We are officially into the second half of the 2019-20 NBA season, and the Raptors are 28-14, just 1.0 game back of the No. 2 seed with the third-highest net rating in the Eastern Conference at +5.9.
The Raptors are currently on a three-game winning streak and have an opportunity to go on a run now that everyone is healthy and the upcoming schedule is reasonably soft. With the exception of a home game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, the Raptors won’t play a team above .500 until February 5th.
That doesn’t mean a lengthy winning streak is inevitable, but if the Raptors continue to play as well as they have since returning to full strength — individually and as a team — they have a chance to go on a 12-game win streak and should be a pleasure to watch going forward.
Here is a breakdown of the Raptors upcoming schedule:
- Monday, January 20th at 2:30pm: Toronto Raptors @ Atlanta Hawks (10-33)
- Wednesday, January 22nd at 7:00pm: Philadelphia 76ers (28-16) @ Toronto Raptors
- Friday, January 24th at 7:30pm: Toronto Raptors @ New York Knicks (11-32)
- Sunday, January 26th at 4:00pm: Toronto Raptors @ San Antonio Spurs (18-23)
- Combined winning percentage of 40.9
Let’s look ahead to the five most interesting storylines for the upcoming week:
1. The Powell question
At the start of the season, I wrote this about Powell:
“Powell has the potential to be much more than a role player. He has a rare blend of size, athleticism, and shooting ability that theoretically makes him a perfect shooting guard for the modern NBA. The problem is a lack of consistency, which likely comes from a lack of confidence. This season, though, Powell has the opportunity to step into an expanded role and truly showcase his full potential while playing his natural position. And he must, because time is no longer on Powell’s side.”
What I meant is that if Powell doesn’t become a core part of the Raptors this season, he may be on the trading block before you know it. Yet here we are, 42 games into the season, and Powell’s name is in trade rumours despite having the best season of his career, averaging 16/4/2 on 51/40/84 shooting.
“Sell high” is the idea that many people have bounced around, assuming Powell will be unable to keep up this level of production going forward. But that would be a huge risk.
It’s important to remember two things regarding Powell’s career trajectory. Firstly, that Powell was stuck behind veterans DeMar DeRozan and then Danny Green on the depth chart for his first four seasons in the league. That led to a lack of consistent opportunity and a lack of confidence. This is the first season Powell is the best true shooting guard on the Raptors roster and with increased opportunity has come increased confidence, enabling him to play well consistently.
Secondly, Powell has radically changed his shot selection this season, making him a much more efficient player under head coach Nick Nurse. Powell has become a combination of DeRozan and Green, relying on his three-point shot and getting to the rim, while shooting almost nothing in between. Powell is averaging 5.0 three-point attempts per game, almost doubling his previous career-high of 2.8, and is now shooting above 40 percent from three dating back to last season. Powell is also shooting a career-high 37.4 percent of his shots being catch-and-shoot threes, knocking down 45.7 percent. 47.1 percent of his shots are coming within 10 feet of the rim where he is shooting 61.3 percent. And, like his predecessor DeRozan, Powell is tied for the league-lead in points per possession in transition (min 100 possessions) with DeRozan at 1.31.
The idea that the Raptors should trade one of their most reliable scorers and best transition threats because his value has never been higher would only make sense for a rebuilding team, which the Raptors are not.
Sure, there is a chance Powell regresses. But he has been the Raptors’ most reliable scorer for a big stretch of the season and is a big reason they are 28-14. It doesn’t make much sense for a team trying to win to sell a guy who improves their chance of doing so.
2. Marc Gasol is an artist
Marc Gasol is such a pleasure to watch.
While the Raptors were able to survive with Gasol sidelined due to injury, it always looked difficult. With Gasol back in the lineup, the Raptors look like the Raptors again. And Gasol looks like Memphis Grizzlies Gasol again.
It’s not just that he hit a career-high 6-three pointers in his second game back or that he is averaging 5 assists since returning, giving the offense a completely new look that defenses seem to have a very difficult time solving because of the unpredictability Gasol adds as a facilitator.
No, it’s not just that. It’s that the Raptors have been unstoppable all season with Gasol on the court, and the Spaniard is turning in a career season at age 34. With the caveat that on/off numbers for the 2019-20 Raptors are wonky due to injuries, the Raptors are +11.5 points better with Gasol on the floor this season, with an offensive rating of 114.1 that would rank 2nd in the league this season and a defensive rating of 101.2 that would rank first. His +7.7 ranks first on the team.
It has taken time for Gasol to adjust to being a Raptor after spending his first 11 seasons in Memphis, but it seems like Gasol is finding his rhythm on both sides of the ball and playing his best basketball since becoming a Raptor.
