RR Mailbag

New Year, New Mailbag: Raptors rotation, Wrestle Kingdom, and more

Let’s get these new-year buckets.

The Blake Murphy Open Challenge is back for a New Year’s edition that is hopefully going to be a little lighter (in tone, if not length) than usual. You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here, if, for whatever reason, you wanted to read old mailbags.

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 do this. And happy new year!

Raptors rotation

E-mail question from Rob: “Jack Armstrong suggested the other day that a combo of JV and 4 guards would be an interesting combo. When Wright comes back it might be a way to get FVV extra minutes. I am not sure why Jack would prefer FVV over a different big and wondered if you had any thoughts.”

In general, the idea of going four-out around Jonas Valanciunas makes some sense. He’s an elite screen-setter and rim-runner, and spreading the floor around him forces a defense to make tough decisions in the pick-and-roll. If they match up small, it also gives him an additional edge on the glass. Defensively, it would depend entirely on what the opposition looked like, though the concern would probably be that if the opponent down-sized, there could be a lot of speed attacking Valanciunas downhill. You could get away with the three point guards, a shooting wing (C.J. Miles or OG Anunoby), and Valanciunas, but a non-shooter or a fourth true guard in that Miles/Anunoby slot would probably be very matchup-specific.

The Raptors have actually tried the three point guard with Valanciunas this year and have been outscored by nine in a tiny three-minute sample (split across three appearances. Looking for a larger sample? Valanciunas has played 60 minutes without a second true big on the floor, and the Raptors have played to a slight positive in that time. They played 327 minutes with Valanciunas as the lone big last year and were essentially even.

All of that is to say, you can definitely go four-out around Valanciunas, especially if you have shooters and defenders around him. When I’ve proposed Valanciunas-and-bench minutes in the past, the lineups would have looked something like that. It’s going to be matchup-specific, though, and with the Raptors’ frontcourt depth, there may not be a time it’s necessary unless they really need offense in a hurry against an opponent with a Valanciunas-style center.

So, a bit about my Raptors 905 coverage: I watch every game, but I don’t attend every home game. I’ve probably been to 15-18 of their 25 home games each of the last two years, because sometimes they overlap with the Raptors, or getting to Mississauga is too big a pain, or I’m not writing anything except a recap and I can manage that remotely once in a while to help my sanity. I showed up on Saturday and Sunday this weekend with the Raptors off in part because the team had been on the road a while but also because I thought there was the slimmest of chances that Norman Powell might get sent down for a game to get some confidence back.

That was probably the best window they’re going to have for such an experiment, with both teams home and the parent club off entirely. I understand why they didn’t do it. There’s a bit of an optics issue with it, especially with Powell’s contract extension and potential trade value this summer being a factor. There’s also an ego factor, and while Powell knows better than anyone how much a 905 stint can help, it probably would have been a tough day mentally. There’s also a chance that a shaky game with the 905 could make things worse.

Really, though, he wasn’t assigned because the team has faith in him pulling out of this on his own. Powell’s been through slumps before. It’s telling that Dwane Casey opted not to use him at all in a tight game Monday, and he would seem to have fallen to the 11th-man spot in the rotation for the time being. That means he’ll need to fight his way back in spot minutes in games the rotation is deeper or someone else struggles, which isn’t new to him, either. What, exactly, the solution is remains unclear – he’s clearly forcing it on offense, but the shooting slump might just be noise (he’s probably more 33-percent shooter than sub-30-percent shooter), and he’s had spurs of improved defense. The game off may have even helped clear his head, who knows? In any case, it would probably take Powell’s slump continuing until after the G League Showcase next week (when the Raptors don’t assign players) for the Raptors to give it real consideration.

It depends entirely if you mean for the remainder of the regular season or in the playoffs. I’m fine with the rotation staying 10-deep during the season, maybe even 11 some nights, because it’s working to help keep minutes down for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and it’s important to get the young guys plenty of reps to improve and to learn about them. I’d probably be leaning on that all-bench unit less, instead staggering the stars more and making sure C.J. Miles is with them if they are used. I don’t have a lot of objections with the minutes in the big picture, though nobody will be surprised to learn that I’d like to see them come back down a hair for the All-Stars with Miles getting a few extra minutes. (I’d also be using Lucas Nogueira and Jakob Poeltl on a matchup basis rather than as a C2 and C3, an unpopular opinion.)

