Filling in the Gaps: Assessing the performances of the Raptors’ rotation bubble

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Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) drives against Toronto Raptors guard Terence Davis (0) during the first half of their NBA basketball game in Toronto, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Cole Burston

Fitting in is difficult. As someone who has bounced around living in numerous cities and countries, I can speak to this experience firsthand. There is a new environment to adjust to, a bevy of cultural references to adopt, and most importantly, new people to integrate oneself with. Gulp. I can still vividly remember my 12-year-old self awkwardly pretend to know how to ice skate in front of my newfound Canadian friends. Spoiler alert: the jig was up faster than a Pascal Siakam spin move.

Fitting in as a newcomer with a tight-knit group —perhaps one that has forged a championship-winning bond— is near impossible. It is like asking Joel Embiid to cut Shirley Temples from his diet or expecting Kyrie Irving to not throw his teammates under the bus. This season Nick Nurse has offered very few opportunities for fresh faces to ingratiate themselves with the Raptors title winning core, instead opting to heavily rely upon his trusted squad of seven.

Nurse’s calculated move has paid dividends. Toronto sits atop the Eastern Conference with a 4-1 record and their continuity, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, has been a focal part of their early success. This current iteration of the Toronto Raptors are an experienced squad that oozes veteran savvy; their returning championship core have amassed 438 playoff appearances.

Although 438 playoff appearances provide experience, they also inflict a physical toll. That same core is on average 28.8 years old. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol will likely have to manage their workload throughout the course of the year, especially if the former maintains his league leading 39 minutes per game. Neither Fred VanVleet nor Norman Powell have played an entire 82 game season. Serge Ibaka hasn’t achieved that feat since the 2010/11 season. Players without extensive experience are going to be required in the near future.

Here is how the minutes have been distributed five games in:

Graphic per
Graphic per

Outside of the core seven, only Terence Davis, Stanley Johnson, and Patrick McCaw have earned non-garbage time minutes in multiple games. Here is how each of them have fared thus far.

Terence Davis – 7.6 mins, 2.4 pts, 2 rbs, 0.8 ass, 0.4 stl, 0.2 blk, 0.2 TO

Davis immediately won the hearts and minds of Raptors twitter during preseason with tenacious defence and energetic plays off of the bench. The undrafted guard’s play also caught the attention of Nurse, who slipped Davis into the eighth position in the rotation on opening night. Against the Pelicans, Davis brought the exact ingredients required of an ancillary piece providing disruptive defence, offensive spacing, and was a nuisance on the glass. More impressive than the anticipatory deflections and hustle plays were the intelligent decisions that Davis made instinctively on the fly:

This sequence is a mixed bag from Davis, but more importantly, it demonstrates his ability to react to Toronto’s team defence that continues to operate on the telepathic wavelength they developed over the championship run. Davis helps close off Brandon Ingram’s driving lane after he catches Lowry flat-footed and forces Ingram to pick up his dribble early. However, in doing this he leaves New Orleans’ biggest shooting threat, J.J. Redick, wide open. Thankfully, Davis and VanVleet take note of this and seamlessly switch their defensive assignments. VanVleet quickly nullifies Redick’s space as the nearest defender and Davis subsequently has a half-second longer to rotate to the third option Jrue Holiday. These defensive smarts are what turned the Raptors into the league’s most suffocating defence in June.

Davis’ hyper-frenetic energy as an on-ball defender is a positive, even if it borders on over zealous at times. Davis has battled well over screens (except when guarding Markelle Fultz) but he needs to read the ball handlers’ cadence better in order to prevent some silly fouls. The two different results of Davis’ aggressive defence was on display when defending rookie guard Coby White on Saturday night.

On the first clip Davis feels the impending high screen to get White quickly rolling downhill extremely well. Davis pirouettes on a tightrope to dodge Wendell Carter’s screen with short, choppy steps and avoids initiating contact on White. Davis matches White step for step, even raising his hands above his head to show the referees that he is not about to commit a ticky-tack reach-in foul and funnels the rookie into Ibaka’s lane. In contrast, Davis does not react to the same pick-and-roll duo correctly during the second clip. After getting into the ball, Davis attempts to lunge past the incoming screen and leaves himself in an awkward spot. The result is a collision of bodies tumbling to the ground and an easy trip to the free throw line for Chicago late in the quarter. Even with Ibaka dropping in pick-and-roll coverage in this scenario, the screen is high enough that Davis should feel comfortable ducking underneath and meeting White on the other side. Although Davis has crashed the offensive boards well, he has also experienced a few mental lapses and missed his box-out assignments.

The absence of a true third point guard in the Raptors squad has been widely noted. However, the need for another traditional lead ballhandler isn’t as urgent now that Nurse has thrust the ball into Siakam’s hands to an insane degree and has slowly brought a few sets in with the offence swirling around Gasol at the elbow. Still, it is a pleasant development to see Davis work the pick-and-roll in this fashion. In the clip below, Chicago’s defence magnetizes towards Ibaka as the roller after he had cooked them like a snake for several possessions. The help side defender, Ryan Arcidiacono, has preemptively rotated over which allows Powell to pop open off of a strong Stanley Johnson back screen. Davis looks in Ibaka’s direction for just long enough to freeze the defenders and then delivers an inch-perfect pass into Powell’s shooting pocket.

