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Playoff Mailbag: High anxiety, matchup specifics, coaches, and more

A lot to sort through. Let’s do it together.

The Blake Murphy Open Challenge is back ahead of the first round. We’ll try to slot these in whenever our panic calls for it during the postseason. 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.

The Real Wave God

That’s still up in the air as of this writing. X-rays were negative on his bruised right shoulder and he’s considered questionable. He’s still pretty sore, per Dwane Casey, and while that wouldn’t normally be cause for concern – VanVleet is tough, it’s the playoffs, etc – Casey may have accidentally let slip on Friday that VanVleet was out. It could have just been him misspeaking, but he did say “with Fred out” when talking about the bench production. He then backtracked to say if he was out. Again, it might be nothing. It was enough for me to go from assuming he’s definitely playing to considering him truly questionable.

Raptors Playoff Anxieties

As someone who is never not anxious, I believe that a steady, long-term dose of anxiety is easier to manage than a single burst of panic. That might be a minority opinion. My panic attacks get pretty bad, though. If you’re a Raptor fan and have been nervous all week, I have good news and bad news. The good is that we’ve made it. It’s Game 1 today, and if that goes well, Raptors fans can begin feeling like the fanbase of a dominant regular season one-seed should feel. The bad is that if they lose, it’ll be two full off days to stew in before they get a chance to rectify it. That could make for a tough Sunday.

As for the mix of Raptors, Leafs, and a wedding, I don’t think you’re going to die. The Leafs will probably be out a month from now, and the Raptors will either be out or have just beaten Cleveland, so you’ll have some finality in that sense. And hey, you have someone who loves you to go through all of these ups and downs with (or at least help tether you to earth in the quiet, empty, Sunday-between-Games 1 and 2-hours). I can only assume it’s better to have someone in the shit with you. And congratulations, Jordan. I hope it all goes wonderfully.

I definitely think there’s been some energy conservation at play for DeRozan over the last few weeks. He hasn’t been bad, necessarily, but the first half of his season had him as a borderline top-five MVP candidate and now he’s not even being included on some All-NBA ballots being published. In the 2018 part of the season, DeRozan’s settled in like something closer to his 2016-17 self in all areas but one – his true-shooting percentage ended up right in line with last year’s, his 3-point percentage came back down below 30 percent, and some of the on-off lineup numbers that previously pointed to DeRozan having less of an impact than Lowry on the team’s success have started to look that way again (slightly).

Of course, the one development that has persisted is the most important one: DeRozan is still playmaking at a very high level. He finished the season with a 25-percent assist rate, by far the highest of his career, and he averaged five assists or more in every month from December onward. This was always going to be the most important change to DeRozan’s game as it pertains to the Raptors’ culture reset, even more than taking threes, and it’s awesome that it’s sustained all year. DeRozan still has the “go-to scorer” approach in the fourth quarter, when his assist rate tails off, and even then you see him make plays like the corner kick-out to Wright at the end of regulation against Miami.

All told, DeRozan has had a career year in almost any respect (advanced stats would agree, if you care for those). The Raptors should be pretty confident in DeRozan being this version of himself. And really, the biggest dip in his statistical profile down the stretch has been free throws, which are something he’s always been able to kind of turn on and something the team doesn’t want to have to rely on heavily anyway. He’ll be alright. And he should get some damn All-NBA votes, voters.

I like the Raptors’ chances of winning Game 1 at home. Just thinking mathematically, it’s highly improbable that the Raptors would lose five consecutive home Game 1s in which they were favored by 3.5 points or more in each. It’s also be statistically unlikely that a team as good as the Raptors were this year struggles in the first round. There’s not a great reason they keep losing them. This is the best they’ve been. They’ll probably take care of it.

In terms of a sweep, it is the fourth-most likely outcome based on the models I’ve seen (after Raptors in 6, Raptors in 5, and Raptors in 7). I’d probably put the chances lower than that, but there’s a sense the Wizards can be broken similar to the 2014-15 Raptors if things start out poorly. I picked Raptors in 6 officially and think Raptors in 5 is the likeliest outcome if I think only analytically.

Part three of you Q gets addressed in a bit. (In the future, for everyone, it’s easier to answer three Qs over three separate tweets than all in one.)

It depends exactly where the line is for “major” changes, because I have some bad news: The Raptors don’t have an escape hatch built into this core until 2019, when the big deals become expirings (or start to come off the books entirely) and therefore much more tradeable. Flame out early this year, and trading Lowry or Ibaka without attaching assets to them is probably impossible (and attaching them would threaten to stall a rebuild/retool). There’s little cap flexibility entering the summer, and the team has no picks this year.

