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It’s early days, yet

It’s important to keep perspective.

As the Toronto Raptors were getting clobbered in Denver during the third quarter, I thought it was in my best interests to switch over to baseball. From one Game 7 to another I went, and proceeded to watch Charlie Morton and the rest of the Houston Astros hold their nerve on the biggest stage of their sport.

It was a much-appreciated dose of perspective: The L.A. Dodgers have nothing to look forward to but next season, while the Raptors still have another 75 games to go before they face tests with real ramifications. For now, it’s about creating data points and sample sizes large enough to infer areas of success and failure.

At present, numbers can fluctuate significantly with each game, with some reasonable stability only likely from the 20-game mark. With that being said, it’s probable that the drubbing at the hands of the Nuggets will be an outlier, a poor point of reference since there isn’t a fifth-of-a-six-game road trip in the playoffs, nor arenas that suffocate oxygen levels like the Pepsi Center — barring a highly unlikely NBA Finals between the Nuggets and Raptors.

Despite the heavy defeat, the Raptors are a top 10 team in both offensive and defensive rating, remain in the top half of assist percentage, and play at the 12th fastest pace at 102.46. Again, all with sample sizes too small to make definitive statements.

The eye test is what I turn to most often in the early season to look for things that may be intriguing to follow, and here are three things I’ve noticed that I’ll be interested in tracking as the season progresses.

Can the bench defense continue to travel?

Perhaps my biggest concern heading into the Raptors 2017-18 season was the bench unit. They are young, inexperienced, and are being asked to support a starting lineup that only played three regular season games together last year.

Role players, more so young ones, are usually better at home than on the road, and this Western road swing is already revealing some truths about the youths. After putting up an offensive rating of 108.2 in 21 minutes at the Air Canada Centre, that number has plummeted to 92.7 on the road. The rims look a little bigger at home, the lighting seems just right, and the obvious energy of the crowd. The bench unit’s pace is approximately 12 possessions slower on the road, making it that much easier for opponents to stifle them in the half-court.

The surprise here is that the most uneven performance has come from the veteran of the group, C.J. Miles. The newly acquired swingman put up virtually identical shooting numbers both home and away with Indiana his past two seasons, but after making seven of his 15 three-point attempts against the Bulls and Sixers, has made just 32 percent of his 26 attempts on the road.

The unit’s ability to create turnovers and get out in the open floor makes it harder to track Miles in transition, and thereby leading to more open looks. Being the only credible scorer in the half-court makes him a point of focus defensively, but the lack of shooting around him makes his gravity seem insignificant.

Again, nothing to get worried about just seven games in, but rather just an area of performance to track going forward.

What is an encouraging sign for this unit, is their ability to defend. Their 30 minutes on the road thus far have yielded a defensive rating of 92.3, and so while their scoring may get left in the hotel room, their ability to hold the fort down on that end is something they could hang their hat on.

Delon Wright provides great length and agility for a point guard, giving Dwane Casey the flexibility to have him switch onto off-guards and even small forwards at times. He’s active as an on-ball defender, often disrupting the ball handler’s dribble and delaying initial sets. Fred VanVleet is a rugged, hard-nosed defender that uses his strength well enough to negate his lack of size.

Miles doesn’t possess elite athleticism either, but does well to communicate within the group and remain true to the team’s foundational concepts. Jakob Poeltl has become the star of the group, protecting the rim and moving quickly in pick-and-roll scenarios to minimize any advantage gained off the switch.

OG Anunoby could be the best defender of the lot in time, and his feel for the game stands out more than anything. Some defenders constantly have their head on a swivel trying to see both ball and man, and while this is perfectly fine, watching Anunoby so far shows he tries to stay focused on the ball as much as possible while relying on good positioning to keep his man within his periphery. It may give off the vibe that he’s cheating a bit, but that’s what allows him to get in the passing lanes and out in transition.

Will the Raptors fake the three till they make it?

This team does not have a lot of knock-down shooters. There’s Lowry, Miles, Ibaka, and they’re a combined 42-for-120 (35.0 percent) thus far. Norman Powell is just 6-for-23, and everyone after that is living on a prayer. The 32.6 attempts from deep are commendable for the coaching staff’s effort to develop a more sustainable postseason offense, but making only 30.7 percent of those attempts (second-worst) raises the question of whether that many attempts are warranted.

Now, I do think it’s better to start of striving for as high a number as possible and working your way back down to an optimal point, so it will help to have a better contextual outlook of these numbers once Lowry’s long-distance numbers stabilize and Powell hopefully trends upwards. If they can make 10 threes a game but only require 26-28 attempts to do so, some paint-twos wouldn’t be a bad tradeoff.

With the team’s ability to score inside and get to the free-throw line, they should look for a three-point attempt range where making one of every three shots is a reasonable expectation.

This is where, in my opinion, maintaining Powell as a starter is imperative. Despite his struggles to start the season, his strength lies in being a catch-and-shoot threat, and keeping him in the company of Lowry and DeRozan maximizes his opportunities to do so. If C.J. Miles is already the only serviceable outside threat on the bench unit, those offensive numbers only stand to worsen if Powell is swapped in as a playmaker rather than a shooter.

I do feel for Powell, as I do think he has tried to do the right things for the most part. It’s just not falling for him right now. Yes, he’s had his out of control plays, but those are moments he’s had in the past and they just stand out more now during his struggles. The Nuggets game had virtually no positives for the team in general, but the former UCLA guard had some nice rim attacks with the game out of hand and little things like that can serve to build confidence and get in the right head space. Time will tell.

To play more D’Antoni ball, should the Raptors look like Houston more often?

The lineup of Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Siakam-Ibaka has featured a couple of times on the road now — most effectively against Golden State — and it got me wondering whether this is the most Rockets-esque lineup the Raptors have?

Prior to the season, Casey spoke of using DeRozan more often as a primary ball-handler, and if they were to do so with this lineup, it allows him to take on the Harden role with shooters around him and a good rim-runner in Siakam. Lowry’s chemistry with Siakam is no secret at this point, and the more opportunities he has to throw those hit-ahead passes, the better.

The key for the Cameroonian in any lineup is his half-court performance. He thrives in the open court, but if he can be an effective screen setter and a distraction to opponent’s paint defenders, there’s a lot to like about the potential for this lineup’s success.

There is a great deal of defensive versatility to this lineup as well, with arguably the biggest worry stemming from a rebounding standpoint. A team effort on the glass makes the most sense with this unit, as one would expect Ibaka and Siakam to regularly switch out to the perimeter as other teams attempt to minimize the rim protection. Another understandable concern is whenever Ibaka is asked to play the center position for more than spot minutes, but I’d still like to see what this unit is capable of over a larger sample size. In just 28 minutes thus far, this lineup has a net rating of +19.3, a too good to be true assist percentage of 85.2, and defensive rebound percentage of 90.

Jonas Valanciunas best serves the team as a starter, and so finding minutes for this group outside of the starting unit could be a major challenge. Hopefully, his injury wasn’t the only reason we saw it.

It’s easy to jump all over this Denver loss and point out all the ways in which the coaching staff and players went about their business the wrong way, but frankly, as much as one wouldn’t like to think so, these nights happen. As the team still looks to find a settled look and figure out what rotations work best with this new identity, it’s important to keep the perspective a telescope provides of the stars, rather than a magnifying glass of an ant.

Feel free to comment below on what you have your eyes out for or why you agree or disagree with any of the above.

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