Roundtable

2018-19 Playoff Preview Panel, part two

It’s time for the playoffs. For all the numbers going into the Magic series, you can find my preview here. Samson also did a fairly lengthy mailbag. And Anthony wrote here on Toronto’s playoff demons. Lots more coming, but first, here’s a roundtable digging into the regular season, the playoff run, and what might come afterwards. Here are the last five questions, and you can find the first five here.

6) Looking back at the regular season, how would you evaluate the team’s performance? Did the running theme of load management bother you?

Cooper Smither

Didn’t care at all about load management. Simply not being on the court reportedly made Kawhi happier due to increased trust, healthier in terms of recovery, and prevented injury by lowering the amount of opportunity to get injured. And the only cost of that was finishing with the 2nd best record – an argument even suggesting that load management was a poor idea is illogical on its face.

Zarar Siddiqi

Not at all. If the Raptors had not load managed it would’ve bothered me. We’ve been burned too many times by prioritizing meaningless regular season wins over health entering the playoffs so it was refreshing to see a new approach being taken. Now, Kawhi might blow his quad in Game 1 but that doesn’t make load management a bad idea.

On a more emotive note, I wondered how many more years (or even more elevated playoff performances) from Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant we would’ve gotten if their load had been managed.

Adam McQueen

Twitter’s reaction to the running theme of load management bothered me. The witty puns ran out after about three games but the vitriol each time Kawhi sat out did not. The Raptors have exceeded my expectations this season on the court, and the front office maneuvers mid-season has allowed for flexibility in the wake of going all-in on the Kawhi trade. Two thumbs up.

Samson Folk

Lowry and Leonard missed a combined 39 games, and the Raptors are healthy going into the playoffs with a 58-win season under their belt. This season was a resounding success and as we’re entering the playoffs we’ll see the teams actual merits. Sit Leonard for 45 games next year, doesn’t matter. As long as he’s good in the playoffs.

Tim Chisholm

This whole regular season was a dress rehearsal for the Playoffs. No one inside or outside of the organization was pretending things were any different. If that’s the case, then being upset about load management is asinine. The Raptors are going into the Playoffs healthy (which is not nothing given all the injuries they’ve suffered) and playing the best basketball they’ve played all year. They are peaking at the right time and that’s all you can ask for this regular season.

Nick Tutssel

I think it’s unfair to call this season anything but a success. 2nd best record in the NBA, Top 5 in offensive and defensive ratings, and doing it all with Lowry and Leonard missing as much time as they did. However, they did have a few very winnable games slip away which is why they don’t get full marks. I don’t care about load management. I care that our best player will be at 100% for every playoff game this postseason.

Tamberlyn Richardson

What I value most is how the Raptors built momentum and finished the season. To wit, post All-Star Break Toronto boasts the top-ranked 3-point efficiency (41.5%), rank fifth offensively and THIRD defensively which garners an A grade from me.

Perhaps the big takeaway regarding load management (injury) is while the Raptors navigated copious man games lost due to injury they arrive at the postseason with the healthiest squad in the East. Timing is everything!

Shyam Baskaran

Not really. The regular season is a a grind for everyone. Quite honestly, the Raptors franchise as a whole seems a bit fatigued with the concept of regular season success at this point, and it was obvious throughout this season that high level playoff success was the ultimate goal. There was a science behind the load management, and a method to the madness – I was cool with it.

Josh Howe

No, the theme of load management didn’t bother me at all because the Raptors were quite clear prior to the season what their plans with Kawhi were going to be. They stated bluntly that extra caution was going to be on the table all season, and that everything done going forward was with an eye on the post-season.

With that out of the way, I think the team’s overall performance was good. They won 58 games despite chemistry issues, a rookie head coach, a big deadline deal, and more injuries than there are stars in the sky. There were definitely some frustrations along the way (e.g. rotations), but ultimately this is the best ever iteration of the Raptors and the initial journey was cool to watch.

