With all due respect to French Montana, it seems likely that advice warning Toronto Raptors fans against panic will fall on deaf ears after Monday’s practice.
It was after the team’s Monday session that team president Masai Ujiri spoke to assembled media about Jared Sullinger, who was set for surgery on his left foot in New York around that same time. While the timeline remains somewhat vague, Ujiri at least put a rough approximation on how much time the team’s would-be starting power forward will miss. It’s, uhh, not great.
“Sometimes with these things, because they’re going in precautionary almost, so you never know, but a couple months or three months is what we’ve heard,” he said. “But we don’t know. It could be less, could be more. So I think we’ll see how surgery goes today. He’s over and he’s scheduled to have surgery today.”
Beyond the rough two-to-three month timeframe, Ujiri also provided some additional details on Sullinger’s injury. The big man had his left foot stepped on int he team’s preseason opener against the Golden State Warriors. Initially, he tried to play through soreness, but with little progress, the team opted to shut him down and limit him to off-court conditioning tasks. As he began to ramp up his activity level last week, the issue flared back up when Sullinger felt soreness following a side-cut during drills. The team decided to take a closer look at the stress reaction that results, and a collaborative decision involving Sullinger, his agent, Ujiri, and doctors was made for Sullinger to undergo the surgery. The aim is to help prevent stress injuries in the foot moving forward, including the dreaded Jones fracture, and because the procedure is preventative in nature (and may also end up involving a bone graft), it’s difficult to pin down an exact return date so early.
Ujiri was clear that the issue is not necessarily related to Sullinger’s weight, nor is it a recurrence of the same injury he suffered in 2014-15 when with the Boston Celtics. He pointed out that players like Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons have had similar issues and that Sullinger’s offseason conditioning work had gone “really well.” It’s just one of those things that happens, in other words, and the Raptors have no choice but to just work around it. There was no sense a reactionary roster move is coming – “Ee’re going to be very patient with it,” Ujiri said – and the team is patently aware that nobody will feel sorry for them in the coming weeks.
“He was as big piece to what we wanted to do and where our team was,” Ujiri said. “Now I think we have to go back to the rookies and inexperienced players a little bit but again, that’s the nature of the NBA. You don’t cry about it. It’s opportunity, and this is how you find players. From DeMarre’s injuries last year came Norman Powell and we’re hoping something comes out of this that will make us a stronger team when he returns.”
The obvious name to till the Powell role this time around is that of rookie Pascal Siakam, who figures to be a prominent part of the opening night rotation right now. While the Raptors are very high on the No. 27 overall pick long-term and have been encouraged by his performance at training camp, the ideal scenario for a 56-win team doesn’t really involve thrusting a rookie into the spotlight out of the gate. Whether he ends up starting in a high-energy, low-usage, defense-first role or coming off the bench as part of what could be a very fun but inexperienced second unit, Siakam’s going to be leaned on while Sullinger’s on the mend.
That doesn’t mean Siakam will start, though, despite head coach Dwane Casey’s prior preference to bring sixth man Patrick Patterson off the bench. There are different schools of belief when it comes to Patterson as a starter, but there are several reasons it’s long made sense for him to start, with some pretty strong evidence in support. Foremost, Patterson is a natural tactical and logical fit with the starters. A switchy three-point threat who doesn’t need the ball and is capable of guarding larger frontcourt players, he’s basically the description of what a team should want alongside Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas. Touches are in short supply, anyway, so a floor-spacer who provides value at the other end makes sense, and he and DeMarre Carroll together open up some options defensively.
This was the argument last year, too, however, and the team continued to start Luis Scola. There’s a persistent thought that Patterson has some sort of block when it comes to starting, and Casey has paid credence to that in the past, but there’s not a great deal of statistical evidence in support of it. Yes, Patterson had somewhat of a rough preseason trying to lock down the starting job last year, and he hit a poorly timed shooting slump when thrust into the starting lineup in the playoffs, but he was also quite effective overall in those postseason outings, and lineup data suggests the starters with Patterson could be one heck of a unit. That fivesome only played 16 minutes together last year, eviscerating opponents in a tiny sample, and then outscored Indiana and Miami by 5.7 points per-100 possessions over a meaningful, high quality-of-competition, 95-minute sample.
Patterson starting seems, at this point, to be a case of the numbers backing up the common sense behind an argument. For his part, Patterson is saying what you’d expect, though last week’s comments about his contract year should certainly provide additional incentive to run with the starting gig.
“Same question I always get since I’ve been here. Same answer you’re always going to get since I’ve been here,” Patterson said. “It doesn’t matter. As long as I have a role on this team, whether I start or come off the bench, it doesn’t matter.”
Casey revealed that Patterson is the “leading candidate” to start right now but that it could be a “back-and-forth” situation for a while.
“Pascal brings energy and defensive flexibility where we like, Patrick’s got the veteran leadership and veteran experience at that position, so it will probably be a back and forth until Sully comes back,” he said. “I like Pat coming off the bench but I also like experience in the game, too. So we’ll see.”
The guess here is that Patterson draws the opening night start and the team never looks back, freeing Siakam to learn in some more sheltered minutes against opposing bench units. And it’s not as if the team suddenly has 48 minutes or so to patch together – Sullinger was likely penciled in for about 25 minutes, a few of which will shift to Patterson (who took on a heavier load late in the year and can probably handle 30 minutes), a few to Siakam, and a few to Carroll in smaller lineups, something Casey suggested Monday is part of the plan. Essentially, then, Sullinger’s minutes aren’t being handed to Siakam but split between Siakam, Patterson, and the Terrence Ross-Norman Powell combo, and through that lens, the injury seems a bit more manageable.
It does leave the Raptors with precious little margin for further injury, though, especially with Carroll’s workload a constant question. Sub-optimal though this news is, there’s always a contingency plan. In this case: Hope Patterson thrives as a starter as logic would suggest, gamble that Siakam’s unending energy reserves help make up for the expected rookie mistakes, try out more small, speedy, switchy lineups, and cross their fingers that everyone else stays healthy.
Are we having fun yet?