New Year, New Mailbag: Appreciating Lowry & DeRozan, year-end reflection, and more

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Last season, whenever the Toronto Raptors had back-to-back days off, I’d drop an #RRMailbag. They take a lot of time to put together, so I need the extra day turnaround time. Or something. You can find all of the previous editions here, though I don’t know why you’d bother. In any case, the regular feature is back for a special New Year’s edition.

Before we go ahead: A reminder that we have a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. If you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do (and try to do even more). You can also follow me on Twitter for, uhh, tweets, and on Facebook for all of my writing/podcasting/radio stuff. Validate me. You can also ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between.

Alright, let’s get this money.

Appreciating Kyle Lowry & DeMar DeRozan

I’m only going to tackle the All-Star question here, as I touch on Paul Millsap a bit in the next section and would be shocked if he hits the market. I think Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both All-Stars, and there’s not even much of a question. To be reductive, Lowry has been the best point guard in the Eastern Conference so far, DeRozan leads the conference in scoring, and they both play for the team with the second-best record, which is always a useful tiebreaker to have. If further statistical back-up is required, Lowry ranks third in the East in Win Shares and RPM, and DeRozan is seventh in Win Shares (RPM isn’t a fan thanks to the defensive shortcomings). Even if DeRozan’s advanced case is less of a home-run, there’s no way his scoring volume alone doesn’t get him in.

You can make the case for a lot of players at the guard spots in the East this year, to be sure. Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas join John Wall in the “we probably deserve to be here behind Lowry and Kyrie Irving” class and DeRozan has stiff competition from Jimmy Butler (and Giannis Antetokounmpo if you insist on including him as a guard), but I’d have trouble making a 12-man roster that doesn’t include them both.

Alright, so this is obviously a very complex and fluid answer, one that’s probably deserving of its own article, but let’s split it three ways to start. “Best Raptor ever” is generally looked at three different ways.

  1. Most important. Until the Raptors win a championship, nobody can touch Vince Carter here. His impact on the sport in the city and in the entire country, and what he did for the Raptors as a recognizable brand and respectable franchise, will stand the test of time. He’s responsible for a generation of new basketball fans, and most of the new era of Canadian players reference Carter’s influence as a driving factor in their love for the game. From a personal perspective, who knows when (if?) I’d have even fallen in love with basketball if it weren’t for Carter. If this is the criteria that matters most to you, Carter is likely untouchable until some star gets a ring here.
  2. Best career with the team. This is going to be DeRozan’s best claim at the throne. He’s now the franchise leader in games and points, and he’ll pass Chris Bosh for the lead in minutes early next week. Considering he has this year plus four more on his deal and is only just entering his prime, it stands to reason that unless things go awry, he’ll have a stranglehold on the franchise’s entire record-book. He’s also been a key figure with the team during their greatest run of success ever, and he and Lowry share most of the team’s postseason record-book already. That he chose to stay for a third contract when no other star has is immensely important to the long-term health of the franchise, and it’s inextricable from his impact as a player, which is immense. DeRozan is going to be in the conversation for a long time based on raw numbers alone, and his legacy will extend beyond that.
  3. Most success with the team. This is a little different than best career, because it takes longevity out of the equation some. I think by the end of this year, Lowry might actually have the edge on even Carter here – his three best seasons stack up incredibly well with Carter’s best years, and Lowry’s also been the team’s best player during their best era and longest playoff runs. Only Bosh has finished higher in MVP voting, and Lowry’s case was probably underrated last year. Advanced metrics have him as a top-five or top-10 player again this season. Lowry won’t have the counting stats DeRozan does or the vast impact of Carter, but his best years in Toronto have been as good as anyone’s here, ever, and they happen to have led to the franchise’s most successful years.

As for what DeRozan and Lowry can do to lock up Nos. 1 and 2? Well, a title would certainly do it. Short of that, it’ll come down to opinion and personal preference and make for a great argument with friends. If the Raptors repeat as conference finalists and Lowry decides to stay, I’ll probably have them one-two in some order some time in the next year or two.

Honestly, I think DeRozan’s there already. He is Toronto, after all, and he got us. The franchise’s all-time leading scorer, one of their most successful players at an individual, team, and international level, and the face of the franchise for nearly a decade, well, that’s enough. I’m assuming Carter’s jersey will be retired at some point while DeRozan’s still active, and DeRozan’s will follow whenever he’s done. If Lowry were to re-up after the season and the team continues to remain very good, I don’t see why he wouldn’t have his jersey in the rafters, too. They’re two of the three or four best and most important players in team history, and I’m all for recognizing that and giving fans a feeling of history and legacy.

