Predicting roster decisions as Raptors lose to Bulls in blowout

Sometimes when basketball is played, although it ostensibly takes the form of a game, it lacks the general flow and narrative inherent to sports. The Toronto Raptors lost 105-89 to the Chicago Bulls, yes, and the game was choppy and full of mistakes. Effort and execution varied from possession to possession. The game was more series of events than a whole; it was exactly the sum of its parts. With the Raptors missing Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol against the Chicago Bulls, it was, of course, expected that the Raptors would lose a game an opponent dressing all of its best players. As a result, Toronto’s only home game of the preaseason was an extended tryout for Toronto’s deep bench guys. There are players fighting for contracts, both with the Raptors and Raptors 905, and there are guys fighting for legitimate rotation spots. This game strengthened a few cases, and it hurt a few cases. Let’s go through the list of players who played against the Bulls, looking at their deals, their likelihoods to make the team (or where they’ll play for those who are certainties), and what this game did to help their positions going forward.

With 12 guaranteed deals on the roster, the Raptors have three spots up for grabs, plus two two-ways with the Raptors 905. And the team could conceivably cut guaranteed money, so the Raptors have at least five contracts up for grabs. Here are how all those questions were addressed, at least in part, against the Chicago Bulls.

Note: salary figures are only for 2019-20, and the dollar amounts are different for any contracts that extend past this season.

Stock Improving

Oshae Brissett – Exhibit-10 non-guaranteed $898,310, two years

Brissett has had a fantastic preseason. As an undrafted rookie, he looked like an outside shot at a roster spot before the season started. Since then, he’s done nothing but improve that rating.

He finished with a modest six points against Chicago, but he knocked in a triple from the corner, and he hit a midrange pull-up. It was good to see Brissett creating his own offense, and he’ll have far more opportunity to do that as the season goes on if he ends up in the G League. His defense remained solid.

I doubt Brissett has done enough to earn a full roster spot or much time in the regular season, but he’s done more than enough for the team to want him around for the foreseeable future. If Brissett goes to the G-League and plays with the Raptors 905, he won’t earn his full contract, but he does get a bonus that could range up to $50,000. I expect Brissett has done more than enough to earn a two-way spot with the Raptors 905. He can hone his offensive skills there while the team has two years of control.

Malcolm Miller – Non-guaranteed $1,588,231, one year 

Miller has had a fantastic preseason. His shooting has been great, and his game off the dribble has showed more oomph than last season. He had a great backdoor cut and dish to the cutting Dewan Hernandez (although Hernandez missed the layup) against the Bulls. His defense has been similarly on point, and before the game he chatted about his emphasis on the details, such as close-outs. Those were on display against the Bulls, and he was among Toronto’s most effective defenders. He doesn’t get a ton of deflections, but he’s a good positional defender, he’s fluid, and he has great multiple efforts. He added in plenty of spacing against the Bulls, and even though he only shot 1-of-4 from deep, he cut well to find himself open behind the arc. Miller was quietly among Toronto’s best performers against Chicago.

Before preseason, it looked like Miller might be the odd man out. He’s too good to prove anything more in the G League, but it looked like the Raptors might prefer to roll with an extra guard instead of Miller. However, he’s played so well — and Terence Davis has shown enough that he may be ready to be the third guard — that Miller’s likelihood to make the roster may have flipped. I see Miller as likely to earn a full contract spot and even play spot minutes on the wing.

Matt Thomas – Fully guaranteed $898,310, three years 

Matt Thomas was billed as a shooter coming into the NBA, and that hasn’t changed. He shot well against the Bulls, scoring 12, the second most on the team. He did more than shoot, too. Thomas ran some pick-and-roll, even dishing one to the rolling Dewan Hernandez. Thomas’ floater game was precise. Playing on some offensively challenged lineups, Thomas was the player to whom the team turned for buckets. He showed off a larger toolkit than the standstill jumper. He even hit a buttery triple running off a screen, and that is likely how Toronto will use him in the regular season.

With guaranteed money, Thomas was also almost certain to crack the roster coming into preseason. That hasn’t changed. The question now is whether he’ll actually play. It looks like the Raptors can play him alongside defensive stalwarts and expect Thomas to create some instant offense, a la CJ Miles in 2017-18. Thomas could fight for some regular season minutes, especially if Toronto needs some scoring from the guard spot when Kyle Lowry isn’t dressed.

OG Anunoby – Fully guaranteed $2,281,800, two years 

It feels strange including Anunoby in this list, but alas. Obviously he is on the team in the regular season, no matter what, and it was slightly strange that Anunoby even played in this one while guys like VanVleet and Powell sat out. Nick Nurse mentioned before the game that Anunoby had to show him more in preseason, and that’s likely why he was playing. I only included Anunoby in the ‘rising’ section rather than the ‘unchanged’ because of Nurse’s words before the game. Anunoby didn’t disappoint. He played with strength and aggression. Although his footwork and balance aren’t there yet, Anunoby still bullied players on the offensive end. He had multiple stumbling drives that ended in impressive finishes over contests. He shot well. He passed well.

