Photo credit: Christian Bonin / TSGphoto.com
250 minutes. That is how many minutes Raptors 905 have gotten this year from players who were on both last year’s playoff roster and this year’s. All of them belong to Negus Webster-Chan, a well-liked wing who has mostly been a depth piece in his two seasons. Outside of the local product, the 905 are almost an entirely new team – no Fred VanVleet or Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo shipped out, everyone else moved on to better – and better-paying – opportunities. This is what happens in the G League, where all successes risk running analogous to that of Pyrrhus and as such, no team haas repeated as champion since 2005, when the league looked dramatically different.
And here the 905 are, one win away from a chance to defend their 2016-17 championship in the G League Finals. Standing in their way is an Erie Bayhawks team that finished the season strong and has likewise won two one-and-dones in a row to get here. There’s no room for error in a single-elimination series, and no one game has had the stake’s Friday’s Eastern Conference Final will.
The Format: In an interesting new D-League wrinkle, the road to the G League Finals is paved with one-and-done series. The expanded playoff picture also brought some curious seeding with it, and so despite finishing with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and the third-best record in the G League, the 905 landed in the fourth seed in the East. That’s because the only team better than them was their division rival, the Westchester Knicks, and division leaders are seeded one-through-three. So not only did the 905 not have a bye and have to play two games just to get to this point, they’re on the road here despite having a superior record. This, too, is a single-elimination game.
The Schedule, How to Watch, and a Ticker Discount!: The 905 are on the road until the G League Finals. This one comes to you from Erie.
Game 1: Raptors 905 @ Eric Bayhawks – Friday, April 6, 8 pm, ESPNews and Facebook Live
The G League is looking to make sure that their playoffs don’t overlap with the NBA playoffs like they did last year (when the 905 raised the trophy as the Raptors clinched over the Bucks). The one-game format to the finals means things will move pretty quickly, and the three-game finals will take place over six days on the tail of this one. If the 905 make the finals, Raptors Republic readers will be able to use the promo code REPUBLIC905 for a discount on playoff tickets.
Season Series: The 905 and Bayhawks met three times during the regular season, with the 905 sweeping the season series. All three games took place in a seven-week span at the top of 2018, right as the 905 were at the height of their turn-around roll. Erie never figured them out, even with two games at home. That would seem to bode well for the 905 here, at least on paper.
- Raptors 905 100, Erie Bayhawks 85, Jan. 5 in Erie – Lorenzo Brown ties a franchise record for assists (15) as the 905 open up a huge lead early, survive a comeback attempt, and then pull away.
- Raptors 905 103, Erie Bayhawks 97, Feb. 3 in Erie – The 905 are dominant once again, never trailing in large part thanks to a 24-point night from Malcolm Miller and dual double-doubles from the centers.
- Raptors 905 104, Erie Bayhawks 94, Feb. 21 in Mississauga – Malcolm Miller goes off again, dropping 28 in the first game out of the All-Star break
The Tale of the Tape: Whereas the last two playoff games profiled as battles between relatively even and very similarly matched teams, the 905 would seem to have a large edge on paper against the Bayhawks. Even with the cold start to their season, the 905 finished with the edge in most statistical categories – they are a better offense, a better defense, and they have a substantial rebounding edge that’s reared its head in earlier meetings. The Bayhawks don’t even shoot the ball better from outside, which is almost always a 905 disadvantage but isn’t here.
The Bayhawks have gotten here, though, and that’s not by accident. Almost no team moves the ball as well on offense, and while that comes with a toll in the turnover department, it at least means Erie is making a defense work when they get their shots up. They are also second in the league in forcing opponent turnovers. That comes with a cost, too – namely, sending opponents to the line a lot – if they can get out in transition, some of their offensive shortcomings are also papered over. The 905 are likely favorites, even on the road, but Erie’s found a groove at the right time.
NBA Assignees: This is the first year where G League teams have the benefit of two-way players, and it will be interesting to see how each franchise approaches assigning their guys. Two-ways are playoff ineligible at the NBA level but eligible in the G League, and so while some teams may prefer their two-ways at the NBA level right now – the number of days they can spend in the NBA is uncapped now that the G League regular season has ended – there’s a good case to be made for assigning them for playoff experience.
The Raptors kept both of their two-ways down and assigned both of their regular assignees for the first two playoff games, and that will be their approach here. Erie has been even more fortunate, not only getting both Hawks two-way players and two Hawks assignees but also having a flex assignment from the Wizards in Chris McCullough. The 905 were among the teams who benefited most in terms of games played from NBA talent this year, and Erie still out-paced them, 175 games from NBA pieces to 152. That’s a testament to how invested the Raptors and Hawks are in their respective development systems.
Andrew White, Hawks two-way: White only played 15 regular season games for Erie after coming over from Maine but has been a monster off of the bench through two playoff games, scoring 41 points on 30 used possessions. That’s remarkably efficient, and the team’s needed all he has to offer. On the season, he’s hit 40.5 percent of a high volume of threes, and while he’s mostly “just” a scorer on offense, he’s one hell of a scorer.
Josh Magette, Hawks two-way: A steady veteran hand goes a long way in the G League, and so while Magette isn’t spectacular, his fourth G League season was a success. He averaged 15.1 points and 10.1 assists, working as an important fulcrum in Erie’s pass-first offense. Things haven’t gone as smoothly in the playoffs, as a Magette has an eye-popping 39 points and 18 assists but took 35 shots to get there and committed 12 turnovers in the process.
Chris McCullough, Wizards assignee: McCullough has been assigned to three different teams for small stretches this year, so it’s hard to know exactly how he fits. Talent helps dramatically in these scenarios, out-weighing any cost of unfamiliarity since McCullough is playing a small bench role (13 points and nine rebounds in 31 total minutes over the two playoff games) anyway.
