Rough: It wasn’t exactly the regular season tune-up that Nick Nurse was hoping for, as the Raptors were sloppy in the first half and shuffled their starting unit once again in the third quarter. OG Anunoby made his preseason debut and the starters weren’t on the same page on either end and it produced some rather obvious mistakes.
Focus: Those issues went away in the third quarter once Jonas Valanciunas and Pascal Siakam replaced OG and Serge Ibaka. Toronto held Brooklyn to only 11 points in the third and forced at least 10 turnovers in that one quarter alone, as Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard played trick-or-treat with those helpless Nets guards. The game was essentially wrapped up after they strung together a few transition threes and dunks.
Kyle Lowry was so energized he went and got thrown out. After Lowry was called for an offensive foul pushing the ball in transition he started talking up a storm, getting on the refs to the extent that he was awarded a pair of technical fouls in rapid succession. The ejection ended an especially rough night for Lowry who would finish with 6 turnovers and just 5 points on 1/6 shooting.
Lowry’s ejection did nothing to dull the Raptors’ onslaught, as the Raptors wing defenders continued to abuse the Nets, limiting them to just 11 points in the 3rd quarter. Green and Leonard would end up combining for 9 steals, with Green benefiting more than anyone from the Raptors’ ability to turn defence into offence. He would end the game with 22 points on 7/9 shooting, with most of his points coming on run-outs.
The Raptors’ domination of the Nets in the 3rd would give them a 21 point lead entering the final frame, but they continued to play their rotation players for much of the 4th, likely to help with their game readiness. Leonard saw some 4th quarter action and capped his night with a nice feed to a cutting OG Anunoby for a reverse slam.
LOWRY’S TIME CUT SHORT
Kyle Lowry had some plans before the Raptors played the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night.
“I’ve only played 18 minutes in the first two games I’ve played, so I want to get some more minutes in, some more reps, some more up and down, some more time on the floor,” Lowry said in the morning. “With a short pre-season you have to take at least one or two games to get yourself acclimated and going.”
Well, so much for that. Lowry was sent to the showers in the third quarter after picking up two technical fouls. He had been chatty with the referees all evening and fellow point guard Fred VanVleet joked that “anyone could see” Lowry’s fuse was about to go off. Head coach Nick Nurse said Lowry’s just trying to get himself going.
“You know he’s fiery, he’s competing, I’d much rather see him going out there fighting like heck than I would not caring about a pre-season game or sitting another one out,” Nurse said. “He’s going to fire and fight, that’s who he is and we have to manage through some of that stuff and we love him for who he is.”
Most projections favor Toronto over Boston. Toronto finished four games ahead of the Celtics last season, and doubled Boston’s per-game scoring margin. They traded one top-25-ish player who shrinks in the playoffs for an MVP candidate who is, at worst, the seventh-best player in the league when healthy.
They trailed only Golden State and Houston in points per possession last season, and they should hum along once the new guys adapt to Nick Nurse’s go-go system. They ranked fifth in points allowed per possession, and replaced a sieve with the greatest perimeter defender since prime Scottie Pippen. Almost every combination of four perimeter guys and one big man — Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, Pascal Siakam or Greg Monroe — would rank between solid and smothering on defense. Their postseason tormentor is gone.
Despite his obvious impact, Wright’s personal effect on the team’s outcomes, like with every non-VanVleet player, is inextricable from the overall strength of the bench. By Jacob Goldstein‘s Player Impact Plus-Minus, Wright was essentially neutral on offence and improved the defence by 0.4 points per-100 possessions, adding about three wins and $9.2 million in value while earning just $1.6 million. That same metric predicts Wright to have almost an identical on-court impact this season, with an annual value added of $8.5-9 million through the end of 2021-22, when he’d begin the typical age-30 point guard decline.
That, of course, is one of the curious parts of Wright’s contract situation — a team would be buying out his peak years. Wright is already 26 and will be 27 by the time free agency rolls around, which could be both a positive and a negative. On one hand, a competitive team can be sure they’re getting some of Wright’s best years, and because he’s still not all that experienced, they could bet on some upside outside of the usual development curve for a player of his type. On the other hand, it could depress his market for some younger, developing teams, the exact type of teams who are normally the ones dabbling in the restricted free agent market and willing to submit offers high enough for an incumbent team not to match.