Sahal Abdi

YES. I get to do a quick reaction, but for the regular season? My DREAM. Toronto gets an A for this season’s performance. I pegged them at 55 wins for the season (expecting everyone to be relatively healthy), and they were two shy of 60 (and everyone wasn’t healthy). A praiseworthy season that saw injuries, constant roster turnover and almost a systematic adjustment (I won’t say transformation) of team basketball. It’s funny, because I think Toronto is three years late on this load management thing. I’m sure Toronto fans are used to it by now, but I got the sense people hated it earlier in the season. With all due respect to Papa Casey, he was on the verge of running Kyle Lowry into the Earth’s crater. I commend Nurse for sticking to a team-developed plan for Leonard, and resting/limiting Lowry and Ibaka where he could.

Katie Heindl

Hell no. I wish someone managed my load.  

Louis Zatzman

This season was great. Do you remember when Leonard wouldn’t report to Toronto and Lowry was a bad teammate? Yeah, I don’t either.

7) How would you evaluate Nick Nurse’s rookie season?

Cooper Smither

I enjoyed breaking down the new offensive sets, while still seeing some of the old carrying over.

Zarar Siddiqi

His team won 58 games. End of. The post-trade play hasn’t been as fluid as early in the season and maybe the production expectations around Marc Gasol haven’t been met, but from a rookie coach’s standpoint, this is stuff that wins you COTY.

Adam McQueen

What I appreciated most about Nurse this season was his willingness to try new things, be it small-ball lineups to close games, different trapping schemes, or the occasional zone defensive look. Granted, the talent level of this roster makes rotational experiments that much easier, but I believe many young coaches would have been comfortable with simply riding a consistent lineup enroute to a dominant regular season. Instead, Nurse has tested himself and the team in an attempt to unlock another level once the playoffs arrive. They are now here and we will see if his regular season tests provided the right answers for the playoffs.

Samson Folk

Coaches are really hard to evaluate. The extremes are occupied by objectively bad coaches and objectively great coaches, but most coaches are just decent basketball minds. From what I can tell, Nurse seems well liked by the players and while he wasn’t a mad scientist and didn’t transform the Raptors like Budenholzer did with the Bucks, he weathered every storm that came the Raptors way this year. Like Katie Heindl said on the podcast (nice plug, mate) his accent has gotten heavier as the season has gone on, which I deeply respect.

Tim Chisholm

Incomplete. He has put together an attack that has kept the team at the top of the east, he never made waves with Kawhi, was exemplary in handing the starter/bench stuff between Valanciunas, Ibaka, and Gasol. If you want to nitpick about end-of-game play calls, go for it, but I’m not going to obsess over what amounts to about 2% of anyone’s job. However, he was hired to improve their play in the postseason, so as nice as the regular season was, the evaluation begins on Saturday.

Nick Tutssel

I think we all saw the drastic impact Budenholzer had with Milwaukee, and I was a tad jealous of that. Nurse did a fine job this season. But he took a lot, understandably, from Casey’s playbook and made some curious lineup choices based on certain matchups. The playoffs will really be when Nurse gets put on trial, and with the stakes so high, I’m both excited and nervous to see if he will deliver.

Tamberlyn Richardson

For five seasons Nurse was tasked with handling the Raptors offence – where they ranked top six (top five in 4 of 5 seasons). His mandate upon hiring was to succeed in the postseason where Casey failed and to impress Kawhi Leonard.

Assessing how well Nurse performed probably can’t be fully evaluated until the offseason when he puts into motion his ability to adapt. That said, 22 different starting lineups with the team’s top two stars missing 39 cumulative games while still managing to finish second in the NBA and top five in both offence and defence (only the Raptors and Bucks accomplished that feat) has to be considered a success.

Shyam Baskaran

I’d say better than good, but not amazing. Given all of the shuffling in the lineups, injuries, trades and end of season acquisitions, it was pretty remarkable how he just kept it all going without any major dents in the regular season. Where I am curious to see how he’ll perform is in the playoffs, specifically with mid-game adjustments, lineup decisions, out-of-timeout and end-of-game plays – the post-season will be a new animal.

