Nurse is cautious when characterizing his relationship with Leonard. “It’s professional,” says Nurse. “I think he knows that I respect him and I’m trying really hard to help him. I think we align pretty good. And he’s a joy to coach. There’s just been no uncomfortable moments coaching the guy.” Asked about Leonard’s pending free agency, Nurse pauses. “Us having a good team, a successful team and him being a super critical part of that, that’s all we can do.”
It’s an obvious comparison: In July 2017, the Thunder rolled the dice and traded for George, who had a year left on his Pacers contract and had made it known that the Lakers were his preferred destination. Fast-forward to July 1, 2018, and there was George, alongside star point guard Russell Westbrook, onstage at a hastily arranged party in Oklahoma City, announcing his intention to re-sign for four years and $137 million.
Privately, Raptors officials admit OKC’s success at retaining George emboldened them—while also creating a blueprint. Thunder executives are quick to point to George’s bond with Westbrook as the most significant factor in his decision to stay. The Raptors’ Westbrook is Kyle Lowry, the four-time All-Star point guard who is in his seventh season in Toronto. But while Westbrook—who felt the sting of Kevin Durant’s defection in 2016 and absorbed a first-round defeat in ’17—embraced the role of recruiter, Lowry has been more reluctant.
With Danny Green resting on Wednesday night, the Raptors deployed their 14th different starting lineup: Leonard, Lowry, Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. They used 12 different starting combinations all of last season. Nurse has said all along, though, that he planned to try different starters to see what worked and what didn’t, part of his season-long lab experiment. The unexpected part, though, is how much upheaval has taken place in the rest of the lineup. The team has still only been fully healthy for one game this season, and won’t be for weeks yet, with centre Jonas Valanciunas still working his way back from thumb surgery. The injuries have meant too many minutes for backup big man Greg Monroe and a lot of time in the starting lineup for VanVleet, who was formerly the ace of Toronto’s second unit. OG Anunoby has struggled off the bench, although he was excellent on Wednesday night, and Norm Powell has shown flashes of his old self, although he was a mess on Wednesday night, and C.J. Miles has continued to be a shining example of why the next Raptor to be offered the GoDaddy sponsorship should flee, screaming, from the room.
There is a lot for Nurse and his staff to determine, is the point. If they can get consistent bench minutes from Anunoby and Powell at the wing spots, and a healthy Valanciunas, then they can get by even if Miles can’t hit water from a boat. Nurse said before the Hawks contest that he wanted to have Lowry and Leonard on the floor to work on late-game executions, and then his team obliged by being so bad that they still needed to design plays against Atlanta in the final minutes. It worked, sort of. One resulted in a wide-open three attempt for Lowry, one an open three attempt for Leonard. Both missed. Good plays, though. They ended up sealing the game on the Leonard steal and Ibaka dunk, because that’s what good teams do.
It’s All-Star voting time – vote for your favorite Raptors. And then vote again. Then again.
Beyond all the feels that would come with a Carter/Raptors reunion, he has value he can add to the team. He has spent the last several years as a player-coach of sorts. Players in Dallas, Memphis, Sacramento, and Atlanta have raved about his cerebral ability to pass his skills onto younger teammates. Toronto employs several young wings, including OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, who could use lessons in how to translate athleticism into consistent on-court success. Bringing Carter home would benefit Toronto now and in the future.
Carter is a lovable veteran, and the Raptors are actually short on veteran presences. CJ Miles, Kyle Lowry, and Danny Green are the only Raptors in their 30s, and Lowry and Green spend too much time on the court to be the wise old heads on the bench. It would help the team to employ a level-headed, elder statesman with 88 games of playoff experience, behind only Serge Ibaka for most on the Raptors.
Despite being the oldest player in the NBA, the soon-to-be 42-year-old actually remains a passable player on the court, too. Carter shoots nearly 38 percent from deep (which would be the second-best mark on the team behind Green), and triples comprise almost two-thirds of his field goal attempts. The Atlanta Hawks are actually better when Carter’s on the court than when he’s off of it. When Toronto is at full health in the playoffs, with a rotation likely cut to 9 or 10, Carter would not make the cut. But for the remainder of the regular season, he is quite capable of playing well for short stretches when Toronto’s wings need a rest, and could deflect media attention away from Lowry and Leonard, two stars who are media-averse. The extra attention that would come with such a reunion wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. He is comfortable with the press, even to the extent that he may pursue a career in broadcasting when his legendary playing career ends.
It was a dramatic evening for the Toronto Raptors and their fans Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena.
Vince Carter – again – made his return for what may be the last time ever, Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry played together for the first time in about a month, and the team very nearly lost to the lowly Atlanta Hawks who are clearly more inclined to compete for the rights to draft Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett than anything in the NBA at the moment.
But as the old adage goes, “A win’s a win.” And in the Raptors’ case, though it wasn’t exactly a pretty W against what should’ve been a vastly inferior Hawks team, the final 49.4 seconds of Tuesday’s affair offered a glimpse into a potentially optimal version of these 2018-19 Raptors.
This sequence didn’t appear to start out great, with Leonard missing on a three-point attempt that would’ve put Toronto up by two, but even though the shot didn’t go in, the play design was still solid and led to a very good look.
One more time on Vince Carter: A lot of thoughts, but will keep it brief. The man did a ton for the Raptors organization and for basketball in Canada. That can never be erased. He put the franchise on the map, hooked a generation of kids on the game in a hockey-mad country (with help from Steve Nash), did ridiculous things on a nightly basis and had the misfortune of having to coexist with a front office and ownership group that had no clue what it was doing basketball-wise post Glen Grunwald.
