Masai has juice around the city | The bench mob is back | Siakam on epic career arc
For Ujiri, the keys to being an effective leader are simple: hire smart people, let them work and hold them accountable. He ranks the skills of others above his own, and the more he talks about his staff, the more fervent he gets. “I believe in them, and they make me better,” he says. “I pray God I’ve given them opportunity. ’Cause they all deserve it.”
His affection for his front-office team is palpable. He says of Resch, with conviction, “That’s my boss.” When he catches sight of Tolzman walking into the common area outside his office, his eyes light up. “DT!” he shouts and raises a fist, grinning widely. Friendship seems energizing for Ujiri. It brings out his playfulness. Told that his close friend Weltman, now the president of the Orlando Magic, would not respond to interview requests for this story, Ujiri juts his chin insolently. “Fuck him. Write that. No, I’m kidding! That’s why we beat their asses in the playoffs. I’m kidding! Don’t write that!” He’s giggling the whole time, his signature soft flutter.
The first five years of the Ujiri era were a dizzying mix of rising hope and crushing disappointment. He managed to erase the team’s defeatism, but not its defeats. In 2018, after LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers swept them from the playoffs for the second straight year, Ujiri’s “hold them accountable” principle dictated that head coach Dwane Casey had to go. In May, Ujiri and Webster walked from the executive side of the OVO Centre to Casey’s large office on the coaches’ side. Ujiri, who considered Casey a fatherly figure, says firing him was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Four days later, at Hotel X, the team interviewed the first candidate for Casey’s job: assistant coach Nick Nurse. The executives were on edge. “It started out pretty raw,” says Nurse. Over the course of about four hours, they peppered him with a series of creative questions. At one point, during a rapid-fire round, they demanded he recount his life story in 45 seconds, then asked him if he had a sense of humour and made him tell them a joke on the spot. Nurse was so amazed by their agility that he came away thinking Ujiri’s team had either worked doggedly to prepare for the interview or had a rare natural chemistry. You can thank the boss for that, either way.
From there, the question becomes how much VanVleet is actually worth. That’s something that’s still being established. In a vacuum, he looks something like a $20-million player right now: a starting-calibre point guard who plays excellent defence; shoots with a great percentage on a high volume of threes; is an excellent play-maker in the open-court; and is solid on pick-and-roll play. The Terry Rozier comp is an easy one to point to because VanVleet is much better than Rozier and Rozier received $58 million over three years. But that is a bad contract, and while it only takes one team to pay a player, I’m not sure many teams will accept a bad Rozier overpay as a comparable. Brogdon’s deal — four years and $85 million, plus assets to make the sign-and-trade work as a restricted free agent — may be a better one. Something like $20 million per feels like a reasonable number to keep in mind as a starting point.
There is also the question of distinguishing between VanVleet’s worth and his actual market. We can safely assume the Raptors will be willing to pay him more than the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (estimated to begin at $9.84 million this summer), which means their only competitors for VanVleet will be teams with more than $10 million in cap space, or the assets and willingness to construct a sign-and-trade.
There’s a different vibe around Siakam. In years past he has manned a complementary role in the Raptors’ offense, done nothing extraordinary, and been a savvy player. When you’re playing around seasoned veterans such as Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka, you figure you’ll be a glue guy and do the little things. Now Siakam is doing all the big things — and in a selfless way.
Usually number-one scorers are ball-dominant players who play in isolation and rarely pass out of a shot attempt. Siakam, on the other hand, doesn’t force jump shots. If he’s double-teamed or feels a shot might not fall, he’ll find the open man or kick the ball back out to the perimeter. And he still averages 20-plus points per game.
For a player with his frame (6-foot-9, 229 pounds) to be playing in an aggressive, well-versed manner offensively is remarkable and rare, especially considering how this play essentially began a month ago. He’s silencing everyone who thought he couldn’t be the face of a franchise.
In time, star players are going to want to play in Toronto alongside Siakam. Who wouldn’t want to play with a selfless player who makes others better and comes through in big moments?
Neither Leonard or Siakam has a distinguishable aspect to their game, and that’s because they’re fundamentally sound players. They’re elite defenders, score in non-excitable ways, and are quiet. There’s nothing wrong with that. In today’s upbeat NBA environment, that’s an admirable approach.
Humble NBA beginnings, a gradual bump in minutes, proving himself, playing behind a star, and then becoming a star is the path Leonard took and one that Siakam is nearing the final stages of as the Raptors’ headman.