Josh Howe

It’s been solid, if up and down. Nurse is very good at some things (after timeout plays, for example), and can leave one scratching their head at others (early-season centre rotations). It’s always tough to evaluate coaches, though, and in this case it’s especially difficult due to the team’s turnover and injuries throughout the year. The playoffs will be the real opportunity to see what Nurse is all about—how he picks and chooses his rotation, how he adjusts game-by-game, how he handles the raised level of emotion. It should be easier to answer this question in a couple months.

Sahal Abdi

This makes me think back to the Wojnarowski-Nurse interview from a couple weeks ago. Nurse talked about him convincing Ujiri and the Raptors brass that he was here to innovate and improve on things from the Casey era, not just remove and replace every philosophy already built. Let’s be real for a second, Dwane Casey set some great foundations for Toronto, and the way I saw it, Nurse essentially built on that this season. We all know Nick was the offensive mastermind behind Toronto’s constant top-five finishes from year to year. This season, he got a chance to take control of the team as a whole and did extremely well, all things considered.

Katie Heindl

It was Mostly Fine but is that what I wanted? Not really. I was hoping for a sea change kind of season if he was the coach we were getting, and aside from player development that I don’t attribute to him, this being the best iteration of this team yet, which I also don’t attribute to him, I’m not sure I would give him that active of a hand in the whole thing. Everyone looks great when your whole team, like all those around you, is very good.

Louis Zatzman

I’m of two minds. I think Nurse had a great season in pretty much every aspect. But I agree that most of the judgement should really be saved for the playoffs. Just because Nick Nurse had a great regular season doesn’t mean much; Dwane Casey was a regular season superstar. Nurse paid attention in class and took notes, but he still has to write the exam.

8) What was your favourite part of the season? Least favourite?

Cooper Smither

Siakam’s career high against Milwaukee. And then his career high against New York. And then his career high against Golden State. And then his career high against Utah. And then his career high against Atlanta. Oh, and then his career high against Washington.

Zarar Siddiqi

Favourite: That early win against Boston. A strong statement game like that sets you up nicely and gets the momentum going when the games don’t mean much.

Least favourite: Losing JV. The man worked hard, got better every year and was always productive and efficient. He also embraced Toronto as his home and it’s sad to see the franchise lose a guy like that.

Adam McQueen

My favourite moment was the Marc Gasol trade! Gasol has long been my favourite player in the league, so seeing him be freed from obscurity to legitimate championship contention brings a smile to my face. I’ve also loved the amount of content that has made me connect with the team at a different level throughout the season. Danny Green’s podcast, Ibaka’s ‘How Hungry are You?”, and Open Gym has enabled us to love this team on and off of the court. Least favourite moment? Dwayne Casey smugness. I really wish the Raptors had a chance to sweep the Pistons in round one.

Samson Folk

My favourite part of the season was the very beginning when Siakam’s spin-move hadn’t been scouted and he was getting off 3 or 4 a game. That and the absurd 3-point shooting since Gasol’s arrival, I’ve loved watching the team play of late. The worst time was definitely the end of December to the middle of January, good grief.

Tim Chisholm

Favourite part was acquiring Marc Gasol. I feel comfortable saying that he turned the season around for the Raptors. It looked as though the Raptors had hit a bit of a productivity wall in late January, with holes in three-point shooting, ball movement, and general chemistry all putting a damper on people’s expectations for the team. Gasol showed up and all the angst went away. My least favourite part was having to part with Valanciunas to make the Gasol trade happen. Gasol is better, but Valanciunas was a sentimental favourite (although it was great to see him get minutes and touches in Memphis).

Nick Tutssel

Favourite: This.

Least Favourite: The final 8-10 games of the season where the Raptors literally couldn’t have cared less and all of the basketball was meaningless. Please shorten the NBA season, Adam Silver.

