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Raptors Mailbag: Rest for Ibaka, tightening up for playoffs, and more

The Blake Murphy Open Challenge is back for a chat, though the hope it it’ll be a quicker one given how compressed the schedule has been of late. I always say it’s going to be short, though, and, well, you know how that usually turns out. You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here. 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). There will be another one coming some time in the 1-game-in-5-day stretch coming up.

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Alright, let’s do this.

This question was asked three weeks ago now, so I’m not sure if Greek Geek is still sweating it, but Kyle Lowry has decidedly found his groove. Over the last eight games, he’s averaging 19.5 points and 8.8 assists while shooting 52.2/50.7/93.3. His volume for the season still makes it look as if he is having a down statistical year, but after starting the season slow, basically all of his advanced metrics have settled back where they’ve been the last few seasons – with Lowry as a borderline Third-Team All-NBA guard. He’s probably not going to get that because the counting-stat drop is just so dramatic – thanks, additional rest! – it’s just to say that he’s once again playing like a top-20 player in terms of overall impact on the court.

In terms of ratcheting up his minutes, I think the upcoming six-game stretch against winning teams will be played something like a dress rehearsal. There might be a day of rest here or there, but Dwane Casey’s been pretty clear that he felt rest close to the playoffs took the Raptors out of a rhythm in recent years (Lowry’s injury last year didn’t help, and so they might play this stretch straight as a final tune-up for what’s to come in mid-April. I don’t think it’s necessary to force 40 minutes on Lowry. The mid-30s where he’s stayed are fine, and the hope remains it gets him to the postseason feeling fresher. There have been far fewer (reported) nagging issues for him this year outside of maybe his fingers being re-taped once a game, which is standard procedure.

I’d have to do a deeper dive as a stand-alone piece to see if there’s precedent for a player’s performance swinging this wildly, but I’m almost certain there is. Young plays have ups and downs, and while Powell has really established himself as an impact player at times during his first few seasons, he’s still a young player in relative terms. There are a number of recent young wings who teams or fans were out on before they eventually turned it back around and became productive pieces (Mo Harkless comes to mind, Tim Hardaway Jr. before the Knicks Knicksed all over him, even a guy like Danny Green bounced around before finding his place). Now, those players hadn’t swung entire playoff series through their peaks and valleys. Powell’s situation is at least a little unique given the dramatic contrast between what his role has been and what it was expected to be and what it is now.

In terms of his salary and fretting about it, the contract extension looks like a mistake at this moment – it seems unlikely Powell would be getting eight figures on the open market this summer in restricted free agency, and the Raptors would have had his rights and the chance to match. The logic was still fine, though – it offered cost certainty, a potential mid-sized trade chip the Raptors have lacked in recent trade seasons for salary matching, and it was an affirmation of the team’s culture, rewarding a young player who’d come through big and is heralded for his work ethic. It’s probably a contract they’ll look to get out from under this summer, and the fact that Powell is still young-ish might mean there are suitors even in a cap-strapped market.

There’s still a solid chance Powell is called upon in the playoffs, too, by the way, and all it will take is another Game 5 for the league to remember what Powell at his best can look like.

You could really pick any of them and not really be wrong. Delon Wright’s ability to force turnovers kick-starts so much of what they do in transition, which is where they’re at their best scoring. Sometimes, they basically can’t score without C.J. Miles hitting threes. Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam both have legitimate cases as Most Improved Raptor, if not Most Improved Player, and Siakam is a jump shot away from being unquestionably the “best” player in this bunch.

My nod goes to Fred VanVleet, though. For most of the year, the second unit has gone as he has, and you saw in just two games how his absence is felt on both ends of the floor. He’s such a smart, savvy floor general (and the unit’s only other established shooter) and such a tough defender that despite it not always feeling like it makes sense in the moment, he’s consistently having the biggest impact on the team’s chances of winning. This far into the season, him not only leading the team but ranking second in the league with a plus-14.5 net rating – and ranking among the best point guards in the NBA by a lot of catch-all advanced metrics – is not a fluke. (I mean, it’s a fluke in that VanVleet is not the “second best player in the NBA.” It’s not a fluke in that VanVleet is good, and has a profound impact on games.)