There have also been many ‘meh’ offensive moments for Davis. He has shot 27.8 per cent from the field and an icy 33 per cent from three. Small sample size aside, he is not yet comfortable as a dependable scorer at the NBA level. This is to be expected from an undrafted rookie; the more concerning aspect is that this offensive inconsistency has permeated across every bubble rotation player. It is the primary reason that has Nurse has been weary to veer from his seven man rotation. The Raptors already project to be a middling offence, any more non-scoring threats on the floor completely tanks that side of the floor.

Patrick McCaw – 20 mins, 4 pts, 3 rbs, 1.5 ass, 1.5 stls, 1.5 TO

McCaw looks poised to stake his claim in the rotation after missing the opening few games due to a left knee injury. Nurse has always had a soft spot for the three-time champion and I have been vociferous in my dismay with this decision. McCaw managed to immediately shut me up within seconds of stepping onto the floor, stripping Aaron Gordon with his rangy arms.

You will be hard-pressed to find a moment where McCaw doesn’t have his arms spread on the defensive end of the floor. He has an uncanny ability to contort his way through screens unscathed. The way in which McCaw transported through Nikola Vucevic’s screens only to reemerge on Terrence Ross’ hip is truly impressive. These seemingly minuscule moments halted Orlando’s momentum.

But, still.

The man is petrified of shooting the ball. When McCaw is on the floor Toronto are conceding that they will be playing 4 vs. 5 basketball on offence. McCaw’s competence as a ballhandler and passer theoretically sets him up as a third point guard, yet his lack of driving ability and absence of a jump-shot extinguishes any hope that McCaw can generate scoring opportunities for himself or others. Finding a spot where McCaw can contribute offensively has been a fruitless endeavour. On Wednesday night he fired up two shots from beyond the arc, clearly a result of insistence from the coaching staff.

The fourth year guard is a stable option who avoids costly mistakes. This is a commodity that Nurse clearly values. It took a few Derrick Rose blow-bys for McCaw to find his feet yesterday, but his second half performance demonstrated his steadying presence. However, as the season progresses the Raptors should begin to offer players with a higher ceiling opportunities to contribute. Malcolm Miller’s omission has been surprising in this regard. The wing is a marginally worse defender who cannot downsize onto a point guard, but his shooting ability more than makes up for this. It would behoove Nurse to experiment with more Miller minutes.

Stanley Johnson – 4.9 mins, 2.5 pts, 2 rbs, 0.5 stls, 2 TO

Johnson has drawn the ire of Raptors media and fans alike early this season. His eye-raising contract, non-existent outside shot, and Bambi impersonations on every drive have rightfully brought about criticism. Somewhere deep down —and I may be taking up residency on Stanimal island— there is a sliver of hope that he could still become a rotational piece.

As Samson Folk mentioned, Johnson has all the tools to be a strong defender. His defensive energy has spiked since Nurse publicly dressed-down the new acquisitions, which is a sure-fire way to earn minutes. Johnson’s presence visibly strengthens Toronto’s defensive rebounding, an area which they rank 16th in the league. During his brief stint against Boston, Johnson was solid primarily guarding Jayson Tatum.

However, Johnson needs to demonstrate All-NBA level defence in order to account for his ugly offensive play. I’m not even mad that he’s averaging two turnovers in five minutes of action, I’m impressed! That’s difficult to accomplish. If Johnson is to minimize his offensive deficiencies he needs to continue to do stuff like this:

The Celtics almost look like a zone defence with the level of disrespect Jaylen Brown is giving Johnson. Instead of rotting in the corner Johnson dives to the hoop, simultaneously offering himself as a passing option and earning inside position on Brown for an offensive rebound if Ibaka misses the flip shot. In the second clip Johnson cuts slightly too early but still drags the help defender down enough to create a wide-open opportunity for Davis. Unfortunately Ibaka is still prone to the occasional decision-making flub as a passer in those scenarios, but Johnson’s actions has painted a clear picture on what the centre should have done. If Johnson continues to improve as a cutter it may be wise to pair him Gasol’s passing ability and instead fitting a typical corner shooting wing to accommodate more space for Ibaka as a roller.

As a frontcourt-wing tweener with limited offensive upside, Johnson must be better as a screener in Toronto’s offence. Johnson has the frame to set shuddering screens on unsuspecting victims while VanVleet and Lowry scamper around the court in search of spots to launch their patented relocation threes. Instead of moments like this…

There needs to be more moments like this!

The screens aren’t like-for-like comparisons. However, Johnson can take notes on Ibaka’s savvy, pseudo-illegal screening that provides Lowry the wiggle room he needs to get his shot off. If Johnson wants to hang around in the NBA he must begin to sharpen the small skills off-ball to accommodate for his lack of touch.

In a week’s time Toronto will set off on their first grueling western road trip, playing five games in eight days. If they hope to continue upon the impressive start to the season then some of these bubble players are going to have to pop.


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