Tamberlyn Richardson
It’s no secret I jumped on the Pascal Siakam bus the night of his draft. His rapid ascension exceeded my expectations, but witnessing the National audience jump on board the Spicy P whirling dervish bandwagon was awesome. My least favourite was the constant conjecture Kawhi was just biding his time for a season.  

Shyam Baskaran

My favourite part was just Pascal Siakam’s season overall. It just came out of nowhere. He started to raise your eyebrows at the beginning of the season, and then just got better and better throughout the season in a way you rarely see – truly remarkable. The least favourite was probably the low-key embarrassing losses sprinkled throughout the season – namely, the Spurs blowout loss and that home Pistons loss at the buzzer.

Josh Howe

My favourite part of the season was the game against the Warriors back on November 29th, when Kawhi played as hard as I’ve seen him play all year and Durant was spectacular, scoring 51 points in a loss at Scotiabank Arena.

My least favourite was probably the Valanciunas trade. I still have mixed thoughts about the deal itself, and JV was the longest-tenured Raptor before his departure. It’s a part of the business, true, but it can be sad to see guys you’ve watched grow up move on.

Sahal Abdi

I don’t want to get sappy, but my favourite part of the season had to be watching the growth of the relationship between Kawhi Leonard and the rest of the Raptors. If we’re talking one single moment though, it’d have to be Pascal exploding for 44 versus Washington. It was at that moment, the entire NBA world took notice of a joyful, humble Cameroonian who moved to the US and started playing basketball just eight years ago. Eight. Least favourite moment was having to hear Tracy ‘I actually had the audacity to wear a suit meant for Boban Marjanovic on live television once’ McGrady and Richard ‘King of awful basketball takes’ Jefferson explain so confidently why Russell deserved MIP over Siakam. Ugh.

Katie Heindl

Favs: Pascal Siakam exploding and getting his, Lowry’s new pre-game near-mystic ritualistic routine, watching this team breeze by opponents that once would have given them grief. Least favs: Losing Greg Monroe, Delon Wright, JV and CJ Miles to do it.

Louis Zatzman

This was an incredible season for me personally because I got a small taste of actually being a basketball writer. Thanks to people like Blake Murphy, Vivek Jacobs, Zarar Siddiqi, and way more, I have been credentialed to a bunch of games and will continue to be for all the home games of this playoff run. When miracles are dropping out of the sky, there aren’t any least favourite moments.

9) Say the Raptors fall in the Eastern Conference Finals. Do you want Lowry to be the starting point guard next year? Would that change if they lost earlier?

Cooper Smither

Run everything back as long as Kawhi is here. Maybe even with him (haven’t looked at possibility of approximating a replacement).

Zarar Siddiqi

Depends on how he’s played but generally I have no issue with Lowry being a starting point guard next year. Offensively, he’s got more left in his tank and I doubt his play will be the reason for a potential exit. Defensively, how much dribble penetration he gives up is masked by his highlight plays (e.g., picking up charges) but I don’t think it’s to the point where it’s a major concern.

Adam McQueen

Although anything less than a Eastern Conference Finals appearance would be disappointing, I would want Lowry on-board regardless. He is the steady pulse that keeps the Raptors from cratering. Plus, his trade value will be non-existent if the team lays an egg during the playoffs anyways.

Samson Folk

Yes, have Lowry start next year regardless of anything. VanVleet is terrific, but he’s not like a 19-year old lottery pick who needs starting reps to become a star. Lowry is obviously the high-ceiling and high-floor pick for the Raptors at the point guard position. It’s been a long time coming, but I think we might all be close to appreciating Lowry properly.

Tim Chisholm

If they lose earlier than the Conference Finals, all bets are off as to what Ujiri will do, but Leonard may make part of that decision for him. If they lose in the ECF, I don’t think focusing zeroing in on Lowry makes much sense. He’s been fine this year, and remains as heady as ever. They have a ton of contracts coming off of the books next season. Ujiri may well just play it out and wait for the money to open up in 2020.

