The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s the sense this year for the Toronto Raptors, as no matter who is in the lineup, the Raptors are consistently a brilliant defensive team and competitive by the end of the game. It’s also true over a longer period of time, in terms of this team’s output of play, no matter the circumstances. Here’s how I led off this same piece last year:
“Even while sitting at 37-15 in second place in the East, it feels like the Toronto Raptors haven’t shown yet who they truly are this season.”
It sort of feels that same way this year, too. Perhaps the only difference is that Toronto’s record now is 28-14. There are a few possible explanations of who the Raptors are this year. They could be plucky upstarts, competitive no matter who’s on the floor because of a high floor, good coaching, and an ingrained foundational system. That definition of the team would necessitate them no longer being championship contenders; they no longer have the elite, upper-echelon talent required to beat the best. That argument could be best represented by Toronto’s extremely poor showing against teams over .500.
On the other hand, the Raptors could be a championship contender hiding in plane sight. They have lost to injury double-digit games from each of Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell. They remain in position for home-court advantage in the East despite the injuries. They have a playoff-hardened core who has won at the highest level. The group knows how to win, and it’s as talented and experienced as any out there.
It’s tough to say whether the Raptors fall into the former or latter group. We don’t really know yet.
This isn’t, however, a column handing out a grade for the team. If it were, the team would receive an ‘A+.’ There’s no need to explain much more beyond that. This is a column handing out grades for the players on the team, like the post-game quick reactions, but instead longer reactions based on a half-season worth of evidence. Think of these as long reactions. Like the quick reaction grades, these are based on expected performance. A star who struggles will receive a worse grade than an over-performing role player, even if the star technically has played better in a vacuum.
Kyle Lowry: 31 games played, +/- positive-2.7, 20.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.4 blocks, 2.9 turnovers, 41.1 FG%, 36.0 3P%, 85.6 FT% – A+
This season has simply started and ended with Kyle Lowry. He has been the team’s best and most consistent player, carrying the team for long swathes of time while throngs of his fellow starters have been out of the lineup. He has been Toronto’s second-best scorer, highest volume shooter, and best creator over the course of the season, all while continuing to be one of the peskiest defenders in the league. He has done the little things he’s always done, taking charges, switching onto bigs in the post, diving after loose balls. He has stepped into a much larger usage rate while playing the most minutes of his career. He’s taken a step forward at a time when players of his size and age always take a step back. It’s been unbelievable, and Toronto has needed every bit of it.
That being said, this is not the ideal role for Lowry. Ideally, he would be able to pick and choose his spots. That’s how the Raptors used him last year, and not coincidentally, his net rating last year (+10.7) was more than triple what it is this year (+3.1). As the Raptors return to health and hopefully maintain it over the second half of the season, the dream would be for Lowry to step back a touch. His usage rate and minutes should hopefully drift down, and his efficiency would creep up. That would be ideal, but that hasn’t been possible over the first half of the season. Instead, Lowry has been a killer, and the Raptors have needed every last drop of effort. Credit to Lowry for being able to provide it.
Terence Davis: 42 games played, +/- positive-5.1, 7.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.2 blocks, 1.0 turnovers, 46.3 FG%, 40.0 3P%, 93.8 FT% – A+
When Toronto signed Terence Davis to a two-year contract as an undrafted free agent, there was small, but real, buzz around his name. He was in the middle of an incredibly impressive Summer League with the Denver Nuggets, and Toronto whisked him north of the border with a partially guaranteed contract. Still, despite the buzz, the expectations for the undrafted rookie were low.
Davis has shattered those expectations, arriving much sooner than expected. His per-game numbers are quiet, but his per-36 minute numbers are devastatingly loud. For a rookie, playing a small role on a team that wants to defend its championship, Davis has a difficult path to playing time. But he has done everything possible to get on the floor, and he has played brilliantly on both ends when given the opportunity. He’s a surprisingly competent shooter, an aggressive attacker, and an exciting passer. He’s already a great on-ball defender. Davis’ ceiling is so far above his head right now that it’s difficult to envision. If the 2018-19 draft was held again, Davis would probably go in the lottery. Talk about players exceeding expectations.
