Nurse COY | Lowry coming back | VanVleet an All-Star (should be) | The Raptors are really effing good
Toronto's Nick Nurse and the Lakers' Frank Vogel have just been named East and West Coach of the Month for November by the NBA
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) December 2, 2019
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 2, 2019
The Raptors more than passed the first, much tougher task of surviving without some of their most important players. They didn’t survive; they thrived. Now comes the natural second part, at least when you have succeeded in the first part: How to re-implement those guys without disrupting too much of what has been working without them?
With Ibaka, it is simpler. In his first game back on Sunday, he essentially took Boucher’s minutes. Although his role is more strongly tethered to the centre spot than Boucher’s is, it is basically a one-for-one trade off, with Raptors coach Nick Nurse saying he will try to find spots throughout games to reward Boucher’s surprising play during the injuries.
Lowry’s situation is more complicated. For anyone trying to “galaxy brain” the situation, Nurse put an end to that on Monday. When Lowry returns, he will start, alongside VanVleet, with Powell back to the bench alongside Davis. It is what the Raptors were doing before Lowry’s injury, and although there is a case to move VanVleet to the bench rather than Powell — it would simplify substitution patterns from a positional perspective — it would go against the effort to put your best players on the floor to start the game. If anything, Davis’s production during Lowry’s absence should serve to ease the minutes load on both point guards. Before the injury, Lowry and VanVleet were averaging 39 and more than 37 minutes, respectively, with Powell and Davis down at fewer than 24 and eight. Simply giving Davis five minutes apiece from the point guards would solve a lot of work load questions.
There is one other issue: VanVleet and Davis have both been spectacular in Lowry’s temporary tenure as a very well paid assistant coach.
“I think Freddie is just a guy that’s going to continue to get better — he’s going to continue to grow,” Lowry said on Monday. “I think his level of confidence, his rhythm, is at an all-time high right now. I said that to him (Sunday). I said, ‘You’re in a groove.’ He’s in a real good groove (with) everything he does. His shots are going in. Every shot he takes, everything he does, is just in a nice rhythm and a groove. And now the point for him is to continue it no matter what. And I think he will.”
“I wouldn’t throw us in the (having)-too-many-players category too quick, but we certainly developed some guys we can count on,” Nurse added.
NURSE WINS AGAIN
Nurse started his NBA head coaching career with a bang last Fall, winning East coach of the month honours for October/November and now he has done it again. The league named Nurse the winner on Monday, while Frank Vogel of the Los Angeles Lakers won in the West.
Toronto went 14-4 despite missing key players Lowry and Ibaka for much of the first two months of the season. Toronto is unbeaten at home and leads the NBA in many defensive metrics and also is tops in three-point percentage.
In a turn-back-the-clock moment, Carmelo Anthony was named the West’s player of the week on Monday, having only recently returned to the league with Portland. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo was the choice in the East.
To, in other words, draw on the sort of confidence and ease that have made the Raptors one of the best teams in the league.
Everything about Toronto’s season feels fresh, which runs contrary to the very idea of a title defense. After winning all that there is to win, championship teams are forced to scrounge for new motivation or scuttle along, satisfied. The Raptors found an entirely different path. Through Leonard, Toronto was able to win its first title in franchise history, validating the entire team in the process. Kyle Lowry could live the rest of his life knowing that his stubborn, brilliant brand of basketball was the stuff of titles. Pascal Siakam could wake up every morning knowing that his transformation had meant something. Gasol and Serge Ibaka, after years of wondering whether they’d ever get another real shot to win it all, could play out their careers in peace. Every Raptor came to the Finals with something to prove and left baptized in champagne to start again.
Leonard’s choice to sign with the Clippers took something substantial away from the Raptors as a team, but also spared them the staleness of attempting to run back the same squad. What was supposed to be a long, uneven season has turned into a perfect delight: an endlessly resourceful team emboldened by the fullness of its accomplishments. Lowry has been out for nearly a month without issue; Fred VanVleet just stepped in and became a star lead guard on command, propelling the Raptors to seven straight wins. In its latest, Toronto ran up a 40-point lead on Utah by halftime. Toronto also went without Ibaka for weeks, relying instead on Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and winning all the same.
