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Raptors Mailbag: Early deadline talk, Riverdale, Royal Rumble, and more

The Blake Murphy Open Challenge is back for a chat before we get into the usual “pre-trade deadline mailbags,” which will be coming in the next couple of weeks. You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here, if, for whatever reason, you wanted to read old mailbags. You can ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag Twitter, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between (unfortunately, it’s too much to keep track of Qs from the comments, so Twitter/email is preferred).

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Alright, let’s do this.

Early Raptors deadline questions

Yes. I’m going to write a proper column on this at some point, but it basically boils down to this: I was initially all for standing pat this year, getting everyone extended experience, maintaining flexibility, and once you have that firm evaluation of all of the pieces, making any moves you need to in the offseason with an eye on 2018-19. I now think the window is more open than anticipated, and while there isn’t a big-splash trade available to the Raptors right now, I would probably make a move to shore up depth/help an area of weakness if one becomes available.

The issue will be that they’re low on marketable assets – a 2019 second, a 2020 first, cash, and maybe one of the young guys are the kind of chips you’re looking at. Those might not get you what you need, and they may sacrifice too much of the post-window future. I would understand entirely if they stood pat.

Damn, man, you gotta send these in separate tweets or pick one. So, your first one – even having said I, personally, would try to make a trade, I don’t think the Raptors will. If I had to guess, this is the playoff roster. Which, again, would be fine. The odds of a move are less than 50/50 and (obviously) higher than zero.

I don’t think Jonas Valanciunas gets moved. He’s having the best season of his career, he fills a huge need on the defensive glass, and is an elite screen-setter and roll finisher. The talk about Valanciunas being moved in the summer was largely about financial considerations that don’t need to be addressed until this coming summer. You lose some leverage waiting, sure, but any Valanciunas trade in-season is going to make the Raptors weaker inside and probably worse overall. It’s great that his value is back up and he’s playing well, but I can’t really see a scenario in which they get fair value back, or a situation where he’s played well enough to get you in the conversation for a star type.

Tyreke Evans is an interesting name, for sure. He’s a passable defender at multiple spots and he’s shooting the hell out of the ball. He also only makes $3.3 million, which puts him in the “realistic, if unlikely” bin.

People seem really concerned about the team’s defensive rebounding. That tends to happen after surrendering 32 offensive boards over two games. The Raptors are down to 18th in defensive rebounding percentage a year after ranking 16th. It turns out that having a great defensive rebounder (Bismack Biyombo) backing up your elite defensive rebound (Valanciunas) is helpful in that regard. This is part of why dealing Valanciunas would be difficult – he ranks seventh in the NBA with a 31-percent defensive rebounding rate and the Raptors grab 77.9 percent of available defensive rebounds when he’s on the floor (it falls to 75.8 percent when he’s off).

I’m not sure that’s a weakness that can be resolved via trade. That would mean moving away from Jakob Poeltl (who they’re invested in and who does a lot of things well) in the backup role and likely excising Lucas Nogueira (who remains quite good at everything but rebounding), and I don’t think they want to do those things. It’s likely an issue they have to resolve schematically – the Raptors are scoring more in transition than any other team, which is great, but getting out on the run once the shot goes up comes with it’s costs. It’s a tough trade-off, specifically with the Pascal Siakam-Poeltl second-unit pairing that runs so well but bleeds on the defensive glass. They may need to dial that element of their offense back just a bit. And some of it is attention to detail – I’d love to know the number of times Nogueira contests a shot at the rim and then the Raptors concede an offensive rebound because nobody has picked up his man to box out.

Shooting is more solvable via the trade market, and if they make a deal, the guess here is that it’s for another positionally versatile shooter. Those aren’t abundantly available or cheap, but the Raptors shooting threes at the seventh-highest rate (per-field goal attempt) with the 25th-best 3-point percentage is worrisome. Adding an average-or-better shooter at the back end of the rotation is probably a best-case on the current trade market with Toronto’s limited flexibility.

It’s the time of year where I feel like a jerk for knocking down a lot of trade ideas, and any for a marquee player are likely to fall under that umbrella. The biggest impediment is that the Raptors can’t add much salary. The other would be that for anyone making significant money to come back, that team would have to really like Valanciunas (and the trade scenario would have to not leave the Raptors woefully thin on the boards). I think any marquee acquisitions would have to wait for the offseason when the Raptors are no longer under a hard cap and when Norman Powell can be dealt to help match salary.