If they were to lose in the first round or get swept easily by the Cavs, they’d surely want to make changes, I’m just not sure what overhaul option would be there. Instead, they’d probably do their best to tweak, bet on the young players improving, and be realistic about the transition period they’d be in. Casey might not survive such an outcome, either, even though he should absolutely have job security at this point (it would just be such a desperate situation that they’d probably feel the need to try something). Anyway, I’d probably say a loss to Washington or a four- or five-game loss to Cleveland would have the team asking these kind of questions. Let’s hope we don’t need to revisit this in May.

I think this is a question each fan probably has to answer on their own. I’ve grown to where I try not to suggest how people should feel about outcomes. Personally, I don’t love the “championship is the only measure” approach because it leaves so much enjoyment on the table and isn’t super realistic, but even then I understand it. Speaking only personally, I think no matter what, there is a great deal of value in what the Raptors have done this year. They were quite good, wanted to be better, and fundamentally changed their approach, their style, their identity, and themselves. It’s hard for me to think doing so successfully – even just in the regular season – hasn’t been a worthwhile endeavor, even if it winds up a Sisyphean one.

Bigger picture, I think it would be looked at as a failure of sorts if they don’t progress from the last two years, and it would certainly be disappointing. There’s no way around the first round – lose to Washington, and it’s an absolute disaster, and it would be very difficult to put much stock into this core’s regular season performance again. It’s probably similar if they get pumped by LeBron James in four or five games, too, although there’s at least the veil of “playing in the time of giants” if James winds up parading unimpeded to the finals and giving the Warriors another run. Really, though, I think the bar is set around “very competitive series with Cleveland.” Take them to a tough six or seven, and you can at least live with drawing closer than the last two years (their six-game loss in 2015-16 was still incredibly lopsided). Beat Cleveland, and obviously, it’s a major success, and winning a championship is legitimately on the table if the Warriors get knocked off.

Different people are going to set there bar in different places. Some may see nothing other than toppling James as a success, others only the NBA Finals regardless of path, and others may judge on the “how” entirely. I can’t begrudge any of those goalposts.

Raptors-Wizards

Not a ton, I don’t think. Analytically, how a team enters the postseason is not particularly predictive. Their full-season performance is far more meaningful. It’s why I wasn’t incredibly concerned about the Raptors’ own mini-malaise for a couple of weeks there. Washington also only played four games down the stretch with John Wall, and while that brings a world of caveats itself – they initially played much freer without him, then went back in the tank a bit – it’s meaningful. From talking to people closer to the Wizards, it definitely seems like reports of the tenuous state of the locker room are accurate, though it would probably only take one win to galvanize them again. I think the Wizards should probably be treated with the respect their high-end talent would suggest, even if it seems unlikely that they’ll sniff their ceiling in their current state.

Dominate might not be the right word. Gortat has consistently won the battle against Valanciunas. That was really the case in the prior playoff meeting, and even though Valanciunas has improved significantly since then, he still struggles – in their four meetings this year, Valanciunas played poorly in three and didn’t see a lot of time as a result. He still shot well, at least, but the Raptors went away from him relative to his average and the Wizards fed Gortat about 20 percent more often than they normally do (Gortat’s regular offensive usage is even stingier than Valanciunas at his least used).

The crude graphic below shows the matchup history – Valanciunas is a more efficient scorer, but he’s played far fewer minutes and hasn’t quite been able to make the most of what should be a rebounding advantage. This shouldn’t continue. Valanciunas is better than Gortat, and while Valanciunas occasionally struggles with players similar to himself, there’s little about Gortat at either end of the floor that Valanciunas hasn’t shown he can answer against non-Gortat centers. And Valanciunas should eat whenever Gortat isn’t on the floor, too. With all due respect to Ian Mahinmi off the bench or Mike Scott/Markieff Morris as small fives, the Wizards don’t get enough from those differing looks to tilt the frontcourt matchup. Or shouldn’t, anyway.

I wrote about this at The Athletic today, or rather, OG Anunoby’s place in the series in general. I’ve changed my mind back and forth on it a bit. In the regular season series, Anunoby did a poor job on Beal. Beal shot more, he shot more effectively, and the Wizards scored at a higher rate. Anunoby has also struggled more off the ball than on it, and Beal is an expert navigator of his teammates’ very physical screens. It’s a tough matchup. Anunoby has looked  much better the last few weeks, especially on defense, and should probably get a crack.