It works not only because Siakam has made another jump (this time to the level of a functional superstar), but because the entire team seems to be above jockeying for shots or touches. Leonard left a vacuum that could have compromised the Raptors. Instead, it gave one of the smartest teams in basketball the opportunity to make each other better. Toronto doesn’t need the season to find itself and, despite the situational convenience of its contracts, seems genuinely too good to mull a roster-changing move. What’s time to a Raptor? A team like this knows exactly what they’ll be in the playoffs because it’s like they never really left at all.
The defense remains amazing
As of Monday morning, the Raptors have the No. 2 defense in the NBA, just behind the Denver Nuggets and ahead of the vaunted Bucks, Sixers, and Celtics. Defense is half of the game at the team level! As decades of San Antonio Spurs excellence has taught us, you can build an elite defense without a bevy household name superstars. The Raptors have a superstar defender in Siakam (more on him momentarily) and are good defensively at every position. That’s adding up to an elite defense at this point. The math is pretty easy from there: if you have a top-3 defense and a top-10 offense (Toronto is No. 5), you’re going to be an incredible team. Ergo, Toronto is incredible.
What’s fascinating is that Toronto hasn’t missed a defensive beat despite losing Kawhi, perhaps the best individual defender in the NBA. But this was evident even last season when Leonard sat out games for load management. What may have appeared to be a team effortfully hanging on without their captain was actually an elite defense doing its job without a key cog.
There are plenty of reasons for the Raptors’ shorthanded success this past month. Pascal Siakam continues to look the part of a franchise cornerstone. Norman Powell has filled in admirably as a starter. The subs – Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher – have been a revelation and given Nick Nurse more depth than even he thought he had. Then there’s Nurse, the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for October and November.
At the centre of it all is the man most directly responsible for filling Lowry’s shoes, Fred VanVleet.
VanVleet has started all 19 games this season, but with Lowry out he’s served as the lead guard and primary ball handler when he’s been on the floor. And as the only natural point guard on the active roster, he’s been on the floor a lot.
In nearly 38 minutes per game over the last 11 contests, VanVleet has averaged 21.2 points and 7.5 assists, 2.4 steals and only 2.7 turnovers while shooting 44 per cent from the field and 40 per cent from three-point range on 7.5 attempts.
“There’s always room for improvement for me, I’m never satisfied, but yeah, I feel like I’ve been playing well,” VanVleet said after another standout performance – 21 points, five rebounds, 11 assists and zero turnovers – in Sunday’s win over Utah. “But, honestly, those days are kind of behind me – like, I don’t really have anything left to prove. I’ve shown it by now. The only thing I haven’t done yet is dunk.”
At just 25, turning 26 in February, VanVleet’s resume is filling up fast.
He fought his way onto an NBA roster after going undrafted. He helped lead Raptors 905 to the G League title as a rookie. He was a finalist for the Sixth Man of the Year award during his sophomore campaign, earning him his first big contract that summer. Then, in his third season, he became an NBA champion and even got a Finals MVP vote.
Still, there were a couple of important questions hanging over his head as he entered his fourth year – a crucial one for the soon-to-be free agent: is he a full-time starter and can he lead a team?
Over the last two years, the Raptors are 38-9 with VanVleet in the starting lineup, either filling in for Lowry or playing alongside of him. He’s certainly proven he’s well suited for that role, even if it means going small in the backcourt. Now, in an extended audition as the sole point guard, he’s showing he can run an elite NBA team.
So what would an All-Star push for VanVleet look like?
It’s worth remembering that Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving were voted as starters in the Eastern Conference a year ago, a fact that remains unlikely to change even as Irving continues to miss time. He’s as popular as any player in the league and Walker is still playing at an All-Star level on a Boston team which will have a good record come All-Star selection time.
So if Freddy V were to make it it will have to come as a reserve. And when you look at his numbers compared to the rest of the Eastern Conference guards, he’s in a better spot than most would initially think.