Norman Powell: 31 games played, +/- positive-2.7, 15.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.4 blocks, 1.5 turnovers, 51.3 FG%, 40.4 3P%, 83.5 FT% – A+
Consistency and decision-making have always been the knocks on Powell. Fans and pundits have been predicting a Powell breakout for so long — really, his entire career — that the majority assumed his level by the end of last year would be where he settled as a player. He would be a talented, inconsistent scorer who could thrive in certain playoff series while struggling in others. (To be fair, not everyone was of the same mind; Oren Weisfeld predicted that 2019-20 would be Powell’s breakout year.) Even Nick Nurse stated multiple times this year that the team didn’t expect Powell to score 20 points in every game.
With expectations finally lowered, Powell came out and played like a man on fire. His counting stats have improved massively this year, but so too have his efficiency numbers. The team is better this year with him on the floor than it ever has been with Powell; his net rating in 2019-20 is the highest since his rookie season. He has reached 20 points in FILL of the last FILL games, and he has scored in single-digits only FILL times since the start of November. His jumper is absolutely automatic at this point, and he’s hit a variety of big shots in clutch moments. If Powell has finally achieved consistency, then perhaps he can finally grow into the borderline-star wing that many predicted he’d become so many years ago.
Pascal Siakam: 31 games played, +/- positive-7.0, 23.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks, 2.6 turnovers, 45.8 FG%, 38.6 3P%, 81.4 FT% – A+
At his best, Siakam has been everything that the Raptors have needed and more. He has turned into the do-everything scorer that Toronto lost when Kawhi Leonard went home. His jumper is dramatically improved; in fact, there’s a case to be made that he’s improved as a shooter more, and faster, than any other player in history. He already had everything in the bag. He’s an elite post scorer, isolation creator, finisher, handler, and more. He could still improve as a roller, but that’s just a technicality at this point. His numbers are up across the board, and there are games when Siakam looks like the best player in the world. Those games aren’t that uncommon, either.
Siakam has plateaued, or even dipped, in some small ways. His defensive focus has waned. His finishing numbers have dropped after he set outrageous marks last year. His efficiency, despite his uptick in above-the-arc three-point shooting this year, is lower than last year. He has a bizarre propensity to miss uncontested layups more often than one would expect.
Those are quibbles, really. They need to be mentioned, because they’re real, but they are dramatically less important than the steps forward Siakam has taken this year. His defense will almost certainly return to league-best rates in the playoffs. His finishing is still elite, even if it’s not where it was last year. Siakam has been absolutely brilliant, and he has jumped from the 2018-19 Most Improved Player to a real, dark-horse 2019-20 down ballot MVP candidate.
Marc Gasol: 30 games played, +/- positive-7.7, 7.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 1.3 turnovers, 39.6 FG%, 38.8 3P%, 75.0 FT% – A+
The Raptors are at their best when Marc Gasol is on the floor. That’s not an aesthetic or biased opinion; by the pure, cold light of numerical observation, among players who average 20 minutes or more per game, the Raptors are at their best (plus-14.7 net rating) when Gasol is on the floor and at their worst (plus-0.9 net rating) when Gasol is off the floor. Frankly, that’s wild.
Gasol does everything that help teammates. Offensively, he sets jumbo screens, passes as well as any center in the league, spaces the floor, and helps direct traffic. Those are important factors that results in teammates finding easier shots and making shots at a higher clip because of his presence. Defensively, Gasol communicates brilliantly, anticipates opponents, sniffs out fluff, switches, reaches, uses his gigantic bear body to snuff out drives, and always cleans the glass. Those are important factors that result in opponents finding more difficult shots and making them at a lower clip because of his presence. Toronto’s transition game is supercharged because of Gasol’s hands, rebounding, and outlet passing. Most of the things Gasol does, on both ends, does not result in counting stats, so his simple box score performance is muted. His post scoring was horrendous to start the year, but it’s been rounding into form since he returned from injury. Regardless, his individual scoring doesn’t matter very much. His impact shows up in Toronto’s performance with him on versus him off the floor. And wow is there a difference, both numerically and aesthetically. Gasol for President.