Unfortunately, Gasol’s return has coincided with Ibaka playing poorly. Inconsistency is not new for Ibaka, but he has until the trade deadline to prove that he is an irreplaceable part of the team, especially with Gasol playing this well.
3. OG time, baby
Jack Armstrong made a very good point about OG Anunoby a couple of different times this season on the Raptors broadcast: That players usually find consistency in their third year in the league, and because last season was kind of a lost one for Anunoby due to injuries and personal issues, this isn’t truly his third season.
Armstrong suggested that OG is going to find his rhythm and get better as the season progresses, which is really all that matters for a team with championship aspirations and enough talent to withstand some poor Anunoby performances.
Anunoby’s upside is hard to miss, and it’s become more and more evident in the past few games. Anunoby has been an absolute menace on defense, grabbing four steals against Washington and three in Oklahoma. His three-point shot is also starting to fall again and he is making a routine out of bullying smaller wings in the post for easy buckets.
Anunoby plays best with a lot of talent surrounding him, which is why he struggled at different times this season when injuries struck. He isn’t a great ball-handler or playmaker, but he’s knocking down 37.0 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes this season and seems to get better shots when he plays with facilitators like Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Gasol. Anunoby is also shooting 61.1 percent from within 10-feet of the basket, using his speed in transition and his strength down low to regularly bully smaller players. With Anunoby playing some shooting guard in ultra-big lineups, he will have plenty of opportunities to continue feasting on smaller players, a skill he is only getting better as the season goes on (most importantly, he has mostly learned to stop ramming his shoulder into opponents for offensive fouls).
If Armstrong is right and Anunoby continues to find his rhythm and consistency as the season goes on, watch out. The Raptors are young, but the wing is the most important position in the modern NBA and the Raptors have one of the best wing cores in the league with Powell, Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
4. Boucher falling out of the rotation
Since Gasol returned from injury on January 15th against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chris Boucher has completely fallen out of the rotation, only playing garbage-time minutes.
Patrick McCaw and Hollis-Jefferson are the eighth and ninth men in the Raptors rotation, and Nurse has opted to not go beyond nine in the previous three games. It’s worked because the Raptors have won all three while keeping everyone’s’ minutes down.
However, Boucher brings a unique skill set of three-point shooting, rebounding, blocking shots, and rim-running that no other Raptor does. I wrote about his importance here.
While I completely understand Hollis-Jefferson leaping Boucher in the rotation, Nurse would be smart to keep Boucher in the mix for injury assurance if nothing else. The team’s two big men, Ibaka and Gasol, are both in their thirties and have each already been injured this year. If one of them goes down again, Boucher is the only option at backup center. If Nurse can somehow find him 10 minutes a night, he will stay fresh and ready if the Raptors need him.
5. Stupid trade ideas
I already talked about why trading Powell would be stupid but allowed me to continue on the subject of stupid trades. Tis’ the season, after all.
Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times reported that the Raptors would listen to offers on Ibaka and Gasol, while Lowry could be had for the right price. I’m not buying it. Neither is Woj.
The reality is this: The Raptors entered the season with an open mind, willing to wait to see how good the team was before making any decisions about buying or selling. It turns out they are really good and nearly every player has made a leap forward this season. The team is versatile, has playoff experience, and is confident they can match up with anyone in the East. They are running it back and want to repeat, and frankly speaking, they would be stupid not to.
The league is different than it’s been in years without a true title favourite. Every team (outside of Milwaukee) has major holes, and Milwaukee is unproven in the playoffs.
People continue talking about Masai Ujiri as some sort of ruthless monster because he made the DeMar DeRozan trade, but that was a very unique circumstance. The team knew they had to do something to shake up the roster because what they had been doing wasn’t working. That is not the case this time around, which is why the idea of trading Lowry — the team’s undisputed leader — is so stupid. As is trading Gasol — the teams second or third most important player, especially against Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetekounpo in the playoffs.
Ibaka is a different story because he is not as important to the Raptors and his expiring contract of $23 million is big enough to pull off a big trade. However, his ability to play the backup five as well as power-forward next to Gasol in big lineups makes him unique and valuable, as we saw multiple times in the playoffs last season. I could also see the Raptors making a smaller move on the fringes or standing pat.
The Raptors have a real opportunity to get the No. 2 seed and potentially come out of the East. The margins are so small in the playoffs, which anyone who watched last season’s title run will tell you. But the Raptors are a contender to come out of the East, no matter what the American media says. They won’t make a trade unless it makes THIS Raptors team better.