The. Rotation. Is. Almost. Healthy. Fred VanVleet is supposed to return this weekend. The Raptors survived what will be, barring unimaginable catastrophe, the most difficult stretch of the regular season. They are fourth in the East, sitting two games behind second. That success, given the injury trouble, is difficult to comprehend.
The explanation for this weekly column at Raptors Republic, called The Black Box Report, is fairly simple. Is it a literary journal? Maybe; it sure sounds like it. If it were, I would probably read it. There would be stories about writers who are shocked to discover they compared Pat McCaw to Jesse Owens only last week. Unfortunately, this is not that journal. This column is for me and Samson Folk to simultaneously look forwards and back, explicating the under-examined and trying to explain what went, goes, and maybe even will go, on under the hood. The black box is the vessel inside of which all information is stored, and it’s known for its opacity. Hopefully, this column can add some transparency to what actually puts the points on the board.
LOOKING BACK – ZATZMAN
6:00 pm EST on Sunday January 12 against the San Antonio Spurs – 105-104 L
8:00 pm EST on Wednesday January 15 @ the Oklahoma City Thunder -130-121 W
Size mattered, but for a different reason
Last week, I predicted that the Raptors would play huge for defensive purposes. Basically, size bothers finishers; OG Anunoby and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were Toronto’s best defensive options against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul in the first matchup, and that indicated that the Raptors should use its biggest wing defenders against Oklahoma City’s best guard scorers.
“Size is the way to threaten driving specialists and mid-range artists. The Raptors should play huge,” I wrote last week.
Then Toronto started the gigantic fivesome of Kyle Lowry, Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol. It seemed like my predictions would prove prescient, and indeed, Gilegeous-Alexander and Paul shot well, but they only combined for 37 points, and they were fourth and fifth on the team, respectively, in field goal attempts. The Raptors did a fairly good job limiting their attempts.
However, the Thunder scored 121 points, and they shot 16-of-42 from deep. I predicted that if Toronto put size on the Thunder’s guards, they wouldn’t have to pinch in so much and help from the strong side corners, and the Thunder would shoot poorly from deep. Not so much.
It did turn out, instead, that size massively mattered for Toronto in other ways. Toronto’s starters played 11.0 minutes in the game, the most of any Raptors’ group. It also featured three proper post scorers in Siaka, Ibaka, and Gasol. The Thunder, on the other hand, played a triple-point guard group featuring Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul, and Dennis Schroder a team-high 14.4 minutes. A Thunder point guard had to guard a Raptors post scorer whenever those two lineups faced each other.
Chris Paul ended up guarding Pascal Siakam on a variety of possessions. Siakam scored once, but he also drew a pair of fouls on Paul in the post. It was an unfair matchup. In other lineup variations, Ibaka overpowered the much smaller Terence Ferguson on occasion. Siakam scored easily over Schroder. The Raptors used size to their advantage, and they sought out and punished individual matchups at certain key moments in the game.
Size alone didn’t win Toronto the game, and it wasn’t for the reason I predicted, but it was still a key factor in the Raptors’ win over the Thunder.
What’s with all the comebacks?
At one point against the San Antonio Spurs, the Raptors were winning by 18 points. They ended up losing. At one point against the Thunder, the Raptors were winning by 30. The Thunder cut the lead to three points late in the fourth quarter. Just the week before, the Raptors were ahead for the entire game against the Portland Trail Blazers, including by double-digits in the fourth quarter, before falling by two points.
What’s the deal?
Well, it’s been different things. Against the Trail Blazers, the Raptors couldn’t score for an extended stretch. The defense fell apart against the Spurs. The Thunder forced the Raptors into a series of uncharacteristic turnovers. The symptoms of collapse were different each time, but the respective causes that informed each letdown shared some similarities.
The Raptors had no single lineup that lost the game against the Blazers, but two lineups each went minus-four: Lowry-McCaw-Brissett-Anunoby-Ibaka and Lowry-Davis-Anunoby-Hollis-Jefferson-Ibaka. Against the Spurs, the worst lineup was Lowry-McCaw-Powell-Siakam-Ibaka, which went negative-seven in under three minutes. The Thunder, on the other hand, forced a lineup of Lowry-McCaw-Anunoby-Siakam-Ibaka into a disastrous negative-15 in under five minutes.
There are some similarities across most of those lineups. All of them have Lowry and Ibaka, and most of them sport McCaw, too. Lowry and Ibaka were incredibly successful in other lineups, but McCaw’s plus-minus was indicative of a poor week for him. The Raptors were outscored by 23 points with him on the floor, and that’s over three games that they outscored opponents by a combined six points. That’s rough, and it’s by far the worst mark of any Raptor over the three recent games that saw comebacks.
It’s completely unfair to point to one player as culpable for team-wide failures. There were other issues. Anunoby had a wild turnover against the Thunder trying to take the ball up the floor. Siakam missed multiple uncontested layups against the Spurs. McCaw was part of each collapse, though, and that cannot be ignored. Though it’s improving, his continued unwillingness to shoot on offense hurts the spacing of his teammates, limiting their ability to score. He shot three-for-four over the three games. He had some inexplicable turnovers, which continues a trend of his high turnover rate despite his low usage. McCaw played had some brilliant games as recently as last week, but when he’s off his game, it really limits the team. He wasn’t responsible alone for Toronto giving up so many comebacks, but his presence didn’t help.