Raptors miscellaneous

Definitely. I wrote about this about a month ago and the numbers were pretty staggering in terms of how his shot profile had changed from Indiana to Toronto – he’s shooting from the corners less often and getting far fewer open shots. An updated look at the numbers:

Basically, this comes down to three things: Miles playing primarily with bench-heavy units where he’s the biggest threat on the floor, Miles not playing much with the stars where defenses have to make incredibly difficult decisions, and opponents selling out to ride Miles up above the break. These things, of course, are tied together – play Miles more with the stars, he’ll get more open looks; tighten the playoff rotation, those all-bench minutes now involve a star for defenses to worry about; sell out to keep Miles off the arc and let the Raptors play 4-on-4 underneath it with less help.

I’m really not worried about Miles’ offense. He’s doing well even with this tougher shot mix, and the Raptors figure to do a better job of maximizing his gravity and shooting as the leverage ratchets up.

E-mail question: There seems to be a correlation between raptors players in godaddy commercials and them having a crap seasons.  When does the godaddy curse become a thing?

I’m a little concerned. Last year’s commercial featured Valanciunas, Nogueira, and Patrick Patterson. Valanciunas has rebounded now and Nogueira had an injury curse long before GoDaddy came along. Patterson, well, yeah. This year’s commercial certainly seems to be having an effect on Norman Powell, and with apologies to the lyrics, it is not a big NP, no problem to me. It is a problem.

I really do think it’s a psychological thing right now. Generally, I hesitate to ascribe anything to a player’s psyche, because we just don’t have that kind of window. But I have no other explanation – everything looks fine physically. The form on his jumper hasn’t really changed, and even if you (correctly) warned that a 40-percent shooting rookie season was an anomaly, he’s better than 29 percent, too. His first step is still great attacking closeouts or from the corner, and he does well to get into the paint, he’s just finishing horribly – he’s shooting only 52.6 percent inside of three feet, down from 59.8 percent last year and 54.7 percent as a rookie. Only five players have shot worse in close with that many attempts this year – Lonzo Ball, Fred VanVleet, Dejounte Murray, Dennis Schroder, and C.J. McCollum.

If there’s an encouraging sign, it’s that Powell’s defense hasn’t been all that bad through his struggles. There are occasional lapses, but he’s been mostly fine. This seems a matter of him really pressing on the offensive end when he’s given his small windows, because his decision-making on offense has been suspect and these cases of the yips at the rim and beyond the arc are worse than in his two earlier seasons. I’m skeptical he just got significantly worse at 24.

The change has been pretty dramatic. Up until Dec. 20, Anunoby shot 46.5 percent on three threes per-game. Absolutely nobody should have expected that to continue. He was a rookie, first of all, and he’s one who came in without much track record of shooting. What that stretch should have done, though, is adjust expectations and probably remove “non-shooter” from Anunoby’s scouting report. In fact, when I studied every other player who had started their career shooting that well from three, there was exactly one player who didn’t end up at least being a passable 3-point shooter in their career: Roddy Beaubois. Essentially, Anunoby showed enough in that stretch that he would be a statistical oddity if he didn’t settle in as at least a 34-percent shooter or better.

In the 16 games since, he’s hit 17 percent on 2.9 attempts per-game. That’s bad, and he’s not alone – Powell, Siakam, and Ibaka are all in the bottom-10 in the league for 3-point shooting the last month. I’m not worried this is the shooter he is, but with his season percentage now down to 36.1, I worry a little bit that teams are going to go back to ignoring him in the corners, which could gum things up on the offensive end for the starters. If he settles in around 34-36 percent, that’ll be fine, as it’s enough of a success rate to punish those opponent decisions.

Defensively, Anunoby has maybe hit a bit of a mental wall, though he says he has not. He’s still doing a great job when guarding ball-dominant players one-on-one, but his off-ball defense and ability to chase quicker threats around screens has been up and down. That’s pretty typical for a young player, and Anunoby’s still way ahead of the curve on that end of the floor. I don’t think there’s much more to his tough stretch than regression after a ludicrously good start and a bit of the rookie wall – he’ll keep improving when we zoom out from the week-to-week ups and downs. I hope, anyway. It’s been too fun a rookie season to stall out now.

