Mini-Mailbag: Making sense of this ‘bad stretch,’ Delon Wright, and more

21 mins read

You know the deal at this point: When the Raptors have multiple days off or I have some free time to kill, I drop a mailbag. You can find all of the previous editions here, though I don’t know why you’d bother. Today, I happen to be at the D-League Showcase and thought I’d take time to answer a few questions, albeit not as many as usual.

Before we go ahead: Normally this is where I’d remind you we have a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. We do, and it’s there. But given everything that’s happened here and south of the border of late, I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest that maybe this time around, you use your disposable income to make a more important difference somewhere else. Donate to the ACLU in the U.S., donate your time to help refugees here at home, or whatever. Most of all, just please, please be kind to each other and love one another. There’s no room for more hate in the world. Sports is a wonderful distraction (maybe less so when the Raptors are performing so poorly), and the community here can and should be an outlet for people, but we also shouldn’t bury our heads to deep that we lose sight of far more important things going on around us. Just, please, love each other.

Anyway, 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.

Does this look infected?

We’ve got a handful of questions that basically get to the same idea, so let me try to answer them as individual/specific questions as best I can.

For a while, son, my answer to this question had at least something to do with the following question. When the Raptors were on that hellacious trip out west with some tough home games and a very dense schedule, a combination of “It’s the middle of the season,” Patrick Patterson’s injury, and the difficulty of the schedule – in early January the Raptors ranked first or third in travel/quality of opponent/rest-adjusted schedule difficulty, depending on where you looked – were enough of an explanation for me to not worry about it too much. But as this has extended to a full month of being shaky, that stuff has kind of come out in the wash. They’ve been at home enough. They haven’t been facing world-beaters. They’re rounding into health. And they’ve still been bad. Inexcusably bad.

As for the root cause, it could be a number of things. The Raptors’ success for so long was built on some sort of ethereal chemistry that it was difficult to explain and occasionally difficult to quantify. The issue with subsisting on magic and rainbows and hugs is that when it’s gone, it’s hard to know how to get it back. There’s not enough evidence yet to suggest the Raptors have lost that – they just had a 1-2 stretch where they at least flashed signs of life – but they’re clinging to it like they just got tossed over the top rope at the Royal Rumble and their little toes are dangling dangerously close to the mat outside.

A few people have pointed to coaching, but I’m not sure Dwane Casey has “lost the room,” as one person asked last night. It is worth noting, though, that on two occasions during this core’s run together, Casey’s job has seemed in jeopardy. I skew more pro-Casey than most anyone, believing the macro (culture, stability, development, getting more than the sum of the talent) outweighs some of the shaky micro (late-game play-calling, rotation issues), but if the former starts to seem tenuous, the chorus who don’t believe in such things will get louder and louder.

Now, I don’t think Casey’s the issue here – he could definitely put them in a better position to succeed with some rotation tweaks, though – but whether it’s Casey, Kyle Lowry, or DeMar DeRozan, or a combination of all three, somebody has to wake the locker room up. There is no good explanation for a team that requires peak effort to succeed to be operating at 50-percent effort for half of every game.

To a point, yes. I tweeted this out when the Cavaliers were on a 2-5 stretch and the Warriors had just gotten stranded on Waiters Island. It was meant to make Raptors fans feel a little better, though, not excuse their play. Some good teams definitely go through the occasional malaise that lasts a week, or even two weeks. LeBron James is calling out ownership while the Cavs look every bit the contender they were last year. Everyone but the Spurs, Hawks, and Wizards seems to be able to point to some sort of inconsistency or concern right now. An 82-game season is very long (82 games, even), and this stuff happens.

“This stuff,” however, has a limit. The Raptors have been playing poorly for over a month now. Since Dec. 28, the Raptors are 7-11, they’ve ranked 13th in offense, and they’re 19th in defense. That the defensive rank was nearly cause for celebration last week (at one point, they reached 15th overall on the year) is kind of laughable, and a would-be contender having a negative net rating over such a long stretch (even with injuries and a condensed schedule) is worrisome. Good teams have bad weeks or road trips. I’m not sure good teams have months this bad.

Now, this isn’t cause to jump off the bandwagon or burn the Air Canada Centre down, or write the team off entirely. The season is long, and there’s a ton of time for them to steer out of it. This is all just to say the “bad stretches happen” meditation practices I was suggesting a few weeks ago no longer really hold as the “stretch” extends to a quarter of a season.

One point I want to make and didn’t know where else to put it, and I don’t mean it as an excuse but just something to share: The Raptors have been exceptionally “unlucky” in clutch situations based on expected Win-Loss based on point differential. They’ve heavily outscored opponents in close/late games, as defined by the NBA, yet they have a 14-16 record in those games. That’s the kind of thing that normally balances out over a larger sample, even if for now it might look like the Raptors lack some sort of clutchness.

I don’t have a great explanation for why the Raptors are so bad defensively right now. I know a lot of people point to the departure of Bismack Biyombo, but that kind of leaves out a lot of important context. Namely, that Lucas Nogueira’s defensive rating and block rate are almost identical in a similarly sized role, and that Biyombo has struggled with the Magic. Even more notably, the Raptors’ defensive struggles have really started on the perimeter, and if Biyombo’s departure were to do anything, it would have been to force perimeter defenders to get more conservative, not more frenetic and scrambled.

