More is expected from Gasol | To load or not to load…manage (bad) | Power rankings out; Raptors moving up!
The season is still young and the sample sizes small, but Gasol’s basic stats paint a disturbing picture of a player in decline as he approaches his 35th birthday.
He’s averaging 6.3 points and 2.2 assists on 31.8 per cent shooting in nearly 26 minutes a game. He’s shot reasonably well from distance at 36.8 per cent on just 3.2 attempts a game but on anything other than a wide-open catch-and-shoot three he’s been awful.
On the whole he’s shooting 27.3 per cent on two-point shots – by far the worst rate among centres with at least five games played this season, and hard to justify for a player earning $26.5 million in the final year of his contract, even if he brings a wide range of intangible values.
The seven-footer has less than a 50-50 chance to score with the ball in the restricted area converting on just 4-of-9 chances.
No one is looking for Gasol to be catching lobs any time soon, but he needs to roll with more purpose and look to finish harder than he has so far this season. This play with the Raptors down four with less than two minutes left against Milwaukee being just one example of too many this season:
He is shooting just 6-of-19 on all shots in the paint, which is problematic because he’s yet to make a two-point field goal from outside the paint.
The hope was that with Kawhi Leonard gone and Gasol coming into his second season with the Raptors that he would begin to assert himself more offensively. No one is looking for him to re-emerge as the 19.9 points-per-game scorer he was in 2016-17 when he was last a Western Conference all-star, but even before being acquired by the Raptors in February Gasol was averaging 15.7 points a game in 53 starts with the Grizzlies. This past summer with Spain’s gold-medal winning World Cup team Gasol averaged 14.4 points in just 28.5 minutes a game.
But so far in 56 playoff and regular-season games with the Raptors Gasol is averaging 8.9 points on 43 per cent shooting from the floor, although his three-point shooting has been a consistent positive at 40 per cent.
With Lowry specifically, there’s a fine line to be walked here. Lowry’s best performances in the post-season have come on the back of 32 minutes a game for 78 games in 2017-18, and then 34 minutes per outing for 65 games in 2018-19. The first of those campaigns saw in-game management in the form of DeMar DeRozan taking on more of the ball-handling responsibilities, and VanVleet allowing Lowry the time off by not having to prop up bench units.
“You know, when I got here, that was a big thing I wanted to do was decrease what he had to do,” VanVleet said Monday. “I think the one year, they said he played the equivalent of 15 less games when we had the bench squad running. So, I mean, it’s big, you’re shaving games off a guy’s career, and extending careers, and extending seasons, and keeping him fresh.”
The 2018-19 season featured Kawhi Leonard in tow, Pascal Siakam’s emergence, and Danny Green’s volume shooting, aiding Lowry in preserving his his peak performances for when Leonard was absent during the season and then, of course, the championship run.
Nurse’s rotation is currently looking eerily similar to the Houston Rockets under Mike D’Antoni, where some have speculated that sprinting through the regular season has seen them, led by perennial MVP candidate James Harden, fizzle out in the post-season. It’s worth remembering that D’Antoni employed an equally short rotation with the Phoenix Suns as well, making ‘Seven seconds or less’ the envy of the league but ‘Seven players or less’ a sticking point.
In the Raptors’ most recent loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Gasol, VanVleet and Siakam were all on the floor late with five fouls each, and the Cameroonian’s sixth may have just been the straw that broke the camel’s back on that night. With a thin rotation, each foul is like a ticking time bomb.
“Last year, we were finding our way through it with a guy who hadn’t played in a year,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “That’s kind of where it started, and obviously it ended the way it ended, so the light was shining pretty bright at that particular topic and on that particular player and our team.”
Last Wednesday, the Clippers rested Leonard in Utah – the opening night of a back-to-back – for the first time this season. The Rockets are planning to hold 30-year-old Russell Westbrook out of Monday’s game in Memphis – the second leg of a back-to-back – for rest. Get used to it, if you’re not already.
That’s how fast things shift in this league. Most teams are more open to the idea of load managing their stars, especially the ones that consider themselves contenders. Some are taking more heat for letting their players log significant minutes than they are for giving them nights off.
Have things swung too far in the other direction now? Are we getting carried away with load management? At least one coach thinks so.
Following his team’s 113-92 loss to Sacramento on Sunday, Knicks head coach David Fizdale was asked why he left rookie R.J. Barrett on the floor late in an already decided game. The young Canadian is less than two weeks into his NBA career and there’s already been some concern over his heavy early-season workload. He’s played more minutes than anybody else in the league and ranks fifth averaging 37.1 per contest.
“He’s got the day off tomorrow,” Fizdale told reporters in New York. “We gotta get off this load management crap. Latrell Sprewell averaged 42 minutes for a season. This kid is 19 years old. Drop it already.”
The problem with load management, or at least the way it’s generally interpreted, is that it’s become something of an umbrella term. Really, load management is case-specific. Every team monitors every player’s workload to some degree. What that entails depends on the specific player and the situation they’re in. A rebuilding team is obviously going to manage its 19-year-old rookie differently than a team with championship aspirations might approach the regular season workload of a veteran player with an injury history.
