RR Mailbag

(Delayed) Long Weekend Mailbag: Playoff rotations, summer work, Wrestlemania, and more

The Blake Murphy Open Challenge is back for a delayed long-weekend edition that got bumped because of the big back-to-back. 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).

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Alright, let’s do this.

Raptors stretch run / playoffs

That’s a fun question! In 2015-16, you could argue both Norman Powell and Bismack Biyombo had their big moments like that. Powell had his huge Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers – that dunk! – that quite literally changed the future for the entire franchise, while Biyombo excelled in a backup role and then stepped up for an injured Jonas Valanciunas to earn himself a massive pay-day in free agency. Last year, Powell once again swung a Game 5 and a series against Milwaukee. You’d think, then, that Powell – in a Game 5, probably – would be the best bet.

I’m going to go with Pascal Siakam, though. Fred VanVleet is the easy answer, but he’s almost established himself too much to where it really wouldn’t be surprising for him to come up big multiple times. He might be the most trusted player in the rotation when the playoffs open despite having 29 minutes of playoff experience. I’m taking Siakam both because his game lends itself to the kind of game-swinging energy bursts that define those big break-out games, because he might be the team’s best individual defender at this point, and because I could also see a scenario where his role is marginalized some initially (temas have really started loading up off of him lately in playoff style, and the second unit has struggled). If it seems weird to pick a break-out who may also struggle, it’s because the contrast between the ups and downs would be stark enough to make it feel like a big deal. I have a lot of faith in Siakam’s defense and floor-running, and even if he’s not a “sixth-highest minutes guy” next week, I think he’s a safe bet for A Moment or two.

I think OG Anunoby will probably be operating in the same role he’s been in since returning from injury. That’s roughly The Scola Role, where he’s playing almost all of his minutes with the starters against opposing starters, essentially starting each half and then disappearing. It seems to be how the Raptors are deploying their rotation with some consistency, and it’s a way to keep the bench’s minutes up even as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan play more. Anunoby was also struggling for a while, and it made some sense to minimize his minutes.

With that said, Anunoby appears to have turned a corner the last few games, at least anecdotally. His defensive effort has been high, he’s been one of the only Raptors making life tough on opposing wings, and he’s even hit 42.9 percent on a small volume of threes since returning from injury. Anunoby is a more useful and versatile piece than The Scola Role when at his best, and the Raptors don’t have a ton of late-game options to keep size and defense on the floor, so he should probably be a bigger factor if his play keeps trending upward. I’d also like to see some minutes where he’s away from the starters, possibly adding some extra size to the bench when they play bigger competition or playing as a part of transition lineups that otherwise lack a wing defender.

Obviously, his play is going to dictate some of this. I’d understand the 16-20 minute role, but hopefully the team isn’t locked in to him being a non-closer if his play and the situation call for it.

That’s really up to each fan, I guess. Logically, the Bench Mob to me should be that very successful second unit: Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl. They are the fivesome that’s been so successful and drawn “best in the league” claims, playing to one of the best net ratings of any lineup in basketball. At the same time, Norman Powell and Lucas Nogueira have played with them at times and OG Anunoby seems to be a part of their social circle (at least in the Instagram comments), and so while none of those guys are regulars, they all get the spicy emoji from time to time. I’m fine with the Bench Mob just being that one five-man group or extending to include “everyone making less than $15 million” for the purposes of inclusiveness and camaraderie.

The real answer is “none.” Even against Cleveland, who have the best ability to do that with Kevin Love at the five, the Raptors have played them better when playing big. They also matched better big against Boston when Boston was “huge but without a true center.” Size is one of Toronto’s biggest advantages in a lot of matchups, and the need to run way from that edge to limit someone else’s strength is an understandable but debatable approach – yes, you want to limit your own weaknesses and neutralize an opponent, but at a certain point you run the risk of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Again, I understand the move to go small when opponents have no true center out there, but Cleveland with Love at center is the only lineup where I’m not going to be thinking “why not just use the size advantage” at least a little bit.

In terms of the other specific examples, the data is a bit messy. Jonas Valanciunas has had some really good and then some bad outings against Indiana, Philadelphia is scarier big than small (Joel Embiid is a problem big or small, and while Valanciunas hasn’t been great in that series, I probably want a center out), Milwaukee has used their nuclear Giannis-at-C look pretty sparingly (and you can maybe still put a true big on Jabari Parker), and Miami has a center on the floor a lot of the time (please play Hassan Whiteside a lot and Bam Adebayo less). Matching up with more versatile, fluid opponent lineups is a tactical necessity in any playoff series, but the Raptors have the deepest center rotation in the league, have gotten better at utilizing their bigs at both ends, and have been good enough playing their way all year that I’m not in a rush to ditch advantages against lesser teams.

