46-18; Are they resting today? Practicing? So many questions…
This year has been a return to earlier eras — and the normal, NBA-wide case — of the priority of the Raptors’ bench being to hold leads, if they can. The onus has fallen on starting-heavy units to drive success, and the Raptors’ starters have obliged. While they’ve rotated through 17 different starting lineups, a look at the four they’ve used most (for a total of 49 games) and two others they may look to highlights their relative success:
The takeaway here would seem to be that the centre in these lineups doesn’t matter a great deal and that it’s the combination of Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam driving most of the team’s success. This is backed up by individual on-off marks for the year, although Leonard’s is a little less pronounced than the other three consistent starters, as the team has performed well without him until recently.
Solutions for balancing the units have been thrown around for most of the season, as this problem has persisted more or less all year.
The addition of Marc Gasol, to some, was a clear fix. Gasol’s playmaking can aid a bench that’s generally short on that skill and help bring up the performance of the team’s lesser rotation pieces. While Gasol also seems better off with the starters, where there is an exponential effect to his skill set with better players around him, Serge Ibaka plays poorly with the bench and better with the starters. The numbers have not yet revealed that Gasol is helping those bench groups.
No Core Four, Gasol at C: -39.9 net rating, 28 minutes
No Core Four, Ibaka at C: -10.6 net rating, 95 minutes
No Core Four, Valanciunas at C: -14.5 net rating, 112 minutes
No Core Four, Monroe at C: -9.7 net rating, 121 minutes
Who plays centre in those bench-heavy groups really hasn’t mattered much. Without some of the starters staggered with them, all of those groups have struggled.
Milwaukee vs. Toronto
Any combination of the top four teams in the East would make for a great Eastern Conference finals, but the matchup between the two best regular-season teams would create the most interesting story lines on the court, even if it drives TV executives to nightmares. A battle between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard could tell us who will replace LeBron as the new King of the East. The era of the big-man battle is over. The wing positions are where the heavyweight fights happen these days.
Giannis and Kawhi have not matched up much in the regular-season games between their two teams, but there would come a point in the series when the best two-way player on each team would have to guard the other. It would be the rare one-on-one matchup that would be equally as compelling on both sides of the ball. Could Kawhi, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, slow down Giannis, who has been playing like a new-age version of Shaq? And could Giannis take his defensive reputation to the next level and use his length to erase Kawhi, like LeBron used to when he was in his prime?
The series could come down to which head coach in his first year on the job (Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee and Nick Nurse in Toronto) does a better job of manipulating matchups. They both have the luxury of deep rosters, but having more lineup options also creates more opportunities to choose the wrong ones. Both now have a Gasol brother on the second unit. Which one will blink first and go small? Will we see a T-800 frontcourt of Kawhi, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby before we see Giannis reach his ultimate destiny as a point center?
Raptors broadcaster Eric Smith gives his takes regarding the issues with Nick Nurse’s bench, how deep the rotation will be in the postseason, the decision to move Greg Monroe, the importance of a healthy Fred VanVleet, the pressure on the top East teams to go far in the playoffs, and LeBron James possibly going golfing once the regular season ends.
Last week, Raptors forward Pascal Siakam was asked whether he saw signs of the team finding some continuity and chemistry.
Too soon, was the gist of his reply.
“It’s still a little rough out there, just trying to figure out everyone,” Siakam said. “We have a lot of new players, so it’s definitely a little different. But I think we’re doing a great job and the guys we have are very high IQ, Marc (Gasol), Jeremy (Lin). Those two just understand the game, they’ve been playing for a while.
“It’s going to be hard, but we’ve just got to continue to play together … (but) it’s been fun so far just trying to figure things out.”
Not so much on Tuesday against the Houston Rockets, though. Gasol was a stunning -30 and did not notch even a single assist for only the 25th time in his career. Lin was a -22, missing 4-of-5 shots and has still not hit a three-pointer as a Raptor.
“So many different lineups, so many different faces, trying to gel together is a big part of the reason why but at this point, no excuses,” Danny Green said.
“We still have to find ways to play better regardless of who is on the floor, we have to have to find ways to pick each other up.”
The starters who have been here all year looked fine, for the most part, following a bad start. The new-look bench was a mess.
There’s still work to do.