(To be clear, I don’t really care about retiring the numbers from use, just more the symbolic gesture of having the jersey hanging in the ACC.)

This is a tough one, and I’m not sure Lowry’s going to be able to make up enough ground in his 30s. The Olympic gold helps a lot, but Lowry doesn’t have an NCAA title to help his case, and he’ll probably need the Raptors to win a title at some point. Even if he has three All-Star years left after this one (not a given as he pushes into his 30s), that would leave him with six appearances and we’ll say two All-NBA teams. As a comparison, Mitch Richmond has one of the weaker Hall of Fame resumes among players in the Hall, and he has six All-Star appearances, three All-NBA teams, a Rookie of the Year, an Olympic gold, and a ring. That’s probably the bar in terms of getting in, so Lowry would need to sustain this level of play for multiple years to have a strong case without a championship, and there aren’t many diminutive point guards who have stayed at an All-NBA level into their mid-30s.

Here’s hoping, though. And hey, a ring changes these discussions drastically, whether or not it should.

The usual trade talk

I think they’d be pretty interested.

This is one we’ve talked about a fair amount here, but as a refresher, I’m a believer that one of the reasons you work to create a strong, consistent, and effective organizational culture is that it allows you to take a chance on depressed assets like Cousins when they hit the market. I think with Casey’s locker room in order, the influence of Masai Ujiir, and the leadership of Lowry and DeRozan (plus any chemistry they built at the Olympics), plus the chance to win for a change and rehabilitate his reputation in a marquee playoff run, Cousins would figure out the potentially overstated attitude stuff fairly quickly (I say potentially because it’s difficult to know the nuance at play with a player’s reputation).

Whether or not the Raptors could actually get Cousins would come down to whether the Kings like Jonas Valanciunas and whether another team would want to trump their offer just as much as how interested they were. If – and it’s a big if – Cousins hits the market, it’s hard to see the Kings getting fair value. He’s the type of top-20 piece that could significantly narrow the gap between Cleveland and Toronto, and there’s a price point at which it would make sense for the Raptors to toll the dice.

Alright, let’s tackle these parts quickly.

*I would say Cousins is more desirable. He and Millsap are comparably effective players and Millsap comes with fewer concerns, but Cousins is also significantly younger and has an extra year left on his deal. Paying Millsap as a free agent at 32 is a dicey enough proposition to swing things to Cousins, who will only be 28 when he hits the market, a year further down the line.

*I’d say Ross is probably more likely to leave than Powell, just because his salary could be important in making the cap math work in a deal. Basically, if Valanciunas isn’t outgoing in a deal, Ross almost has to be, at least for most significant pieces. Powell is probably a slightly more attractive trade asset in a vacuum, given his one year at the league minimum and ensuing RFA rights rather than two more years at a larger (but still below-market) salary, but he doesn’t move the needle at all in terms of salary matching. If I’m another team, I want Powell in pretty much any deal, though.

*It would be tough to keep both, I’d imagine. Unless a team is enamored with Valanciunas or the Raptors are willing to dangle Cory Joseph as the “second piece” in a deal, it’s hard to put together a reasonable package that respects roster balance that doesn’t include one of the wings. You’ve gotta give something to get something.

I’m not sure about “no need” for a trade, as I’ll touch on below. There’s no need if the Raptors are fine repeating last year (which they should be), but Sullinger won’t be enough to narrow the gap with Cleveland. He’ll help a great deal on the glass and push the offense even higher, but he probably doesn’t solve some of the defensive problems or the issue with the starting lineup. He’s good, but he’s not “third star” good, and so he’ll help solidify the Raptors as what they already are – the second best team in the East, and nothing more. (And again, that’s totally OK.)

There’s some important nuance here between the two options, and so the answer lies somewhere in the grey area. The Raptors have, to this point, kept their powder dry, keeping a well-stocked cupboard of draft assets and prospects, leaning on depth and continuity and chemistry. They are likely aware, though, that what has brought them this far is unlikely to push them to title contention, at least this year. The tough balance they have to navigate, then, is at what point cashing in some of that organizational equity (which ensures the franchise is in good shape for a longer time) is worth it to maximize their window as DeRozan hits his peak and Lowry starts to hit the end of his.

