This is a guest post from Oren Weisfeld.
Through three quarters of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto Raptors sit atop the Eastern Conference with an impressive 45-17 record. The team is firing on all cylinders and playing great basketball with contributors throughout the roster. With all due respect to this year’s Raptors team we’ve seen something like this before: The impressive regular season that ends just shy of the No. 1 seed and leads to an exit early in the playoffs.
This year, though, is supposed to be different. Not only are the Raptors openly targeting that No. 1 seed in the East, which would give them a much needed home-court advantage throughout the playoffs (they have the best home record in the league at 26-5), they also find themselves in a wide-open Eastern Conference against the weakest competition in years. Perhaps most importantly, the Raptors have learned from their past failures and instead of over-relying on their all-star backcourt they have built one of the deepest teams in the league through the draft, internal development, and trades. If the Raptors really want this year to be different, if they want that No. 1 seed and if they want to make their first NBA Finals in franchise history, they are going to have to be more than just Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The team’s success largely hinges on the play of their all-stars, of course, but as veteran broadcaster Jack Armstrong said on the Talking Raptors podcast, “the sum has to be better than the parts” if the Raptors want to go all the way.
In other words, secondary players are going to have to step up and play significant roles if the Raptors want to be a real threat down the stretch and into the playoffs. Preparing for that has been the goal all year, but the success of their efforts won’t truly be known until April. Chief among those needing to step up: Veteran C.J. Miles, sophomore Pascal Siakam, and big man Serge Ibaka.
When the Raptors stood pat at the NBA Trade deadline one thing became clear: C.J. Miles is their three-point specialist. The Raptors could still add a three-point shooter from a pretty empty buyout market, but Miles is their guy until that happens. In fact, Miles is one of the only consistent volume three-point shooters on the entire Raptors team, which makes him crucial to the team’s success.
This season Miles is shooting 38.6 percent from three and while averaging 10.3 points in 18.4 minutes per game. All of that is to say Miles is pretty much in line with his career averages. But a team that shoots 32.6 three-point attempts per game, fourth most in the NBA, needs to consistently get their three-point specialist good looks if they want to improve their lousy three-point percentage, which is just 21st in the league at 35.6 percent. This season, as Blake Murphy pointed out here, Miles has actually had a more difficult shot mix than last season in Indiana. Playing mostly with a young, inexperienced second unit has caused that, because although the Raptors bench mob moves the ball well has a number of playmakers, what it doesn’t have are the type of all-stars that will take the defensive attention away from a veteran shooter like Miles. Miles is shooting 39.1 percent on open threes (no defender within 4-6 feet) and 43.4 percent on wide open threes (6+ feet). His numbers drop off drastically on more contested threes (0-4 feet), where he is shooting just 32.1 percent on 1.8 attempts per game
Getting Miles more minutes with the starters down the stretch should diminish the attention he receives from defenses, allowing him to get more open looks, which he has had no problem knocking down this season. If the Raptors can get him more open looks, and Miles remains consistent, perhaps even catching fire for longer stretches every once in a while, he will become a key player in the Raptors crunch-time offense. If not, better defenders like Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, and Siakam might eat up his minutes.
Unlike Powell or Anunoby, Siakam has been more than a just good defender who can switch and defend multiple positions. On top of his length and athleticism, defensive aptitude, and high-energy, this season Siakam has come into his own on the offensive side of things, finally allowing Dwane Casey to give him minutes defending the other team’s best player without sacrificing much offensively.
Siakam is currently tied for sixth on the team in minutes, playing 20.5 per game, and his minutes have steadily gone up as Anunoby shooting slump extended and the bench mob keeps dominating games. Although he does not yet have a three-point shot, Siakam has developed the ability to score in other ways while thriving as a facilitator on the second unit, averaging an efficient 7.0 points on 50 percent shooting to go along with 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists (with a 20.2 percent assist ratio, fourth best on the team), 0.9 steals, and 0.5 blocks per game.
“He’s done a heck of a job working on his ball-handling, decision-making and understanding of taking up the gap when teams don’t close out to him all the way,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey.
“I call him our Draymond Green,” said DeRozan. “The way he brings up the ball, gets us into things and gets us open shots. He’s got a little ISO game, too.”
At the young age of 23, Siakam already has an incredibly well-rounded game and his role on this Raptors squad is only going to get bigger down the stretch. Defenders are going to play several feet off him come playoffs, knowing his jump-shot isn’t developed yet, but if he can defend the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James while continuing to make plays offensively, Siakam is going to become irreplaceable come playoffs.
Aside from Lowry and DeRozan, the most important Raptors player going forward is Serge Ibaka. Currently averaging 13.0 points on 58.5 true shooting percentage, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 27.6 minutes per game, Ibaka is having as solid a year as one could ask for. But as the playoffs approach and lineups get smaller, Ibaka is going to be asked to do much more for the Raptors: He is likely going to be asked to play center.
Don’t get me wrong, Jonas Valanciunas has been very good this year, especially on the defensive end, but his skill set potentially becomes less useful in the playoffs if teams go small and run big guys like him off the floor. Just imagine Milwaukee going to a small-ball lineup with Antetokounmpo at the five. Valanciunas can’t keep up with that, which means Ibaka will likely become the Raptors’ small-ball five (Siakam could see minutes at the four in these situations). How well Ibaka can handle those minutes — meaning how well he can defend big centers and grab rebounds while still performing offensively — will be crucial to the Raptors playoffs success.
There is precedent for this. Last playoffs, the Raptors tried out two very different starting lineups: One with Valanciunas at the five and the other with Ibaka at the five and Powell subbing in for Valanciunas. In the 43 minutes the Valanciunas lineup played, the Raptors were outscored by 25.8 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, the Ibaka/Powell unit outscored teams by 20.3 points per 100 possessions in the 43 minutes they played together. Part of that had to do with Powell being a revelation, sure, but Ibaka is much faster than Valanciunas and has the ability to defend multiple positions while spacing the floor. He is the ideal center against some of the small-ball units the Bucks, Celtics and Cavs will throw out there.
So far this season, only two of the Raptors twenty most played 5-man lineups featured Ibaka at center, combining for just 70:56 minutes. His team outscored opponents by 27.8 points per 100 possessions in that time. Look for the Raptors to give him more minutes at the five down the stretch and especially in the playoffs, where the team’s success could hinge on how well Ibaka is able to handle those minutes. The Raptors didn’t pay him $64 million dollars over three years to just space the floor and swat away layup attempts. Ibaka’s time to quarterback a defense is coming.
All stats current as of March 5th, 2018. All stats from basketball-reference.com unless otherwise stated.
This is a guest post from Oren Weisfeld.