Jeremy Lin has been abysmal since he arrived; he has missed all 17 three-pointers he’s attempted and is shooting 30 per cent from the floor. And his playmaking skills seem wasted when the likes of Norm Powell, OG Anunoby and, to a lesser extent, Patrick McCaw are on the floor with him.
Coach Nick Nurse stopped well short of suggesting there were any dramatic changes in the offing. “We’ve been through some ups and downs with our second unit this year and we’re going to still keep working it and taking a look at it and I’m sure they’ll bounce back. I’m sure they’ll play better,” he said Tuesday.
A lack of familiarity is an issue. The number of injuries that have affected who plays with whom has been difficult to overcome. But with only 17 games left in the regular season, that sense of urgency VanVleet demanded in December is exponentially bigger now.
“One time Marc (Gasol) is in (as a starter), one time Serge (Ibaka) is in there, some guys are hurt, guys are in and out … some guys still learning the plays,” Danny Green said after Tuesday’s loss. “We had Jodie (Meeks) here and then Jodie’s out, Patrick McCaw’s in, so many different lineups, so many different faces …
“We still have to find ways to play better regardless of who is on the floor, we have to have to find ways to pick each other up. If we do a better job with that first group, we don’t put the second unit at such a disadvantage.”
The return of VanVleet will most certainly settle some things down. His versatility will allow Lin to move to a tertiary role, and VanVleet’s shooting will be a blessing. But he is still recovering from thumb surgery — he should have a hard cast replaced by a soft one this week — and is likely a couple of weeks away from playing.
Truth is Toronto doesn’t have much left to play for over these final 17 games. First place is still within reach, though catching Milwaukee will be difficult. The Bucks have a 2.5 game lead atop the Eastern Conference, they own the tiebreaker with the Raps, and have been remarkably consistent – their current two-game losing streak is their first of the season. The Raptors will likely finish in second, where they hold a 4.0 game lead over Indiana.
Their priorities over the next five weeks are far less tangible. The checklist is as follows: continue to build chemistry and integrate their new players, establish a functioning rotation, go into the playoffs with momentum and confidence, and most importantly stay healthy.
While the games themselves are not crucial, the time and how they use it could be. So the question becomes, what are they doing to prepare for what lies ahead?
When Leonard said the games are his practices, he may have meant it more literally than you would think.
Since that win over Portland last Friday, the Raptors have declined three opportunities to practice. They had a session scheduled for Saturday afternoon but cancelled it late on Friday. They opted not to practice on Monday, following Sunday’s 112-107 overtime loss in Detroit, even though the game started at 6 p.m. ET and they flew back that night. Then, they took Wednesday off after a disappointing showing against Houston on Tuesday. They also chose not to hold a morning shootaround ahead of the Rockets game.
This approach isn’t entirely unusual, especially this late into the season. You see it around the league, as veteran playoff-bound teams look to maximize rest for their players where and when they can.
“It’s just that time of year,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I think we’ve played some really tough games lately, really tough, close, physical, good teams, high level. There’s just not much use [in practising some days]. We got home at 12:30 [a.m. Monday morning], you’re gonna drag ’em out of bed and what are you gonna get out of the main guys anyway? We do a lot of skill work on those days, anyway, and treatments, and just about every guy hits the gym anyway.”
Welcome to the new NBA. There’s been a meaningful shift in the way teams manage their players’ workloads over the last decade. We’ve seen it play out on the court, where stars are routinely missing games for rest, but it’s also going on behind the scenes. Studies across professional sports have revealed the toll a long season can take on an athlete’s body and mind. With a greater emphasis on physical and mental wellness, as well as all the money and jobs at stake in their business, teams are erring on the side of caution.
The Raptors have a unique recent history of five-man bench units. The Bench Mob last season was one of the most enjoyable Raptors experiences to date. It was a beautiful display of basketball, showing the possibilities of simply playing on a string. This season however, has not been nearly as beautiful. The current iteration — typically Lin, Powell, McCaw, Anunoby, and Ibaka/ Gasol — suffer from a lack of efficient shot creation and shooting. To Nick Nurse’s credit he moved away from these all-bench lineups in the Houston game, getting Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam some run, but it still felt like a half measure. The temptation to group the starters together for long stretches isn’t a realistic option in the playoffs and has many fans clamouring over more aggressive staggering — something we have not seen this season.