Nick Tutsell

Regardless of the outcome this year, I think you have to run it back with Kyle for one last year. Unless there’s a really stupid GM out there who wants to trade us a great young player or draft pick for his expiring deal. Jeanie Buss should totally give Rob Pelinka the keys to the Lakers!

Tamberlyn Richardson
Kyle Lowry over everything! I still feel the Raptors are their most fluid and function at their best with the bulldog at the helm.

Shyam Baskaran

That’s a tough question. It depends on what the alternatives really are in the off-season – keeping Lowry around for another year is obviously a financial hit, but it would be a huge leadership asset to the team regardless. And unless we get knocked out of the playoffs in a way that specifically highlights Lowry as being the reason why (which is unlikely), then I don’t see why he wouldn’t be the starting point guard for at least one more season.

Josh Howe

Are we assuming here that the reason the Raptors lose is because of Lowry’s performance? Because if we aren’t, and we’re speaking simply about the Raptors losing a hard-fought, long series in which the Bucks (or someone else) are just better, then my answer is sure.

If we’re assuming that the team’s loss is heavily due to Lowry, then I would have to think on it more. He’s 33 years old and at the cusp of his decline, even if it hasn’t showed itself too much yet. It wouldn’t be surprising to me if the franchise looked into moving him in such a scenario.

Sahal Abdi

Absolutely. This would be under the assumption he doesn’t play terribly in the first two rounds leading to the ECF. Whoever’s reading this right now, do me a favour. Laptop, desktop or phone — look at today’s date. Seriously, look at the date. Understand that you cannot find five (possibly even three) point guards in today’s NBA that contribute to wins more than Kyle Lowry. Yes, I know — his age is getting up there. But his game is successfully translating not only to today’s NBA landscape, but for the betterment of his team. Do you pull back his role just a bit next season? Sure. But to say you’re better off rolling with VanVleet and whoever else behind him, you’re delusional. This is all being said with the contingency that a star guard à la Kemba Walker or Damian Lillard is readily available for Toronto. If they lose earlier than the ECF due to the play of Lowry, then it becomes a real question.

Katie Heindl

Yes, because you can’t base decisions like that on isolated events and barring getting an entirely new point guard in the off season there’s no other current option to replace him with on the team. If the Raptors fall in the ECF, or at any point during these playoffs, it’s not going to be Lowry’s singular fault. This question is rude.

Louis Zatzman

Katie’s right, and whoever asked this question is dumb. As long as Lowry can defend the post, pass to a roller, and make preposterous, ‘who me?!’ faces at the ref, he should be the starting point guard of the Toronto Raptors.

10) With the big questions being whether the Raptors make the finals or not, whether Kawhi stays or not, it seems ridiculous that nothing has been decided yet. How do find meaning in the regular season if the biggest questions haven’t even begun to be answered?

Cooper Smither

Process over results – so long as the process is logically sound, and there are entertaining moments along the way, the regular season is full of meaning. The playoffs are clearly important, but if the regular season preparation was optimized, you should live with the subsequent results.

Zarar Siddiqi

The regular season is pointless. It should be 58 games long with each team playing each other once home and away. Have a secondary competition on the side (e.g., FA Cup-style) and then head for the postseason.  You’ll get the same money at the gate and it’ll be a more meaningful product.

Adam McQueen

The biggest takeaway has been Toronto’s ability to succeed relatively drama-free in a league that has now become a daily soap opera. Every team seems to have a new distraction arise and the heavy turnover that the Raptors had could’ve led the team down a dark hole of off-court issues. However, the character of this team and their leaders has kept the train chugging and seamlessly bring new passengers on board. This gives me the utmost confidence for this year and future seasons.

Samson Folk

Everything is cyclical. Michel Foucault’s post-modernism is popular, nihilism is cool again, and remains the easiest way to position yourself as an intellectual, so sure, nothing matters, there is no meaning in the regular season. HOWEVER, I am not cool or smart and I enjoy the regular season so much that DeMar DeRozan is my favourite player ever. Watching Siakam’s trajectory and the shifting offense of the Raptors after Gasol arrived was very rewarding. Basketball is fun, this is an entertainment business, and the Raptors were so much fun this year. That’s how you find meaning.

