It’s tough not to get caught up on what has happened in the past. After all, it’s the only real concrete evidence that we have when it comes to the world of sports. We dive into how a player has performed, look at the team statistics, and reasonably hope that they can maintain what they have done (if positive) or correct the areas that need it (where failing).
And if I’m being perfectly fair, it’s why there is a part of me that understands when NBA fans have doubts about the Raptors based on regular season success alone. Some of the arguments are lazy, but when the Raptors have gotten their butt kicked by LeBron each spring (or our deepest shame, getting swept by the Wizards) a narrative is easy to develop and trust if only for the simplicity.
Between this past summer’s trades and free agency, and the recent trade for Marc Gasol, the Raptors are a far different team than the one who has routinely under-performed come playoff time. Along with having a new head coach in place the Raptors currently employ players representing roughly 54 percent of the minutes in last spring’s elimination game against Cleveland.
If you go back even further, only Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell remain on the roster from the 2016 Conference Finals. That was only 3 years ago.
Despite the changes the Raptors have undergone, and the numerous games lost to injury (or load management) this season, the Raptors remain second in the East (1.5 game back of Milwaukee, but Bucks own the tie breaker) and are on pace for a franchise record 60 wins (59.778 if you want to get precise).
While a 60 win season would certainly look good in the ol’ record books, the Raptors themselves have talked repeatedly about proving it in the playoffs. That is the be-all and end-all of the season, with the regular schedule just counting as a warm-up/opportunity to make the sum better than the parts.
The goal is playoff success, but the Raptors have 23 games left in the regular season to prepare for post-season success. What is it that we should be looking for during the home stretch?
New Starting Line-up
This one isn’t a lock but it’s one I anticipate and hope for. Serge Ibaka has done nothing to lose his spot as the team’s starting centre, but Marc Gasol adds a new element and needs to be incorporated more with Lowry and Kawhi.
Gasol is averaging 1.7 assists through 3 games with the Raptors in his 20.1 minutes a night. In the same stretch he has averaged 4.7 potential assists based on missed shots. Adding further facilitation to the starting unit, plus better long range shooting, will help open up easier scoring opportunities for Lowry and Kawhi, not to mention for Siakam on off-ball cuts.
We have seen a total of 3 minutes with Gasol sharing the floor with Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi, and Siakam, which is certainly not enough to get anywhere close to a valid sample size. But despite that disclaimer, it’s hard not to get intrigued by this unit having a true shooting percentage of 100 and a net rating of +100. It’s a 5-man group that balances once another.
Nothing inventive to say here. The Raptors have to stay healthy and get Fred back when he’s ready. With the league’s softest remaining schedule they should have good opportunity to get some rest and minimize wear and tear.
Work Jeremy (L)in
Jeremy Lin has been a Raptor for a little over a week and has played in one game and participated in one practice (yesterday). He’s barely been in Toronto and as he confessed after practice yesterday he is still learning everyone’s names within the organization. He’s as new as can be.
With the extended absence for Fred VanVleet due to thumb surgery Lin has become all the more important to what the Raptors hope to accomplish. He will have plenty of opportunity to play both off the ball alongside of Lowry, plus significant time running the second unit. It’s also reasonable to expect that he could get a few starts under his belt on nights when Lowry rests.
There are absolutely no complaints to be made about Lin after his one game as a Raptor, but familiarity is the name of the game at this point in the season. He has 23 minutes to learn the overall system and the individual tendencies of each player. He is locked into a role in the playoff rotation and has plenty of opportunity for the necessary reps moving forward.