At the same time, Norman Powell, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet all did a better job on Beal. Powell is probably out of the rotation to start this series, but there’s a matchup strategy I’m intrigued by that would have Lowry and VanVleet take the Beal duties while Anunoby and Delon Wright check Wall. That sounds risky, but Wall and Beal are essentially the same size, anyway (Beal is an inch and 12 pounds larger), and Lowry and VanVleet are really good chasing around screens and pestering opposing guards. Wright and Anunoby, meanwhile, would be at a speed disadvantage against Wall but have superior length to try to disrupt him, and Anunoby can get physical if he can keep Wall in front of him. Lowry is the team’s best defender of point guards when fully engaged and VanVleet can really frustrate lead guards, maybe even picking Wall up full court like he did Chris Paul, and so I think the Wall strategy is probably to throw a lot of looks at him and see what’s working (the performance of the centers in the pick-and-roll and the transition defense as a whole is probably more central to containing Wall).

The Raptors will probably open with Anunoby on Beal and Lowry on Wall. They’ll be prepared to switch that up, though, and if Anunoby regresses on the defensive end, the Raptors won’t hesitate to play a second point guard in crunch-time and trust one of them with the Beal assignment.

There are two ways the Wizards could approach this, and I’d understand either. The first is to “hide” Wall on Anunoby, which helps conserve Wall, just removed from knee surgery, while also allowing him to roam as a free safety, poke for steals, and collect defensive rebounds to push in transition. The issues with that strategy are that A) Anunoby has improved as a cutter and Wall is prone to lapses in attention off the ball, and B) when engaged, Wall is the team’s best Lowry defender. So there’s an effectiveness-rest trade-off, especially since Beal has a physically demanding offensive role, too. (Whoever guards Lowry, I’d expect the Raptors to seek some of their pet 2-1 pick-and-rolls to try to get DeRozan attacking a non-Porter defender.)

As for Valanciunas, it will be his usual leash, I think. So long as he’s winning the rebounding battle and the Wizards aren’t hitting a ton of pull-up threes in the pick-and-roll, he should be able to stay on the floor. The Raptors will probably lean toward closing smaller for some extra versatility and because Washington isn’t well-constructed to exploit any of Toronto’s primary weaknesses when small, and a Siakam-Ibaka frontcourt is probably in play. You probably can’t go as switchy as Anunoby-Siakam-Ibaka because of the offensive cost of having two players the Wizards will look at as non-threats out there, but Casey won’t hesitate to try different looks. I’d guess Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka are set as closers, VanVleet is firmly in the mix if healthy, and Valanciunas can make a really quick case for inclusion by winning his matchup (as he should). If you’re asking about the starting role, I don’t think we’ll see a scenario where Valanciunas’ starting status is questioned in this series.

It’s not necessarily a storyline or a matchup specific, but in watching the earlier games back, I kept coming back to how good Tomas Satoransky is. The best compliment I can give him is that he’d fit really well with what the Raptors’ second unit does. He’s incredibly long, smart, aggressive, and a little dirty, and I’d bet good money he becomes the least popular Wizard among the Raptors fan base. He’ll be Czech Delly in that sense. All of that said, maybe he only looks this good because the rest of the Wizards’ depth chart is underwhelming. The Raptors’ bench should have a significant edge.

In terms of an area Washington can exploit, the Raptors don’t have any extreme weaknesses, so long as you can stomach some shooting swings. I think what their gameplan will probably look to do is get Toronto to break from their base scheme. What I mean is, Wall and Beal are kind of uniquely suited to take what the Raptors’ defense offers in the pick-and-roll. Washington would love for Toronto to send help to those actions, because both Wall and Beal can find shooters in those situations, and Washington’s a very good shooting team despite their low volume (losing Jodie Meeks hurts in that regard). It’s going to be really interesting to see the chess match play out in that 8-to-20 foot range and whether either side adjusts or rides the variance.

For the most part, yes. I think the bench mob has done enough to warrant at least a couple of games playing as a full five-man unit, and the Raptors playing 10 guys roughly 20 minutes a night has been a great way to keep everyone fresh and feel out who fits best for crunch time. That said, I’d be increasing the minutes of Lowry and DeRozan, too. Wall and Beal are going to play 40 each, and a big part of the reason why you’ve tried to keep Lowry and DeRozan fresh all year is so that they can play a bigger load here. They don’t need to push to 40, necessarily, but you have two borderline All-NBA players, and you want them on the floor as much as possible.

If you slide 8-10 extra minutes to the stars in total, they probably come at the split expense of C.J. Miles, one of the reserve guards, and one of the reserve bigs – we’re not talking dramatic, just a slight downtick that can be dependent on how guys are playing. That gives you a little bit more time with the very successful Lowry-and-bench and DeRozan-and-bench groups, too. And obviously, if VanVleet can’t go, you’re going to have to juggle some of the rotation patterns separate of this.