There were three lineups I was mostly looking forward to seeing how they work this year, and neither has been featured a ton.

The first is the starters with Miles, which was originally my preference for the starting lineup (over Powell; I didn’t think Anunoby would be ready so quickly). That group has barely played – they’ve gotten 12 minutes over seven appearances, essentially all of which have been quick three- or four-possession stints that it’s tough to draw anything from (they’ve been outscored, but there’s a ton of noise there). That group figures to struggle some defensively but be lethal offensively if put together, and I’d like to see more of it, maybe for a few minutes in the early middle portions of the first and third (typically, Miles checks in with another bench player). Even the four-man group of Lowry, DeRozan, Miles, and Ibaka that figured to make up the bulk of closing lineups has only played 64 minutes together (minus-5 net rating), in part because Miles hasn’t played super well defensively and the Raptors like to have a second point guard out late.

The second was whatever iteration of Lowry-and-bench we’d get this year. For years, that look has lit up opponents no matter who the other four players were. As part of the team’s attempt to scale Lowry’s minutes back, though, the team has only played 104 minutes with Lowry on the floor and Ibaka, DeRozan, and Valanciunas off of it. Not surprisingly, they’ve crushed teams – plus-17.6 net rating – there just isn’t a great sample for any one fivesome (no group has played more than 21 minutes). Lowry-Wright-Miles-Siakam-Poeltl might have the most potential out of those groups, and there’s even been some toying with three point guards. There’s not a ton of sample yet, but rest assured these units will be effective when they’re called on.

The third is Wright with the starters, either in place of Valanciunas in a downsized look or in place of Anunoby/Miles as an extra ball-handler. It’s no secret how optimistic about Wright I’ve been, and his combination of length and play-making make him a natural fit as a closer if Dwane Casey really wants an extra point guard on the floor. And he’s gotten some opportunity – Wright has played 103 minutes with Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka all on the floor, and the Raptors are plus-16 points per-100 possessions in those minutes. That includes a plus-7.9 mark in 48 fourth-quarter minutes. Wright has a legitimate case to join the three primaries as a frequent closer, though he’s only played 34 of the team’s 79 clutch minutes (fifth on the team but fewer than VanVleet; the net ratings are poor for both, as the Raptors have not been good in the clutch).

Not to the same degree, no. They have a few pet plays that have been pretty effective – a Lowry lob for DeRozan out of rip punch, the Twirl option out of double-drag, their AI series to get DeRozan the ball on the move, and a couple others – but they really simplify things in crunch time. Basically, their go-to is a watered-down version of the Warriors’ play: A DeRozan-Lowry 2-1 pick-and-roll usually aimed to get DeRozan a switch onto a smaller defender, where he can then go to work. The team has also experimented with using VanVleet as the screener, which allows Lowry to spot up on the weakside, and they could probably get away with Wright as a screener for that purpose, too, although he’s likely to have a bigger defender on him.

This strategy has been effective in years past. DeRozan is a singularly talented mismatch attacker, especially with a size advantage. His usage rate in the clutch is astronomical, and he gets to the line like crazy. The Raptors’ offense in the clutch this year has been bad so far, though, and this approach needs some tweaking. I’ll write about that in more detail at The Athletic this week.

I’m taking Anunoby as well. In an earlier mailbag, I was asked to rank that group on upside, and that’s how I’d do it for All-Star potential, too, since none project as an All-Star right now. Anunoby has the highest ceiling of the group, so he gets the nod if I have to guess.

The Raptors have two distinct advantages with respect to keeping VanVleet that they didn’t with Biyombo. The first is that VanVleet is a restricted free agent, which means the Raptors can tender him a qualifying offer this summer, giving them the right to match any offer sheet he signs. Because VanVleet only has two years in the league, the first year in such an offer sheet can’t exceed the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. The second is that the Raptors will hold Early Bird Rights on VanVleet, which they didn’t have on Biyombo. That means they can sign him for up to 105 percent of the league average salary from this year (that works out to $8.2 million after the five-percent bump) and match an offer sheet up to that mid-level amount.

