The Toronto Raptors are (almost) healthy again!
Both Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam returned to the lineup on Sunday night against the San Antonio Spurs, and while both seemed to lack conditioning as the game went on, what was important in the long term is that both knocked down jump-shots and fit effortlessly back into the starting lineup.
The Raptors went 1-2 last week, losing to two sub .500 teams by a combined score of three points after leading by double-digits in both games. They failed to stay composed and execute down the stretch, which is something they did very well earlier in the season. The Raptors are now 25-14, two games back from the highly coveted No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They have a good opportunity to catch up to Boston and Miami in the coming weeks where they will play a fairly weak schedule.
Still, the Raptors are without Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet, and it will take some time for the others to find their legs and for Nick Nurse to find a rotation that works.
Here is a breakdown of the Raptors upcoming schedule:
- Wednesday, January 15th at 8:00pm: Toronto Raptors @ Oklahoma City Thunder (22-17)
- Friday, January 17th at 7:00pm: Washington Wizards (13-26) @ Toronto Raptors
- Saturday, January 18th at 8:00pm: Toronto Raptors @ Minnesota Timberwolves (15-23)
- Combined winning percentage of 43.1
Let’s look ahead to the five most interesting storylines for the upcoming week:
With Powell and Siakam returning Sunday and VanVleet and Gasol likely to return sometime this week, Nurse will have to completely reconfigure starting lineup and rotation.
As we saw earlier this season when Lowry and Ibaka returned from injury in early December, it isn’t always easy to add guys back into the mix after not playing basketball for so long and expect to beat teams who have been playing together and building on-court chemistry for months straight.
Of course, most of that just depends on how well Powell, Siakam, VanVleet, and Gasol play when they return from injury. If Sunday night’s loss to the Spurs was any indication, Powell and Siakam looked good early and faded as the game went along, which is likely a conditioning issue.
Still, Nurse has some key decisions to make in the starting lineup: Before the injuries, he said he was considering starting Powell alongside Lowry and VanVleet. That would likely mean Anunoby — who hasn’t taken full advantage of the opportunity afforded to him with such a depleted roster — could come off the bench. Or VanVleet or Powell could come off the bench. The only guaranteed starting spots are Lowry, Siakam, and Gasol.
Nurse will also have hard decisions to make on the back-end of his rotation: Terance Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris Boucher have all been steady contributors, as have Matt Thomas and Oshae Brissett in smaller roles. Nurse won’t have enough minutes for all of them, especially if he continues to play Patrick McCaw upwards of twenty minutes per game. Nurse might be smart to expand his rotation in order to cut back on minutes for guys like Lowry (league-leading 38.5 minutes per game), VanVleet (36.3), and Siakam (36.4).
More importantly, Nurse has to figure out a rotation that works, which likely means mixing up his starters and bench players more than he did on Sunday when he rolled with a full five-man bench unit of McCaw, Davis, Hollis-Jefferson, Boucher, and Thomas in the second and third quarters. The Raptors bench was outscored 48-24, ultimately costing them the game.
2. Trade szn
It’s that time of year again, folks.
The NBA trade deadline is less than a month away on February 6th and with it comes enough speculation and rumours to make a sane man go mad.
The Raptors entered the year more likely to be sellers than buyers but that switch has been flipped. They are simply too good — and the league is simply too open and unproven — for the Raptors not to make a serious run at a championship. Whether adding a big piece is the best way to go about that remains to be determined.
The Raptors have seven locks in their playoff rotation with Kyle Lowry, VanVleet, Siakam, OG Anunoby, Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Powell. Last playoffs, Nurse went with an eight-man rotation most of the way.
However, last year’s rotation had more top-end talent with Kawhi Leonard. They will rely on Siakam to play a role he has never played in the NBA, being a No. 1 option and the guy they rely upon down the stretch to close out games. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to surround him with some more scoring, if possible.
If the Raptors choose to add another piece they will be doing so to a roster that has barely had enough time at full strength to build chemistry or to figure out it’s ceiling. For the right price, though, they could look to add a back-of-rotation player to play behind those seven OR they could add a player to replace one of the top-seven — most likely Ibaka, who is on an expiring contract, or Powell, whose value has never been higher. The Raptors also have all of their future first-round picks to dangle.