The two big culprits, I think, are Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll. Carroll is very up and down, but the Raptors kind of have to keep trying with him, at least for 20-25 minutes a game or so, because they need to know if he’ll ever get back *there* on a regular basis. But him performing below his established standard and under-performing relative to Norman Powell is an issue right now, it causes matchup issues against certain opposing wings, and there’s an argument to be made that his role should decrease a bit while the Raptors figure things out. He’s occasionally been good, at least? Joseph’s a weirder case, because he has two full recent seasons of being quite good defensively, and he’s been decent-to-good offensively of late, yet he’s been oddly ineffective on defense. There’s not a good explanation for a young defender just stopping defending well.

The hope here versus 2014-15, though, is that the Raptors actually have players who have defended at a better level before. Lowry and DeRozan have shown they can turn it up at times, Joseph and Carroll could lock in, and once the games matter even more, Casey will move to a strict meritocracy. The Raptors rank six spots higher in defensive rating than they did in 2014-15, and they have much better defenders on paper than that team.

One thing I think the Raptors may want to look at, though: Pace. The Raptors are up to 20th in pace, which would be the fastest they’ve played under Casey. I know the transition offense has been incredibly effective, and forcing turnovers is about the only thing the Raptors do well defensively, but there are trade-offs, and the Raptors are at their best defensively when grinding an opponent down.

You’re free to hit the panic button whenever you like. I’m concerned, not quite panicked yet, but they’ve played poorly for as much of the season as they played well, more or less. Now, panic to the level of suggesting a DeRozan trade is probably a little too far given he just signed a five-year deal, is still just 27, and dealing him would cause the organization irreparable damage from a building perspective. It remains important for the Raptors to simply be good for an extended period, and a tear-down would be a major step backwards. The Raptors have done a good job maintaining youth if they need to pivot like that, and it’s certainly an option if Lowry were to walk (not impossible), but they have little choice but to play out this year in the hopes of a) rediscovering their groove, b) convincing Lowry to stay, and c) continuing to build the Raptors into a quality franchise.

This kind of cuts to my earlier point about how when things are built on intangible elements, it can be easy to lose and hard to get back. This is the great concern here: That the chemistry and synergy and whatever TED Talk buzzwords you want to throw at the Raptors’ success proved fleeting. It looked that way after 2014-15, too, though, and the Raptors fought through it thanks to some reinforcements. I do not think the Raptors would regress this far back, even if that were the case. Lowry and DeRozan are just such better players than they were two or three years ago, Casey is a better coach, and the depth is better than it was previously. Their regression would be back to something of a 48-win team than to a 38-win team, I’d think.

In other words, as always, you’re never as good as your highs and you’re never as bad as your lows. This is what we have to hold hope in. Hard things are hard. You must imagine Sisyphus smiling. All that shit. Because the Raptors can’t be as bad as they’ve shown the last month, even if nobody ever should have believed they were as good as their first month. Stubbornly, I’m sticking with my preseason prediction: “51-31, a good chance to win one playoff series, a decent chance to win a second, and little chance of winning a third.”

Wright as Reigns

Delon Wright has looked really nice through three appearances with Raptors 905 of the D-League. He’s 0-of-4 on threes and has had a bit of trouble finishing, but the smoothness and vision to his game came back so quickly, it does not at all look like he hasn’t played basketball in six months. The numbers don’t really pop yet, but he’s so advanced for the D-League level both as a floor general and as a defender, it’s hard not to watch his performance there and wonder what he could be in the NBA right now.

What he could be in the NBA right now is a capable backup. I have little doubt about this. I had little doubt about it at the end of last season, either. Wright is good, and it’s awesome that the Raptors have four point guards who all look capable of playing NBA minutes right now, even if there’s not room for them. Teams rarely use all 15 players, anyway, so I’m a proponent of keeping the best talent possible at the end of the roster rather than worrying about fitting X number of players into Y boxes for roster building.

Now, Wright being good is not a reason to trade Joseph, like Joseph’s presence isn’t a reason to trade Wright. But over the next three or four weeks, the Raptors are going to have discussions with teams, and both names will come up. Wright is attractive on a rookie deal, but Joseph’s salary might be a more important chip for matching. I don’t think the Raptors would be terribly comfortable entering the postseason with Wright and VanVleet penciled in for eight minutes a game, but you have to give something to get something in a deal, and the Raptors have terrific guard depth to deal from if they deem an upgrade to the forward positions worthwhile.

In the meantime, yeah, it kind of sucks to not get a longer look at Wright and VanVleet, but a 56-win team trying to find its way back to that level can’t really afford to also be in the player development business at the same time. That’s what the 905 exist for (although only Bruno Caboclo was assigned today for Tuesday’s road game).

Dude, you can’t ever be wrong for your personal preferences when it comes to entertainment. You know how many people try to tell me I’m “wrong” for my Carly Rae Jepsen and Nick Jonas love? I can’t be wrong in saying “this is a thing I enjoy.” Art is subjective, and wrestling, obviously, falls under the category of art.

Personally, I preferred A.J. Styles-John Cena III to Kevin Owens-Roman Reigns XLII. I thought it was a pretty perfect cap on their feud, and while they went a bit finisher overboard (it was a very indy main event, which was maybe the point given the verbal sparring of the feud), the match psychology and pacing were terrific. It’s tough to beat Big Match John and The Greatest Wrestler On The Planet Today in a high-stakes environment like this. Ownes-Reigns was great, too – I’m a big Braun Strowman fan and had no issue with the ending – it was brutal physically, and Reigns and Owens both looked good. But I’ll take the faces that run the places on last night alone.

Also, the Royal Rumble was #ActuallyGood, and people mad at the booking have smarked themselves out of enjoying a really fun and well-written match.

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.

I appreciate you.

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