER, everything seems to point to Lowry holding a statistical edge.

There’s also the matter of the Raptors being 19-12 while the Wizards are 14-14, a not unimportant consideration. Lowry’s been playing the best call of his career and has been (marginally) better than Wall while leading a better team. It’s close, and I love Wall, but Lowry’s been better so far this season.

Raptors Republic: The popular refrain around these parts is that Kyle Lowry has been the best PG in the East this season. His primary competition is in D.C. Convince me John Wall has been better.

Truth About It: If I start off by quoting Bill Simmons by saying, “Congratulations for getting in shape Kyle Lowry”, is that a cheapshot?

The point guard’s job is to run the team and lead them to victory, much like a quarterback, and using that unit of measure Lowry is better–there’s no dying that. The Raptors are first in the Atlantic Division, fourth in the much-improved Eastern Conference, and fifth in Marc Stein’s most recent Power Rankings. DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valaciunus have missed significant time, and it has brought out the best in Lowry, as he is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, steals and 3-point shooting percentage. But enough about him.

John Wall is averaging 19 points and 9.7 assists during the season, but in the month of December he’s averaging 22 points and 11.7 assists. Why is that significant? Bradley Beal has been out since December 9th, Nene hasn’t played since early November, and Otto Porter and Gary Neal have missed games here and there with injury as well. Marcin Gortat (averaging 17 points and 9.5 rebounds) has been the only consistent offensive threat at his disposal. When you factor in the injuries and the fact that the Wizards playing in a pace-and-space offense without a real stretch 4 (Kris Humphries is still learning the position and Jared Dudley cannot do it every night), it adds some perspective to the Wizards 14-15 record and them being 12th place in the Eastern Conference.

None of this makes John Wall better than Kyle Lowry right now, it’s just important to look at their respective situations, which tell as much of a story as the numbers.

Truth About It: Bismack Biyombo and his game have awakened, but Jonas Valanciunasreturns today after a 17-game absence.  How will this affect Biyombo, and what types of adjustments will Coach Dwane Casey have to make as a result.

Raptors Republic: I wrote a ton about this Monday, but Valanciunas’ return comes down to this: Biyombo’s filled in admirably, but the team is much better off with Biyombo playing the backup role he was hired to play. For all Biyombo’s rebounding and rim protection, the team has continued to struggle with him on the court, as playing 4.25-on-5 on offense is simply too taxing for the team’s ball-handlers and the driving lanes that become crowded for them.

Valanciunas is a far superior offensive player and opponents guard him as such, helping open up the game for his teammates. He’d also been playing much better than last season defensively before the injury, owing in part to a change in scheme. The Raptors were outscoring opponents by 9.4 points per-100 possessions with Valanciunas on the floor; they hung in well without him, but they’re in much better shape now that he’s back. All respect to Biyombo, who deserves a world of credit for helping stem the tide, but there’s little question he’s best suited for a backup role.

Raptors Republic: Bradley Beal looks the part of a good player. He also appeared to be changing his shot mix early in the season, or at least paying lip service to it. On scouting report alone, he should be “DeMar DeRozan with a 3-point shot instead of a few extra free throws.” Why has Beal still not taken the jump (he’s still average or below in most efficiency metrics), and how much of his plateauing can be hung on his injury struggles?

Truth About It: There’s no question that Beal’s injuries have hindered his ability to be greater. He missed three games earlier this season with a bad shoulder, and he’s missed nine games this month with a stress fracture. Everytime he falls, and gets up slowly, I cringe and wonder what’s going to be next.

That being said, regular season Bradley Beal is a far cry from playoff Bradley Beal, and that is the issue. He has averaged 4.5 3-point attempts and 2.8 trips to the free throw line during his three-year career and those numbers rise to 5.5 3-point attempts and 5.1 free throws per game during the playoffs. Playoff Beal is aggressive, a bit more fearless, and that style of play creates more space for John Wall, which is when he is at his best.