Bradley Beal made his second All-Star appearance last year in Charlotte and has elevated his game to an even higher level – so expect him to be in Chicago. Khris Middleton, who made his first appearance last season, should once again receive strong consideration with the Bucks on the verge of running away with the best record in the East.
Here’s where it opens up. Victor Oladipo was named to last year’s roster but has yet to step onto the floor this season due to injury. Fellow 2019 All-Star Ben Simmons is seeing career-lows in points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage for a 76ers team that’s underachieved over the first six weeks and may not be the lock most assumed he’d be entering the season.
And VanVleet’s teammate Kyle Lowry – who represented the Raptors for the fifth time as an All-Star last year – has missed 11 games.
Through 19 games this season, VanVleet is averaging career-highs in points, assists and steals. He’s also stepped up big in the absence of five-time All-Star Kyle Lowry’s been out since early November.
Without Lowry, VanVleet is putting up averages of 21.2 points, 7.5 assists and 2.4 steals. He’s shooting 44.4% from the field and 40.2% from three – All-Star calibre numbers.
Wide-open 3-point frequency ranking: Fourth (22.2 percent)
Wide-open 3-point percentage ranking: First (45.9 percent)
All the Raptors have done since losing one of the best basketball players in the world to free agency is establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the perimeter.
Their Leonard-less roster lacks a name that really pops off the page as an elite sharpshooting threat, but their prowess as a collective is literally unmatched. Of the five qualified players whose wide-open 3-point frequency (henceforth referred to as WOTF) reaches at least 20 percent, the lowest wide-open 3-point percentage (henceforth referred to as WOTP) belongs to Marc Gasol, who clocks in at a sturdy 40.4 percent (the league average WOTP through games on Dec. 1 is 38.6 percent.)
Not counted among that group thanks to a 19.5 percent WOTF that just missed my arbitrary mark is Pascal Siakam. The NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player is apparently not ready to stop improving in his age-25 season. Rather than regressing under the pressure of a sizable usage boost back to his 22 percent 3-point percentage from 2018, his 36.9 percent mark from last season has risen once again. It now sits at a healthy 39 percent, in no small part because he’s been able to knock down his four wide-open 3-point attempts per game at just a couple of ticks above that clip (40.8 percent), a slight improvement from last year’s 38.5 percent mark.
Though Siakam has garnered a majority of the headlines for the 15-4 Raptors, the team effort cannot be understated. Fred VanVleet (53 percent WOTP) has not skipped his beat since his revelatory Finals performance, OG Anunoby (48.9 percent WOTP) has provided what the Raptors always hoped he would and then some, and Kyle Lowry (42.9 percent WOTP), though currently injured, refuses to show signs of decline.
The Raptors may have lost a superstar talent, but their shot-creating and making remains championship caliber.
7. Toronto Raptors
Week 6 ranking: 11
The Raptors, riding a seven-game win streak, continue to prevail with defense. Toronto has held five of its past seven opponents under 100 points, and the signature win of the week over the 76ers came with the Raptors holding All-NBA center Joel Embiid scoreless for the first time in his career. The Raptors’ stifling defense gives them a legitimate chance to defend their Eastern Conference title despite the departure of Kawhi Leonard.. — Snellings
3. Toronto Raptors (Previously 5th), 15-4 (+8.8 net rating)
Positive takeaway: Pascal Siakam’s ascension last season was not a fluke by any means. We’re not seeing nearly the same level of efficiency from Siakam this year as we did last year, but that’s pretty difficult to keep going when you increase usage the way he has. But even with that drop-off in efficiency, Siakam has still proven that his leap last season was legitimate. It was simply a sign of things to come. The Toronto Raptors have had guys in and out of the lineup early on, putting even more stress on Siakam’s scoring. But he’s the real deal now and there shouldn’t be the same questions about him moving forward.
Negative question: Is the offense actually sustainable? They’ve remained one of the top offenses in the league despite their summer losses. A lot of that comes from being the best 3-point shooting team in the league. They generate quality shots possession after possession with their ball movement. But the Raptors don’t get to the free-throw line probably as much as they should. If you expect the shooting to stay high, they’ll be fine. If it wavers a little, they’ll need to find easy points.