Serge Ibaka: 32 games played, +/- negative-0.3, 15.0 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.9 blocks, 2.1 turnovers, 50.3 FG%, 36.3 3P%, 74.7 FT% – A
I penned my appreciation for Ibaka’s quiet, workmanlike approach here, but the fact of the matter is that he is one of Toronto’s most consistent players. That’s a huge improvement. His three-point shot has returned to very good levels, and his mid-range jumper is one of the best ‘break in case of half-court emergency’ shots available to an NBA team. He has terrific chemistry with Lowry, and as a roller or popper, he is one of Toronto’s most important scorers, able to offer abilities that no one else on the roster can mimic. Defensively, he has been putting in a good year, blocking fewer shots than he used to, but staying in position and contesting shots in other ways. His rebounding is lifeblood for Toronto.
Still, the Raptors have been better, over the course of the year, with Ibaka on the bench rather than on the floor. That’s more a virtue of with whom he has played the majority of the minutes, the roles he has been asked to fill, and the fact that the advanced stats darling Marc Gasol usually plays when Ibaka doesn’t. It’s enough to knock a ‘+’ off of Ibaka’s grade, but it’s not enough to change the fact that his season has been impressive, consistent, and desperately needed.
Oshae Brissett: 13 games played, +/- positive-1.5, 2.3 points, 1.5 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 0.1 turnovers, 36.7 FG%, 25.0 3P%, 83.3 FT% – A-
The local Mississauga boy has already lived a Hollywood story in his journey from Hazel McCallion Senior Public School to the Raptors 905. He was supposed to very raw, projecting to eventually be a solid defender who could maybe shoot a bit around the edges. His ability to contribute at the NBA level was supposed to be limited.
Then by virtue of injury to a variety of his NBA teammates, Brissett found himself with an opportunity and scratched and clawed his way to success. The gem in his crown was a game against the Boston Celtics, when Brissett played fantastic defense against players like Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. Brissett is already an NBA-level defender, both able to play great on-ball defense and think the scheme well, switching, rotating, and staying in position. He hit open jumpers, and he uses his athleticism to hurt opponents, both by running the floor for dunks and crashing the offensive glass. He stays in his lane, which is valuable for raw, undrafted rookies. He limits his mistakes and lets his strengths speak louder than his weaknesses. All valuable.
Brissett probably won’t play any more time as the Raptors return to full health, especially as the 45 NBA days of his two-way contract will probably be used up in the near future. But he’s dramatically exceeded expectations as a two-way player, as he’s significantly helped the Raptors in a few games this year. He projects to be a real rotation piece in Toronto’s long-term future.
OG Anunoby: 41 games played, +/- positive-4.2, 11.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.7 blocks, 1.3 turnovers, 49.9 FG%, 37.4 3P%, 66.0 FT% – A-
OG Anunoby has solidified his purpose on the basketball court, and that in itself is a win. That he’s been Toronto’s most consistent player, in terms of availability, is a huge win for Anunoby. After his injury-plagued season last year, he’s playing far more games, and his role has changed little from game-to-game. Those are all positives external factors affecting Anunoby’s game this year. As for Anunoby himself, he has turned into a terrifying wing defender, capable of eliminating practically any opponent. He is capable both in the post and on the perimeter, where he seems to manufacture a steal or two per game that turn into unchallenged points the other way.
Offensively, his jumper has improved. His release is smoother and quicker, and his accuracy is up as a result. His driving game is very effective, even if he isn’t able to manufacture too many drives against set half-court defenses. That’s an indication of an overall limitation of Anunoby’s game; his aggression, and offensive usage, can depend too heavily on the talent of those around him. Still, he has turned into one of Toronto’s best two-way weapons, even if offensive consistency still eludes him. After last year, Anunoby’s ability to stay on the court is a win in itself, let alone his ability to impact the game to such a degree.
