Five things to bet on seeing from the Toronto Raptors in the second half of the season

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The following is a guest post from Chris Anderson.

One way you wouldn’t describe the first half of the NBA season is that it’s played out as expected. Almost every team has had some sort of COVID-related disruption, with the Raptors being one of the last teams to experience one. We have seen several unlikely outcomes within this strange season, such as the Utah Jazz having the best record in the NBA and Matt Thomas shooting 38% from three.

Long story short, anyone who has bet safely this season has likely lost a fair sum of cash. So, what’s the best course of action to take in one of the most unpredictable NBA seasons in recent memory? Probably to immediately try to predict the rest of the season. While you may have been off in your first-half predictions, here are five things that you can bet on seeing from the Raptors moving forward.

More Freddy

Raptors Republic has had, in the past two days, a piece describing VanVleet’s tremendous defensive output and one describing his tremendous offensive output. There’s good reason to think he might be doing even more once he returns.

Fred VanVleet currently sits second behind Pascal Siakam for the team lead in usage rate, but this could change quickly. According to Basketball-Reference, the Raptors’ most used five-man unit over each of the past two seasons has been a two-point guard look that included both Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry. This extends back to the 2018-19 championship season, in which Lowry and VanVleet were both a part of the team’s two best five-man units in terms of net rating.

However, for the first time in his career, there is strong reason to believe that VanVleet should operate as the team’s primary ball-handler in crunch time. This season, based on net rating, the team’s two best five-man units include VanVleet but omit Lowry, meaning they are units where VanVleet operates as the lone point guard.

This is of course not to say that the Raptors are better without Lowry. He is the leader of the team and — based on general consensus — is the greatest Raptor of all time. Having said this, there are two more main reasons to assume that VanVleet will continue to see more of the ball for the Raptors.

For one, there has been lots of recent speculation surrounding a Lowry trade, and no matter how absurd the trade predictions may be, these rumours won’t go away until the trade deadline passes. In the event that Lowry is traded, it’s unlikely that the Raptors will end up with a player that slots into the starting-five similar to Lowry. As a result, such a trade would likely see a more traditional starting backcourt of VanVleet as the lead guard and Norman Powell as the two guard. In this scenario, much of Lowry’s departed usage rate would end up transitioning to VanVleet. This would lead to a VanVleet-heavy offence supported by Powell, Siakam, and even DeAndre’ Bembry and Terence Davis as secondary ball-handlers.

Second, even should Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster choose to keep Lowry in the fold, he is still a near-35-year-old man who leads the league in charges taken, plays over 34 minutes per game, and has had ankle and thumb issues all season. I know the guy is tough, but at some point, it will surely be in his best interest to count on VanVleet more and more to handle the ball. Lowry remains an elite cutter, secondary initiator, spot-up shooter, and screener; his off-ball skills would make any further transition of the reins a smooth one. Either way, this is a pretty safe bet.

More zone

With Nick Nurse’s coaching style having influenced many teams to implement zone defence into their strategy, you would think that he already plays enough zone. Well, if the Raptors are going to continue playing small-ball the way they have been, having started small in five of six games before being hit by health and safety protocol, it might be necessary to play more zone.

Simply put, the Raptors don’t have the combination of rim protection and solid man-to-man defence in one player that they had the past two seasons in both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, as evidenced by them having the ninth-highest opponent field goal percentage inside five feet in the NBA according to Chris Boucher is an excellent help defender at the rim, and while he has shown himself to be a solid post defender, he may be too undersized as a center to guard the Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic type of players man-to-man for long stretches. When the stakes get higher and the whistle gets tighter, he could get worn down quickly by such centers. The domino effect to his energy-providing play could be stark.

In contrast, Aron Baynes is strong enough to guard big men in the post for long stretches but doesn’t offer much as a help defender besides taking charges. With Boucher’s defensive weaknesses being Baynes’ strengths and vice versa, playing the two of them in a zone where Baynes can be the primary post-up defender and Boucher is given the freedom to help could be a way to both limit opposing bigs and increase their NBA-low 41.6 rebounds per game. When the two play together, Toronto has a 100th-percentile 84.8 percent defensive rebounding rate, so more of them together in the future could be in the cards.

