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Black Box Report

The Black Box Report: Pre-season and the Pelicans

Pre-season is behind us; one final dress rehearsal game waits in the present; the long-awaited start of the 2019-20 lurks tantalizingly in the near future. In other words:

We’re close.

This precipice is the perfect time to debut a new weekly column at Raptors Republic, called The Black Box Report. Is it a literary journal? Maybe; it sure sounds like it. If it were, I would probably read it. There would be stories about harnessing the speed of Malcolm Miller’s jumper to power electric airplanes from the future. unfortunately, this is not that journal. This idea is for me and Samson Folk to simultaneously look forwards and back, explicating the under-examined and trying to explain what went, goes, and maybe even will go, on under the hood. The black box is the vessel inside of which all information is stored, and it’s known for its opacity. Hopefully, this column can add some transparency to what actually puts the points on the board.

Looking back – Folk

Games:

Tuesday October 8 vs. Houston Rockets (preseason) – 134 – 129 W                                                                                                                                                                          Thursday October 10 vs. Houston Rockets (preseason) – 118-111 L                                                                                                                                                                               Sunday October 13 @ Chicago Bulls (preseason)  – 105-91 L

FRED VANVLEET FINDING THE PASSING LANES

Before the championship season, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were at the helm of the Raptors offense. One thing they were exceptionally good at was creating easy looks for teammates. When either was awarded with an assist, it was generally after creating wide open shots for teammates after manipulating the defense. This trend carried over into last year as they posted two of the NBA’s top-eleven assist-to-pass-percentages, on two separate teams. 

Fruitless passes don’t exist to players like Lowry, DeRozan, James Harden, Chris Paul and other pick n’ roll savants. They stay on-ball longer and continuously  probe and stir up the defense. VanVleet did a terrific job of extending his pick n’ roll possessions in the Raptors pre-season games. Rarely did we see VanVleet dribble back out and reset after the defense rebuffed him. He ‘nash-ed’ the pick n’ roll, pulling the big man farther from the hoop and letting Ibaka sneak in closer. He utilized the in-n-out dribble to create a chasm between his primary defender and his defensive running mate, creating a clear passing lane to Ibaka in his sweet spot. 

As VanVleet gears up for what promises to be his biggest year yet on-ball, these types of developments are promising. Last year he struggled to create consistently for the front-court in the pick n’ roll, but maybe this year he can change that dynamic.

NORM CAN SHOOT, BUT CAN’T CHANGE SPEEDS

One of the standouts of the preseason was Norman Powell’s potent shooting from beyond the arc. 70 percent is an absurd number, and he took his shots in the rhythm of the offense. If Powell can sustain his 40 percent mark from downtown from last year, while also firing away more often, the Raptors will be thrilled. 

Outside of that, though, the Raptors will be looking for more players to create this year and Powell is high on that list of potential creators. This is the part of his game that hasn’t consistently translated to the NBA. The Raptors experimented with Powell playing point guard in Summer League some time ago, and his quick twitch athleticism allowed him to get where he wanted on the floor without much guile or forethought. It’s been much different at the NBA level. 

I’ve written about how important it is for Powell to change speeds ad nauseam, but in a year where he’ll spend even less time attacking from the weak-side, his one-speed game might have more complications than most. When he was attacking the set defense of the Rockets, Powell often got himself into trouble in the air at the rim, or stripped before he even got there.

Powell’s aversion to contact forces him to try to beat opponents to the glass to lay it in. If he were able to change speeds and get opponents off-balance, he would be able to get to the free throw line at a really high rate (where he shoots 83-percent) rather than flying to the rim as fast as possible and getting swatted and stripped so often. His 15 percent free throw rate was 292nd in the NBA last year, more in line with a pass-first point guards and spot-up shooters than a slasher like Powell. A mix is what’s best for Powell’s game, and he would become extremely dangerous attacking downhill if he switched things up here and there. 

MALCOLM MILLER AND THE QUICK TRIGGER

Miller’s jump-shot fascinates me. He’s made tweaks to his jumper in the months since summer league; he doesn’t dip the ball as low as he used to. What this means is that he actually has the quickest jumper on the Raptors now, and he is probably sitting in the 95th percentile or above, league-wide. 

Short jump-shots without a lot of action are incredible building blocks. Shooters like Anthony Morrow or Klay Thompson often start their shooting motion at their chest, which is what makes them so fast; there’s hardly any dip. The less going on in your jump-shot means there’s less things that can go wrong on the way up. Miller shortening his stroke and subsequently pouring in 45 percent of his triples in the pre-season is very good news for him and the Raptors. 

I’ve always been intrigued by Miller’s length and willingness to defend, but his jumper is what makes him a viable NBA player. This tweak to his jumper has the potential to make him a 3-point specialist who can defend, which is far more rare than what he’s perceived as right now. It’ll be exciting to see if he can do it at the NBA level, and I think he can.

