Why is Pat McCaw playing so much for the Raptors?

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Jan 19, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Patrick McCaw (1) advances the ball up the court in the fourth quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies at Scotiabank Arena. The Raptors beat the Grizzlies 119-90. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

When two people see the same thing, they still don’t always agree when asked to recount what it was. That disparity in reality is a constant in our political world today, but it’s just as visible in sports. Pat McCaw is one such guy for the Toronto Raptors, such a lightning rod of disagreement that his talent is less in the eye of the beholder than the beholder himself.

When it comes to McCaw, there is a disconnect between the Raptors coaching staff on one hand and Toronto fans and media on the other. Nick Nurse has always displayed trust and belief in McCaw as a player, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. In only the second game back after a long injury, against the Brooklyn Nets on December 14, McCaw played 29 minutes, fifth-most on the team. He followed that up with 22 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Fred VanVleet’s absence explains the high minute totals, but McCaw seems to be a fixture in the rotation.

Though he shot one-of-seven from the field against Brooklyn, missing all five triples he attempted, the Raptors won his minutes by 11 points despite only winning the game by eight. McCaw’s contributions were a popular topic among media and on Twitter, and Nurse summarized to the media after the game why McCaw played so many minutes.

I just liked Pat’s energy on defence,” said Nurse. “[Spencer] Dinwiddie and [Joe] Harris, give him a chance to guard one of those two, probably their biggest threats out there in the game, and he was doing a really good job of fitting in on the offensive end.”

Fitting in on the offensive end? That may seem generous from Nurse, but it’s been the company line for a long time. Almost since the Raptors acquired McCaw, Nurse has consistently emphasized his intelligence.

“[I] really like Pat as a player, he’s just such a high-level IQ guy,” said Nurse in October. “He’s always making the right play on defence, he brings a little bit of juice on offence because of his cutting and his passing on offence. And he’s really got great feet. He can chase people and get underneath them and slide his feet and put some heat on some people… He’s got a really unique basketball body, right? Really fast feet, slender but strong enough to break through some things. He gets around screens, misses screens and he’s right back in his guy’s chest. He’s good, I thought it was really good to have him out there. Again, I think the IQ level for him is super high.”

Despite the praise from Nurse, there are arguments to be made against McCaw. His offensive shot-making is questionable. Despite a relative explosion against the Cavaliers, finishing two-of-two from deep, McCaw remains an unwilling shooter. Over his career, he’s shot 72-of-241 from three, which is less than 30 percent. He can’t create his own shot. He has solid numbers finishing around the rim, but he takes so few shots there that it doesn’t overcome his lack of scoring from other areas. To McCaw, though, that doesn’t completely limit what he offers.

Once my shots start falling it’s gonna be scary, but being able to make plays, be a team player, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “My defensive awareness, what I bring on the defensive end, is what our team needs. The energy, the effort that I give, each and every possession.”

That shot-making that may or may not become scary is another area of disagreement. While critics can only point to his in-game woes, Nurse and McCaw have a wealth of other data to which they can refer. Famously, the team claimed that Siakam was a good shooter long before that actually manifested in games, and Toronto could make that claim because of the data available from shooting drills, practices, and other such areas of information. None of that is available to those outside the team. But Nurse claims McCaw’s numbers outside of games are promising.

“He’s really shooting the ball well,” said Nurse earlier this season. “He’s going to get some opportunities. We’re going to see that surface at some point here, I’m sure.”

Perhaps the Cleveland game was the start of McCaw’s shooting prowess starting to show itself in actual games.

McCaw’s defensive acumen is another point of disagreement. To critics, he’s actually not fantastic at getting around screens, often smacking into them when tasked with going over. He has effort and length, but too often his freelancing results in open opportunities for his offender. Some publicly available numbers would offer evidence to that point. The team has a defensive rating of 102.9 when he’s off the floor and 105.0 when he’s playing. For a defensive specialist, that’s not fantastic, but it’s not problematic. He’s a role player, probably eighth in the rotation when Toronto is fully healthy, so it’s totally understandable that Toronto would be similar defensively with him on or off the floor.

But when he plays, Toronto’s offensive rating plummets from 109.3 to 104.1, the second-biggest drop among rotation players. It is important to note that because of injury, McCaw has only played in five games, so one good or bad game would swing his on-offs dramatically. Still, according to the numbers, his inability to score in the half-court hamstrings the team, and his defense, though fine and occasionally great, doesn’t offer enough back the other way. Those same realities in the on-offs were true last year as well, when McCaw played a larger number of minutes.

Those numbers don’t seem to concern the Raptors.

Pat is special defensively, [at] play-making, [with] his size, the way he drives and gets to the paint,” explained Gasol after the Nets win. 

McCaw himself says he doesn’t pay attention to the numbers: “No, I really don’t [pay attention.] What I can control is the only thing I can control. So going out there and playing 100 percent on both ends. I’ll start making shots, but defensively going out there and giving it every possession is all I can really control as a player. That’s what my team looks for me to do, and that’s what I go out there and do every night.”

Perhaps McCaw’s minutes and his trust from the organization and his teammates derive from his structural role on the team. McCaw is a floor-raiser. His usage rate of 9.9 percent is the lowest on the team and ninth-lowest in the NBA among players who play 15 minutes or more per game. Fans and media members see a player who doesn’t do anything as a mark against McCaw, but perhaps the team sees his low propensity to finish a possession as a positive; McCaw’s low rate of using possessions gives more chances to the team’s stars in Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, or Fred VanVleet. That McCaw has the highest turnover ratio in the league, given the same 15 minute per game cut-off, at 21.9 percent, chips away that argument. If McCaw doesn’t hit triples, and often turns over the ball, then it’s much harder to justify a low usage rate as a positive. To that end, McCaw has the third-lowest plus-minus on the team, at minus-five. In comparison, the Raptors have outscored opponents by 155 on the season.

A variety of numbers condemn McCaw’s game, but he doesn’t pay attention to the numbers. “Not really. Just the game [itself]. The numbers are gonna come, especially if I’m playing hard, they’re gonna come.”

Even if the numbers don’t come, it appears McCaw has earned the trust of the Toronto coaching staff. Even a generous reading of his game would show that his defense is good, if not fantastic, but it doesn’t do nearly enough to offset his offensive difficulties. Somehow, that is not at all the reading of the coaching staff. There’s a wide disconnect. That’s often reality in the NBA when one group has far more data, insight, and knowledge than another. But it’s still strange in the case of the Raptors, where fans and pundits have learned over a decade to properly appreciate a unique future Hall of Famer in Kyle Lowry. We’ve learned to applaud Marc Gasol for his offensive contributions without spending too much time on his points per game. Why, then, is there such a disconnect when it comes to Pat McCaw? It’s hard to say, but it’s valuable for fans and especially media members to start trying to find answers.

Editor’s note: an earlier version incorrectly stated that McCaw’s career 3-point shooting percentage is sub-25 percent, when it meant to state that it was sub-30 percent. 

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