The Raptors are on fire, and they’re just starting to get healthy again. Serge Ibaka rejoined the lineup for Sunday’s lambasting of the Jazz and Kyle Lowry should make his return soon, but it’s not like Toronto missed them at all. The defending champs have proven they can beat you in multiple ways, in offensive shootouts or defensive battles, and they’re now second in the league in both net rating and defensive rating with the fifth-best offense. Next week should be a good test with the Heat, Rockets and 76ers on tap.
3 Toronto Raptors
Last week: 8
Pace: 101.3 (14) OffRtg: 111.2 (5) DefRtg: 102.3 (2) NetRtg: +8.8 (2)
The Raptors remain pretty, pretty good. They’ve won seven straight games, picking up wins over the Sixers and Jazz last week, holding Joel Embiid scoreless and dropping Utah from fifth to 11th in defensive efficiency in one night with a rather ridiculous performance from the perimeter. They’re still just 3-4 in games between the 13 teams that are currently over .500, but they’ve joined the Bucks as teams in the top five on both ends of the floor, and they’re the only team in the league that hasn’t lost a game that wasn’t within five points in the last five minutes. After the 77-point first half on Sunday, they’ve scored a league-best 118.4 points per 100 possessions at home, where they’ve had a much lower turnover rate (13.4 per 100 possessions vs. 16.5 on the road) and where they’re 9-0, with their schedule remaining home-heavy through the end of the month. A couple of good teams are at Scotiabank Arena this week, and their visit to Philly on Sunday will obviously test their ability to take the show on the road.
How did Nurse win this award? For one, the Raptors are 15-4 on the season, bested in the East only by Milwaukee’s 17-3. For two, they had a considerably tough schedule with just over half of their contests on the road — including one five-game stretch out west. And for three, not to bury the lede, Toronto earned many of their wins — ten in fact, including seven in this ongoing win streak — down its most important player in Kyle Lowry. Toronto also lacked core rotation piece Serge Ibaka, along with Patrick McCaw, and even weathered an injury to OG Anunoby for a couple of games. (In all, eight players missed time since the start of the season for Toronto.) All of this is to say, the Raptors have taking a licking, but, as the expression goes, have kept right on ticking.
This run is, at least in part, attributable to Nurse, who’s had to mix-and-match his rotations on the fly, bring new players up to speed, and maintain the offensive and defensive culture the Raptors had so clearly established as part of last year’s championship run. That he’s done this despite massive changes in team personnel — that he has in fact exceeded expectations — is a remarkable feat given the Raptors’ injuries in the early going.
To wit, Toronto has the league’s second best defense — including holding opponents to a league-best 40.8 percent shooting from the field — along with its fifth best offense. They’re also the best three-point shooting team in the league right now. And if that’s not enough, players like undrafted rookie Terence Davis and implausible prospect Chris Boucher have succeeded in bigger minutes since the start of the season despite arriving as still-unknown quantities. Yes, the players are the ones actually playing the games, but some credit can go to Nurse for putting them in the right place to succeed.
And succeed they have! The Raptors spent the past month collecting all sorts of signature wins. They beat the cursed Kings, took down LeBron James and Anthony Davis (and even slowed Kawhi Leonard for awhile too) in Los Angeles, shutdown Damian Lillard and the Blazers, and weathered a triple-double onslaught from Trae Young. Oh yeah, and then there was that zero-point outing from Joel Embiid while the Raptors took it to their rivals the Sixers just last week. What stood out in each win, beyond the astounding play of the Raptors themselves, was the varying game plan Toronto executed to beat their specific competition. Many expected the Raptors to be a solid team, but few would have had an easy time predicting Nurse would have the squad pushing for the number one seed.
The Raptors rank second in the NBA with a defensive rating of 102.1 and they sit fourth in limiting their opponents to 104.2 points per game. On the other side, Toronto leads the league with 19.5 fast-break points per game and a shooting percentage of 40.2. The bench, which was supposed to be a weakness, sits third with a net rating of 3.7, trailing only the Mavericks and Clippers.