Come playoff time, I’d be shortening it to nine. The starters, Miles, and Delon Wright are all in there for sure, and then you probably play only one of Powell/Fred VanVleet and one of Pascal Siakam/Poeltl/Nogueira (keeping in mind that Serge Ibaka figures to play more time at center in the postseason). One name probably then takes the “Powell Role” as the spark plug/energy/we-need-a-boost 10th man, and the others bide their time until ineffectiveness or foul trouble or situation require them. Matchups would probably dictate whom I select from each of those groups

Teams use their benches less in the playoffs, even teams with good benches. The Raptors have done so significantly two years in a row. That doesn’t figure to change as they ratchet up minutes for Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka, and Miles – there’s just not enough time in the game to get 10-12 guys enough run to where they’re comfortable and used properly.

Raptors miscellaneous

I can’t really give you odds for the probability, but it’s at the same time pretty amazing and not all that surprising. The tough thing about the draft for a lot of general managers is that they need short-to-medium-term returns on picks, and they can sometimes be risk-averse as a result. Draft an injured player who misses his rookie year? Draft a long-term project? You might not be around to reap those returns. This isn’t the case for every executive, of course, but it’s an advantage Masai Ujiri’s job security affords him – he can make what he feels are the best decisions without concern for his job if it takes some time to pan out or doesn’t at all.

In Anunoby’s case, the injury risk factor was obviously at play here, as was the believe he couldn’t shoot. Fran Fraschilla made it sound on the broadcast as if teams weren’t as enamored with him as once believed, anyway (“sexy blogger pick”), and the combination of questions about his knee and his offense scared a few teams. It already looks like a huge mistake on their part – Anunoby would go in the top 10 in a redraft already – but nearly every year there is a name or two that immediately looks like a collective mistake on the part of the league once they get on the floor. This year has several (Anunoby, Kyle Kuzma, Jordan “$3.5M” Bell).

So it’s improbable that 22 teams talked themselves out of a talent like this, but given the injury concerns and how often this happens, it’s not entirely out of nowhere. The Raptors were ecstatic at the time and remain so.

I would say it’s an anomaly. It’s crazy to think that while Anunoby would go in the top 10 of a redraft, he might not go in the top five despite how good he’s been. This is a ludicrous crop of talent that came in ready to contribute already with substantial upside, a rarity. And there’s probably something to your point about players being better prepared to make the jump now, given that some college programs groom for the NBA and players are working out with individual trainers with an eye on the NBA so early in their careers. You don’t have to go back too far to find a draft where all of that didn’t result in much. The 2016 draft, for example, is still taking some time to make an impact. We’d probably have to see it for a couple more years to comfortably say it’s a new paradigm.

What a class, though.

It’s an interesting question. Obviously, a lot of the answer depends on just how rapidly he keeps developing over the next two years. He’s already a useful rotation piece and a quality starter, so him turning into an even better version of himself with the benefit of more defensive experience isn’t outlandish at all. He’s a great find. Maybe the biggest thing he does is provide all of this on a dirt-cheap rookie contract, which allows the Raptors’ front office the flexibility this coming summer and the next to attack trades and free agency knowing they have the defensive piece they’ve been seeking locked in, without spending to get it. They’re low on financial flexibility in general for this window, but Anunoby being A Thing really helps and lets them prioritize shooting for the second unit with the little wiggle room they’ll have, which is significant.

The answer also depends on where LeBron James heads and what happens with the Golden State Warriors, if we’re being honest. Until James is not this version of himself or he’s not in the conference – or he gets knocked off in the playoffs – he’ll be the benchmark. And if you get past that, there’s a multi-year juggernaut acting as a secondary ceiling. Even with Anunoby, the ceiling here might be “minor-threat what-if-it-breaks-right contender” rather than “minor-threat Cavaliers warm-up,” which is still a hell of a place to be for a few more years.