It’s certainly possible, and it seems like the kind of look they’d go to if, say, Milwaukee went to Giannis Antetokounmpo at center and they wanted size and switchability around the floor. It probably won’t be a great look offensively – one of the issues with Toronto matching small against opponents is that they don’t have a ton of shooting or playmaking in those lineups, relative to others – but those are three of their best and most versatile defenders.

If this is in the plans, by the way, the Raptors have done a great job maintaining it as a secret/emergency look. Anunoby, Siakam, and Ibaka have only played 12 minutes together this year, split across six different games. It’s all come alongside Lowry and DeRozan, and the results have been decent in a sample much too small to make any extrapolations (111.2 offensive rating, 104.9 defensive rating). That’s a look that might make sense Wednesday against Boston if they were hoping to try it out, but they also haven’t tried it since January, so that seems unlikely. Some of this goes back to the previous question about playing well with size, and some is that when the Raptors do downsize, Dwane Casey traditionally prefers an extra point guard rather than an extra wing.

This is depressing. Honestly, there isn’t a clear path if the Raptors flame out early in unsightly fashion this year. There would certainly be calls to blow the whole thing up, change coaches, empower the bench group and push for a re-build, and they would make some sense given that the “best regular season in franchise history” with an admirable culture reset still didn’t change anything in the postseason.

The difficulty there, though, is that there’s not a clear path to blowing things up. If the Raptors struggle again, it’s going to be nearly impossible to move Lowry and Ibaka until the final year of their deals, they likely wouldn’t get fair value for DeRozan (and trading him would be incredibly difficult for the organization, anyway), and there’s little means of A) bottoming out to get a good pick, and B) getting assets back for tearing things down. There are even fewer means to get bad than there would be to fortify the roster and make another push. Even if the playoffs go poorly, the Raptors are probably locked in to riding this out through at least 2018-19, after which their bigger deals are at least expirings that should theoretically be easier to unload. You’re probably stuck just tweaking and hoping for next year if things go poorly.

The bigger swing from a playoff disappointment is probably that the franchise may deem this core not worth investing further in for 2018-19. The 2018-19 season has always set up to be the team’s big spending year – they won’t be hard-capped, they have some movable assets, there is more certainty as to their strengths and weaknesses and the quality of their young players – but if this core once again folds, it might get harder to justify a large luxury tax bill with the specter of playoff doom hanging over things. Succeeding this year – defined as at least giving Cleveland a very competitive six- or seven-game series but probably better defined as beating them – will dictate a lot of next year’s plan and whether it’s a “ride this core out and enjoy being good-not-great again” year or an “all-in” season.

Raptors miscellaneous

Preventing penetration is definitely more important than how you handle switches or emergency situations where you’re on a larger player. Any coach will tell you that their defensive system is designed entirely to deal with what happens after a breakdown. I actually went in-depth with Dwane Casey a while back about just that. A team can have a pick-and-roll scheme or an idea of how to double mis-matches in the post or when to send weak-side help, but all of those wrinkles flow from the offensive player initially gaining an edge and the defender requiring help.

It’s awesome that Kyle Lowry defends bigger players in the post as well as he does, and that Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright have proven to be great rim-protectors in help situations as far as guards go. Those are very valuable skills. They only pop up once a player somewhere else has been beat, though (with some exceptions), and the team defense is a whole lot easier if all of the guards can prevent or slow initial breakdowns in the first place. Until recently, the Raptors had been doing a very good job of both, with their guards fighting well over screens and rear-view contesting at strong rates, allowing the bigs to play a more comfortable drop-back style without help off of shooters that’s made the Raptors one of the stingiest teams around the rim and at the 3-point line.

I went pretty deep on Fred VanVleet’s restricted free agent situation at The Athletic last month (and in a deadline-week mailbag), so I’ll refer you to those for the financial breakdown. Long story short, his free agency comes with a cap on his earnings and comes at a time where there doesn’t project to be a lot of league-wide cap space, so he’s probably not going to earn starter money no matter how highly people think of him. He’s among the best back-up point guards in the league, and he’ll get a substantial raise, but his annual salary range is probably $6-8.5 million, “just” good backup money rather than starter money.

I can’t really speak for the officials here, but in general, I think Serge Ibaka has a bit of reputation as a shit-disturber. It’s not a coincidence that opposing players go after him fairly often, and he’s been fined or suspended a few times in the past. He’s a physical, emotional player, and that emotion sometimes bleeds over into interactions with officials. Ibaka is tied for 25th in the NBA with seven technical fouls (still behind DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry), and he had 11 over the last two seasons combined (and nine in 2013-14). So I don’t think this is anything new or crazy concerning. The team as a whole needs to be more composed with the referees.