So what does that mean going forward? McCaw is a fine player, improving, with plenty of skills. He has simply been over-exposed in his bigger role and extended minutes. When VanVleet returns to health, McCaw should play between 10-12 minutes a game. He should always be alongside a more experienced point guard in VanVleet or Lowry, and he should never be alongside another non-shooter, like Hollis-Jefferson. It’s good to learn these things now. Happily, these problems should solve themselves as Toronto returns to full health and begins to find its most effective rotations over the second half of the season.
LOOKING AHEAD – FOLK
7:00pm EST on Friday, January 17th vs. the Wizards
8:00pm EST on Saturday, January 18th @ Timberwolves
2:30pm EST on Monday, January 20th @ Hawks
7:30pm EST on Wednesday, January 22nd vs. the 76ers
Lowry’s Victory Lap
It’s been some time since I’ve given thought to the blockbuster trade that sent Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the short-lived attempt to bring Kyle Lowry in after that. It’s unfortunate for the Timberwolves (and very fortunate for the Raptors) that they undervalued Lowry to the degree that they saw he and Jeff Teague as more or less interchangeable alongside Butler, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Imagine for a moment what that team might’ve looked like… and now think about where the Raptors would’ve been and where they would be now.
Lowry has been doubted and undermined in his career, seemingly at every junction. Traded for Gary Forbes and a first round pick. Almost shipped to New York for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Packaged up and proposed for Mike Conley on separate occasions. All while he existed as a top-8 player in the league (by the analytics), and dropped no further than 20th in the eyes of the most in tune writers. The best way to bring his longevity and greatness into scope, is to compare him to his contemporaries – one of those being Teague.
To his credit, Teague is no slouch. He lost his starting spot with the Wolves this season, but he’s been turning in good performances off the bench. He profiles as one of the better backup point guards in the NBA, and the minutes against second units have provided him with a second wind in his career, as the Wolves ran him as the offensive focal point of those units, rather than having him in service to Towns, Wiggins etc. And that viability as a secondary piece is what drove the Hawks to trade for him a day after I wrote most of this. Teague will transition into a role close to what we saw from Jarrett Jack in his one year running with Steph Curry. He’ll attack off of Young’s gravity, provide a release valve for the offense at times, and allow the Hawks to play around with Young’s off-ball viability more often. It’s a shrewd move, as Teague’s contract expires at the end of the year, and they allow Young to stretch his legs a little bit, and that can inform how they build around him in the future.
So, Teague is making a transition and one that he should be good at. But, the point remains that Teague is transitioning into a lesser role than Lowry, after performing at a lower clip than Lowry for years. It’s not shade thrown at Teague, just an elevation of KLOE. Lowry has serviced DeMar DeRozan, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and himself. There wasn’t a second during any of those transitions that you could rationally view another player in his place. He’s essential to the very fabric of the Raptors, and he melds with any playstyle they choose to run. We’ve seen him as the league-leader in assists, a premier scoring guard, and a quarterback on defense barking out orders. Sometimes all at once. And it’s that adaptability without sacrificing any quality, that helps power these Raptors.
Chris Paul has one of the most incredible statistical careers for a point guard in history, and Lowry will never match that. However (comma) Lowry’s longevity and inherent connection to winning, and uncanny ability to unlock his teammates potential is unquestionably up there with Paul. Lowry spent far too long being viewed in the same boat as guys like Teague, Isaiah Thomas, and Kemba Walker. And the game against the Hawks will be a subtle instance of Lowry lapping his perceived competition.
Providing Clarity for the 76ers
The 76ers outscored the Raptors by 90 points in the 2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals when Joel Embiid was on the floor; he was immense. Ben Simmons also stepped up to play astounding defense against Kawhi Leonard, but was seen as largely disappointing on the offensive end as he averaged 11 points and south of five assists per game. Simmons is a force, and the Raptors dismantled his offense, which was a problem for the 76ers.
The team out of Philadelphia trusted the process and found themselves two incredible players in Embiid and Simmons. But, they aren’t plucky upstarts like the Raptors were for years, and they aren’t meant to surprise anyone. They profile as the biggest team in the league, they’re loud, they’re brash. And like Loki of Asgard, they are burdened with glorious purpose. That glorious purpose, their sheer concentration of size and skill has dictated that they simply “make it work” and win. Even though their games seem diametrically opposed in how a two-man game should work together. There was a harmony to the LeBron James-Chris Bosh pick n’ pop, likewise for the unstoppable pick n’ roll actions that Steph Curry and Kevin Durant would run. Embiid and Simmons are like the worlds two most expensive lego pieces, but they don’t fit together.
The 76ers are in the difficult position of trying to build around these two, while knowing they don’t fit easily. Simmons is young, flawed, but teeming with incredible potential. Embiid’s presence nearly broke the defending champions on their way to the chip and there is no other player like him in the league. But, he’s constantly dealing with injuries. Do you lose one in an attempt to collect assets that complement the other?
Embiid’s dislocated finger has provided a vacuum of responsibility that Simmons has to eat up. The starting line-up of Simmons-Josh Richardson-Tobias Harris-Mike Scott-Al Horford is loaded with shooting and spacing. It’s an ideal setup for Simmons, and yet, the 76ers are still losing to good teams. Losses to the Pacers and the Mavericks, with wins against the Nets (who have Kyrie Irving actively gaslighting them) and looming games against Bulls and Knicks won’t be enough to convince anyone that Simmons is their guy. The Raptors, one of the premier teams the 76ers will play during this Embiid-less stretch, will have an opportunity to drop another seed of doubt into the 76ers garden. Embiid wins. And it might be time that the 76ers maximized his playstyle instead of trying to find a happy medium with a team that seems to only play at the extremes.
Have a blessed day – Samson