Fred VanVleet: 32 games played, +/- positive-3.2, 18.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 2.4 turnovers, 40.4 FG%, 39.0 3P%, 84.7 FT% – B+
In a contract year, it’s easy to point to VanVleet’s massive counting stats and say that he has improved dramatically. He is gunning for a huge payday in the offseason, and he will probably make more than $20 million per year. It’s true; his passing and on-ball creation have improved, and he’s young enough that teams, including the Raptors, have to believe that one day he’ll be able to run a team on his own as an All-Star caliber starting point guard.
Unfortunately for Toronto, that day is not yet today. His finishing numbers have not improved, and his ability to score against a set half-court defense, in isolation, is wanting. VanVleet does enough other stuff at an insanely high level, like standstill shooting and everything on the defensive level, that he’s almost at an All-Star level already. But he’s best when there’s another point guard on the floor with him. Toronto is fortunate that it still employs Lowry, with whom VanVleet is a fantastic partner. VanVleet has not necessarily exceeded every expectation, like some of the others on this list. Don’t let that fool you. His year has still been great, and Toronto is at its best when VanVleet is in the game. The team has missed him horribly when he’s been out with injury.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: 34 games played, +/- positive-1.7, 8.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 1.1 turnovers, 47.9 FG%, 15.4 3P%, 75.8 FT% – B
According to Nick Nurse, when the lineup crunch gets real, Hollis-Jefferson has officially earned himself a rotation spot. It’s not hard to see why. He can defend anyone short of the league’s biggest centers, and he plays defense like a lunatic on fire, constantly shouting and running and dispensing energy like the sun emitting flares. On the other end, he does enough useful stuff to fit in. He can screen and roll, pass a little, cuts well, and he hits the offensive glass as well as anyone on the team. If he could shoot or make layups, that would be even better, but alas.
There are limitations to Hollis-Jefferson’s game that affected him in Brooklyn and affect him in Toronto. He is such a non-shooter that his presence, alongside even one more non-shooting threat, can severely hamper an offensive lineup. That limits his utility. He can miss point-blank layups. Still, Hollis-Jefferson is firmly in the rotation, and he’s outplaying the contract Toronto gave him over the summer. That’s a win.
Chris Boucher: 38 games played, +/- positive-1.4, 6.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.9 blocks, 0.4 turnovers, 45.3 FG%, 31.7 3P%, 73.2 FT% – B-
I thought that Chris Boucher could be a breakout candidate for the Raptors this year. He’s so endlessly long, and he can shoot and block shots, and all of those things in tandem are pretty rare. On occasion, he has looked like that breakout player, like when he scored 12 in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, or 24 in a Christmas Day loss to the Boston Celtics. The problem has been that those games have been few and far in between.
Boucher has too much competition to find a consistent rotation spot when the Raptors are healthy. He does plenty of great stuff, and he offers as high a ceiling as any bench player on the team beyond the returning champions. But he can still make some youthful mistakes, and his floor as a player varies from game to game. His season has been a roller coaster, and as long as Toronto is healthy, he will probably remain at the nadir, in terms of playing time. At least we know that when he’s called upon, he’ll sometimes be able to contribute in big ways.
Patrick McCaw: 21 games played, +/- negative-1.9, 5.9 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 1.0 turnovers, 43.9 FG%, 33.3 3P%, 77.8 FT% – C-
There have been times when Pat McCaw has hurt the Raptors on the floor. He simply plays too many minutes, and his occasional offensive passivity can hamstring his team’s offense. Nurse’s dedication to McCaw has been a point of misunderstanding between the team and its pundits and fans. McCaw’s point of attack defense can be lacking, and he shouldn’t be asked to guard opponents’ best offensive players. But it’s not McCaw’s fault that he has been overexposed for much of the year. The Raptors have lost VanVleet and Lowry, alternately, to a plethora of wounds, and the Raptors have always been a team that plays three point guards. It’s not McCaw’s fault that the team couldn’t find a better third point guard, and he’s been forced into heavy-duty minutes as a result. But it’s no coincidence that the Raptors have been outscored with McCaw on the floor, more so than any other player on the team.
