Morning Coffee – Tue, Feb 23

30 mins read
Cover Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

What can the Raptors do at the trade deadline? Rules, exceptions and more – The Athletic

The cap sheet looks more or less the same as it did when the season began, save for Alex Len being waived.

This particular snapshot tends to be more useful for our summer free agency primer than the trade deadline one, but it can be helpful to refresh what the team looks like now and for periods into the future. The Raptors are over the salary cap but below the luxury tax right now, which gives them a bit of flexibility.

The Raptors’ long-term cap outlook is the key factor in this graphic. As we’ve talked to death, the team has operated with the 2021 offseason in mind for a while now. Back in October, we looked at what Giannis Antetokounmpo coming off the board might do to the team’s plans. He, and several other potential free agents, did just that, tilting the Raptors toward an OG Anunoby rookie-scale extension.

Even with that extension, the Raptors are set up to be pretty flexible this offseason for two possible paths: Re-signing Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry or letting them both walk, to play with upwards of $20 million on the market. Powell and Lowry both have large enough cap holds that the team can’t do both, so while reductive, you can frame the offseason ahead as a run-it-back versus add-someone-new path divergence, if that’s helpful.

What this means for the deadline is that the Raptors will probably only take on salary beyond this year for a player who moves their ceiling noticeably higher. You’re not punting on the flexibility you’ve built for a ninth-man upgrade; it has to move the needle. And if they do add long-term salary in a deal, that would, to me, suggest their intention to keep Powell and/or Lowry around beyond this year, since the opportunity cost of that lost flexibility will be gon

Raptors, still figuring out their identity, knock off Sixers – The Athletic

As the Raptors have started winning more consistently, it is not as if he has suddenly changed. Stanley Johnson closed Friday’s game in Minnesota and did not play a minute against the Sixers. Yuta Watanabe, a meaningful (and productive) part of the rotation before he sprained his ankle a few weeks back, has played just 17 minutes total in the three games since his return. Meanwhile, Baynes is playing nearly as much as a reserve as he did when he was a starter, while Terence Davis, whose defence to begin the season was atrocious, has been a significant part of two of the Raptors’ best defensive stretches of the season in the past few games. He made excellent decisions in transition against the 76ers with a three-assist, zero-turnover performance that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago.

“I think it takes time to build a team,” VanVleet said. “It takes time to come together as a team and with the short turnaround and the roster changes that we had, I think it’s taken time to build that chemistry and that flow. And I think we’re starting to find that. I think we saw some things that we tried early that didn’t work, some things that did work, and we’re finding ourselves. Everyone’s falling into their natural roles, and the chemistry is getting better each day and each game.”

VanVleet is right in saying the Raptors are finding an identity, but it has little to do with role certainty. Nurse remains as creative as ever, willing to mix ingredients until he finds a potent cocktail.

“We’re starting to feel like an actual team,” VanVleet said. “Winning builds that, obviously, but you never know what comes first. I think we’ve been building in the right direction.”

On Sunday, Nurse was without one of his lead assistants, Sergio Scariolo, who spent the previous week with the Spanish national team. Another of his former leads, Nate Bjorkgren, was given the head job in Indiana over the offseason. And then after the Raptors’ win Sunday, Bjorkgren’s replacement, Chris Finch, who did the halftime interview on TSN the same night, was reported to be the new coach for Minnesota. He would replace the fired Ryan Saunders. Having assistants land jobs makes a head coach look pretty good, as Gregg Popovich would surely tell you.

Not that they didn’t have their own credentials before the past few seasons, but Bjorkgren and Finch have demonstrably benefitted from their association with Nurse. We still have to learn whether or not they will have the same hit rate with their gut instincts as their old boss does.

Finch departure further proof Raptors have built something worth imitating – Sportsnet

But even if they all end up snubbed, it’s become clearer than ever during the Raptors’ 14-7 surge since starting the season in an uncharacteristic 2-8 hole that Toronto has become one of the rare organizations in sports that simply finds ways to succeed almost independent of specific personnel.

The short-hand for it is “culture” – a buzzword that’s hard to define but can be useful in explaining developments that lack a single obvious answer.

Whatever it is, the Raptors have it, and other teams want some of it. It’s why Raptors general manager Bobby Webster was seemingly linked to every executive opening before he signed his long-term deal with the club earlier this month, or why Nate Bjorkgren and now Finch have earned head coaching opportunities after spending time with Nurse as assistants, and why Adrian Griffin may be the next of his staff members to earn a shot as a head coach.