The Raptors are 28th in offensive rebounding on the season, and so it must be a refreshing sight to have someone who can give opponents a taste of their own medicine. Since entering the rotation on Nov. 8, Boucher has snared 24 offensive rebounds in just over 125 minutes of action. That’s almost seven offensive rebounds per 36 minutes. The current league leader in offensive rebounding is Andre Drummond with 4.4 in 34.7 minutes per game. The sample sizes are obviously vastly different, but it’s been pretty spectacular to witness the tear Boucher’s been on as of late.
Nurse explained that one of the problems Boucher has had prior to the recent run of success is getting caught up in coverages and trying to be in the right place and then getting caught off guard by something the opposition changes on the fly on the other side of the floor. When Boucher thinks, he goes into Alan (Zach Galifianakis) counting cards in ‘The Hangover’ mode, minus actually getting it right. So now, Nurse has accepted that mistakes are going to be made. But what he’s also come to recognize is that Boucher can make an impact when he just trusts his instincts, when he just plays. Less thinking, more doing.
“He (Nurse) told me I gotta focus on rebounding, rebounding and blocking shots, protect the paint,” Boucher said after the game. “I think I made up my mind to do that, I just figured out ways to use my speed and get to certain points where I think the ball is going to be and it’s working right now so might as well keep it going.”
What’s made a huge difference for Boucher is not worrying about the offence. Never short on confidence, Boucher was often shot-happy with whatever opportunities he got at the NBA level last year and this. But now, he’s focusing on what he brings to the table defensively and then letting the game come to him offensively.
That’s a little easier to do when you don’t have an Ibaka backing up Gasol, but the confidence Boucher can take from the last couple of weeks should hold him in good stead going forward. He’s given Nurse a problem he likely wouldn’t have envisioned in the season’s early going, figuring out how to get all these new faces minutes. Considering the heavy toll his stars have taken in terms of minutes in the early going, it’s a problem he won’t complain about.
It’s not the first time. Since Nurse was forced into giving the trio more minutes in the wake of long-term injuries to Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka — and a short-term loss of OG Anunoby — he’s discovered he has a bench rich with piss-and-vinegar types itching to impact games. Not that long ago, Nurse was lamenting a lack of attention to defensive detail from his reserves. Now, it’s hard to imagine Davis, Boucher and Hollis-Jefferson not continuing to play consequential roles once Lowry and Ibaka are back in uniform.
“Getting the time with those guys, getting reps in at practice and just knowledge from them and gaining their trust as a rookie — it takes time, and I think we’re starting to get there,” Davis said. “We’ve been playing together for a few games now and it’s really just bringing energy and taking what the defence gives us.”
Davis scored six points in his first 60 seconds Wednesday, the first a quick-trigger catch-and-shoot three off a feed from Marc Gasol and the next a deep pull-up on the other side of a screen set by Hollis-Jefferson. The undrafted rookie’s shown a lot in his first handful of NBA games, but what’s perhaps most impressive is that complete lack of hesitation to shoot his shot.
Remember the processes players like Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam went through as they got comfortable taking their opportunities to shoot? A moment of indecision as they considered whether it’s the right play; an unnecessary pump fake; a look to their right and left to confirm they’re truly as open as they feel. Davis has arrived programmed to forego all that, simply vaulting up and firing whenever the ball finds him in space beyond the arc.
“That’s two games in a row where the guy’s checked in and just started nailing threes. Just right off the bench,” Nurse said. “It gave our offence a big boost. And the momentum changes, I think, in both games. Not sure I expected him to do that.”
Spirited post-practice workouts in the early days of the season helped build some chemistry, but if you listen to the trio tell it, though, this all started on the West Coast in the off-season when they worked out and scrimmaged together.
“We found chemistry in the summer, working out, playing pickup, doing Rico Hines,” Hollis-Jefferson told Postmedia after Wednesday’s win. Hines is a Sacramento Kings assistant coach and player development specialist who works with NBAers on their skills and has been particularly helpful for Siakam, who also took part in the workouts.
“No doubt. The L.A. trips (were) magnificent, I know for me, because I’m a young guy,” Davis told Postmedia. “I wouldn’t say it was a bonding type of deal, but no doubt about that I think (it’s paying dividends now).”
Davis actually went parts of two games between misses and has emerged as a microwave off of the Toronto bench. Hollis-Jefferson has turned heads more for his defensive energy and all-out effort, while Boucher has simplified his game from the do-it-all version that was named G League MVP and defensive player of the year last year.
“I kind of figured out that all I need to do is rebound, block shots, protect the paint, the game comes a lot easier when you think about that stuff,” Boucher said in his scrum.
“I’m trying to think about that stuff and let the game come because guys like Pascal, Fred, these guys, they can take care of the scoring and with hard work I feel like I can take care of these things.”
Boucher elaborated a bit later in a 1-on-1.
“I think just for us to figure out the role that we had. It took a minute and I think when you come to a championship team you’ve got to kind of figure out ways to help the team,” Boucher said.
