In an otherwise uneventful practice availability, Nick Nurse took aim at the new players on the Raptors for their defensive performance thus far during camp and pre-season.
“Nope. Nope. Nope,” Nurse interrupted a question about the value of Toronto’s new players’ defensive ability. “Those guys have not understand, A, how hard we play, B, our schemes, that defense is a priority for them. Etcetera. We’ve got some work to do with all that crew. I tell them there’s a couple spots, come Tuesday night, there’s a couple spots that are open if somebody wants them. I keep telling you, show me you’re going to play defense, show me you’re going to play hard, show me you understand our coverages, show me. And then, whatever you do at the other end, you’re going to get opportunities just because of who you’re on the floor with. And they’ll come to you. You don’t have to come down and occupy 95 percent of your mind with how you’re going to break down and get your next shot. It’s not going to get you on the floor right now. We’ve got some work to do. We’ve got to find who’s going to blend in quickly, defensively, with this crew.”
There’s a lot to take in from that quote, but much of it has been self-evident. Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were signed in Toronto as defense-first guys who could even push OG Anunoby for minutes at the wing. Both Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson (to a lesser extent) have been poor fits thus far for a variety of reasons. There are other new Raptors, including a variety of rookies, but none of them are expected to play important roles in Toronto’s rotation early; they are early in their learning curves, and though they’ve also been guilty of defensive lapses, they have built-in excuses. Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson have less rope.
Johnson has forced his offense, driving into crowds, and though his defense has been stellar at times, he’s also freelanced and showed less ability to fit into schemes. Hollis-Jefferson has been much quieter, with fewer evident mistakes, although he has also failed to impress.
There’s nothing unexpected here. Toronto’s top-seven guys are all returners who fought tooth and nail in the trenches for two months in the playoffs together last season. They all won a championship together, and Nurse even acknowledged the value inherent to that experience: “I think that extra two months is huge. It’s because of such a high level you have to concentrate at, play at, film work, walk-throughs. All that stuff is such a high level, it’s really a benefit to be able to play those two months.”
Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson did not have those two months. They are coming onto this team fresh, and they haven’t had the experiences of two straight months of intense concentration. They also have less leeway because Nurse hasn’t seen them perform at such a level; he has seen his returners do it, so he has a higher level of inherent trust there. Furthermore, Toronto’s rotation guys know what to expect from each other, and they haven’t had that level of on-court intimacy with Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson.
All this to say, it’s difficult to join a team defending a championship. It’s far more difficult when that team loses its Finals MVP, and you play the same position. Nobody thought Johnson or Hollis-Jefferson could replace Kawhi Leonard alone, but they were supposed to be part of the patchwork quilt intended to cover Leonard’s absence. So far, they have not contributed to that purpose.
It’s totally normal for players changing teams to have slow starts to seasons. It’s less normal for their coaches to put them on blast in a room full of media and cameras before the season even begins. Nick Nurse is now a championship coach, and he knows what he’s doing. He knows what it takes, and he has high expectations. If it wasn’t clear while watching pre-season games, the value of the new Raptors’ stock is not on the rise. Even if it was fairly evident before Nurse stated explicitly, we all now know: the Raptors expect more of the players newly signed to the roster.