As I’ve written a few times, I lean on the more cautious side here. I think it’s very important for the long-term health of the organization that they not take any sort of wild risk for a puncher’s chance at Cleveland – any move they make would need to significantly alter the accounting of an Eastern Conference Finals series. There are only a few names who could conceivably hit the market that would qualify, so my guess would be that the Raptors ride it out. Their window extends beyond this season, though, so hanging tight and repeating last year’s success isn’t the worst thing, if the alternative is risking stability for a marginal gain.

Raptors miscellaneous

You guys know me by now, I’m all about weird lineups, particularly small ones. As it turns out, I wrote about exactly this for The Athletic today, so I’ll just direct you there for my thoughts. (The quick summary: Norman Powell could soak up the bulk of Patterson’s minutes, with the Raptors going smaller for long stretches, plus some Power Forward Bebe.)

I don’t think it’s quite as extreme as that season. For one, the offense is far more varied and effective than it was in that season, even if some of the sets and the ball-dominance of Lowry and DeRozan looks similar at quick glance. The Raptors ranking No. 2 in offense is no joke, and they’ve been doing it against quality defenses who are loading up to stop what the Raptors do best. Some nights, like Thursday, the role players just can’t do enough in support. In general, there are enough wrinkles and contributors that it’s hard to see what defensive matchup would render Toronto’s offense as punchless as the last two first-round series.

That doesn’t answer the defensive question, but points are points. And the defense is probably better than that year, too. There are issues, particularly with help-and-recover and on the defensive glass, and Sullinger will only help with the latter of those. But the Raptors have better individual defenders than in 2014-15 and they’ve shown a defensive upside that wasn’t there that year. Locked in, this Raptors defense is probably a shade above average (they’re even up to 17th in defensive efficiency). Casey is absolutely right to hammer that message home still, and the number of holdovers from that season should prevent the Raptors from getting too “happy on the farm” or “fat and sassy” (god, I love those sayings).

It was nearly a month ago now, but I still think most of what Eric Koreen and I discussed at The Athletic on Dec. 7. Valanciunas is somewhat miscast with the Raptors, but he still has value, and it’s very likely the season will turn at some point and he’ll once again be contributing at a meaningful level. He’s struggling a bit right now and has clearly lost some of Casey’s faith, and the team could probably get more out of him than they have on this trip. At the same time, he’s not playing particularly well, either, so the onus falls on both player and team. But again, this will probably work itself out – an extended slump is not a reason to trade a guy at the nadir of his value, and there might actually be some longer-term value and figuring out exactly how much Lucas Nogueira can contribute, anyway.

By the way, Valanciunas’ numbers should come up a bit naturally, as he’s shooting an abhorrent percentage around the rim by his own standards. That seems likely to regress back toward his career norm as the season wears on (though his usage probably won’t go up given how much the Raptors need to use him as one of the league’s best high-screeners, far from the rim).

Pretty confident Ross is the BEST EVER, actually.

For Ujiri, I would definitely suggest he sign me to a 10-day contract on Jan. 5. I don’t care who gets cut. I need to get paid.

In seriousness. I don’t think I need to suggest too much. A few years of sample suggests that I line up pretty well with Ujiri philosophically, and anything I tell one of the smartest men in basketball would probably be unnecessary. To play along with the question, though, I’d tell him to just stay the course and maintain patience – as explained above in the trade question, I understand the pull to maximize the current window, but I’m OK with holding off on that until the right situation arises. Being good for the foreseeable future is really important to the long-term health of the franchise, and realistically, there aren’t many paths to Toronto catching Cleveland and Golden State right now anyway. (But yes, bring me Boogie Cousins or Paul Millsap, if they hit the market.)

For Casey, the obvious one would be to stop the whole Pascal Siakam starting thing. It’s tired at this point, and it’s doing nobody a service. Since that debate is on hold because of Patterson’s injury (and Sullinger’s impending return), I’ll shift the focus elsewhere: Keep experimenting. The Raptors learned in the playoffs last year that your “best five” could be a different group each series or even each game, and I’ve really enjoyed Casey trying new things with smaller or less traditional lineups. I think that should continue and maybe get even more aggressive. Just how big an opponent can they use the Powell-Ross forward combo against? Can Siakam play some center? Is Sullinger best used at the five when back? Is it possible the Raptors can steal the odd couple of minutes with both Lowry and DeRozan sitting? Can Delon Wright play the two? The answers to some of these might end up as resounding NOs, but the Raptors can be secure enough in themselves to use the next couple months to learn even more, which could be useful come playoff time.