All of this has been accomplished, in large part, without Lowry and Ibaka. Adding them back into the mix provides even more optimism that this run might be sustainable, and the Raptors will become a legitimate threat in the East.
“I’m going to integrate myself no matter what,” said Lowry, who has averaged 21.8 points and 6.5 assists in eight games. “I’m still going to go out there and I’m going to be myself at the end of the day. But those guys are playing. So, I don’t think anything changes. I think I come out there and I do what I do: score, assist, defence, all the small things. I’m just going to be me.”
The return of Lowry and Ibaka means the players who stepped up over the last few weeks will have to make some sacrifices. Boucher didn’t get off the bench until the tail end of Sunday’s runaway victory over the Jazz. Davis will see his playing time dip — albeit not to that level — when Lowry is up to speed. Hollis-Jefferson will have to pick his spots.
These are good problems to have, because after seeing all three in expanded roles over the last few weeks, Nurse now knows what to expect. He will have improved flexibility to mix and match his lineups and adjust based on the opponent. There’s also renewed faith that when someone else inevitably goes down, Toronto will be able to survive that too.
And when he does, the reverberations will be felt up and down the roster. Lowry will obviously resume his starting and finishing duties on the team, chewing up anywhere from 30 to 40-plus minutes per night. That will push Norman Powell, who’s averaged 31 minutes per game in a starting role since Lowry’s injury, back onto the bench. It’ll also mean less ball-handling and facilitating for Fred VanVleet, who’s been running Toronto’s offence during leverage minutes since Lowry went down.
But Powell will still have his part to play, even as his minutes decrease. If he can find a way to carry over the timely, assertive-yet-shrewd plays he’s made over this stretch, while minimizing the maddening, trying-to-do-too-much ones, he’ll be a real asset to the Raptors off the bench. And VanVleet will return to the combo-guard role he was playing alongside Lowry earlier this season, working more off the ball while still taking his turns running the offence.
“I think Freddy is just a guy that’s going to continue to get better — he’s going to continue to grow,” Lowry said. “I think his level of confidence, his rhythm, is at an all-time high right now. I said that to him [Sunday.] I said, ‘You’re in a groove.’ He’s in a real good groove. Everything he does. His shots are going in. Every shot he takes, everything he does, is just in a nice rhythm and a groove. And now the point for him is to continue it no matter what. And I think he will.”
Lowry’s return will also be felt by rookie Terence Davis, whose minutes doubled — and on some nights tripled — when Toronto’s starting point guard went down. Davis has been nothing short of exceptional since, playing to a team-best 19.0 net rating since Lowry’s injury, while shooting 46 per cent (21-of-46) from beyond the arc.
Davis will still see the floor — particularly if Nurse keeps Lowry on a pitch count in his first few games back, or opts to extend his rotation to nine or even 10 players deep. Remember how much concern there was about Lowry and VanVleet’s workloads earlier this season? Davis’ emergence should alleviate that.
But game flow, foul trouble, opposition matchups and the play of his teammates will impact Davis’ opportunities, too. Just look at Chris Boucher, who filled in admirably during Serge Ibaka’s absence until the back-up centre returned to action Sunday against the Jazz.
Ujiri has a reputation as an organization-building prodigy, earning executive of the year honors in Denver and then turning the Raptors into NBA champions. Maybe just as impressive, after failing to keep Kawhi Leonard from departing to the Clippers, Ujiri has the Raptors back in contention with a roster that includes late draft picks and undrafted finds.
But it’s not just his player development program or ability to find talent that folks in Toronto say could get him to leave for New York.
Ujiri is passionate about his foundation, Giants of Africa, and New York could be a stage for him to take it to new levels and continue to provide help to children in his home continent. (He was born in England, where his parents were students, but moved at 2 years old to Nigeria, where he was raised.)
The thinking is that for the right opportunity, Ujiri could be convinced to leave, not because the Raptors would fail to match any offer Dolan could make but because New York would provide a platform to raise the profile and fundraising efforts for his foundation.
From a basketball standpoint, for it to work, the Knicks would have to move Mills, who has been with the organization for most of the last 16 years, out of his president’s role.