From Wright’s own perspective, it probably adds additional weight on salary and term. That’s not a certainty, and Wright isn’t saying much at all about it himself. Still, it stands to reason that a 27-year-old, if he’s going to sign a multi-year deal, may look at this as his one big splash into free agency. Sign for four years and, barring an explosion to top-tier status in a larger role, this is probably Wright’s biggest pay day. That might be the case on a three-year deal, as well, and it’s probably why Wright’s camp will aim high on a potential extension number (I can’t imagine they’d be amenable to anything shorter than three years). There’s a bit of bet on yourself at play here, mixed with a bit of strike while the iron’s hot.
It also creates an interesting hypothetical if Wright reaches free agency and the market is cool. Wright’s qualifying offer will be for $3.6 million, and the Raptors would gladly have him back for one year at that amount, even if it risks unrestricted free agency the year after. Doing so would align Wright’s contract with pretty much every other contract on the books
The Toronto Raptors head coach talks about positive attitudes, smiles, pleasant demeanours for the most part.
Just good dudes.
And given the demands of a long and arduous season, and the close quarters that players live in for almost 200 days a year, the need to have men who are adaptable and friendly and smiling more often than not makes entire sense.
“It’s such a long season, right?” he said. “It’s certainly serious business, but it’s no sense that we all have to be miserable doing it … I think there’s some certain attitudes and certain guys that can feed some positive energy and that keeps you going through an 82-game schedule.”
Now, the ability to shoot, defend, pass and dribble are, of course, desirable but if the conversation is about someone who might be 13th or 15th or even 17th on the roster, the ability to get along with everyone is paramount.
They may not be “glue guys” as much as they are good guys.
“There’s a lot of long moments, travel and games and stretches, and to have some of those guys around to bring positive energy is great,” Nurse said.
His discussion of those traits has often centred on veteran big man Greg Monroe, who seems to have the personality the coach appreciates. But Monroe has a guaranteed contract which basically assures he’ll be around. It’s the rest of the end-of-the-roster players who have to have that combination the coach seeks.
One sequence where the big Lithuanian sparked a fast break with a smart outlet pass, then hustled down the floor for an early post-up chance before finding a cutting Fred VanVleet stood out — and then helped spark the Raptors third-quarter surge as he ignited the crowd with a triple and generally continued to look active and engaged.
“I’m happy how he’s standing in at the rim, he finally made a three,” said Nurse. “He’s playing pretty well and pretty free and easy.”
It’s part of Nurse’s strategy to be able to go to any line-up for any situation with roles fluctuating game-to-game or even half-to-half.
“I think there are probably a couple spots pretty solidified and there is a lot of versatility elsewhere,” said Nurse before the game. “There’s reasons we are running [various combinations] out there tonight and reasons we are running them out there tomorrow and there will be reasons next Wednesday.”
Lowry’s ejection wasn’t considered a big deal.
“I’d certainly much rather see him go out there fighting like heck than I would not caring about a pre-season game or sitting another one out which could happen too,” said Nurse of Lowry, who finished with five points.
“He’s going to fire and fight, and that’s who he is, and we’re going to have to manage through some of that stuff, and we love him for who he is, man.”
Lowry was agitated almost from the tip. The ejection was building.
“Anybody with eyes could have seen how that was going,” said Fred VanVleet, who had 11 points and three triples. “I think he tried to get thrown out earlier [but the ref] ignored him.”
After there was plenty of uncertainty coming into camp with regards to his health and his level of enthusiasm about joining the Raptors, NBA on TSN analyst Leo Rautins discusses what he’s learned about Kawhi Leonard in the last few weeks, and explains what fans should pay attention to when Kawhi is in the court.
Nurse has head coaching experience at the college level, in Europe, and in the NBA D-League, where he won league titles with two teams. He’d been Casey’s assistant the past five seasons. Veteran C.J. Miles said he’s impressed with the way Nurse has handled training camp.
“He’s very concise, to the point,” Miles said. “Everything is organized, he’s ready to go. He knows what he wants to teach that day, what the emphasis is, and we knock it out.”
WORDS WITH WEIGHT
Nurse acknowledged at the start of camp that Leonard was “a man of few words,” but Miles said his new teammate hasn’t been shy about making himself heard.
“He does have a quiet demeanor, no question,” Miles said. “But, for what I was expecting, it’s 10 times more communication than I would have thought. He’s been great. He’s sharing his knowledge.”
UNDER THE RADAR
While Leonard was the unquestioned headliner in Toronto’s swap with the Spurs, the Raptors also received guard Danny Green, a capable 3-point shooter and quality defender.