“I liked OG offensively tonight. I thought he made some hard drives,” said Nurse after the game. “Four assists is a big number for him, really.”

And oh yeah, his defense was fantastic. Expect Anunoby to start and play plenty of minutes for Toronto this year.

Stock unchanged

Chris Boucher – Partially guaranteed $1,588,231, one year

Boucher has had one of the best preseasons for the Raptors, as far as changing his role. He could actually crack the regular season rotation.

“I think he’s played well, he’s had a good camp, he ‘s certainly got what I would consider a fearless approach to playing in the NBA,” said Nick Nurse before the game. “He thinks he can play and he shows that. He played well in both of the games over there, but in game one, there were a lot of mistakes defensively and we’ve gotta clean that stuff up. Again, we’ve gotta know that those guys can go out there and execute a defensive game plan and execute a personnel game plan defensively. And he’s gonna run, he’s gonna play hard, he’s gonna get some garbage buckets and that’s all kinda icing on the cake, really.”

Boucher played well at home against the Bulls, knocking in a triple, rolling for a dunk, running the floor, and blocking four shots. He did take a few ill-advised shots against good contests. He has trouble reading secondary defenders when he’s on the move. But his defensive energy was fantastic, and he did a great job pressuring the ball on the perimeter. Nick Nurse did limit his praise for Boucher’s game, however:

“I thought he was okay,” Nurse said after the game. “Like I said, he’s got some pop, he’s going to make some things happen. My big concerns with him is can he rebound? Can he rebound with the size and strength of NBA guys, and I thought he let a few get away from him tonight. And I would say, can he finish, right? Again, he kind of reaches around, those long arms and at the G League level, there’s nobody up there to contest him. At this level, there’s a lot more size, he’s going to have to continue to work around it be able to move those things around when he gets the opportunity.”

“Again, [I] like his pop, like his ability to be able to step out and shoot; again, it’s a role he’s trying to fit into, and I thought was okay tonight.”

At this point, Boucher is a near-certainty to have his contract guarantee for 2019-20. The only question is how impactful he will be. Nurse criticized Boucher for his two rebounds. He has plenty to work on, and those weaknesses could keep him on the bench. His incredible ability to make good stuff happen can be limited. If he can figure out some of those weaknesses, thoughm my bet is that Boucher becomes very impactful.

Sagaba KonateExhibit-10 non-guaranteed $898,310, two years

Konate finally got into some preseason action, which was great to see. His knee is healing well, and he collected four points in as many minutes. That Toronto is taking him along so slowly, not rushing him into minutes, indicates that they decided his future with the franchise before they even signed him. Konate is almost certainly bound for the G League, where he will protect the rim for the Raptors 905. Not even a thunderous dunk against the Bulls should change that. He probably has the inside track on a two-way spot.

Isaiah Taylor – Partially guaranteed $1,620,564, two years

Taylor played well against the Bulls, but probably not well enough to alter his future with the franchise.

Taylor was brought into camp for what looked like a battle with Cameron Payne, and Taylor has definitely outplayed Payne. However, if the Raptors are comfortable with Terence Davis or Pat McCaw as their third point guard — and they may well be — then Taylor could be the odd man out. He is either the 15th or 16th man on this roster, and I expect him to be 16th.

Unfortunately for Taylor, when Nurse was asked about the point guard battle after the game, he mentioned, “I think you could see us using Terence a little bit, Pat McCaw maybe in a back-up role.”

Nurse didn’t mention Taylor when asked about that third point guard spot in the regular season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It is indicative that Taylor hasn’t popped, and that might have been necessary for him to crack the roster.

Terence Davis – Fully guaranteed $898,310, two years 

Davis’ game against the Bulls was perhaps his sloppiest of the preseason. He had three turnovers in just the first quarter, as his passing and dribbling seemed off. He made some dramatic defensive mistakes, including a gamble that shot him 20 feet out of position. It seemed clear that Davis is best employed as a low-usage guard, bringing energy off the bench, alongside more talented teammates. He settled down in the second half, reading the game better, and doing more for his teammates. He only shot 3-of-9 from the floor (and even that was boosted by a few layups in the second half after both defenses stopped defending), but he limited his turnovers to just the three from the first quarter.

After signing his contract Davis was already a near-certainty to make the roster, and that hasn’t changed. He’s outplayed Toronto’s other third point guard options on the camp roster, which is part of why I bet Miller stays with the team. Davis has a bright future, and one sloppy half of preseason basketball doesn’t change that.

Dewan Hernandez – Partially guaranteed $898,310, three years

Hernandez has a lot of potential in a lot of different areas, and he showed some skills against the Bulls. He can pass the ball, and he hit a cutting Pat McCaw for a backdoor slam. He has touch on his push shots. He’s long and can defend, and he’s a solid rebounder for his size. There were some poor points, as when he fell victim to an impressive Thad Young euro-step, or when he coughed up an awkward post-up shot that was blocked. But blips happen for guys who haven’t played competitive basketball for so long. He finished with 7 points and 11 rebounds. He’s firmly in Toronto’s future plans, even if he doesn’t factor heavily into the present.