Jeremy Evans, Hawks assignee: Now technically in his seventh NBA season (he’s yet to play an NBA game but is on an NBA deal), the former Dunk Contest Champion may have used the G League to re-establish his chances of sticking in the league. He averaged 15.3 points on 61.8-percent shooting and 9.9 rebounds playing primarily as a center. How important has he been to Erie? They’re a plus-42 in his 68 playoff minutes and minus-33 in the 20 minutes he’s been off the floor.
Tyler Cavanaugh, Hawks assignee: A sweet-shooting power forward, Cavanaugh has spent far more time with Atlanta than Erie, appearing in just 11 regular-season G League games. He shot 36 percent on threes at the NBA level and 45.1 percent at the G League level this year, and he’s been the one piece missing in Erie’s playoff push – he’s 0-of-4 from outside across two playoff games. If he gets hot, he can pose a big problem.
Alfonzo McKinnie, Raptors assignee: His second go-round in the G League hasn’t come with a major bump in statistical production, though McKinnie has improved his defense at both forward spots and taken an important step forward as a shooter, hitting 34.8 percent of his threes. He’s also improved as an attacker, especially when facing up opposing power forwards, and he’s had a few huge performances to lift the team, particularly on occasions that Brown wasn’t around. McKinnie’s 14 points often come in emphatic fashion, and his rebounding ability from either forward spot (7.5 per-game) is a big reason the 905 are the league’s premiere rebounding team.
Malachi Richardson, Raptors assignee: Still adjusting after a deadline trade, Richardson has come around at exactly the right time. In 12 regular-season games since coming over from Sacramento, he averaged 7.2 points on 42.6-percent true-shooting, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.8 assists. Those numbers have jumped in two playoff games, with Richardson hitting a number of big-moment shots on his way to 29 total points. If he can stay in a groove here, he’s a big boost to the bench unit.
Lorenzo Brown, Raptors two-way: The team’s leader at both ends of the floor, Brown’s experience and poise are a massive luxury for a G League team to have. He also really wants to repeat the title run, and the 905 have a great chance if he’s around – Brown leads the G League in assist percentage by a wide margin at 46.3 percent and finished in the top 10 in VORP. The 905 outscored opponents by 9.8 points per-100 possessions when Brown was on the court this year, and while his 54.2 true-shooting percentage is modest, he carries a heavy offensive load with a 27.3-percent usage rate, largely against heavy pressure. Brown finished the regular season averaging 18.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists, and 1.8 steals and should receive some MVP votes.
Malcolm Miller, Raptors two-way: The best defender on the best defense in the G League, Miller slowly picked up speed as the year rolled along and he put his offseason ankle surgery behind him. He finished the regular season not only contributing to the parent-club Raptors but with the a plus-5.2 net rating while with the 905. His counting stats don’t necessarily pop – 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists – but he’s hit 37.9 percent on a large volume of threes, has improved noticeably as a secondary playmaker (he had three or more assists nine times), and is the team’s go-to lock-down defender at multiple positions. He had Erie’s number all year long, too.
Depth Charts and Key Non-Assignment Players: The Knicks haven’t lost as much of a step without their assignment players as might be expected. Both Nigel Hayes and Xavier Rathan-Mayes have been plucked at times, Trey Burke was called up within the organization, and still the Knicks rolled to the best record in the league. These teams run fairly deep, playing each other tight with or without their full contingent of NBA-level talent.
Raphiael Putney, Bayhawks: The Bayhawks have a number of helpful non-NBA pieces, Putney chief among them. The rare rim-protector/floor-spacer, it’s felt like Putney was closing in on the NBA for some time now, even earning an All-Star nod in 2015-16. He hasn’t quite made that jump – he’s now 27 and shot the three at a mediocre rate in this, his third G League season – but he’s as solid a two-way contributor as there is in a G League frontcourt. He’s scored 33 points with 18 rebounds and four blocks over two playoff games, finding his 3-point stroke at the right time (7-of-16).
Kennedy Meeks , 905: A candidate for the league’s most improved player over the course of the season, Meeks’ turnaround coincided with the team’s dramatic turnaround. He finished the year in the top 20 in VORP and win shares, sixth in defensive rating, third in total rebounds, and first in offensive rebound percentage. Nobody takes better advantage of an opponent on their own glass, and because Meeks is also an adept playmaker from the block or the elbows, those second chances have produced a huge benefit for a 905 offense that has often needed it. He averages 12.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, one steal, and 0.9 blocks, and his improvement defending the pick-and-roll really opened up a new gear for the 905 defense.
Shevon Thompson, 905: It may have been smarter to list him and Meeks together, because the 905 basically lose nothing when Stackhouse goes to his bench. Thompson replicates what Meeks does excellently, ranking third in offensive rebound percentage and fourth in total rebound percentage. He also shoots a higher percentage from the floor (61.4 percent, ninth in the league) because most of his looks come while ripping the rim off. The owner of the best net rating on the team and the best defensive rating in the entire league among qualified players, Thompson has spelled Meeks excellently in the postseason so far, the dual centers providing a massive advantage.
Fuquan Edwin and Davion Berry, 905: A mid-season acquisition, Edwin played so well in his 3-and-D role that he recently got bumped to the starting lineup for a while. More than half of Edwin’s shots come from outside, where he’s hitting 37.3 percent, he’s third in the G League in steal percentage, and the 905 outscore opponents by 10.3 points per-100 possessions with him on the court. Berry started the team’s first playoff game, a reward for a season of working as the team’s best bench-scorer and most reliable Swiss-army knife at both ends. Aaron Best drew the start last game.
Prediction: 905 in 1.