The issue, then, won’t necessarily be having the tools to keep him but figuring out what his market is and whether they can afford to. The Raptors are almost surely going to be a tax team next season, and VanVleet might be deemed a luxury they can’t afford if he commands upwards of $5 million (and if that seems extreme, remember that his Wichita State pal Ron Baker got two years and $9 million from the Knicks for some reason). The team really likes VanVleet, he seems pretty comfortable here, and the restricted free agent market doesn’t project as particularly friendly this summer. It’s certainly possible he’s back on a shorter-term deal that lets him hit the market as an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

Indiana or Detroit, and it’s not particularly close. Those teams are fun success stories but they’re not particularly threatening from a matchup perspective over seven games. Detroit has fallen out of the playoff picture, anyway, and the bottom half of the East currently looks like it would be Washington, Indiana, Milwaukee, and Philly, with Detroit as a wild-card. I’d rank them in order of preference as Detroit, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Philly. Philly with no back-to-backs and another half-season to have learned to win and maximize their roster is terrifying. Washington is obviously very good at the top. Milwaukee wasn’t too scary with Jason Kidd but their defensive approach may change now, and it’s never safe to go up against a top-5 or top-10 level player in any series. Detroit and Indiana are significantly better options.

Non-Raptors miscellaneous

This week hasn’t been too bad, as I’ve made a concerted effort to try to catch up a bit. They were terrible sleeps, but I was physically in bed for eight hours each of the last two nights, which is big for me. According to my app, I averaged 5:54 of sleep last week and 4:54 during G League Showcase week, so I was due some rest. Usually if I can hit six hours, I’m good. “I only love my bed…” is the least I’ve ever related to a Drake lyric.

Honestly, this is pretty impossible to answer. I live in Canada, so I’m not even sure I’ve gotten all the best ones, and I googled for a while and couldn’t find a list of historic ones to go off of to make sure I’m not forgetting anything. The Malkovich one for the AFC Championship game was phenomenal. It’s really tough to top that, especially since I’m a Jaguars fan. I will say that the one with Timo Cruz from Coach Carter for the MLB playoffs a few years ago was the worst.

It wasn’t a promo, persay, but the best celebrity-in-sport involvement of all-time is when Kevin Owens powerbombed Machine Gun Kelly into oblivion.

Also, this isn’t celebrity/non-sports, but I will use any excuse to post this. Sorry for not answering the question. I hope this makes up for it.

Sigh. I redacted a bunch of “The Blue Jays’ floor is so high…” jokes, using my better judgment at the expense of laughs. The Blue Jays’ floor, though, is insanely high. I know some people haven’t loved the offseason strategy of shoring up their gaping holes rather than adding high-end talent at the top, but you know what’s just as good as great players? An absence of bad players. This seems silly, but we know that baseball has the opposite of diminishing returns (statistically), and the marginal gains made by upgrading negative-win players to even slight positive players, especially on offense, will have an exponential effect. (Yes, adding marginal wins higher up the win curve has a larger big-picture effect, but you have to get to 83 wins before you can get to 90, you know?) A floor also provides insurance for an aging roster, trade chips if the Jays decide to make a splash in-season, or a safety net if the Jays decide to blow it up and don’t want to start burning service time for their prospects.

Now, use the money left from those inexpensive additions to add an Alex Cobb/Lance Lynn type, bump Joe Biagini back to the bullpen, and you’re in a good position to at least challenge for a wild card spot on paper. From there, baseball is random as hell.

I’m sorry I’m getting to your question late, Nathan, but hopefully you listened to my Riverdale podcast last week for my take. No, obviously, Mr. Svenson was not The Black Hood. That little snitch Archie has his suspicions, and so do I. I think they laid it on pretty thick that it wasn’t really The Black Hood, now it’s just a matter of how long before he resurfaces. There are interesting theories, almost all of which center around Betty, given her proximity to the killer through all of this – it’s clearly someone who knows her and her family well, and while he’s estranged, her brother fits the bill if you allow the writers some leeway (which you have to – it’s Riverdale). I’m sticking with Betty’s brother being The Black Hood, even though his introduction felt like a new storyline. I just don’t have a good guess who else it would be that makes sense, and her brother clearly has some unresolved issues with the family.

FP Jones.

They are, yeah. I think, anyway. If Neville and Itami have taught us anything, it’s that cruiserweights are now for the cruiserweight division no matter how good they are. That’s really disappointing. Maybe they’ll shift things, though. I could see Ricochet doing an NXT run, and that might be preferable to a 205 Live debut. One idea if he does go to 205, and it’s a long shot, is him running roughshod using the “King” part of his gimmick (there’s already WWE artwork mocked up for this, by the way), which eventually leads to a Neville return, since he’s the King of the Cruiswerweights. I’m not sure what Neville’s status is now, but that kind of feud/story might be able to pick 205 Live up again. They’ve actually done great work on the show, it’s just entirely forgotten about.