“He hasn’t played for a while, right?” said Nurse. “The speed and size and getting used to it at this level. He’s more, I like him, I think he’s got a decent motor, he’s got good size, he’s got some offensive skill. I project him to be maybe a January, February guy. We’ll get him down to the G League and get a bunch of games under his belt and maybe he move him back and forth a little bit and see if we can get him midway through the season to be able to help us.”

Translation: Hernandez is getting a roster spot. Not in the G League, but with the Raptors. He’ll be on assignment for much of the early year though, so still expect to see him playing in the G League.

Devin Robinson – Exhibit-10 non-guaranteed $1,620,564, one year

Note that for the contract, I’ve found conflicting information online. His contract could also be for $898,310. It really doesn’t matter, as the odds that the Raptors let the contract guarantee are close to zero.

Robinson had some nice moments against the Bulls, including canning a triple. He can fade into the background at times. He’s probably not ready for the NBA, although his athleticism is intriguing, and that he is on an exhibit-10 spot means he is competing for a spot in the G League. I’d say others are more likely to earn the coveted two-way spots with the 905, although he would still earn his bonus if he signs a standard contract with the 905.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – Fully guaranteed $2,500,000, one year

It looked like Hollis-Jefferson might be Toronto’s sixth or seventh man when they signed him; he projected to be firmly in the rotation. He struggled to fit in during Toronto’s first two preseason games, and then the question was whether Boucher might usurp Hollis-Jefferson’s role. Well, Hollis-Jefferson played well against Chicago towards the end of the game, even finding a few layups, which stabilized his performance somewhat. He played solid defense against Chicago, and he was one of the only players to have done that. He’ll always defend well, and as a veteran, he makes far fewer mistakes than the youths. He’ll of course be on the Raptors’ roster when the season begins. As of now, he’s probably Toronto’s backup power forward heading into the season. It’s his spot to lose, although the battle between him and Boucher (whom Nurse called exclusively a power forward at the NBA level) is heating up.

Pat McCaw – Fully Guaranteed $4,000,000, two years

He showed some great energy on the defensive end, but McCaw’s offensive struggles continue in the preseason. He’s either too hesitant to shoot or overzealous, as when he missed trying to turn a crossover into a triple against the Bulls. He’s not a natural creator, and Nurse questioned his ability to coordinate the troops, which is where point guards like Lowry and VanVleet thrive.

“[McCaw is] not a tremendous organizer of things but again, it’s not easy organizing with a bunch of new guys out there,” said Nurse. “To me, it’s kind of about let’s just be a safe pair of hands. Terence and Cam both turned it over too much. If they’re gonna come in and play spot minutes, they’ve gotta take care of the basketball.”

Nurse has indicated time and again that McCaw will play some backup point guard for the Raptors, and his zero turnovers are probably the most important stat. The team is comfortable with McCaw, so his performance shooting doesn’t change anything. He did tweak his knee and not return to the game, but that’s probably just precautionary.

Stock falling

Cam Payne – Partially guaranteed $1,737,145, two years

Payne has struggled in the preseason, and his performance against the Bulls was probably his worst yet. He was too willing to launch difficult attempts without running the offense. He didn’t organize the offense well, and he turned the ball over four times. Payne is unlikely to be on the roster come opening day; even if the Raptors do choose to roll with a point guard, Taylor has outplayed Payne over the course of three preseason games.

Stanley Johnson – Fully guaranteed $3,623,000, two years

When Johnson signed in Toronto, it looked like the team was signing an athletic wing who could find a foothold in the development oasis that is Toronto. Even though Johnson hasn’t put it together for any other team, perhaps he could be able to push Anunoby  for the starting small forward position. That hasn’t happened.

Johnson simply doesn’t seem to fit in with the Raptors. For whatever reason, he hasn’t been able to get it going. His offensive decision-making has been extremely poor at times, and he has a habit of driving into traffic. Against Chicago, he multiple times drove into crowds and euro-stepped into increased defensive attention. He did hit a tough triple and show off with a few incredible defensive possessions. There are flashes of incredible in there. Still, the negatives outweigh the positives. Johnson seemed visibly upset at times with his own performance against the Bulls. It’s not clear what his role will be with this team, especially with Malcolm Miller playing so well.

If there’s anyone who could be cut despite a guaranteed salary it would be Johnson. Toronto has three open roster spots and two two-way contracts. I expect Boucher and Hernandez to certainly merit two roster spots and Brissett and Konate to have earned the two-ways. The third roster spot could go to a point guard or Miller, but I have Miller ahead in that race. If Toronto desperately wants another point guard on the roster and to keep Miller, they could conceivably cut Johnson to sign Taylor. The dead money owed to Johnson this year and next wouldn’t be a huge problem, as Toronto isn’t too near the luxury tax, and the team has already limited its cap space next year in re-signing Kyle Lowry. Of course, this is extremely unlikely. Johnson is a good bet to head into opening day on the Raptors’ roster, but if his performance doesn’t improve, it’s tough to see where he fits into Toronto’s long-term plans.

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