Against the Spurs in November, Playoff Beal was in full effect, when he lost Kawhi Leonard on a screen, passing up a long 2-pointer and stepping back to hit a game-winning 3-point shot. Everyone (including me) was ready to write that he had finally taken that elusive “leap”. But he’s also had nights when he scores just 11 points against 56 year old Kobe Bryant or he’ll shoot 6-for-19 from the field against the Cavaliers and not factor in the outcome of the game at all.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are two players who have taken significant leaps in the last two years, and part of it is their talent, but they also have great coaches in Popovich and Frank Vogel. Beal is every bit as talented as those two, and he’s demonstrated flashes in spite of Coach Wittman, not because of him. In his first two seasons, Beal played point guard with the backup unit when John Wall was resting on the bench, whilch hindered his ability to score. He’s shooting more threes (5.6) this year, and averaging a career-high 3.6 free throw attempts gettinThere is plenty of season left and Beal can still make the leap–especially since he’ll probably be angling for a max deal

Truth About It: Speaking of Casey, he’s goes in and out of the hot seat just as much as Coach Randy Wittman. Is he currently on the hot seat, and what does he have to accomplish this season to be “safe”?

Raptors Republic: It shouldn’t be hot at all. I’ve always leaned more pro-Casey than most (except for right after the Brooklyn series two years ago when my apartment walls were covered with scribbles of his name, Joe Johnson’s, and Terrence Ross’ mis-positioning on the final play of Game 7). The team changed schemes, altered the assistants, and brought in players that better fit his style, which I think was a strong indication he was going to be given the full year to work things out.

And he’s done a great job so far this season. His late-game reliance on an isolation-heavy playbook is still cause for concern, and he’s occasionally been slow to make in-game adjustments or used his timeouts curiously. These are the kind of things that pop up for any fanbase when you watch a team for 82 games. In the big picture, he has the Raptors at 19-12 despite missing two of their starters for 17 and 12 games, and the team is in the top-10 in efficiency on both ends of the floor. He’s handled rotations well, he’s gotten more creative with funky lineups, and he’s actually done a good job in terms of out-of-bounds plays and after-timeout plays. Maybe the injuries forced his hand for some of that, but I think he’s done a good job this season.

The team holds an option on his contract for next year. Unless things go south or general manager Masai Ujiri has a specific candidate in mind, my guess right now would be that Casey’s seat is of a comfortable temperature.

Raptors Republic: Same question back at you…is Wittman’s seat warming?

Truth About It: Wittman’s seat should be warming because the Wizards have been inconsistent on defense, they are 12th in the Eastern Conference, and he has the Wizards running an offense which he’s not completely comfortable with–in fact, if Wittman were left to his own devices, the offense would be devoid of a stretch “4”, and Nene and Gortat would still be starting together.

But Wizards owner Ted Leonsis values consistency and loyalty. Ernie Grunfeld, whose history with the Wizards is way more inconsistent than Wittman’s W-L record, has been here since 2003. And instead of firing Wittman to bring a more pace-and-space friendly coach to Washington, Grunfeld and Leonsis have simply asked Wittman to change things up a bit. When you add this season’s injuries to the mix, it adds up to a coach for whom excuses will be made, which means he’ll be back. Now if Kevin Durant comes to the Wizards, all bets are off!

Truth About It: Please finish this sentence. The Raptors can’t beat the Wizards in a 7-game series this year because…

Raptors Republic: Because they can play at both ends of the floor. And Paul Pierce is gone.

Seriously, they’re much better equipped to play two ends of the floor and play varying styles this year. Last year, they were locked in as a one-sided team that could only go “small” with two point guards and not shifting a wing to the frontcourt, something that hurt against the Wizards. DeMarre Carroll helps with the defense and with opening up new lineup combinations, and Cory Joseph makes Casey’s pet two-point guard lineups a more functional two-way look.

The specter hanging over the Raptors’ playoff chances is getting their in good shape. Lowry wore down last season and while he entered in much better shape this year, he’s still playing 36 minutes a night (as is DeRozan) in a high-contact style.

Raptors Republic: Please finish this sentence. The Raptors can’t beat the Wizards in a 7-game series this year because…

Truth About It: I cannot finish that sentence, because the Raptors can beat the Wizards in a 7-game series this season. You know how in the hockey playoffs the team with a hot goalie is seemingly unstoppable? That’s how the Wizards rode Paul Pierce last year. Wall, Beal, Gortat and Otto Porter were all important factors in last year’s Raptors/Wizards series but Paul Pierce was the difference maker. He brought confidence, experience and a bit of an attitude to the Wizards, and so far this season that is missing from this Wizards team. When the Wizards are at full strength and rotations are a liittle more defined, I may answer differently. But right now, the Raptors would win.

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