I don’t think so, no. I know Domantas Sabonis has been a revelation for Indiana this year, and I’m a big fan of his game. He scores and rebounds more per-minute than Jakob Poeltl, is establishing an outside shot, and can work as a tertiary playmaker. He’s going to be a very versatile four-five combo player, and he’d hit well with what the Raptors like to do offensively. Poeltl is a very good chemistry fit for the way the Raptors play at both ends, too, though, and is better than Sabonis in a key area: Rim protection. (Note: I had screening listed initially, too, but Sabonis and Poeltl are tied in screen assists per-minute and are both near the very top of the league.) Poeltl’s ability to protect the rim and work as either a hedger or a drop-back protector in the pick-and-roll is central to Toronto’s defensive success this year, and his upside on that end of the floor is higher. Poelt’s also a slightly better offensive rebounder and is a better finisher, both of which have been huge for the bench.

A lot has been made of the culture change, and Sabonis would certainly fit, but the Raptors already have a lot of offensive weapons and Poeltl’s defensive ceiling is important. Longer-term, Sabonis has a higher overall ceiling and is the more multi-faceted offensive player. I think Poeltl’s defense and his style of play at both ends makes him a better fit with this particular core at this particular time. I like hypotheticals like this because it’s a trade that I don’t think either side would do, even if they both liked the other player.

If either of those players were to become available within this core’s window, you do whatever it takes. For Kawhi Leonard, if that means losing a good prospect, picks, and one of the high-priced role players for salary matching, you pull the trigger. That’s an MVP-caliber player you’re adding to the core; you make that long-term sacrifice to maximize that one year where you’d be the clear favorite to at least make the finals out of the East. I don’t think there’s a reasonable package the Raptors could put together that wouldn’t be topped by someone else, mind you, but you do what you can. And same goes for a year of LeBron James, though it’d surely have to be a sign-and-trade for the cap math to work. We all love the prospects and draft picks are great currency; if you can add an MVP to what’s already a very good team, right before the window closes, you do it.

The idea that players focus on one or two specific things is a little off-base. It’s true that DeMar DeRozan spent an entire offseason living left-handed to improve his off-hand, and that it’s sometimes noticeable when a player makes a jump in one area. Really, though, young players are working on everything all the time. For OG Anunoby, the biggest thing will be continuing to improve the strength and explosiveness in his legs. He hit a bit of a wall at mid-season, and that’s probably attributable to not having much of an offseason and still working his way back to 100 percent when the season started.

From a skill perspective, shooting is a high priority for every Raptors young player, and it’s probably the biggest “swing skill” for Anunoby, one that could take him from solid defense-first role-player to legitimate building block. His tail off in that regard could be due to fatigue, and his accuracy has come back up since he returned from injury. If he can settle in the mid-to-high-30s, that’s huge. The Raptors will also have him work on his handle – he’s proven to be ahead of where scouting reports suggested as an attacker and playmaker, and if he can continue progressing at even half the rate Pascal Siakam did last summer, the Raptors will have a lot of playmaking on the floor at a given time.

As for his role next year, since the Raptors don’t have a ton of flexibility to make additions and Pascal Siakam starting at the three would require a big jump in shooting, it probably projects as the same as this year. He’ll start, play 16-24 minutes, and maybe a see a bit more time at power forward as lineups dictate.

Non-Raptors miscellaneous

Salary is certainly one major aspect, as the current G League maximum of $26,000 pales in comparison to what league’s in China (seven figures for high-end players), Europe (likely low-six figures, depending on the level of league), and even Australia (rumored $75,000) can offer more lucrative non-NCAA packages. The G League has a couple of other things going for it that may tilt that some, like the possibility to earn endorsement money at home and the non-fiscal benefits of building a domestic fan-base and being close to NBA evaluators, in an NBA player development system. Longer-term, the G League needs to increase salaries, anyway, if they want to be the secondary league to the NBA and keep fringe talent around. How they make that work within the greater financial picture is less clear, as even a team as successful and well-marketed as Raptors 905 brings out about 3,500 on average (top-five in the league) with the benefit of Air Canada Centre games.

The other big concern is the potential agency problem with developing a pre-draft talent, though this isn’t much different from the agency problem apparent with the current G League setup. It’s not as if a pre-draft prospect getting to develop under the 905 and then being drafted by another NBA team is any different than, say, Axel Toupane or Edy Tavares doing the same the last few seasons. There are enough reasons for good organizations to want to do the best for players earnestly that it might not be an issue for most – individual coaches and player development staff want to show they can bring along young players, all of these teams want to win to get their guys playoff experience (and the team playoff revenue), and I’m sure agents notice which organizations put their clients in better situations to succeed than others, which will matter for the next crop of G Leaguers or camp invites or Summer League roster players, and so on.

In general, there’s a lot to figure out still, which is just baked into the G League still being in its relative infancy as a league-wide development system. What changes the league makes as the G League expands to 30 teams, as the one-and-done rule is revisited, and as the next CBA approaches should be really interesting to see.