And yes, I thought about using “their chemsitry” as a cop-out answer here so I didn’t have to pick one. Because that really is a lot of what drives the success here.

This was a joke tweet, because Eric thinks he’s funny. (He is.) Obviously, the Raptors didn’t tank that game against the Cavaliers, and there were some areas of concern you can come away with. In the big picture, though, it seems 70 percent of RR respondents can at least take solace in the lost helping Cleveland’s case for the three-seed. There’s nothing the Raptors can do to control their playoff bracket beyond locking up home court, and I’m sure they don’t really care. You have to beat LeBron James at some point.

For what it’s worth, the Cavs have a one-game hold on the three-seed and have roughly a 50-percent chance of holding on to it depending on which projection/metric you look at.

Serge Ibaka has to keep shooting threes because that’s where almost the entirety of his offensive value comes from. Spacing the floor for Lowry and DeMar DeRozan isn’t just about 3-point percentage, it’s about a willingness to take threes. Defenses are going to stop reacting if he stops shooting, and then he loses a great deal of his utility at that end of the floor.

Ibaka is down to 34.6 percent on 5.2 attempts per-36 minutes, which is not a great mark (it’s a lesser percentage than Patrick Patterson on similar volume and a percentage right in line with DeMarre Carroll from last year). It’s a little below average and is fine, not really much better, for a power forward who is supposed to help with spacing. Obviously, it’d be much better if that were up around 39.1 percent where he was last year or even his 36.3-percent career mark. Somewhat encouraging is that Ibaka’s percentage has been tanked some by his performance on back-to-backs, where he’s shooting 27.9 percent. (He’s also shooting just 30.2 percent during a very compressed March schedule.) With rest, he’s shooting a more respectable 35.9 percent. He’ll have rest in the playoffs, though he didn’t shoot well in the playoffs last year, either.

I have no such encouraging signs for his fourth-quarter performance, where he’s 2-of-18 on threes. He shot 36.7 percent on fourth-quarter threes last year, at least?

Anyway, Ibaka has to take them because the offense is designed for guys to shoot those open looks that are produced by the increased ball movement. If he ceases taking those attempts, things get a whole lot easier for a defense and a whole lot harder on Lowry and DeRozan. Threes, by their nature, are high-variance, so just hope the rest helps and the variance swings the right way.

The rest of the season? Oh god no. You don’t want to enter the playoffs with one of your key rotation pieces having not played in a few weeks. The Raptors feel like extra rest (and Lowry’s injury last year) really disrupted their rhythm, so they’re not going to go without a starter for 10 games just to keep him fresh. I definitely think he’ll get rest at some point – tonight’s game against Brooklyn makes a ton of sense, as he’d have three consecutive days off – and there’s a one-game-in-five-days stretch coming up where he can catch a breather, too. It certainly looks like he could use a game or two to rest up, but they’re not going to get extreme with it and then try to bring him back cold.

As for Lucas Nogueira, while I’d love to advocate for him to see more playing time – I always want more Bebe playing time – I think they’ll probably stick with something close to their rotations over the last 10 here. I understand the argument for keeping Nogueira in the mix, but that comes at a cost to Poeltl, and I think the Raptors have faith they could call on Nogueira in a pinch and he’d deliver. (It’s notable that for three years now, Nogueira has more or less always played well when given meaningful minutes, he just struggles in garbage time and/or gets hurt when he’s rolling. He’s good.) There might be small windows, with potential rest days for Valanciunas or Poeltl, and Nogueira playing time would be a great byproduct of those. Otherwise, I think they’d prefer to maintain continuity and let Poeltl work through his mini-slump.

A little bit, yeah. DeRozan mentioned that anything that’s never been done before by the franchise carries some sort of weight, and like the 50-win marker was a certain barrier that’s helped establish the Raptors as a solid organization, the 60-win mark is kind of the arbitrary cut-off for “great” teams. They have to go 7-3 down the stretch, with seven of those games coming against playoff teams, so it’s not a certainty. They’ll prioritize the playoffs and won’t kill their guys to reach 60, but I’d guess that it’s an internal goal they’re paying some mind to.