As president of basketball operations in Toronto, Ujiri has had free rein unlike anyone has had under Dolan. He has made moves that may have seemed controversial, including parting ways with Dwane Casey after a Coach of the Year season to install unproven Nick Nurse.
That move created waves in the organization with concerns about backstabbing, but it resulted in an NBA championship last season and has the Raptors near the top of the Eastern Conference standings this season.
The Raptors have survived the departure of Leonard, something Ujiri had experience handling during his days in Denver, where he turned the loss of Carmelo Anthony into a contending roster — thanks to a fleecing of the Knicks.
FanDuel Sportsbook Title Odds: +4200
numberFire Championship Probability: 4.0%
It’s weird to see the reigning champs with such low odds, but that’s life without Kawhi Leonard.
While the Toronto Raptors were expected to compete for a playoff spot this season, few (if any) projected them to play such a high caliber of basketball. Toronto came into November with title odds of 1.6 percent, but those have more than doubled over the last month. At 15-4, the Raptors are second in the East behind only the Bucks.
Toronto’s net rating of 8.8 is second in the league, trailing only Milwaukee’s 10.3. The champs lead the league as the only team shooting above 40 percent from three. They are also second in defensive efficiency, fourth in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, and sixth in assist ratio.
Pascal Siakam has taken the step into the tier of elite players in the league. The 25-year-old is averaging 25.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.0 assists on 47/39/81 shooting lines. Siakam is also eighth in defensive win shares.
Barring a significant trade, it’s hard to imagine the Raptors winning their second consecutive title. Though, at +4200, they do have the best odds of any true contender.
After starting off the year with 33/1 odds to win the 2020 NBA Championship, the Raptors have played themselves into a better position in the latest odds update according to BetOnline.
Toronto now holds a 16/1 chance at repeating as NBA Champions, joining the Boston Celtics, who have the same odds.
The Los Angeles Clippers started out the season with the best odds of winning the title at 3/1 but they now share those same chances as the Lakers, their in-arena rival.
The Milwaukee Bucks remain the favourite to come out of the Eastern Conference with their odds slightly improving to 9/2.
The Utah Jazz have seen the biggest fall going from 16/1 at the start of the season to 25/1. Donovan Mitchell had a message for all the doubters on social media following the Jazz’s blowout loss to the Raptors on Sunday.
Considering the Raptors have had both Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry miss extended time due to injury, it’s an encouraging sign that Vegas is now giving Toronto the respect many believe they deserve.
There’s a lot to be still learned about the Raptors with a tough month of December coming up and it will be interesting to see if they can improve on their chances of a repeating in the betting world’s eyes as we flip the calendar over to the new year.
Powell is now averaging 12.7 points per game on the season, up from 8.6 points per game last season. Consistency, however, has once again been a problem for him at times. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse touched on it prior to the team’s win over the Magic on Nov. 20, saying he wishes they could count on Powell to be a more consistent presence.
“We’ve seen some really great play, right? A little bit up and down. I mean, listen, I wish we could pencil him in for about 16 each night, rather than 26 one and zero the next, 21 and four, or whatever. But he’s certainly capable, obviously. … He’s been good. We’re happy with Norm. He can be an impact player for us this year, more impactful.”
The Raptors are a different team when Powell gives them a scoring punch. According to Basketball-Reference, Powell has scored 16 or more points in 36 games to this point in his NBA career. Toronto’s record in those games? 27-9, giving them a winning percentage of a 62-win team.
The Raptors have been even more dominant when Powell scores 20 or more points, winning 13 of the 15 games in which that has happened.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Raptors are better team when Powell gives them a boost in the scoring column. First and foremost, he’s one of Toronto’s better 3-point shooters. Having someone who is shooting 43.3 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts – as Powell is doing this season – is a huge asset for a team built around Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, three players who are among the league leaders in drives per game.
Secondly, Powell is capable of putting the ball on the floor himself. He’s not someone the Raptors can run their offence through, but he can get out in transition and attack closeouts. He had a couple of impressive drives against the Magic, his dunk off of a baseline drive against Evan Fournier being the most memorable.
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