I definitely don’t think the location is that big a hindrance anymore. The momentum the city has built up the last few years, in general and in basketball circles, is remarkable. Toronto is legitimately a basketball city, now, and you’ll hear Kevin Durant and LeBron James rave about the quality of the Air Canada Centre fans. That’s before mentioning Toronto’s robust nightlife and unbelievable summers, when players will visit regularly without an attachment to the city. It’s probably not to the point of being an advantage, given some of the drawbacks that come with it (namely: U.S. attention), but I don’t think it’s a negative factor anymore.

The Raptors’ greatest asset toward a championship is probably Ujiri, yes, or the power structure in general. They’re owned by a deep-pocketed organization that’s been cutting checks for multiple teams to do what they need to do to be competitive for a few years now, all without interfering in the team-building process. That gives the Raptors plenty of assets in terms of infrastructure and attracting and keeping top executives. Combine that with a revamped culture, player development system, and the best stretch in team history that no longer makes the Raptors an outsider franchise, and it’s a pretty good starting point. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Masai Ujiri, Dwane Casey, and the rest have help redefined what the Raptors are to the rest of the league.

What stands in their way is the same thing that stands in the way of most teams: That acquiring a superstar is the best path to a championship and that it’s very hard to do that. It’s possible that the biggest hindrance for the next while ends up being that they were good during this time, right before the tanking rules shift to make landing a superstar from the draft a bit more random.

I think it’s still pretty early for concerns like this, mostly because the Raptors have barely played any good teams at home. It’s true that the Raptors are only 8-8 against teams above .500, which over an entire season would make them seem like a paper tiger of sorts. Of those 16 games, though, only five have come at home, and they’re 4-1 in those. When the competition gets stiffer, road games become even tougher. They’d probably like to be better than 4-7 against .500 teams on the road, but it’s not an unforgivable record, especially since almost all of their Western Conference visits are done.

This doesn’t mean it’s not a potential issue. January should be telling, with home games against Milwaukee (W), Miami, Cleveland, Golden State, San Antonio, Utah, and Minnesota, plus road games in Milwaukee and Minnesota. The sample of how the Raptors will play against elite teams will be much larger in a few weeks, and the home-road split will have balanced out some, giving a more clear picture. If it helps at all, Basketball Reference’s SRS and ESPN’s BPI both try to control for the difficulty of the schedule (in a number of ways), and both show the Raptors as the third-best team in the NBA so far and the best in the East. That won’t make anyone feel comfortable until the Raptors go 6-3 or something against .500 teams this month, but it is a stat that exists.

(As for the mental/wilting side, I don’t really think that’s a thing. The Raptors’ offense has sputtered in the playoffs because of a combination of schematics, injury, undue fatigue, and poor shooting from the stars on top of that. I really only think it’s the Wizards series that stands out as some failure of character, though – they took Brooklyn to seven with the biggest experience gap imaginable, won a pair of Game 7s en route to taking Cleveland to six in the conference finals, and rebounded from a bad Game 1 to still beat the Bucks in six. There’s a lot in there that suggests the fortitude to pull out of tough situations, even if there’s clearly been something going on offensively.)

So, you guys know the Raptors and how they deal with injuries. They’re not going to say anything, ever. Lowry has dealt with a handful of minor bumps and bruises this year, but nothing that’s cost him actual time. I think Lowry and the Raptors have both learned from the last few years and would sit him down at this point if something were off.

As for the wrist wrap, Lowry actually wasn’t wearing it for his pre-game workout on Monday, which suggests to me it’s more of a preventative measure than an actual concern or discomfort thing. After undergoing surgery to remove loose bodies last year, he may be opting to tape it up as a precaution. Boxers and fighters tape their hands and wrists for joint stability, sprain reduction, and a reduction in the likelihood of injury to the small bones in the hand and wrist, for example.

So, the team will never tell us if something’s up, but it seems like a maintenance thing more than hiding an injury.

I’m thankful I don’t have to do this kind of comparison often. I’m sure you guys have heard all the main ones by now, as laid out nicely in the question. I’m going to take a different approach to answering rather than the spiritual/roster construction similarity approach. Our friends at NBA Math have a tool called the FATS Calculator, which allows us to see the teams most similar to the Raptors based on some current statistical benchmarks.