This is a tough question to answer, so I’m going to be a little wishy-washy.

Let me answer the second first: The most impressive is Kyle Lowry. I have all the respect in the world for how much better DeMar DeRozan makes himself every year and genuinely appreciate how important he has been and will continue to be to this franchise, but it’s Lowry who’s play somehow continues to leave me shocked, impressed, and enamored. This is a guy multiple teams and coaches gave up on, a guy who was on his last chance and answered the challenge, and a guy who’s grown into one of the best leaders and best players in the NBA. The Raptors belong to both Lowry and DeRozan, to be clear, and nobody should suggest otherwise. But Lowry…like, man, he is genuinely a top-15, maybe top-10 player in the NBA and the Eastern Conference’s best point guard. Kyle Lowry Over Everything.

Now, Lowry should rank as my favorite for those reasons,a nd because he’s the goddam best. But from a more personal perspective, I think Norman Powell’s been my “favorite” Raptor of 2016. I’m a UCLA fan at the college level and was a believer in Powell as an NBA prospect. I then felt a sort of ownership of The Powell Ascension Story, having covered him extensively in Summer League and then in the D-League. I got to see pretty closely just how hard he works, became an even bigger believer in his game and his work ethic and his fit with the organizational ethos, and really felt like he deserved the success he saw late in the season and into the postseason. It’s difficult not to appreciate and root for a guy who uses every opportunity, every failure, and every success as an impetus to get even better. I very much #UTG.

NBA miscellaneous

This is a really interesting question. For context to the non-wrestling fans who haven’t tuned out yet: Will Ospreay and Ricochet are two of the best high-flyers in the world, and two of the best young, exciting long-term prospects inside or outside of the WWE. It’s hard to shoehorn a comparison because of the high-flying, old-school-guys-hate-this nature of these two, but if we can just frame it was two of the most exciting young players, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid definitely qualify. If you wanted to disqualify them because they’re in the NBA (WWE), then Malik Monk and Lonzo Ball at probably somewhere near the top of the list. If you want guys who just do ridiculous stuff that maybe isn’t logical in kayfabe and drives fuddy-duddies nuts, then it’s definitely LaMelo Ball.

And Bruno, obviously.

Non-basketball miscellaneous

Well, we can start with my top-25 list, which leaves off some very good albums I enjoyed like the Knowles sisters’ offerings, Japanese Breakfast, The Weeknd, the too-late-for-inclusion RTJ 3, and more.

From there, narrowing down to the one I wish I could hear again for the first time most? Damn, that is difficult. I think I have to go with Chance and Coloring Book, though, even if giving it to No. 1 seems like the easy path. Coloring Book was just such a vibrant, positive, uplifting departure from a lot of what I was listening to at the time, and despite not being too spiritual a person, it was very much an outlook-shifting experience to give it its first couple of spins. I know it got a lot of love on year-end lists, anyways, but I think some of the eye-rolling at the commercialization of Chance has maybe taken away from just how terrific and powerful an album this was. He was also among my favorite concerts of the year (with Pinegrove and Julien Baker as a top three, probably).

As for the most replay value, it’s a little early to tell since 2016 hasn’t ended yet. Pinegrove’s Cardinal is probably the album I spun the most from the time of its release until the end of the year despite it being just an eight-track offering.

And you didn’t ask, but the album I’m most looking forward to in the first quarter of 2017 is the new Los Campesinos! in late February.

And from Your Boy the Zubes via text, what are my end-of-year wrestling awards?
Match of the Year: DIY-Revival 2-of-3 falls at NXT Takeover Toronto, Sami Zayn v Shinsuke Nakamura at NXT Takeover Dallas, A.J. Styles v Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 10
Wrestler of the Year: A.J. Styles, Kenny Omega, Kevin Owens
Character of the Year: Matt Hardy, Kenny Omega, Alexa Bliss/The Miz
Tag Team of the Year: The Revival, The Young Bucks, American Alpha
Feud of the Year: DIY-Revival, Kenny Omega-Kazuchika Okada, John Cena-A.J. Styles (Kyle O’Reilly-Adam Cole would be here but it’s tough to grade for 2016 alone when it’s a five-year story)

As a reminder, if you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, we’ve started a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. Any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do, and try to do even more.

Have a safe and happy new year, everyone!

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