And he deserves adulation for those things … but, he also played a huge role in his messy exit. He stopped trying, giving about a 65-70% effort toward the end of his time in Toronto, made some dumb comments about not dunking anymore because he was frustrated, demanded a trade (and rescinded the request too late), he might have tipped plays to the opposition … but the most telling thing for me and the main reason I think all of the love and re-writing of history absolving Carter of all blame is over the top and not completely warranted is because he’s never ever admitted to any role in things going sour and how he exited. Now superstars are often delusional and coddled beyond belief, but to have no recognition or willingness to say a simple, “the organization was a disaster, but I played a role too and I’m sorry for that” or something like that even all these years later has always been mind-boggling to me. And that’s knowing full well how entitled many star athletes feel and behave.
One thing he hasn’t done yet, however, is play on back-to-back nights. It’s something head coach Nick Nurse says could soon change.
“I think we’re there but I don’t know if we’re going to do it or not,” Nurse said during a Wednesday appearance on Prime Time Sports.
Leonard only suited up in nine games with the San Antonio Spurs one season ago, in large part due to injury concerns, so the Raptors decided collectively to be cautious with Leonard in the early part of the season.
Nurse said they considered playing Leonard on back-to-back nights in mid-Decmber against the Warriors and Clippers but it didn’t work out.
“After every game we get Alex McKechnie, our head of sports science, and team doctors and Kawhi and they just kind of look and see how he feels and make the determination,” Nurse explained. “I think yeah if he said, ‘I feel great. I’m ready to go tomorrow again. Let’s do it,’ we probably are all the way there.”
McCaw, 23, was a restricted free agent for most of this season after his rookie contract ran out with the Golden State Warriors last July. He was in limbo until last week when the Cleveland Cavaliers signed him to an offer sheet the Warriors did not match. The Cavaliers waived McCaw after just three games, making him an unrestricted free agent.
The Raptors, with two roster spots to fill and a backcourt need, pounced as soon as they could. McCaw’s signing should make him available for weekend games against Brooklyn on Friday and in Washington on Sunday afternoon.
McCaw, a six-foot-seven guard with a seven-foot wingspan, was drafted 38th overall by Milwaukee in 2016. He played three inconsequential games with the Cavaliers this season. He averaged nearly 17 minutes, four points and 1.4 assists while playing for the NBA champion Warriors in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
He would appear to be a solid fit for the Raptors, who can assume his minimum salary without any significant tax implications and who have a need for a promising backcourt player.
Anunoby has always been in Nurse’s sights as a potential key contributor. Games like Tuesday will earn him even greater favour with his coach, despite a spotty start to the season.
“We’re counting on him,” Nurse said of the second-year forward. “He’s kind of got to get through his slow start, but I’m not really worried about that. Is it a concern? A little bit. But I have a lot of confidence in him. He’s a good defender, that’s always a good starting point. He’s a good person, that’s another good starting point.
“He’s working. And I think there’ll be some chances to open things up for him and let him get his little groove back on.”
Powell, meanwhile, might be the most frustrating of them all. The potential seems immense, and he’s proven in playoff games past that big moments don’t scare him. But it’s always one step forward and one step back, and that’s not going to cut it in the long term with a team that aspires to play for a title.
The team announced Wednesday that Valanciunas’s surgically repaired left thumb is now in a splint and “he will use the splint for approximately the next four weeks and will be regularly evaluated during that period.”
A return at the all-star break, which runs Feb. 15-17, was the best-guess estimate when Valanciunas suffered a dislocated thumb Dec. 12 in a game at Golden State. The injury occurred when the Warriors’ Draymond Green swatted at Valanciunas’s hands near the basket.
The Raptors centre had been averaging 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds while playing about 19 minutes a night. His per-36-minutes scoring (24.5 points) was the highest of his career.
Valanciunas has been active in rehabilitation, working diligently with members of the coaching staff before each game and practice. He’s still able to do all the cardiovascular work necessary to stay in top shape and has been working taking shots with his dominant right hand every day.
But until he can have full range of motion, strength and power in the dislocated thumb, a return to even full-contact practices will be prohibited.
Usually, at this point in the NBA calendar, we have one or two teams dominating our NBA Power Rankings. Golden State did a couple of years ago, Houston last season, while other teams occasionally get into the top spot we have dominant teams everyone else is chasing.
This season is different — we don’t have a team like that. The Warriors could be if they cared about the regular season at all, but they do not.
The closest thing to it: The Toronto Raptors. After they knocked off the Bucks and the Pacers back-to-back over last weekend, Toronto moves back into the top slot. The highest ranked team out of the West? Houston. Because James Harden is hitting shots from the parking lot and then drawing a foul on the waitress delivering beer to people in the front row.
In this PBT Extra I break down the Top 10 of our latest NBA Power Rankings, all the way through Philadelphia at No. 10.
Tied his season high with six assists, probably should have tied his career high of seven except for a missed open three-pointer by Lowry in the final 30 seconds or so and you can see him getting more comfortable with where teammates are – and more trusting of them – as the games roll along.
There was a rifled pass to Lowry for a made three in the corner in the third quarter, shortly after a nice little dump off pass to a cutting Pascal Siakam a few possessions before.
Now, you want him taking shots because he’s really good at making them but teams are going to do all they can to get the ball out of his hands as quickly as they can and, earlier in the year, Leonard might have waited a beat or two too long before moving the ball.
He didn’t do that last night, he’s not done very much in the last little while and that’s going to make him, and his team, more dangerous as the season progresses.