Lack of depth is a big one, for sure. They really only have four capable bench players. Of those, one is in the league’s concussion protocol (Scott), one has under-performed a bit relative to expectations this year (Oubre), and one is overpaid, inconsistent, and one-dimensional (Mahinmi). One of Wall and Beal will almost always be on the floor, but the Raptors’ bench and star-and-bench units can absolutely win those minutes for them, and Scott Brooks doesn’t have many solutions. The Wizards are also susceptible on their own glass, and while the Raptors won’t sacrifice transition defense to crash the boards – they were the league’s best transition defense on a per-possession basis and Washington is dangerous – Valanciunas and Poeltl should be able to subsist on their usual diet of tip-ins and put-backs. Washington also fouls a lot and has very little in the way of rim protection, so if Lowry and DeRozan can break through the first level of their defense (which can be quite good), they’ll find success.

Non-Raptors / Raptors future

There’s really not one I can think of that other teams wouldn’t be able to top. But I think you have to have Powell in there for salary, Anunoby and Siakam for prospect value, and at least one first-round pick. Maybe you get away with one fewer player and add another pick, or maybe you get lucky and the Spurs want Ibaka or Valanciunas back as a salary matching piece. It’s tough being built on a wealth of depth, because your picks aren’t super valuable and you don’t have one Blue Chip Prospect to entice in such a deal. You call and pretty much do what it takes if the Spurs are interested, though.

This is a popular question! As of right now, the following teams will be conducting a coach search:

  • Orlando (Vogel fired, the Weltman connection, Stackhouse rumored)
  • Phoenix (Triano interim, Budenholzer interviewing)
    • Atlanta (if Budenholzer bolts)
  • New York (Hornacek fired, Stackhouse rumored)
  • Charlotte (Clifford fired, Stackhouse connection to Jordan/Carolina)
  • Milwaukee (Gentry interim)
  • I’d expect a number of other teams to at least explore the possibility depending on how the playoffs go

The Raptors have the following candidates:

  • Nick Nurse (generally considered one of the best coaches to never get a shot yet, an offensive mind with G League and international experience)
  • Rex Kalamian (interviewed for Houston job, incredibly well-liked by players at multiple stops, runs the team’s defense)
  • Jerry Stackhouse (almost literally could not have made a better case for himself over the last two years in the G League, especially with defenses)

I would be shocked if all three of those names return next year. One of the costs of sustained success in the NBA is that other teams are going to want your people, and it becomes incumbent on the organization to continue to find and develop people for the pipeline at every front office, coaching, and roster position. I don’t have a great sense of where someone might land – they’ll probably all be careful about finding a good situation (read: not a shitshow) since it will be all of their first head coaching gigs. That’s a tough trade-off, by the way. There is a scarcity of opportunity but one bad opportunity might be the only one you get, so you have to choose judiciously.

I’ll guess that one of Stackhouse or Nurse land in Orlando, all three get at least one interview, and however it shakes out, only one is back next year. Anything more specific than that would just be wild speculation…they should all be high-ranked candidates, and a lot of it is going to come down to interview and situational fit.

I have no idea. I’ve never gotten to vote for an award outside of the PBWA awards (which are mostly for community/media relations stuff rather than on-court performance), and I’m not really sure how they determine whomst get to vote and for what. The fact that I’m a freelancer/blogger without oen real mainstream permanent home, and that I cover one team almost exclusively, probably limits my chances. I’m not too worried about it, though. My takes are not that important.

I’m not sure if this means literal basketball or like metaphorically, how the staff fit different roles if a staff were a basketball team. In purely basketball terms, we would not be particularly good. Usually at the RR tournaments, we’re all on different teams so we can get the competitive juices going. I do think it’s ironic that Will plays like the hardcore Valanciunas fans wish Valanciunas got to play. Sam can shoot it a bit. Zarar rarely plays with us. I haven’t seen a lot of the others play. I get called “Rec League Roberson,” which should give you an idea of how averse I am to shooting (on my league team, I’d probably fit the “glue guy” role, but in a more frustrating Patterson-like way than VanVleet). I think our biggest weakness would be the lack of a lead guard to initiate…so if you want to write for RR and can get teammates involved and shoot a little bit, you know where to find me.

I think my favorite sandwich spot is probably PG Clucks, as fried chicken sandwiches are pretty close to the top of the list for me. There are a lot of good options in the city, but Clucks – if Little Italy even qualifies as “downtown” for the purposes of this question? If it does, Five Points is another great chicken sandwich spot but it’s up at Bloor/Dufferin – is awesome. If I want something off that path, San Cosme in Kensington has really good Mexican sandwiches, and it’s obviously tough to go wrong with Porchetta (available right here, at the Air Canada Centre! /Mick Foley thumbs up) or Bitondos. Also, I’m not sure if it’s still there, but when I lived at Dundas/McCaul, there was a small sandwich shop in that building (the one with the McDonalds and Mean Bao) that did a very good, cheap meatball sandwich, and I miss having that option outside my front door dearly. I’m sure I’m missing some other great spots, too.

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