It’s why the Raptors went 17-5 without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup in 2018-19 – better than their winning percentage when he did play — and why they were on pace for a team-record 60 wins in 2019-20 even after Leonard and Danny Green left in free agency, a better mark than during their championship season and better than Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers could manage.

This season has proven the rule, rather than the exception: a well-coached team staffed with a smart, mature, competitive core and high-IQ depth pieces kept on their toes by a fluid rotation that offers opportunity for those playing well enough to seize it remains a threat in the East. It makes no sense, almost.

Since the summer of 2018 the Raptors have populated the rest of the NBA with the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, as well as Leonard and Green and yet remain damn good even if the inbound talent is a collection of journeymen who mostly stumbled at their last stop. Replacing Leonard with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should not be a viable path to remaining relevant, but somehow the Raptors make it work.

Sure, this season has been uneven at times and they certainly seemed to be close to crashing when they were 2-8 through 10 games and had the worst record in the league. Their highest-paid player, Siakam, seemed like he was in the process of climbing inside himself and was suspended for a game for a fairly minor temper tantrum. Nurse was calling out a different player by the day and – you could infer at least – was less than pleased with the mismatched roster he’d been handed after the Raptors lost both Ibaka and Gasol in free agency. A string of minor injuries made it difficult to build cohesion, offensively and defensively.

But somehow the sun keeps rising in the East, and the Raptors do too. Since their low point they have the fourth-best winning percentage league-wide and the second-most wins. They are one of four teams with a top-10 offence and top-10 defence and in the past 10 days they’ve beaten not only the star-studded Brooklyn Nets, but the Bucks twice and now the Sixers.

And they do all this regardless, it seems, of who’s playing or even coaching. Lowry remains a hugely impactful player – both by traditional and advanced statistical measures – but the Raptors have reeled off four straight wins without him, beginning with them knocking off the Bucks when he left the game at halftime. Going back to last season the Raptors are now 17-2 in games Lowry has been inactive for.

NBA Power Rankings – Why the Phoenix Suns and Brooklyn Nets are making noise ahead of Week 10

This Week: 14
Last Week: 17

After a perfect week against fellow East rivals the 76ers and the Bucks (twice), the Raptors have officially climbed over .500 after their disastrous 2-8 start. Since then, the Raptors have gone 14-7, good for the second-best record in the East (behind Brooklyn’s 15-6). Suddenly, Toronto is a team to be reckoned with in the East once again. — Bontemps

Nets No. 1, Lakers fall in NBA Power Rankings: Plus, All-Stars – The Athletic

This Week: 9
Last Week: 16

16-15, +2.7 net rating
Weekly slate: Win at Bucks, Win at Bucks, Win at Wolves, Win over Sixers

Will the Toronto Raptors get a representative at All-Star Weekend? Maybe Kyle Lowry gets in on reputation from the coaches. He’s had a fine year, but I’m not sure you can sell a lot of people that he’s been better than Zach LaVine or Trae Young. Fred VanVleet has been really good, but he’s still shooting just 40.8 percent from the field. Pascal Siakam had a very slow start, and his numbers don’t quite warrant selection. However, it’s much easier to make it in the frontcourt than as a guard, so maybe he’ll have a shot. Just feels weird that the Raptors may not get a guy in the game.

Why are they ranked here? Perfect week, including two big wins over Milwaukee and one big win over Philly. They fly up the rankings because of it.

NBA Power Rankings: Nets on Jazz’s heels for top spot; Lakers keep dropping; surging Raptors make big jump – CBSSports.com

This Week: 7
Last Week: 15

Well we knew the Raptors would eventually go on a run, and it started this week with four wins, including two in Milwaukee and one over the Sixers. Even more impressive is that Toronto did it with Kyle Lowry only playing 22 total minutes this week due to an ankle injury and OG Anunoby missing two games. Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam stepped up as expected, and Norman Powell came through with 29- and 30-point efforts against the Bucks and Wolves. The Raptors’ defense is flying around the court, making them a very dangerous team.