“Danny has probably been swept under the rug because everybody is focussed on Kawhi,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “We got a hell of a player in Danny Green, too.”
Toronto’s other significant acquisition was big man Greg Monroe, an eight-year veteran who’s expected to come off the bench. Nurse said he’s been “really happy and impressed” with Monroe’s overall contributions so far.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise,” Nurse said. “He’s in shape. He’s kind of a cheery, chipper, positive attitude type of guy, which every team needs. You can’t have enough of that.”
Pour one out for poor Melbourne United. They came to play, and gave the Raptors some fight in the first half of last Friday’s contest in Toronto. Unfortunately, for all their Aussie muscle, the team just does not have someone has cool and crafty as Delon Wright.
Starting in place of Kyle Lowry, and with no Fred VanVleet to back him up, Wright played 26 minutes against United, dropping 15 points (on 5-of-7 shooting, including 3-of-4 from deep), grabbing six boards, and dishing five assists. He somehow finished the game at +49 (just one off Pascal Siakam’s game-high +50). But what was most striking about Delon’s performance: he barely looked like he was breaking a sweat.
After Friday’s contest, coach Nick Nurse said of Adel’s performance: “You never want to end a game 5-for-5,” implying the young wing should have taken a few more shots just to see how far he could push it.
The smiling Adel is likely a long shot to make the Raptors, but there’s always the chance he could find a nice spot for himself on the 905 with Toronto’s other two-way contract spot. He won’t always shoot 5-for-5, but he may always be smiling. It’s hard not to root for Adel, is my point.
The big story from last Friday’s game was, of course, the explosion of Norman Powell. Forget the caveats, Powell looked like his old self out there, driving to the rim with force, hitting 3s, and playing with a contained fury that can only bode well for the Raptors.
He finished that game with 21 points (on 8-of-11 shooting), three rebounds, and three assists, and looked like he was just warming up. Toronto may not have a great need for Norm this season, but an engaged and angry Norm is better than… the opposite.
If Kawhi Leonard is in top form, that’s a really damn good trade. DeMar DeRozan’s a really good player and his midrange game is unreal, but Kawhi fits what Toronto is all about. A two-way player. What can’t he do? Is he that much better than DeMar? Yes. People forget how dominant he can be. Off-the-dribble, catch-and-shoot. He’s unreal. He’s probably the best defender on LeBron in the league, and you’re going to have to deal with Jayson Tatum and Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and Ben Simmons and Victor Oladipo. . . . The underrated thing is their bench is a year older and a year wiser. They’re a really well-rounded team if they can get 20 or 30 points out of their bench on a nightly basis. . . . Kyle Lowry’s expiration is coming, though. We’re getting to the point where you wonder how much mileage he has left in the tank. It gets tougher and tougher to keep up with conditioning, and obviously he’s not a slim guy. He’s kind of built herky-jerky. You always wonder at what point in guys’ careers, what point are they going to go down? He’s 32 now. You naturally wonder when that’ll happen. . . . Does that mean Fred VanVleet has more of a role? Will that put more on Delon Wright’s plate. Who kind of takes over more? . . . OG Anunoby was playing really, really big moments as a rookie. People weren’t talking about him. This Raptors team one through 10 is really good. Just because you couldn’t beat LeBron—OK, he’s gone now. We’ll see what this group is really made of, especially under a creative offensive mind in Nick Nurse. . . . I don’t know if the fit’s ideal with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. They’re both pretty good in a vacuum, they had some success with Ibaka at the five. Especially now with the trade they made, they even used OG a little at the four last year, they have a lot of versatility they can utilize in their lineups, so I think there’s a way they can maximize those bigs.
TSN basketball analyst Leo Rautins joins Jay and Dan to discuss the Raptors’ win over Brooklyn, Kyle Lowry’s ejection, the tools head coach Nick Nurse has at his disposal, and Kawhi Leonard’s performance in the preseason for Toronto.
Of the over-30 crowd, Lowry is the most likely of the three to still be in Toronto for the start of the 2020-21 year, and that will only be if the Raptors retain Leonard. Otherwise, it probably makes sense for the team and player to finally go their own way after two or three false starts on that front. Miles is a possibility to stick around if he likes the situation for his young family, but I think there are far more scenarios in which he leaves after 2020 than situations that keep him here.
Valanciunas is sixth in franchise history in games played, 235 behind DeMar DeRozan. Getting there would require Valanciunas spend three more fully healthy seasons with the team or, more likely, four years. His tenure here has been up and down, but I’m starting to think it is possible he gets there. The Raptors do not (and likely, will not) have any true centre prospects in the pipeline, and if they can get him signed at a reasonable price, it could very well make sense for the relationship to continue. He has at least proven to be semi-functional in the new NBA.