“That’s the important part,” VanVleet said. “If I come in here the next day and run up and down, run sprints for two hours, I probably will be tired pretty fast. But you get treatment, you rest, you cold tub, you ice, you massage, you stretch, you yoga, pilates, lift weights — whatever it is for that person. For me, it’s a combination of many different things to get back as close as you can for the next game. Then you try to get back to your ceiling and go out there and lace it back up again.”
VanVleet doesn’t even want to discuss his minutes — a desire as easy to appreciate as it is unlikely to be realized. He’s suffered tough nights from the field in two of his last three, shooting 3-of-14 last Monday against the Orlando Magic and 2-of-10 on the weekend against the Milwaukee Bucks, sandwiching a strong 5-of-9 night against the Detroit Pistons. He’s also 4-of-15 from distance over that three-game span, which is an absurdly small sample but still not indicative of VanVleet at his best.
And that’s going to happen with willing, volume shooters such as himself. He could even it all out with only one strong night. It’s easy to chalk his misses up to fatigue, but the toll of a heavy workload is more likely to manifest in mental errors or on the defensive end. And VanVleet’s play in those regards has been consistent.
“I mean, my field-goal percentage has taken a little bit of a hit the last few games — still shooting it well from three. But I don’t attribute that to being tired. I don’t attribute that to the minutes,” he said. “I don’t really want to talk about the minutes because people read the news, coaches included, and I’m happy. If I can play 48, I’ll play 48. I’m feeling good. I’m not ignorant to the fact that it probably has an effect. But it’s my job to be ready to go every night and I feel like I’ve been doing that.”
Still, with a demanding schedule ahead, and Lowry and VanVleet needing at least a marginal reduction in their workloads, someone from the bottom half of Toronto’s roster is about to receive an opportunity. Especially as it sounds like the Raptors will be without 24-year-old wing Patrick McCaw for some time.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said he is aware Lowry (and Fred VanVleet) are playing heavy minutes. He added that 30-somethings Lowry and Marc Gasol might get some games off down the line to keep them fresh.
Nurse said it’s different even with veterans like Lowry and Gasol than it was with Leonard last year, since he had missed nearly an entire season due to injury and was trying to figure out how much NBA action his body could handle.
“The light was shining pretty bright at that particular topic and on that particular player and our team,” Nurse said after practice on Monday. “I don’t really see much point in (load management) right now for anyone we’ve got. Kyle will be somebody maybe we do something with down the road, maybe Marc as well. But it’s not really in the forefront of my mind this year like it was last year.” VanVleet, as cerebral as they come, knows he’s playing a lot and also is aware that his past success, when Toronto had the best crop of reserves in the league, was a major reason why Lowry was able to conserve himself more.
“You can thank me for that,” said a smiling VanVleet when Lowry was brought up.
“You know, when I got here, that was a big thing I wanted to do was decrease what he had to do (VanVleet would take some of the ball-handling and distribution responsibilities and lead guard defensive assignments from Lowry at times) . I think the one year, they said he played the equivalent of 15 less games when we had the bench squad running,” VanVleet said. “So, I mean, it’s big, you’re shaving games off a guy’s career, and extending careers, and extending seasons, and keeping him fresh, and so, you know, he works as if he’s going to play 48 every night. That’s what you do, and we expect nothing less from him. He’s great, and I’m not surprised at all (that he’s having one of his best seasons yet, despite having five prior all-star appearances).” As VanVleet and Nurse pointed out, it’s not like the old days of gruelling practice after practice, drill after drill. For the key contributors, there is more down time between games (and there are fewer practices than ever before league-wide).
“So I think once you understand what it really is and what it means, then there’s no issue there. But if you’re just thinking that it’s load management every time a guy rests or every time a guy misses a game, I think it’s a little misinformed and I think you should really just do your research on what it actually means.”
What it means is being prudent. Don’t wear players out with hours-long practices after the grind of games. Take care of the body by using the right process to keep it working. It’s case by case.
“Playing a game, it’s just what I do for a living,” VanVleet said. ”I’m ready to go as long in the game as I have to. If I come in here the next day and run up and down, run sprints for two hours, I probably will be tired pretty fast.
“But you get treatment, you rest, you cold-tub, you ice, you massage, you stretch, you yoga, (do) Pilates, lift weights, whatever it is for that person. For me, it’s a combination of many different things to get back as close as you can for the next game, then you try to get back to your ceiling and go out there and lace it back up again.”
There have been major advances in sports science, and a recognition of the need to recuperate and take care of the body, over the last decade or so in the NBA. But there’s always been an awareness that teams can’t follow up heavy minutes with heavy practices.
“It helps when it’s a high-profile (player) — it’s a copycat league,” VanVleet said. “Everyone watches what LeBron (James) does with his body. Everyone watched what Kawhi did. The guys at the top kind of set the trend and make it OK.
“You look at me as a four-year guy, and I’m not doing a whole lot in between games in terms of practice, on the court. It’s a lot of other things to try to keep me ready for the game. Everybody’s different. But I think that it’s grown, it’s evolving, and I think that teams are trying to be as smart as possible.”