Power Rankings, Week 10: Jazz stay at No. 1, but Nets closing in fast | NBA.com

This Week: 12
Last Week: 19 ↑

Record: 16-15
Pace: 100.0 (16) OffRtg: 113.0 (9) DefRtg: 110.3 (12) NetRtg: +2.7 (8)

Just like that, the Raptors have a winning record and are in fifth place in the East. It didn’t come easy, though. Their four-game winning streak includes two wins over the Bucks and a comeback from 13-points down in the third quarter against the Sixers. OG Anunoby (who returned from a 10-game absence on Tuesday) and Kyle Lowry were on the floor together for just 14 minutes before Lowry turned his ankle. The Raptors are now 5-3 against the other four East teams with winning records and 6-0 in games Lowry has missed, with Norman Powell having averaged 22.7 points on an effective field goal percentage of 64% over the six games.

Playing Pascal Siakam at center did not work against Joel Embiid on Sunday, when the Raptors were outscored by 11 points in a little more than seven minutes with Siakam on the floor without Aron Baynes or Chris Boucher. But it has otherwise been a good look; Prior to Sunday, Toronto had outscored its opponents by almost 17 points per 100 possessions in 154 minutes with Siakam at the five, with especially good numbers (99.7 points allowed per 100) on defense.

They’ve got another date with Embiid on Tuesday before wrapping up their second five-games-in-seven-nights stretch of the pre-break schedule in Miami.

Josh Lewenberg: Fred VanVleet making late push for first all-star selection – TSN.ca

VanVleet finished ninth among East guards in the overall starters’ vote last week – 10th in the fan vote, seventh in the players’ vote, and ninth in the media vote. While that’s not especially encouraging, there’s reason to believe that he’ll fare better with the coaches. Many of the intangibles that he brings on the floor – leadership, toughness, basketball intellect, among others – are qualities that coaches tend to appreciate, and they get a chance to watch it up close.

As an undrafted player who’s worked his way to the point of even being considered for an all-star berth, his feel-good story won’t hurt his chances, either.

“Of course I feel like I’m an all-star,” VanVleet said on Sunday night. “I’m a confident guy. I don’t work this hard to not feel that way. I don’t play the way that I play to not feel that way. So of course, I would love to be an all-star. I would love to have the respect of the coaches in the league. But I don’t play the game for that, you know what I’m saying? Does that make sense? But yeah, it would be nice to be recognized that way.”

“I play the game extremely hard, I try to play with a pure heart every night, I play as hard as I possibly can, and whatever rewards I receive along that journey I’ll have to live with that one way or another. So that’s just kind of my approach to it.”

The voting process can get political, but when most coaches are deciding between multiple players, especially in the case of a close call, they tend to reward the one that comes from a winning program. That’s where VanVleet’s track record as a winning player and the Raptors’ history of success could help separate him, especially now that they’ve turned the corner and are back in the mix atop the East.

Up until recently, it seemed like they would be hard-pressed to get anybody in, they simply weren’t good enough to warrant the recognition. But with a timely run – they’re 8-3 in the month of February, tops in the conference – they’ve clawed above .500 for the first time this season and are in the same boat as most of the East’s teams, who all have similar records.

“We’re back in the hunt, we’re playing good basketball as of late, and I think that’s got to hold some weight,” said VanVleet. “But also, given the fact of what this season looks like, I don’t know how much the record is going to play a factor… I’m sure there’ll be a guy or two off the bench that’s not on a good record team. You’ve got to pick the best players, who they think are the best players at the time. I think the way we’ve been playing should help all of our chances but again, we’ll see where that ends up.”

The NBA all-star coaches’ vote is no slam dunk for the Raptors, who now have a coaching question of their own | The Star

You can appreciate the hopefulness intermingled with confidence in Siakam’s public plea. But let’s face it: Siakam, though he was a starter in last year’s game, isn’t on anybody’s list to make this year’s team. His performance, though it’s shown recent signs of recovery from the dismal depths of last summer’s bubble struggle, has been far too spotty.

Lowry is a different story. He’s been an all-star for six straight seasons before this one. And at his best, he’s shown more than a few flashes of being Toronto’s best player at age 34. Still, it hasn’t helped that his numbers are down slightly this season, or that his team is 4-0 without him in the lineup. Unless coaches are giving Lowry a vote based on legacy, in other words, his is an unlikely candidacy.