Entering the Raptors current Four Factors at both ends of the floor, they come out with a projected record of 55.7-26.3 (they’re on pace for 58.6). Here are their five most similar teams:

  • 95-96 Lakers (53-29, lost in 4 in first round)
  • 01-02 Kings (61-21, lost in 7 in conference finals)
  • 07-08 Hornets (56-26, lost in 7 in second round)
  • 76-77 Lakers (53-29, lost in 4 in second round)
  • 77-78 Lakers (45-37, lost in 3 in first round)

It’s a bit of a mixed back but with a pair of fairly recent successes. Who knew the Raptors were actually the late-70s Lakers, though? I’ll say this much: They will absolutely last longer in the playoffs than the 77-78 Lakers. Can’t imagine even a Bucks-Cavs superteam coached by Randy Wittman could knock the Raptors out in three games.

It’s probably going to be tough for Dwane Casey to take home Coach of the Year. In general, that award seems to be reserved for over-performing teams or out-of-nowhere seasons, the coach of the best team in a dominant year, and, in the event those don’t occur, a sort of “he’s always the best coach” nod (the Gregg Popovich). Casey’s case would have to be made entirely in a subtler grey area where a team’s that’s been quite good for four years is once again good in a fifth, just in a different way – that’s an easy thing to appreciate as the team’s going through it day-to-day, and it’s surely something those who think long and hard will appreciate.

Casey, who is supposed to be this old-school, pound-the-rock, set-in-his-ways type, continues to grow as much as anyone on the roster, empowering his assistants, fostering new buy-in from the stars, fundamentally changing the team’s style to one that is not his instinctual modus operandi, managing minutes better, and helping to develop a host of young players while staying in win-now mode. That the Raptors are this good again, taking the culture reset to heart (so far, mostly), and have a better defense than expected are all important successes. Any Casey criticisms – and there are still some, to be fair, as there are with most coaches – come in the micro, while he’s demonstrably excellent in the macro responsibilities of the job.

What probably hurts Casey the most is that the award will be voted on at the end of the regular season. There will probably be a healthy amount of skepticism as to whether the Raptors’ changes can carry over to the playoffs, and there’s no way for voters to wait to find out. That, factored in with a number of candidates already emerging, probably makes his chances long – he was a +2500 at last check.

Resolutions

Alright, let’s try this very quickly since I’ve seen it done a few other places much better.

Kyle Lowry – Open a hot pilates studio
DeMar DeRozan – Reveal what Vince Staples was talking about
OG Anunoby – Break P.J. Tucker’s BioSteel Centre squat record
Serge Ibaka – Fewer IG Story selfies
Jonas Valanciunas – Hit enough threes Drummond has to come out next time, then hit him with the pump-fake and drive

Delon Wright – Get Dorell to sign a 10-day with the Raptors
Fred VanVleet – Average one haircut per-day, up from 0.9 in 2017
Norman Powell – Get C.J. Miles to do a feature on his next Go Daddy tape
C.J. Miles – Just get some rest, buddy
Pascal Siakam – Help the eSports team launch a FIFA team, then captain it
Jakob Poeltl – Give Reynolds a new “yelling Poeltl” picture to use by dunking on a Plumlee
Lucas Nogueira – Eyelid tattoos, let’s get it

Dwane Casey – Take a taxidermy class to learn the actual ways to skin a cat
Masai Ujiri – Adopt Will already
Bobby Webster – Agree to begin confirming if 100 percent of my cap article details are correct

Non-Raptors miscellaneous

Raptors 905 winning the G League Championship this spring seems to have kick-started Toronto’s run to be the City of Fringe-League Champions. They were followed by Toronto Wolfpack winning the third-division rugby league, the Toronto Argonauts winning the Grey Cup, and Toronto FC winning the MLS Cup. The Wolfpack aren’t an MLSE property (yet). The others are (at least now, in the case of the Argos), and they also have the Maple Leafs, Raptors, and Marlies, and if the Blue Jays sale rumors are accurate, they could conceivably fall under the MLSE umbrella soon, too.

As much as I’d love to say the Raptors (or even the Leafs) here, my guess is the Marlies. It’d be pretty fitting for Toronto to keep this run of championships up without one in one of the three major leagues, and the Marlies are legitimately great – they’re currently second in the AHL in points and third in points percentage, and they’ve built up some playoff experience the last couple of years. The Leafs could get in their way some with trades or call-ups, and the Leafs and Raptors will both be playoff teams. The guess here is the Marlies do it first.