Raptors TV voice Matt Devlin opines on the club’s disjointed play vs. the Rockets, Nick Nurse having to regularly juggle his lineup, the bench not stepping up, and how simple Nurse may keep his defensive tactics in the postseason.
But my top choice is Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, who has doubled-down as an impact player for the Raptors. Sometimes a guy’s improvement comes from greater opportunity, but Siakam has flipped that — his handling of the added responsibilities heaped on him has earned the extra minutes and touches. Also, there are bonus points for doing this all as a No. 27 pick vs. No. 2 (Russell) or No. 6 (Hield).
Norm Powell is such a tease.
He misses a handful of defensive assignments and rushes a couple of shots and then he locks down someone for a couple of minutes and makes one of his two baskets of the night, a nifty drive in traffic to finish with his left hand on the left side of the rim.
But if these games are about learning who can do what and for how long, it’s hard to see Powell working himself into the regular playoff rotation.
He was really good against Boston a week ago, really bad in the first half in Detroit and then he hit a couple of big three-pointers in the third quarter of that game.
Then last night he’s forcing stuff and missing shots and losing his man on defence.
Nick must be going crazy.
It’s not like he was the lone transgressor last night – no, there was all kinds of blame to go around – but if you’re on the playing bubble and play like that, good things are not going to happen.
Another homegrown Raptor and former Toronto draft pick, Valanciunas never struggled with finding that opportunity like Wright did. But he was placed into a timeshare with Serge Ibaka this season, albeit one that seemed to benefit both the team and the player. Valanciunas, in reduced minutes, was able to highlight his strengths in short spurts, owning the low-post, and since joining the Grizzlies has only continued that trend — but now with significantly more playing time.
In eight appearances with Memphis, the Lithuanian big man and former fifth-overall pick has posted five double-doubles. His minutes are up from 18 with Toronto to 25.5 minutes per game while carrying a bigger scoring load. As a member of the Grizzlies, Valanciunas is averaging 18.3 points 9.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting a scorching 60 per cent from the field.
While Wright is playing well with more responsibility, it’s even less surprising that Valanciunas would thrive with a bigger role on a team still displaying remnants of the Grit n’ Grind era.
1) Jeremy Lin was a solid addition (on paper) for the Raptors, but what happens to him once Fred VanVleet comes back from injury?
Mitch Orsatti: Ah, what a luxurious problem to have! As the question states, Lin has played perfect basketball for his role on this Raptors team, especially considering he was thrust into a pretty big role right after being signed. Does that mean Lin should be eating into Steady Freddy’s minutes?
The easy answer here is “probably not”. The Raptors made a significant investments in Mr. Bet On Yourself this off-season and to relegate him to a reduced role because he got hurt and the team signed a buyout vet to a minimum contract wouldn’t be a great look. That doesn’t mean that the team should just stash Lin at the end of the bench either.
So where do the minutes come from?
The sad answer here is “Patrick McCaw.” McCaw has had incredible defensive spurts and the occasional offensive burst, but the fact that he was playing some defacto point guard while Freddy’s been out probably means that the ax will fall on him first.
As I mentioned though, this is a good problem to have! When one of Norm, OG, Fred or Lin struggles (which is inevitable) the Raptors have an excellent release valve in McCaw.
Satbir Singh: Nick Nurse seems to be tightening up the Raptors rotation as the season winds down. Rightfully so, as the playoffs are a time when you need your best players to take on heavy minutes and a lot more workload. Fred VanVleet’s return won’t keep him out of the rotation even with Jeremy Lin involved. I think other players like Patrick McCaw and Norman Powell will have a tough time seeing minutes, or at least the minutes they’ve been getting lately.
In terms of how you play with Lin and VanVleet off the bench and 35-plus minutes per game for Kyle Lowry, well that’s why Nurse gets paid the big bucks. More than likely you try to ease Lowry’s workload in some of the games near the end of the season but keep him mostly around that 35-minute mark. With Lin and VanVleet on the court together, I’d prefer Lin as the ball handler and VanVleet as the standstill shooter. VanVleet is shooting 41.4 per cent on catch and shoot three’s, 28.7 per cent on pull up three’s and 45.2 per cent in the corner. Therefore, make VanVleet the shooter on the court with the amount of good passers on the team.
Daniel Reynolds: I think the Raptors have to give those minutes back to VanVleet. No offense to Lin, but the bench has been FVV’s to direct, and while Lin has perhaps more experience — or at least a more well-known pedigree — he hasn’t exactly shown himself to be an out-and-out world beater. At least not quite yet.