Anyway, Ricochet could and probably should be a huge star.

I have not. I’ve been swamped the last few weeks, so all I’ve really gotten to see are Wrestling Kingdom and New Year Dash. Regarding Rush, man is that one talented family. I think it’d be awesome if he had more New Japan time after the World Tag League appearance the other year, especially with how big Los Ingobernables de Japon still are right now. You’d think the working relationship between NJPW and CMLL would allow Rush to leave for a month again for something as big as the G1, although I guess the risk would potentially be having four LIJ members in the tournament? (Less of an issue if Stupid Sexy Sanada is the champ, just saying!) Anyway, he’s a tremendous heel and he’d fit great with what LIJ are already doing.

The Daniel Bryan thing is weird. He showed up out of nowhere as the third heaviest betting favorite for the Royal Rumble, but none of the dirt sheets have him cleared yet. Then they teased him and The Miz again at Raw 25. I’m skeptical until I see it – I think it’d make sense to really build his return rather than have it be a surprise, and I’m not sure he’s going to be cleared.

As far as surprises, I’m going to guess Ethan Carter III makes his return, with an elaborate introduction from Rockstar Spud. On the women’s side, all of the surprises will be nostalgia pops except for maybe Serena Deeb and some heavy NXT presence. If Ronda Rousey is going to go over, you absolutely have to protect Asuka by having the Horsewomen take her out or something, but the guess here is Asuka wins and Rousey, if she’s coming, is in some sort of special attraction match/segment rather than a title match.

Cena’s not winning. They might riot for Roman Reigns, though, even if it’s not a bad call (especially if Braun Strowman wins the title and then destroys Reigns after the Rumble).

I’m fine with a Reigns-Lesnar rematch. It makes a ton of storyline sense, and it’s the rub they’ve been building Reigns to get for years. I’m all for changing plans as reaction and story dictate, but that was and is a pretty good story (save for the belt tug of war), and it would be a nice way to transition Lesnar from part-time champ to special attraction wrestler. And I think that’s probably what he’ll be if he re-signs – UFC has a need in the heavyweight division! – rather than continuing to sort of high-jack the title.

Personally, I’d go a different route. Strowman and Reigns has been the best and most consistent story over the last year, and I think a Wrestlemania blow-off for it would be appropriate. To get there, I’d have Reigns win the Rumble and Strowman shock Lesnar in the title match, then have Strowman lay Reigns out post-Rumble (“I’m not finished with you!”). You could do Strowman-Lesnar and Lesnar-Reigns on the way there, too (I probably wouldn’t go triple-threat).

Now, if I’m personally booking the Rumble? Kofi Kingston wins. He’s spent his career doing insane Rumble spots, he’s one of the best, most well-liked, and longest-tenured guys they have, and New Day challenging for a world title (and Freebirding it if they win) would be awesome, especially against A.J. Styles, who plays “increasingly flustered” well. They won’t do this, but in a year where you can get to your big matches another, easier way, I’d go for feel-good surprise. Kofi’s my guy.

As a general policy, I don’t like to comment negatively on anyone else’s work. I will say, though, that if you do not find DeMar DeRozan to be fun and entertaining, we are watching a different sport, or watching the same sport for entirely different reasons. It’s ironic that DeRozan has shifted from being THE eye-test over stats guy to now (apparently) being someone who has strong numbers but isn’t fun. I can’t speak for everyone, but a guy constantly improving and pushing the boundaries of his physical tools and player development in general, leading a rag-tag franchise that wasn’t supposed to be good, having a funny bromance with his co-star, being an analogy machine in scrums, the Vince Staples thing, unleashing an array of floaters with either hand off of either foot, having an alley-oop mind-meld with Lowry, and generally throwing dunks down on people’s heads is extremely fun and good. To me, anyway.

Would I like DeRozan more if he made a wrestling appearance? Yes, of course. I also plan to recruit Giannis Antetokounmpo to Toronto in 2021 based off of our mutual love of wrestling, so DeRozan would be well-served to show up on the next Raw in Toronto to begin his recruiting, too.

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.

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