Tim Chisholm

You find meaning in how the team is playing as they head into the Playoffs, in how they fared in close games, how they fared on the road, how well the main guys play off of each other, how diverse their attack is… If you’ve ever conducted a dress rehearsal, you know that there is a lot of value in giving everyone a chance to run it through, make mistakes, and tweak. For the Raptors, they had a lot to tweak after last season, and you can decide for yourself if you feel any more confident going into the postseason than you did a year ago.

Nick Tutsell

The regular season, as frustrating as it can be at times, is a large part of what goes into determining the answer to those questions. Establishing rhythm, creating chemistry and making mistakes are all things that happen over the course of an NBA season, and are paramount in shaping a team’s success or a player’s mindset. I think the Raps made a lot of progress in those departments, which bodes well for their chances of success both in the playoffs and free agency.

Tamberlyn Richardson

For over two decades the template for successful franchises ran through San Antonio. The Spurs mastered scouting, talent development, and program constancy. Big market teams will always draw free agents while fortuitous timing can land a generational talent in the draft.

In the absence of those two possibilities, the Raptors strengthened their position in spite of firing Dwane Casey and trading away beloved star DeRozan. Continued development and tangible growth of Raptors assets married with constancy in the program earmarked by a strong culture and identity may well be the new template for franchises to emulate. Clearly, success in the postseason is the ultimate measuring stick, but Masai’s mastery might have usurped the Popovich pantheon.

Shyam Baskaran

I’ve tried to find appreciation for the simpler things in the regular season – like Pascal’s surprise development, Kyle’s tenacity no matter what, Marc Gasol’s sublime passing, or watching Serge’s breakout year. Winning 58 games sure helps make things fun, but we all know that for this franchise, it’s legit all about the playoffs.

Josh Howe

My answer to this question is the same as it always is when someone tells me the regular season doesn’t matter: You don’t buy a book just to read the last page.

The regular season is about the journey, about discovery. What happens in the playoffs is the cap-off to what has already been unfolding for 82 games. The organization’s attempt to convince Kawhi to stay, for example, has been a season-long effort. They didn’t just toss away the regular season and say they would only be concerned once the playoffs arrive. No, instead they’ve made keeping Kawhi happy a priority since day one, and at least a part of that process has him entering the post-season as healthy as he could hope to be coming off injury.

The regular season matters.

Sahal Abdi

I guess the simple answer is, you can’t. If Toronto fails to make the NBA Finals (a shared organizational + fanbase goal) and Kawhi leaves, this season goes up to flames. Fairly or unfairly, Toronto is already known across the NBA terrain as a team that constantly blows it when it matters most. Now, I’m not sure I totally agree with that sentiment, considering every single team not named Golden State or that employed LeBron blew it, in one way or another. In the grand scheme of things, especially with regard to Toronto’s organizational future, you can find meaning in a solid, young core of players, Siakam’s incredible growth, the slower-but-still-promising development of OG Anunoby, and the fact that Masai Ujiri is still at the helm. Do yourself a favour and don’t doubt Ujiri, because you and I have both done it… and we look foolish shortly after.

Katie Heindl

Look, we already get way ahead of ourselves enough with this team. What it looks like before we’ve seen what it can do, now, here, for the remainder of this year in basketball. Sometimes you can’t decide the big things until all the cards fall because if you do, you aren’t basing decisions on what’s worthwhile, what’s work keeping, what is working and what isn’t. Big questions get answered by seeing to the smaller ones, always. It’s more boring but to build something sustainable it’s what you gotta do.

Louis Zatzman

The regular season is fun because watching basketball is fun. Without the regular season, we don’t get to watch Pascal Siakam evolve from Charmander to Charizard over the course of half a year. His progression could be the coolest thing I’ve watched as a Raptors fan. Just because this whole thing might crash and burn in a few weeks – and it might! No one thought it would happen last year either – doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a heck of a ride.

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