The Lowry-DeRozan friendship has kind of taken a backseat this year with how funny everyone else has been after games. The bench mob is too spicy for another year of Lowry-DeRozan antics to really move the needle that much. The relationship between Siakam and Poeltl is hilarious, and the fact that it produces this incredible chemistry on the floor is a lot of fun. So I’ll say for entertainment purposes, you give it to the kids, but the Lowry-DeRozan compatibility is what took this franchise to new heights, so it’s gonna take a bit to knock them off the throne.

This is a really interesting question I’ll look at in more detail once the playoffs end. For a long time, I thought Miami made sense given what they’ve been able to do with other guys who never quite put it all together elsewhere (and/or had injury issues), but Bam Adebayo is so good so soon that they might not be in the market for a center. Oklahoma City was an interesting destination, too, given what Nogueira can do in the pick-and-roll, but Jerami Grant looks like he might legitimately be able to penciled in as a medium-term backup center. And the Raptors won’t close the door on him, either, I don’t think – it seems unlikely they’ll make him a qualifying offer (even if they did, Nogueira really wants to play somewhere), but if there’s any thought to shopping Jonas Valanciunas again, having Nogueira around would be important. Otherwise, this is probably something we need to revisit in June when there’s a more clear sense of the center market. Someone should take a flier – Nogueira is still only 25, and he’s a really useful player.

I wrote about this question last week, and there’s still not much more clarity. Nigel Hayes has spent almost the entirety of his two 10-days with Raptors 905 and is still in the process of making that tough adjustment. Malcolm Miller, meanwhile, established himself some with a few strong performances but may have turned in his first bad one at the worst possible time. And if there’s any question as to the health of one of the point guards, Lorenzo Brown could still figure in. If the choice was mine at this moment, I’d probably lean Miller given the defensive versatility and shooting, and the fact that they’ve seen more of him in an actual NBA environment. I’d understand the Hayes move given the size (and the team’s thin power forward depth chart), especially if the team has grown certain his newfound 3-point stroke is real. It’s a tough call.

I think the all-bench group has done enough to warrant a chance in the first round, albeith with a leash. Around the All-Star break, I tried to back this up with data, and my conclusion was basically that there’s no precedent to draw from here, so it’s hard to say how it might work. Not only have very few teams ever even tried the all-bench approach in the playoffs, just as few have had all-bench units this good. I think they’ve earned a chance – they’re a top-10 lineup in the NBA with a fairly decent sample now – and the Raptors’ margin for error in the first round should be large enough that Casey can give it a shot and see how it goes.

In general, the logic against it is that other teams tighten their rotations in the playoffs, so that bench group will be playing against much stiffer competition. Which is true, though they’ve done fairly well against star-led bench groups anecdotally. The bigger reason its usage is going to come down some is just that Lowry and DeRozan are going to play a lot more – the depth has been huge for keeping their workloads down and keeping them fresh, but come playoff time, both of those guys are going to be comfortably in the 36-40 minute range in any competitive game. You’ll see a bit more of DeRozan-and-bench and Lowry-and-bench, and so even if the fivesome doesn’t get it’s usual extended run as a stand-alone group, all of these players (and their chemistry together) is still going to be really important.

There are so many benefits to running this deep and having had success with an all-bench group, I hope people don’t lose sight of all the good it would still be doing even if Casey does eventually move away from the full-bench group. And again, I don’t think he will, at least not until trying it. I’ve come around a long way on the idea from their tiny-sample success early in the year, as I’d have almost never advocated to play any minutes without Lowry or DeRozan on the floor in the playoffs in the past. It’s been maybe the best story of the season.

I think it speaks to the depth of Canadian basketball talent. Not only do we have a record 14 Canadians who have played in the NBA this year, another 22 were in the NCAA Tournament, and there’s a steady pipeline of high school talent coming, as well. Things are even more robust on the women’s side, where the national program is a perennial contender and Kia Nurse is on her way to being one of the best all-around female players in the game. With so much talent at the highest levels, it makes sense that there’s more talent throughout the entire Canadian pipeline, and while many still see the NCAA as the goal coming out of high school, the more momentum USports can build – through exciting games, national coverage, and guys like Aaron Best and Kaza Keane making impacts at the pro level close to home – the more legitimate a path it becomes for homegrown talent. Whether that creates more consistent parity in USports, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely good for the continued snowballing of basketball’s place in the Canadian sports landscape.

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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