Not to be all Instagram Influencer, but I’m currently on a run of using free beard oils that were sent to me. To be clear, I have no idea why these companies have sent me beard products – I don’t have a ton of Instagram followers and don’t put my face on Twitter much – but shouts to Badass Beard Care (strongly recommend The Original scent) and  Beardiful Man (Bear Hands is the move) for connects in the past.

In general, I can’t recommend beard oil enough once your beard gets to a No. 3 length or so – it really helps the skin underneath, brings out all 13 colors I have in my beard, and helps the beard smell nice and look clean. I’d also suggest a beard wax if you’re going to grow it a little further, as wax will prevent your look from getting too scraggly and will give a more groomed, crispier appearance. Also, use a wood comb, you animals.

It depends on the time of year. During the offseason, it’s kind of just wherever people have time/are motivated, and I’ll make sure something goes up most every weekday (with open threads for the weekend). There’s so little offseason now, though, that it’s become pretty easy between draft/free agency/Summer League/international competition to fill the lulls. Except September. September stinks.

During the regular season, I handle the scheduling but it’s all pretty flexible. Our writers will let me know how much they want to contribute, prefered assignments, dates they can’t do, and so on, and then I’ll fill out a schedule 6-8 weeks at a time. I usually do my own schedule last, filling in assignments people didn’t want/couldn’t do and then working as a backup if people need to drop their assignments later (which is never a big deal). Usually it all works out pretty seamlessly, because some people prefer features, others Quick Reaction (thankfully, as I can’t do the Quick Reactions for home games since I’m at the arena), and so on.

The playoffs get a little different just because the schedule comes on short notice and we can’t really have any dropped assignments. So that will be more people grabbing individual assignments on short notice and me filling in the gaps.

In terms of the editorial process, I’m a staff of one, so I do my best to edit things before they go up – especially with formatting, images, and so on – but it’s not realistic to get to copy edit everything. I already spend so much time working, I’m pretty much tapped out. If someone is newer to our staff, I’ll edit their stuff more carefully – people’s first few articles get a full Google Docs Track Changes treatment with a few edits – and then the regulars have a bit more trust. For game-day stuff, I do a fair amount of prep work making sure everything is quick and easy for people when they log in to do a quick reaction or recap or whatever.

I would guess almost certainly he would have, yes. And now I think on a parallel timeline there’s a weird looper situation where Tommy Heinsohn is calling Tommy Heinsohn games.

I believe there are some theories that suggest that exact match is what created the entire universe. The Beef Bang, as it were. So while nobody would survive and the world would end as a result, a new, better world would be created in its wake. It’s a net positive, then, and future generations will waste textbooks studying changes in terrain on New Earth that are actually just the wrinkles from Suzuki’s head.

I think A.J. Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura should close the card. I get that it’s not the biggest match in terms of broad appeal, but I’m a purest in the sense that I feel like the Royal Rumble winner earned “the main event” at Wrestlemania, not just some title shot. I’m pretty sure Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns are going to close the card, and that match will be better than people seem to be anticipating. (Nakamura-Styles has the highest match-quality ceiling, along with Ali-Alexander on the pre-show, which I’m very excited for.)

The Golden Lovers vs. Young Bucks match is the best 2-on-2 tag match I’ve seen in years. The layers of storytelling there, the selling, the high spots. I know some people thought it was over-acted or whatever, but this is an industry that idolizes Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair, so let’s not go too far stretching for reasons it’s not as good as some older storytelling. It was incredible, and the entire Bullet Club story right now, as well as all the matches that have resulted, is the best thing going in wrestling.

Definitely Samoa Joe. I would assume he’s first in line for a shot at Roman Reigns given that they have recent history together and Joe is reportedly ready to return. There will probably be an NXT call-up or two, too, though I can’t figure who that might be until we see Takeover results on Saturday. Andrade Cien Almas would make a lot of sense to me, because that dude is a star and is ready. I could see either Sanity or Authors of Pain getting the nod, too, to refresh the tag division.

This all hinges on Raptors 905. On Saturday, I’ll be watching Takeover live and then jumping over to the Supercard of Honor main event, then watching the rest of Supercard (hoping to have avoided spoilers but not particularly concerned). Sunday is supposed to be my first missed game of the year – DNP: (w)Rest(lemania) – but if Raptors 905 win on Friday, they’ll be playing Game 1 of the G League Championship on Sunday. Missing Game 80 against the Orlando Magic, I can justify. Missing Game 1 of a championship series, even a G League one, is a tougher sell to myself. If the 905 were to be eliminated, I’ll be at a friend’s with copious amounts of snacks and pizza. (My prior tradition was a full turkey dinner over ‘Mania with my brothers, but the Raptors+905 schedule won’t allow me to get home for the weekend.)

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