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Checking in on early-season storylines

I haven’t seen enough to believe that this season will get significantly different results than before.

The Toronto Raptors are nearly a quarter of the way through the 2017-18 campaign. The overhauled offence and a better-than-expected bench have led to a 12-7 start, good for fourth in the conference. What are the key storylines so far?

Trouble in the frontcourt

If you thought the Jonas Valanciunas debate was in the rear-view mirror, well, sorry. It is alive and well, fuelled by Toronto’s continued first-quarter struggles. The starting line-up of Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Ibaka-Valanciunas is -8.5 in the first quarter, while the same line-up with OG Anunoby instead of Norm is -11.5. Those numbers are not JV’s fault alone, but his defensive limitations are quickly exposed.

Over the past five games, Valanciunas has not played more than 20 minutes. He’s down to a career-low 20 minutes per game too. The starting centre we’ve come accustomed to over the last five seasons may find himself in a new role, and soon.

The power forward spot is a question mark too. Serge Ibaka has been a confounding player this season. His effort has ranged from good to pathetic and more often falls into the suboptimal category. Shifting Ibaka to centre could help. His athleticism was a question mark last year and he’s done nothing to make you feel good about it through a month and a half of play this season. But his foot speed is still solid enough to be a better defender in pick and roll situations. The problem that could be exposed is Ibaka’s rebounding regression. He’s down to 5.4 rebounds per game, the lowest since his rookie year. Playing beside an elite-level rebounder is a factor here, but Ibaka averaged 6.8 rebounds per game with Valanciunas last  year.

Offensively, Ibaka’s decision-making has been frustrating. 45.4% of his shots have been threes and he’s shooting 33.8%. The criticism is not the volume of threes but the times he decides to shoot them. Ibaka will take contested threes when he doesn’t need to or pass out of open opportunities. Perhaps he’s still feeling out his role in this system, which is the third he’s learned since the start of last season, but it’s holding the team back at times.

Young players are creating good problems to have

Masai Ujiri’s magic has put Toronto in the rare spot where they can build for the future while winning in the present. The team has largely nailed the draft picks and OG Anunoby is the headliner here. The rookie has drawn praise from national media and superstars alike: Zach Lowe has had nothing but positive things to say and Kevin Durant gave him a shoutout earlier this week.

Anunoby’s value is both overt and subtle. Right away, you can see how long Anunoby is. He’s sixth on the team in deflections, but everyone ahead of him plays more minutes. OG is already a defensive difference-maker, a title that is not given out quickly and especially not for rookies. And OG has shown a great feel for the game, making smart and quick decisions on offence. There are times where he buffers a bit, most notably on threes, but he’s shown growth in that area too.

The development on Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright has been encouraging as well. Poeltl plays with confidence, excelling as a roll guy with exceptional hands. He’s a weapon that doesn’t need the ball to have an impact, an invaluable trait in a roster like this. Wright’s shoulder injury sets back what was a strong start. Thrust into a back-up role after the departure of Cory Joseph, Wright offered a different look at the point guard position and showed creativity and craft while leading the bench units.

With strong play from bench players comes inevitable debate. Poeltl’s play has created a very real argument for taking Jonas Valanciunas out of the starting line-up. Anunoby deserves minutes and the Raptors already have C.J. Miles and Norm Powell as wing options. It will be fascinating to watch how the coaching staff tinkers with roles and rotations to maximize the talent on this roster.

Looking ahead to April

For me, there’s a bit of a cloud hanging over the season. Toronto’s regular season success has gone from something that is celebrated to something that is expected. As fun as it is to discuss to improved play of the young guys and the fluidity of the new offence, I find myself asking how much these things will matter.

In the playoffs, Toronto likely won’t go as deep into their rotation as they have so far. It’s great to see the group play well, but if Toronto is playing the all-bench units in late April, we’re overthinking things.

And while the offence has changed and generally made for a better viewing experience, I’m a bit concerned about late-game execution. It has been a weak spot for years: Toronto defers to a DeRozan isolation play over a real play that at least attempts to compromise the defence. We’ve seen it a few times this year, most notably in the narrow loss to the Golden State Warriors. It’s a particularly weird blind spot for this coaching staff because they’ve already acknowledged the limitations of that style of play through changing the offence. Why swap what you’ve been doing only to go back to it when the game is on the line?

So far, I haven’t seen enough to believe that this season will get significantly different results than before. There’s still three quarters of the season for me to change my mind.

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