But playing both of your centers together means Toronto will have long stretches of small ball. In fact, the Raptors’ most trustworthy five-man unit is likely their small-ball unit. If they want to continue to play small-ball against dominant bigs, they might just need to play a zone and constantly help off of their opponents’ weakest shooters to double the post. The Raptors have always been a tremendous hustle team under Nick Nurse, so they should have no issue playing scramble defence to get to open shooters should opposing bigs pass out of the post. By using their quickness in a zone to get to open shooters after helping in the post, they should be able to continue to use their small-ball unit as an option against dominant bigs. Even with Baynes and Boucher together, zone will be a tool Toronto uses for various reasons.

As Toronto’s rotation returns to health, bet that zone defenses are a tool Nurse uses to keep the rotations consistent and at their best.

Even if he doesn’t start, get ready to see more Baynes

While it may not be in the Raptors’ best interest to start him, the writing is on the wall that Baynes is going to start seeing more minutes. He’s trending in that direction anyway, as he has played well enough recently for Nick Nurse to trust him with more minutes. He has played at least 23 minutes in five of his past nine games, including 29 minutes or more on four occasions, and has made at least one three-pointer in seven of eight – something that seemed impossible not too long ago.

The Raptors’ depth at center is also likely to lead to more Baynes minutes. Any type of ailment to Boucher would lead to more Baynes minutes — unless Henry Ellenson is ahead of his developmental schedule. And with Boucher already playing the most minutes of his career, it’s possible that for small stretches, Baynes is asked to do more for an already thin center rotation. He’s finding ways to fit alongside Lowry and Boucher, thus giving himself more paths to the court.

Finally, there are specific matchups where Baynes simply must play. Most notably, Baynes did a terrific job defending Embiid in the post earlier this season, playing a large role in holding him to 6/20 shooting. In matchups like this, while Baynes may not start, he is likely to see the bulk of the Raptors’ minutes at center. We have seen Nurse be fluid with the center position in the past, so don’t be surprised to see Baynes play lots of minutes in games against physical big men like Embiid, followed by games of more standard minutes where Boucher or Siakam may be a better fit at center down the stretch.

A quick bounceback

The Raptors have begun a crucial stretch to start the second half. They have already lost their first three games post-All-Star break — to teams in the playoff hunt with them, no less. Despite this, there has been some good news post-All-Star break, as they expect to at least have a couple of VanVleet, Siakam, OG Anunoby, Malachi Flynn, and Patrick McCaw back from health and safety protocol within the next couple of games. Three of their next four games are against sub-.500 teams who are effectively out of the playoff race, including a revenge game against the Pistons after being embarrassed by them before the All-Star break. Should they be able to get back to full health during this stretch, this gives them a great opportunity to create some breathing room between themselves and the bottom of the East, get the guys that have missed time back in rhythm, and climb back into the mix in the East.

Perhaps I’m too optimistic based on how the year has gone so far, but I expect them to bounce back quickly despite their recent losses to Atlanta, Charlotte, and Chicago. The Raptors have generally played well enough against sub-.500 teams this season, as they hold an 8-9 record against such teams — a better ratio than their overall record. It is worth mentioning as well that three of their losses against sub-.500 teams have come during the current stretch where they have missed three key rotation players. The ridiculousness of this NBA season means you can never be certain, but I would expect the Raptors to at least be in each of the three games in question. These games are too important in the context of their season to take them lightly, and the Raptors are a proud team. Lowry especially always knows when to take games seriously.

The unexpected

Expecting the unexpected may be the only thing on which to bet in the second half. Each of the four previous predictions has had some sort of logical explanation for why they might happen; however — in a season so upside-down — logic could just as well dictate they aren’t going to happen. Such is the way of Raptors season held in Tampa Bay during a pandemic. So, to cover myself in the event that all of my predictions are wrong, here are some completely unreasonable predictions with no explanation for the second half:

  • Stanley Johnson scores 20-plus at least once, my guess is on April 26th against the Cavaliers.
  • Kyle Lowry doesn’t end up leading the league in charges taken.
  • Patrick McCaw attempts a field goal.
  • Sergio Scariolo’s winning percentage of 33% (1-2) as head coach ends up being the winningest record on the team for the season.
  • Jalen Harris puts up 10 points in a win.

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