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Mini-Mailbag: Siakam’s role, rotation tweaks, Super-Jonas, and more

14 mins read

Last season, whenever the Toronto Raptors had back-to-back days off, I’d drop an #RRMailbag. Well, today I just didn’t have any one broad topic I felt like tackling, so I opened it up to the first few questions. (You can find all previous editions here, though I don’t know why you’d bother.)

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Alright, let’s get this money. The soundtrack for today’s mailbag is Supernatural by Danny L Harle ft. Carly Rae Jepsen, which is how I feel about each and every one of you.

Woah, popular question! I will preface the answer by saying that we are still unclear on when Jared Sullinger may return. President Masai Ujiri was very noncommittal on a timeline when announcing that Sullinger had undergone surgery, laying out “two or three months” as a possibility but leaving it very open-ended. Sullinger is still wheeling around on that hilarious scooter thing, so he hasn’t even progressed to walking normally yet. The initial timeline made it sound as if sometime in January were an outside possibility, but I kind of have the All-Star break in my head. (If nothing else, I hope Sullinger plays a few rehab games with Raptors 905 like Jerryd Bayless and Brandon Jennings have done, and like Delon Wright will.)

As for Pascal Siakam, he’s going to be in control of his own destiny to at least some degree. He’s played far better than anyone had any right to expect for a supposedly raw No. 27 overall pick thrust into a starting role. His energy is infectious, he’s been a key factor in the Raptors becoming a fast-break terror for the first time in head coach Dwane Casey’s tenure, and his defense on the ball is several steps beyond what I expected out of the gate. He’s still imperfect on defense, of course, over-helping at times or being a little out of position and requiring someone else to over-help, but these are usually crimes of positive intent, and as he better learns the scheme and catches up to the speed of the NBA, those instances could become strengths, his help/cheat-and-recover a major advantage. Offensively, he still isn’t doing much beyond running out in transition and hitting the dunker spot, and teams are loading up off of him, as you’d expect. That side of the ball is going to take some time, and some Raptors 905 time definitely wouldn’t hurt him later in the season so he can get far more touches.

Unfortunately for the rookie, Sullinger’s going to have a place, and it’s probably going to be in the starting lineup eventually. That’s not a knock on Siakam, who may be even better by the time Sullinger returns. But the Raptors are in the business of winning games now, and they’ll need to find a familiarity with whatever role they envision for Sullinger in the postseason. He might come off the bench for a bit, but if and when Sullinger’s healthy, he’s the teams starting power forward, and Siakam is probably moving into a role similar to that of Norman Powell – there if needed and probably deserving of time, but waiting for an opportunity or emergency.

Siakam’s best bet for playing time late in the year may be Lucas Nogueira. Nogueira’s been solid-to-good since training camp started, but he’s stumbled the last two games, and consistency has always been his issue. The Raptors have only experimented with Siakam at the five a little bit (they see him more as a four-three than a four-five right now), but if the backup center remains uncertain, Sullinger could wind up filling the bulk of that role, opening up a few extra minutes at power forward.

I kind of hope I’m wrong here. There’s still a lot of time for Siakam to improve, and while I doubt very much he’ll be “better” than Sullinger at any point this year, the Raptors have little invested in Sullinger – if Siakam can make a legitimate case for minutes even when he returns, the short-term/long-term balancing act could tilt in his favor. I doubt it – Siakam would need to progress quite rapidly from her, because Sullinger could be a major addition to this team and Siakam’s the logical man out – but if “how do they keep Siakam in the rotation?” is still a pressing question in February, that’s a major positive for the franchise’s long-term outlook at the position.

https://twitter.com/Scott1Hastie/status/802180279595048960

I would like him to play me five minutes a night as a scrappy, defense-first third point guard.

I kid, obviously, but I would like someone to play a few more minutes to prevent Kyle Lowry from dying at some point this year. I won’t rehash this too much, because it’s something I wrote about a lot last year and something Eric Koreen and I discussed at length yesterday for The Athletic Toronto. As a quick refresher: I’m terribly risk-averse when it comes to player workloads, and there’s a lot of research that suggests leading the league in minutes is, you know, not great in the long-run. But I am conflicted, because the Raptors have a well-regarded sport science team with access to far more data than “minutes played,” and this team wants to succeed in the postseason as much as you or I want them to. They have their own best interest in mind, so it’s hard for me to get too worked up about it.

Limiting Lowry’s minutes seems like a worthwhile goal, though, and Casey showed against Houston how he can keep the team competitive for 48 minutes while playing Lowry and DeMar DeRozan just 36 minutes each – longer stretches with just one of them on the floor. I probably wouldn’t go so far as to ever sit both of them at once, at least unless Cory Joseph continues his recent turnaround and Terrence Ross remains Sixth Man of the Year.

I realize the “correct” answer to this question for most is to get Norman Powell more minutes. He’s often the team’s best perimeter defender, he helps push the transition game, and he’s one of the safer bets on the team to “bring it” every time he’s called upon. He’s a beautiful luxury as the tenth man in that sense. It’s very easy to argue he should get more minutes. But it’s really tough to argue whom his minutes should come at the expense of. Say Lowry and DeRozan settle in at 36, that opens up about 3.5 per-night. Then there are the nights DeMarre Carroll sits (25 a night) or is ineffective (say 10). And maybe Terrence Ross comes down to earth and Powell can eat into his 20 here and there. You’re still piecing together an up-and-down role contingent on players ahead of him. Until one of them starts struggling, Powell is going to have to wait as one of the league’s best “break class in case of emergency” options.

(I will still tweet about playing Powell in this matchup or that situation every single game, though. FreeNorm forever.)

Siakam’s foot speed. If it were in a complete vacuum and Jonas Valanciunas were just a basketball ideal, unbound by the constraints of one team, I’d probably pick shooting touch, because he’d immediately be one of the deadliest offensive big men in the NBA. But Valanciunas plays for the Raptors, and that shooting touch, while valuable, would mostly be used as a show-me shot or as a gimmicky wrinkle off their pet sets (particularly their dual-screener actions, or to invert the offense with Valanciunas playing Patrick Patterson’s role in the offense). It would be great, but I doubt Valanciunas would take more than one or two threes each game, and doing so would in part negate that he’s one of the league’s elite offensive rebounders.

For Valanciunas on the Raptors, Siakam’s foot-speed would essentially make him what his detractors have long clamored for and his fans have long hoped would develop. He still wouldn’t have the lift to be a Bismack Biyombo-like rim-protector, but he’d allow the team to get far more aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverages, asking their center to hedge out on guards and trusting him to recover back to his man or to the rim. Valanciunas would still need to improve his reads to get the full benefit of Siakam’s lateral quickness (Valanciunas isn’t exactly slow, he’s just kind of…deliberate, and I’m picturing a faster Valanciunas spinning himself into oblivion trying to hedge-and-recover), but, yeah, this would be pretty huge for the Raptors’ defense and their options defending the Cleveland Cavaliers.  And Channing Frye.

Well Alex, I suppose when you’re back to Toronto in February, we’ll just have to read the new CBA and find out if there’s an Amnesty Clause.

(There won’t be. And I’d bet Carroll finishes out his deal with the Raptors – when he’s playing poorly or looking hurt, you’d have to pay a team to take him on, and when he’s playing well and looking healthy, he’s exactly what the Raptors need at both ends. I just can’t imagine an offseason deal presenting itself where the Raptors get better dealing him, and clearing his salary wouldn’t be enough to make them major free-agent players, anyway. Sr. Swag Daddy is here for good.)

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