This is a great question, and a tough one to answer. When I wrote up my favorite albums of 2017, I included my 20 favorite live performances of the year at the end. I’m not sure exactly where the line is for “non-headline,” but the best performance that wasn’t the last to go on stage was Pup on the Saturday of WayHome. This feels like cheating – they were in the second last block on a full day event, their guitarist is a friend, and I’ve seen them so many times now (because they are an incredible, incredible live band). If Pup don’t count, the nod would go to Sorority Noise, who were the second act of a really strong Great Grandpa – Sorority Noise – Citizen show. This kind of feels like cheating a bit, too, since I went to that show specifically to see Sorority Noise.

I’m going to just list my five favorite non-headliner performances I saw this year and people can choose their own cut-off for what qualifies.

  1. Pup (WayHome)
  2. Sorority Noise (with Great Grandpa and Citizen)
  3. Jazz Cartier (WayHome)
  4. July Talk (with The Arkells)
  5. YG (with Kendrick Lamar)

This card is crazy. For anyone who doesn’t know what this question is about but might care, WK12, or Wrestle Kingdom 12, is the biggest Japanese wrestling card of the year. It’s essentially New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestlemania, and it happens in the first week of every year. It’s always a loaded card with terrific wrestling and some really strong long-term storytelling, issue being that it begins at 3 a.m. Eastern. This will be my second year in a row watching live after two years of watching on torrents and feeling like I missed out seeing it in real-time.

The two matches Chris noted are Okada-Naito (Kazuchika Okada defending his Heavyweight Championship against Tetsuya Naito, the culmination of a five-year story arc for Naito and an historic title reign for Okada; both are top-five wrestlers in the world right now) and Omega-Jericho (Kenny Omega defending his U.S. Championship against Chris Jericho, truly a fantasy-match, this-could-never-actually-happen scenario pitting Winnipeg’s two best exports head-to-head in a match that might have more appeal stateside than any New Japan match ever). They’re going to make the show, but the undercard is loaded with matches that should really entertain even if you’re clueless to the story. Those are big feature stories I wrote on Jericho and Omega, by the way. Please read them.

The undercard match I’m most looking forward to is Marty Scurll defending his Jr. Heavyweight Championship against Will Ospreay, KUSHIDA, and Hiromu Takahashi in a four-way match. This match has such a tremendous mix of overlapping storylines and four of the best in-ring technicians in the entire junior circuit right now. I’m incredibly in the tank for Scurll as a character, Ospreay is one of the two or three best acrobats in wrestling, KUSHIDA had a breakout 2017, and Takahashi is so charismatic he got a stuffed toy cat over. There should be a healthy mix of psychology, high-flying, and comedy here.

I’m not sure if this was asking for a winner or just whomst I like best. If it’s the latter, Scurll is above everyone else (and almost anyone else in wrestling) for me, because the character work is just too strong (really excited for his Wrestle Kingdom entrance, too). Takahashi probably comes next for the odd-ball charisma, then Ospreay because he’s something completely unique (even if your mileage might vary on the aerials), and finally KUSHIDA, who is very good all-around but is in a question with three immense talents. If you want me to pick a winner in the match, I think Takahasi takes it, because it feels like it could be a big night for Los Ingobernables de Japon.

To re-plug from above: I wrote about Chris Jericho constantly reinventing himself to achieve GOAT status and Kenny Omega trying to put New Japan’s global expansion on his shoulders. If you are at all interested in Wrestle Kingdom or wrestling in general, please check them out.

As for Jericho sticking around beyond this match, he’s certainly teased it. When I talked to him last month for the story, he was noncommittal, because he makes a lot of his decisions as they come up and on a creativity basis rather than plotting out his career long stretches at a time. One complicating factor is that Jericho has a big tour with Fozzy taking up a big chunk of time in March/April (ruling him out for Wrestlemania back in WWE), so it may have to wait, unless they hot-shot the angle for New Beginning. In general, though, I think he’ll be back – he’s having a ton of fun doing something new and different, and there’s no shortage of interesting matches/angles for him to follow up with if he chooses.

Regarding Naito, I also think they’ve been planting some Omega-Naito seeds nicely in the build to their respective matches. I’m really excited for Thursday.

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