That’s not to say Lin wouldn’t have a role to play for the Raptors. Theoretically, Lin is a three-point shooter, and practically speaking he’s another ball-handler and perimeter defender for Toronto to trot out there. Unfortunately for the Raptors, while Lin’s has had a chance to show off his on-ball skills, he’s currently shooting [checks paper] zero percent from three since coming to Toronto. That alone means one thing: VanVleet should slide easily right back into his spot in the lineup. Case closed. (Please note this question was asked before Lin’s debacle against Detroit and Houston. As of right now, it’s not even a question: I would definitely give all of Lin’s minutes to FVV.)
The end game in this Leonard love is to convince him to stay in Toronto past this year, when his contract expires. The betting around the NBA is he won’t stay, preferring to go to his native southern California. Leonard isn’t letting on.
Were this an exceptional circumstance for Leonard, people might understand. But the skilled small forward has long exhibited self interest of a special type. In San Antonio, Leonard struggled with injures to his shoulder and right leg. When Spurs doctors told him he was healthy enough to play, Leonard sought a second opinion.
His teammates held a meeting to declare that they thought that Leonard should get his butt back on court pronto. But Leonard refused and didn’t play another game the rest of the 2018-19 season.
To say there was bitterness when the Spurs lost in the playoffs without their transcendent star would be an understatement.
So no one was surprised when the Spurs unburdened themselves of Leonard in the summer. The real surprise was in Leonard’s landing spot, in Canada with the Raptors. Few saw Toronto being that aggressive. But with LeBron James taking his talents to L.A., the Eastern Conference looked open to the management of the Raptors.
Leonard could be the Raptors’ equivalent of the Toronto Blue Jays’ acquisition of David Price, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin. Just what they needed to jump-start a playoff run and a possible trip to the finals for slaughter at the hands of Golden State.
No matter, the deal was a shocker. Toronto has been in the NBA since 1995 but to many players it might as well be Mars for its attraction to free agents.
In his executive role with Canada Basketball, he helped develop a number of development programs that were entry points for several members of the rising class of Canadian talent into the national team environment, and helped lead Canada through the extended qualifying process for the FIBA World Cup in China, where 36 players and three head coaches went 10-2 over the course of six qualifying windows played out over 18 months.
But Barrett’s first job as the official general manager will be to deal with Canada’s present in a way that doesn’t offend it’s past.
Specifically, what is he going to do with the head coaching position ostensibly held by Triano — a national team icon as a player, twice the national team head coach, the only Canadian to ever hold an NBA head coaching position and a long-tenured NBA assistant coach with four organizations, now in Charlotte.
In an interview Wednesday, Barrett said that he’ll be evaluating everything on the basketball operations side, including the head coaching position.
“We’ll be evaluating … all the coaches that coached in our [qualifying] windows as potential head coaches as well as expanding our search outside our walls to look at the best available coaches around the world to see if they fit into the criteria and prerequisites we require from a head coach, and then do our interviews this month and [we’re] looking to do our hiring by the end of the month.”
According to Barrett Triano — who coached Barrett at the Olympics in 2000 — hasn’t been let go, but will essentially have to compete for a job he has never been told isn’t his.
“People can infer what they want, but I didn’t [say Triano won’t be back],” said Barrett. “We’re evaluating the coaching situation and want to make sure we’re putting our best foot forward to give our team the best chance to be successful. … We don’t have any problems here.
The Leonard-Lowry PnRs are Creeping In
Something we’re seeing a little bit more of — just a little bit! — lately are some Kyle Lowry-Kawhi Leonard pick and rolls. We got one early one last night, that freed Leonard for a drive, and we got one on Leonard’s game-winning shot against Portland the other day.
This is something I’ve been wanting to see more of, but I also understand why Nick Nurse might not want to show it too much — you don’t want to give away too much of what might be your best late-game offense. Similarly, the Golden State Warriors can unleash an even more devastating combo — the Kevin Durant-Stephen Curry pick-and-roll — but Steve Kerr saves it for high-leverage situations.
If you can get a smaller point guard to switch onto Leonard (like Lillard in that Portland game) or a slower big to switch onto Lowry, obviously, that’s hugely beneficial to the Raps. So let’s see how much more of it we see down the stretch, and into the postseason.
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