Looking forward – Zatzman

Games:

7:30 pm EST on Friday October 18 @ Brooklyn Nets (preseason)                                                                                                                                                                                  8:00 pm EST on Tuesday October 22 against New Orleans Pelicans

There’s not a ton of basketball to be played this week, especially with another preseason game tonight against the Brooklyn Nets. But there is basketball, and there is regular season basketball, and Toronto’s season-opener against the New Orleans Pelicans will be one of the best nights in Raptors history.

MORE CHANGES TO THE ROSTER?

With Sagaba Konate waived, the Raptors moved quickly and signed Matt Morgan to bump the roster back to 20. The deadline of October 20 is when the team needs to trim the roster to 15 (plus two two-ways). There are too many possibilities for me to speculate, but don’t be surprised if the Raptors make plenty more moves around the edges in the next few days. Just because the team wants a look at a guy doesn’t mean he’ll inherently have an advantage over the players currently on the roster. With Oshae Brissett likely earning a two-way spot with the Raptors 905, there’s still one more up for grabs. Nobody on the roster has seized it, and it’s possible that Toronto signs Konate and Morgan to the 905 without using a two-way spot on either. The 905 will be stacked with talent no matter what happens, but rest assured that the Raptors aren’t done probing the market to maximize the back end of its roster and future development pipeline.

SETTING THE ROTATION AGAINST BROOKLYN

The Brooklyn Nets game could serve as a full dress rehearsal. Final preseason games give teams the opportunity to prepare for the regular season by acting like it’s real, and furthermore, Toronto’s vets need a little full speed run before the games start to matter. Kyle Lowry hasn’t played yet in the preseason, and Nick Nurse has admitted that he needs some reps before the season starts. Marc Gasol has only played in one game. If Nurse rolls with the true rotation, then the question mark will be on the eight-nine-ten spots. After Nick Nurse challenged the newcomers to the roster at practice the other day, it’s clear that the top seven is set: Lowry, Powell, Anunoby, Siakam, Gasol, VanVleet, and Ibaka, in some order. There are two or three spots remaining, and those who defend will get the minutes. My guess is that Pat McCaw (if healthy — Terence Davis if McCaw is out) gets minutes at the guard spot, Miller and his newfound jumper gets minutes at the wing, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gets minutes as a big. Terence Davis committed too many turnovers, and Chris Boucher too many defensive and rebounding mistakes, but make no mistake that those two are coming for rotation spots at some point in the season.

TEARS? SURPRISE GUESTS? WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE RING CEREMONY

The Raptors will have one of the best moments of the season right at the start: the raising of the championship banner. The team will receive championship rings, as well. I predict at least three cryers. There’s plenty of emotional dudes on the roster, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were at least two between Lowry, Gasol, and Powell. Also, will there be surprise guests? Jonas Valanciunas is still a fan favourite, and he’s said that he would accept a ring if it was offered to him. He made the trek to Toronto to sit courtside before game one against the Orlando Magic, and he received a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd. Others could show up, such as Delon Wright, CJ Miles, Malachi Richardson, or Lorenzo Brown. It’s likely that none of these former Raptors show up, as most of them have NBA games the following evening, but if it’s anyone, I would bet on Valanciunas.

TOO MANY EMOTIONS FOR RESULTS AGAINST THE PELICANS

For the actual game against the Pelicans, I expect the Raptors to lose. They’ll be emotional, with far more on their minds than basketball, and we’ve seen Toronto play flat in high-emotion games in the past. Many of Toronto’s vets have admitted that they’re not yet in peak shape. On the other hand, the Raptors are facing a surprisingly competent Pelicans roster. Jrue Holiday is one of the best guard defenders in the league, and he can disrupt offensive sets on his own; the Raptors will run much of their offense through Lowry and VanVleet at the guard spot. Reports out of New Orleans hint that Zion Williamson will miss the Pelicans’ final pre-season game with knee soreness, and Woj says it isn’t rest. Expect the team to be has been as cautious as possible with Williamson, so the physically dominant rookie probably won’t play in the season opener. It’s a shame, as he averaged 23.3 points on 71.4 percent shooting from the field. Still, the Pelicans have plenty of talent. Don’t get me wrong; I think the Raptors will be the better team, especially midway through the season, but circumstances could combine to allow the Pelicans to steal one on opening night.

Toronto will have another big game as their first on the road, taking on the Celtics on Friday October 25. That, however, will fall under the purview of next Friday’s Black Box Report, so stay tuned for this reoccurring column between myself and Samson Folk. As this is the first of a new concept, your feedback will be especially helpful. Feel free to let us know how you feel about the structure, and what you might want to see going forward. We’re always open to suggestions.

Have a blessed day — from Sam.

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