Which brings us to VanVleet, who ranks as Toronto’s most likely representative. On the heels of signing a free-agent contract worth an annual average of about $21.25 million (U.S.), VanVleet is having his best year yet. He’s averaging 20.1 points and 6.6 assists a game, both career highs. And he’s among the league leaders in a handful of defensive categories; as of Monday afternoon he held the top spot in total steals and deflections, this while ranking second in total loose balls recovered. If not for Toronto’s dismal 2-8 start to the season — they’ve been 14-7 ever since — he’d probably be a shoo-in to be selected.

Still, there are only seven spots remaining to be filled. Two are designated for “backcourt” players. Three are “frontcourt” choices. Another two are “wild card,” position agnostic picks. There are backcourt players who are widely seen as more worthy. Brooklyn’s James Harden and Boston’s Jaylen Brown are on that list. Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Chicago’s Zach LaVine might be on it, too. You can make the case VanVleet is better than at least a couple of those players, sure. Certainly it helps that he’s had a signature game, his franchise-record-setting 54-point outburst earlier this month, even if it doesn’t help that Toronto has been over .500 for a relative blink, this after Sunday’s big win over the Sixers pushed them to 16-15.

Raps could get shut out of All-Star weekend | Toronto Sun

The Raptors have had two representatives in the game for each of the past five years and a lone representative the two years prior to that.

You have to go all the way back to 2012-13 that the Raptors were shut out.

If it does happen, blame that 2-8 start because the way the team is playing since that start they are a top four or five team in the East and deserve representation.

Who should go?

Either one of Fred VanVleet or Kyle Lowry and with Lowry on the injured list right now, we’ll go with VanVleet but both are all-star worthy.

Pascal Siakam’s early struggles were a big part of that slow start, but his re-emergence as an aggressive, attacking scorer is a big part of the reason the team has turned things around.

Still, assuming there is only one we’ll go with VanVleet who has been the most consistent member of Nick Nurse’s roster this season.
VanVleet believes he’s earned it.

Is There Any Way the Bucks and Celtics Can Get Back on Top of the East? – The Ringer

The Sixers, meanwhile, could make a big acquisition of their own. League sources say Philadelphia, which came up short in its bid for Harden, is still seeking major moves to increase its championship odds. The trade market still needs to take shape in the coming weeks, so realistic targets are unclear. But one name to monitor is Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, a 34-year-old Philadelphia native in the final season of his contract. A veteran perimeter shot-creator is the only piece the Sixers truly lack, and there aren’t many other players on Lowry’s level who are even theoretically available.

Chris Boucher is blocking threes more often than any player ever – Hoops Hype

According to PBP Stats, Boucher is averaging 0.95 blocks on three-pointers per 100 possessions. Based on our research conducted on Feb. 22, that is the highest rate (minimum: 200 minutes) among all players since 2000-01.

While the data is not available before 2000, based on the influx of three-point shooting in the NBA, it is incredibly unlikely anyone has come close to touching this rate.

Siakam on growing as a playmaker: ‘I’m learning from guys like Kyle, Fred’ – Video – TSN

Pascal Siakam has made an effort to improve his playmaking this season and it has paid off as he is averaging a career-best 4.7 assists per game. The Raptors guard said he is learning from Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet and putting emphasis on becoming a complete player.

Are the Raptors back? Why you should be excited about their recent play – Yahoo!

The Eastern Conference is perfect for your optimism
The Raptors are four games out of first place in the East but also two games from falling out of the play-in tournament altogether. This is your 2021 Eastern Conference standings, where every team is a three-game winning streak from entertaining hopes of being a top-four seed but also a three-game losing streak from looking up the play-in tournament rules.

The Raptors have six games left before the All-Star break: a rematch with Philadelphia, a road game in Miami, a three-game homestand against Houston, Chicago and Detroit before wrapping up on the road against Boston. It’s not inconceivable they would go 4-2 during this stretch, which would put them at 20-17 at the break.

Considering the way this season started, that would put them in great position to get to just about where we expected them in the standings at the start of the season.

So, are the Raptors back?
At the start of the season, we expected the Raptors to basically be another version of what they were last year: a team that generally took care of business against the average-to-bad teams and gave themselves a fighting chance against the really good teams.

Even going back to after they started 2-6 and then lost two games at the buzzer to Portland and Golden State, they’ve pretty much been about where our preseason expectations would have landed them. They still face a tougher challenge than a normal season being away from their actual home for the entire year, and depending on how the second half schedule looks, those “third game in four nights” losses could cut into their climb up the standings. But yes, in conclusion, the Raptors are back.