“Me, TD, Rondae, Matt (Thomas), we put a lot of work after practice, we’ve been working for a long time. So just having us together, we’re kind of bonding, playing defence. It’s starting to pay off for us.”
Eighth Man Title Holder
Trust Meter: 9 out of 10
Happenings: First, sure, we’ll note that the week started off slowly for Terence Davis with a humdrum 2-point/4-rebound/4-assist outing vs. Dallas (though, also, a 4-and-4? What?). Every bench player is going to have nights like that from time to time.
But then, the explosion: a 16-and-7 line against the hapless Hornets followed by a career best 19-8-5 against the Magic. In the past week, Davis took 7.7 shots per game, tied for fifth most on the team (with Chris Boucher) behind four of Toronto’s starters. But far from becoming some wild chucker desperate to make his presence felt on the court, Davis shot 56.5 percent from the field, including 53.8 from three. That he could shoot that well while also averaging 5.3 assists per game is, well… it’s amazing. This guy was undrafted coming into the 2019-20 season!
While the sample size is small — 198 minutes of court time over 14 NBA games to date — coach Nick Nurse asked his young players to make a name for themselves out of the gate, and the University of Mississippi product has stepped up.
“I think we might be seeing a little more than we were expecting to see,” Nurse said of Davis on Wednesday. “It’s two games in a row that the guy’s checked in, just started nailing threes, just right off the bench and gave our offence a boost. And they’ve been momentum changes, I think, in both games.
“I’m not sure I expected him to do that. I’m not sure I expected him to do that at all.”
The Raptors have been short-handed since Nov. 8, when Kyle Lowry suffered a fractured left thumb and Serge Ibaka sprained his right ankle in a game in New Orleans. Ibaka could return Saturday night in Atlanta, Nurse said, but there was no update on Lowry. The original word was that the point guard would be re-evaluated after two weeks.
Davis has seen an uptick in playing time since those injuries — 7.7 minutes per game before, 21.3 minutes a night since — and made it count. He has averaged 11.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists during that time while shooting 53.8 per cent from three-point range. Along with Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the emergence of the second unit has given the 10-4 Raptors a needed boost.
Marc Gasol is shooting 12 for 45 (26.7%) on 2-point field goals through 13 games. Many of these attempts have been pretty alarming in film. The silky touch that he used to have on his quick push shots in the lane has seemingly abandoned him. Gasol has never been the most explosive around the rim, but it appears as if he has lost the ability to create any kind of separation as either a post player or a finisher.
This has severely limited the Raptors’ offensive options at times. In the second game of the season against the Celtics, his misses around the basket sparked Boston’s transition offense in the fourth quarter, playing a major part in Toronto losing the lead down the stretch. The robust face-up game from the mid-post that he had in Memphis has vanished. The rim and paint shooting numbers are quite ghastly, but with such a small sample size they cannot be fully bought into just yet.
But the fact that it is such a small sample is a problem in and of itself. He passes up countless shots every game, oftentimes not even looking at the rim. Attempting 45 2-point shots total in 13 games is low even for the most anemic offensive big men that we have seen, guys like Reggie Evans and Michael Ruffin.
Part of this is undoubtedly situational. Given the extreme talent gap between Memphis and Toronto, he is not relied upon to put up points night-in and night-out anymore. Nick Nurse also uses a much more free-flowing and egalitarian offensive system. Gasol seems content taking a back seat to the younger guys who have much more energy and pep to their step. It took a countless number of games for Gasol and Conley to fine-tune their elegant pick-and-roll ballet. He is also coming off an incredibly successful summer, so having a bit of championship hangover is understandable.
Merely because of his size and preternatural feel for the game, Marc Gasol will likely be an effective NBA player until the day he retires. Watch here as he sets a screen for VanVleet and then seals his man so that VanVleet gets a clear path to the basket. He does so many little things like this on the margins that help his teams win. He and Kyle Lowry were almost born to play with each other in this way. He is one of the greatest passing big men ever, and he will almost always turn down decent looks to hunt even better shots. He also appears to be is usual stingy self on the defensive end.
The decline in Gasol’s scoring game should be continued to be monitored as the season progresses. He had a fair share of droughts during the 2019 playoffs as well but managed to cobble together a few clutch performances against the Bucks and Warriors. It is possible that he has moved into a different stage of his career after being one of the best centers in the league for nearly a decade.
If he can no longer be counted on to even be in double-figures scoring-wise, then it drastically alters Toronto’s ceiling and standing in the Eastern Conference. He provides much more than backup center Serge Ibaka in all other aspects that do not involve individual scoring. But there will be many other situations like the Celtics game from the first week of the season where an opposing run needs to be quelled with a bucket.
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