10. Toronto Raptors
Week 2 ranking: 11
The Raptors remain one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference on the strength of their defense, which has held opponents to only 40.1 percent shooting from the field through the first two weeks of the season. Pascal Siakam was the best defensive player on the Raptors by many analytics last season, and he is supported by former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and plus defenders across the board to form a stellar unit, even with two-time DPOY Kawhi Leonard on the West Coast. — Snellings
6. Toronto Raptors (Previously 9th), 4-2 (+5.2 net rating)
When Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left for different Los Angeles teams, the Raptors knew that OG Anunoby was going to be thrust into a much more important role than we had previously seen him in. A healthy Anunoby was always going to receive a more fleshed out role this season, but the sense of urgency with needing him to contribute was heightened when Leonard and Green departed. Early returns of this version of Anunoby are pretty positive. He’s been a bit of a Swiss Army knife for the Raptors next to Pascal Siakam, and the only thing he’s not really doing is moving the ball or making the extra pass.
Everything else Anunoby is doing is exactly what they need. He’s getting deflections, forcing turnovers and blocking shots while also playing phenomenal defense most possessions. He fits so perfectly into what Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse want him to do on that end of the floor. He’s been knocking down 3-pointers, showing believers in his jumper that their investment in OG stock was a fruitful venture. His rebounding numbers are good and he doesn’t try to do too much on offense. He just embraces the opportunities that get created for him as a safety valve. This season will set up how seriously the Raptors approach extending OG next fall when he becomes extension eligible off his rookie contract. So far, he’s making himself some money.
Pascal Siakam is averaging 26 points per game on 49-42-96 shooting. Let that sink in. Not suggesting they’re even close to the same player, but last season Kawhi Leonard averaged 26.6 points on 50-37-85 shooting. If Siakam can even approximate the numbers he’s put up so far, the Raptors have another bona fide superstar on their hands. With a veteran roster around him and Nick Nurse’s proven system, Toronto hasn’t actually taken a huge step back — at least in the regular season.
Pace: 103.5 (14) OffRtg: 106.9 (13) DefRtg: 101.7 (10) NetRtg: +5.2 (9)
When the Raptors beat the Warriors in The Finals, they apparently assumed Golden State’s third-quarter dominance. The champs have been outscored by 26 points over the other three quarters, but are a plus-55 (plus-34.6 per 100 possessions) in the third, having shot 55% from 3-point range in the first 12 minutes after halftime and having won all six of their third quarters by at least six points. A 40-29 third quarter wasn’t enough in Milwaukee on Saturday, because the Raps couldn’t get enough stops in the first half or enough buckets in the fourth. Their starting lineup is the first five-man group to eclipse the 100-minute mark and has scored 40 points on its 30 fourth-quarter possessions, but all other lineups have scored just 102 points on 118 possessions (86.4 per 100) in the final period. Patrick McCaw played his first two games of the season last week (to give Nick Nurse another reserve to trust), but knee pain kept him from playing in Milwaukee.
Siakam, a former New Mexico State standout, has improved his numbers every single year through his four seasons in the NBA and practically jumped into a starting role last season after previously featuring in just five games as a starter in the 2017-18 campaign. That year, Siakam averaged just 7.3 points per game. To think how far he’s come is incredible. Winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award last season looks to have motivated Siakam even more, putting forward All-Star-like performances on a nightly basis through six contests.
One area where he’s seen a lot of improvements so far this year is his 3-point shooting. Siakam attempted just 2.7 3’s per game last season for a 36.9 percent clip. This year, however, he’s shooting 5.5 3’s per contest for a 42.4 percent clip. Siakam is great at using his big frame to get inside and finish at the hoop, but adding a quality shot from long-range is only going to make his all-around game more dangerous than it already is.
One of the easiest ways to score points in the NBA is from the charity stripe. In previous seasons, Siakam struggled to drain free throws, shooting just 78.5 percent from the line last year. So far this season, however, he’s looked sharp, draining free-throws at a 96.3 percent clip.
In last week’s win over the Detroit Pistons, Siakam dropped 30 points, including 19 of them in the third quarter alone:
In today’s NBA, big men have to be able to shoot the deep ball, and Siakam has proven that he is comfortable launching it from beyond the arc. He’s doubled his 3-point shot attempts and makes from last season, and while 2.7 attempts to 5.5 may not seem like a large jump, it’s more mental than physical. Think about it this way: If a player is not cool and collected, he is often more hesitant to shoot and would rather try to make something out of nothing, resulting in a good number of turnovers.
Every team in the NBA knows — although some are reluctant to admit — that free throws can make or break a team’s chances on any given night. Siakam must’ve gotten the message this offseason because his free-throw percentage has skyrocketed for the second straight year, which is a good thing because he’s finding himself at the line more than any other time in his career.
In the 2017-18 season, he shot 62.1 percent from the free-throw line. The next year he managed to hit 78.5 percent, but on this young season, he has converted 96.3 percent of his free-throw attempts.
Send me any Raptors related content: [email protected]