At times, of course, McCaw has been fantastic. He scored 13 with 11 assists against the Charlotte Hornets. He scored 18 on 12 shots against the Boston Celtics. He’s a young, improving guard, and he’s had some bright spots. When he attacks the basket, he can help a team’s offense, and he creates enough steals off the ball that he adds high-value defensive qualities. He’s shooting in the mid-30s from deep, which is a good enough mark, if he didn’t turn down so many triples.
The positives do not outweigh the negatives, even if they aren’t really McCaw’s fault. He is a young, improving guard, and he shouldn’t be playing 30+ minutes, ever, for a team with championship ambitions. McCaw’s limitations were a continued theme when Toronto faced so many injuries, especially at the guard and wing spots, but they should not continue over the second half of the season if Toronto is healthy.
Stanley Johnson: 14 games played, +/- negative-0.6, 1.4 points, 1.1 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.2 blocks, 0.5 turnovers, 26.9 FG%, 16.7 3P%, 75.9 FT% – D-
Stanley Johnson hasn’t been able to shake into the rotation, but unlike some of the others faced with the same issue, Johnson has not had a long-term injury with which to contend. Defensively, he has been fine, and sometimes great on the ball, but he doesn’t offer enough there to outweigh his offensive limitations. For a redraft candidate with a two-year deal in Toronto, the dream would have been that Johnson could add to his game in Toronto and break into the rotation. That hasn’t happened.
Matt Thomas, Malcolm Miller, Dewan Hernandez, Shamorie Ponds, Paul Watson: Incomplete
Matt Thomas has been just as great a shooter as advertised, but he hasn’t played enough because of a rotation crunch and an extended injury. Miller had one great game against the Dallas Mavericks, but he doesn’t shoot consistently enough for a player who can’t do enough else on the offensive end, and he too hasn’t played nearly enough. Hernandez has been injured for a long time, but he was intriguing at the G League level before he went down. Ponds is no longer with the team, and Paul Watson, who was signed to fill Ponds’s two-way spot, hasn’t played at the NBA level yet. Watson, it should be mentioned, has been playing lights-out at the G League level, shooting well, defending well, and doing far more than advertised.
Nick Nurse: 28-14 – A+
The Raptors were simply not supposed to be this good after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, let alone despite all the injuries. Nick Nurse has this team firing on all cylinders.
He does a variety of things at extremely high levels. He’s written the book on how to win despite a talent deficit, including tight defense, using a zone defense at times, running in transition, attacking mismatches, and using bench energy to change the texture of the game. He’s been fantastic at helping Toronto’s youngsters like Siakam, Anunoby, and VanVleet develop into young stars of varying degrees.
There have been a few minor issues. Nurse can ride outmatched lineups for longer periods of time than he should, which has contributed to the Raptors establishing a habit of recently blowing leads. He makes questionable decisions at the end of the bench, including choosing McCaw over Davis in some games for the third point guard minutes. Those are small issues, even if they’re issues at all. I’m a firm believer that you don’t need to maximize every second of the regular season to be best prepared for the playoffs; in fact, making a few mistakes and seeing what happens can be beneficial, too.
Nurse embodies the heart of a champion, and that’s the simple fact of the matter. No Raptors has used the championship to raise his status as much as Nurse; he has earned as much leeway as a coach can have. He deserves it. He’s been experimenting, adding wrinkles, and has Toronto ready to compete in the playoffs, perhaps even into the late rounds again. Nurse’s fingerprints are on all of Toronto’s most successful escapades this year. The big and small pictures have both been excellent with Nurse behind the wheel.