To the real issue: I have Wright, Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby and Norman Powell (assuming he opts into the final year of his contract) making approximately $73-million total in 2021-22, which would be the first year of Anunoby’s second deal. That is not an overwhelming number considering the tax will continue to go up, but it is certainly more than the Raptors will want to spend if they are trying to build an elite team around Leonard. If he leaves, it becomes more palatable, but again is likely a little steep for a team that would probably be caught in the dreaded middle. The Raptors have surely had these conversations, and they are always evolving: How do you prioritize the pieces of their young core that is getting more expensive by the year? The answer to that question will heavily inform what they do next.
Rooting for Leonard, who despite his Fun Guy claims feels more mercenary than human at times, after having vicariously endured the same Toronto-bound rise, triumphs and plight as DeRozan, is going to feel a little dirty. Leonard will not be nearly as easy to relate to and root for as DeRozan was and will remain as a Spur. Unless he ends up here long-term, it’ll be hard to embrace him as one of Toronto’s own. Raptors fans are probably going to miss DeRozan’s graceful responses to all the usual questions that come moments after crummy losses; Kawhi will almost certainly be more reserved when the cameras are on. He’s not going to co-opt the Mr. I Am Toronto moniker; he’s apparently already bought a house, without the help of super fan Nav Bhatia. DeMar would never.
At times it’s gonna feel gross, even unsavoury to persistently compare Kawhi’s on-court stylings to those of DeMar DeRozan. Why piss on the grave of a franchise legend who only tried his damned best? It’s going to be unavoidable, though. With respect to Danny Green and Jakob Poeltl, this is essentially a one-for-one swap, the results of which illustrate the upgrade the Raptors’ new superstar represents with awkward clarity.
There’s going to be feeling out period between fan and player. You never want to seem to eager to move on from such a positive, long-term relationship. But the shit Kawhi does on the court is sexy as hell; it’s not going to take long for Raptors fans to swoon. The first time Kawhi swallows up a Kobe-poisoned, isolating Jayson Tatum and screams the other way to dunk the ball he’s just ripped from the infant’s hands, you’re just gonna know. At full health, Kawhi’s Raptors are going to bust through the ceiling DeRozan imposed.
There’s that one accompanying caveat. It wasn’t the loyalty or whatever it is we’re supposed to pretend exists between teams and players that made the DeRozan/Leonard deal so tough to digest for some; it was Leonard’s equally unclear future intentions and health. If Leonard bolts after a year, the trade won’t retroactively become a bad one. The prospect of having Kawhi for just one year was part of the calculus of the deal; the chance to give a top-five player a year-long sales pitch was worth what the Raptors gave up. If Leonard’s lingering (?) quad injury limits him at all this year, though, the evaluating the trade will get a little muddier.
2. How does the coaching change affect the team?
Paralleling the decision to trade DeRozan for Leonard, Ujiri firing Casey to hire Nurse is significantly more interesting because both moves come on the heels of the Raptors having their best season in franchise history. There is a valid justification for both choices but the downside risk is substantial.
There are three key areas to focus on this season when evaluating the coaching change: defensive intensity/execution, offensive scheme and rotations, especially in crunch time. The Raptors were in the top half of the league in defense five of Casey’s seven seasons after struggling on that end for the vast majority of the time immediately preceding him. Some of those improvements are due to personnel but Casey’s teams generally outperformed their talent level on that end due to effort and execution, something that may not carry over in the transition. While Casey deserves credit for evolving offensively last season without changing personnel, Nurse was reportedly behind some of those changes as an assistant and now has the opportunity to implement his full vision, potentially with better-fitting talent. It will be fascinating to see if Nurse’s time coaching the super aggressive Rio Grande Valley Vipers reflects his approach with the Raptors. That said, it is worth remembering that Toronto has been in the top six offenses each of the last four seasons so there is not that much more room to improve. Finally, one of the biggest criticisms of Casey was his penchant for strange lineups at key moments in the regular season and especially the playoffs, including some doozies during Cleveland’s sweep this May. Remarkably, the Raptors underperformed their point differential in six of Casey’s seven seasons and better crunch time personnel decisions could swing a few games per year. The changes in Toronto’s approach and success this season are massive for the franchise in the immediate and long-term, especially considering the potential for significant turnover next summer.
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