It’s going to be fascinating to watch how the front office handles this trade deadline: do they make a big trade to go all-in for this season? Do that add a fringe piece who could be a dependable eighth-man? Do they stand pat? Do they sell? It’s such a complicated situation given the Raptors unclear ceiling and that they want to preserve cap-space for 2021.
If the Raptors do make a big trade, they would likely look to improve rebounding and/or shooting. Here are some of the names to consider: Danillo Gallinari, Andre Drummond, Tristian Thompson, Robert Covington, and Davis Bertans. They could also be active in the buyout market, although that proved to be worthless last season.
3. Mafuzzy chef(fing it up)
Ibaka recorded his career-best eighth-straight double-double on Sunday night, scoring 21 points and 14 rebounds.
I have been one of Ibaka’s harshest critics over the past couple of years, but give credit where it’s due: Ibaka has been on a roll ever since Gasol went down with an injury on December 18th and is one of the biggest reasons the Raptors have gone 6-6 since then. He stepped up during a time his team desperately needed him to considering the only other healthy center is Chris Boucher, who is in his first full NBA season and is too skinny to match-up with certain centers.
Ibaka is averaging 18 and 10 over that 12-game stretch, shooting 54 percent from the field and 44 percent from three while playing 32 minutes per game. It’s a big load to carry for a 30-year-old coming off a championship run, but it’s only temporary until Gasol returns to action, at which time Nurse can split Ibaka and Gasol up so that neither players more than 30 minutes per game.
Ibaka has certainly made a case for himself as an irreplaceable part of the Raptors and someone likely to get paid big money this offseason. Ibaka has anchored the Raptors to a defensive rating of 105.5 over the last 12-games, a number that would rank 6th in the league over the course of the season ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers. He can still play center or power forward beside Gasol, which makes him incredibly valuable.
I still don’t like seeing the ball in his hands down the stretch, especially with Siakam and Lowry on the floor.
4. Patrick McCaw
I decided to spend some time on this subject because McCaw’s play seems to be the biggest and most polarizing subject Raptors’ Twitter has seen in decades.
However, I think it has been blown out of proportion like most things on Twitter.
McCaw is averaging a modest 6/3/2 on 44/33/75 shooting in 27.3 minutes per game this season. Of course, part of the reason he has played so many minutes is because the Raptors have been so injured. Part of it is because they have so few guards on the roster. And part of it is because Nurse has an affection for him, which many people argue is unwarranted.
The easiest way to summarize McCaw’s play and minutes is like this: Nurse likes McCaw because he can blend in and do little things that go unnoticed, but sometimes blending in borderlines on invisibility, and that’s bad. It’s especially bad when a guy like Terence Davis is averaging just 16.9 minutes per game despite being a dramatically better three-point shooter.
McCaw is a very smart defender and a good playmaker, but his inability to space the floor makes it especially hard to play him when he belongs on a bench unit that features Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, another non-shooter who needs to be on the floor because of how good he has been playing. The Raptors like to play four-out, which means they can’t really afford to play two non-shooters at a time, which they have been doing with McCaw and RHJ. If McCaw is aggressive and shoots threes when the ball comes to him, it’s fine. But he rarely does that, especially if he’s not in the corner, and his indecisiveness hurts the offense.
I understand the line of logic that argues that playing McCaw more will make him more confident, allowing him to take those above-the-arc threes more freely. But the same line of logic can be applied to parts of Davis’s game; namely, that playing him more will improve his defense.
McCaw has won three NBA Championships in three NBA seasons, though, so I really have no confidence arguing against him.
5. All-Star voting
Don’t forget to vote for Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry to make the Eastern Conference All-Star team!
They are both incredibly deserving. Despite missing 11 games each, both have carried the Raptors at different times this season and have played well enough games to deserve to be All-Stars.
Lowry is averaging 21/5/8 on 40/35/86 shooting and Siakam is averaging 25/8/3 on 45/39/81 shooting.
You can vote on the NBA app, on the NBA website, or on Google by searching for a player or a team until January 20th. Weirdly, I don’t think you can vote on Twitter this year, but please let me know in the comments if I’m mistaken.