40: Number of games missed by that core four
Chris Boucher is the only Raptor to appear in every game this season. The team’s presumed core — and four-fifths of its starting five — have missed a combined 40 games. VanVleet missed five games in the league’s health and safety protocols. Lowry has missed eight games, spread over four instances of shorter-term issues. Siakam has missed nine, one due to team suspension and six in the health and safety protocols. Anunoby can’t seem to catch a break, missing 10 due to a calf injury, sitting two back-to-backs for preventative maintenance and also missing six alongside Siakam, VanVleet, Malachi Flynn and Patrick McCaw due to health and safety protocols. Nurse also missed a few games.
The Raptors survived similar injury-ravaged stretches during the 2019-20 season. That team, though, was a lot deeper. It also didn’t lose five players and half of a coaching staff at once due to contact with an illness that can take a while to recover from in terms of conditioning and weight, even if symptoms are mild.
All told, Toronto’s core four have shared the floor for 366 minutes this year. The Raptors have won those minutes with a 5.4 net rating despite Aron Baynes being their most common fifth. Even Norman Powell, an excellent offensive fifth or fill-in for the others, has rarely profiled as a defensive plus. When that foursome isn’t on the court as a unit, the Raptors have fallen from being the equivalent of a top-five defence to a bottom-five mark.
Struggles Without Core Four
As it turns out, being so top-heavy introduces challenges. Anunoby has the largest impact there separating garbage time out, and he’d have a real case for Defensive Player of the Year consideration if he hadn’t missed so much time (and the Raptors were better). Mostly, though, having so few trustworthy players on the roster has made surviving absences much harder, exponentially so when multiple players have been out.
Of the depth pieces available, the team has defended best with Yuta Watanabe or DeAndre’ Bembry on the court, playing to a slight positive with either despite the offensive challenges introduced. Watanabe and Bembry have both missed time as well, as has McCaw, a trusted defender for Nurse, and Flynn, a good on-ball defender who needs reps to become an impact piece at that end.
Other than the two Detroit games, the Raptors have largely played better without Baynes — and thus, a traditional centre — on the floor. There were three narrow losses in there, making those spurts more frustrating.
It’s unfair to pick on Baynes this much, as the Raptors’ problems have more to do with depth as a whole rather than just at centre. Yet, that has certainly been the biggest need this year, which made something Masai Ujiri said after the trade deadline on Thursday all the more curious.
“Our option was playing this season (to win), giving it all we have, because I think the guys deserve that,” Ujiri said.
That sentence was uttered in a long answer about how the team’s outlook might have improved in the future because of Thursday’s moves, and how things were reshaping. But it is an admission, although not a surprising one, that the Raptors have been actively trying to win as much as possible this season. At least up until near the trade deadline, Toronto’s front office was managing the roster with winning in the present as its north star, even as the future lurked.
That is where you can rightfully criticize the front office for not fortifying the team. Roster construction and balance was always a problem coming out of the offseason, and became even more of a problem when the team cut Alex Len, one of the two centres the Raptors signed in the offseason, in January. (As it happens, Len has been serviceable in Washington, with the Wizards performing slightly better with him on the floor than off of it this season. Nothing spectacular, but worth noting.) The Raptors believed in the core of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell, and the last two seasons gave them reason to be optimistic, even if there were holes available to poke if you were so inclined.
We don’t need to spend too much time relitigating L’Affaire Ibaka. The Raptors wanted to maximize future flexibility for justifiable reasons, made a bet that they would be able to get by with less production from the centre spot, and lost that bet. Ibaka has 2.7 win shares this season compared to Baynes’ 0.6. If you want to get generous because of the sheer volume of close games the Raptors have lost, you can say Ibaka might have flipped four or five Raptors losses into wins this year. That would have the Raptors into the play-in tournament but no further, which still would represent a marked improvement. Additionally, while a second-year for Ibaka would have eaten into their flexibility this summer, that immediately mattered less once Giannis Antetokounmpo re-signed in Milwaukee (hindsight is a nice tool to have) and would mean the Raptors have one less role to fill in the offseason to come.
The greater sin is that Ujiri, Bobby Webster and the rest of the management did not correct the centre issue while things were going well, long before the trade deadline. Again, this was a problem even when the Raptors were playing well. Defensive rebounding has been one of the bigger weaknesses for the Raptors all year, and at all points, they needed someone who could address that while not completely sapping their offence. It was a glaring weakness.
If you did not want to sign DeMarcus Cousins when Houston waived him (nobody else has) or trade actual assets for Andre Drummond before Cleveland bought him out (nobody else did), that is understandable. The lack of teams that were truly out of the playoff race, and therefore actively moving on from contributing players, was lacking leading up to the deadline, in part because of the play-in tournament. It would have made acquiring a difference-maker, even at a low level, difficult.
Ultimately, that’s an excuse, not absolution. The Raptors have badly needed someone to play 15-20 minutes per night up front all season long, and besides 10-day-contract additions, the management team got nothing done. Sure, the team didn’t expect to get hit by the pandemic so hard when it did, but that is the nature of this year. By the time the deadline rolled around, it did not make much sense for the Raptors to give up any future assets in support of this season’s team. You cannot say the same was true in January and February. Even as Chris Boucher flourished, it was clear the Raptors were going to need further fortifications.
I know what you’re thinking: winning too much is the problem? Look, the Raptors could have won several games this season that they ended up losing had they had a net-neutral centre playing instead of Baynes and/or Len. Obviously, a team plays with the players they have, but those are the facts. With 25 games left in the season and with the Raptors at 11 games under .500, the odds of them making the playoffs are shrinking. Or, to think of it another way: a fight to squeeze into the play-in game may not be worth it. What was once a team too talented to fail, now may have a few good reasons (and methods) to fall apart.
Reason 1: Kyle Lowry’s injury and contract situation. To his best (and Toronto’s) interest, the Raptors should not run Lowry into the ground. If they want to re-sign him, they have to keep him as healthy and happy as possible. The word right now is that Lowry is nursing a bit of a foot injury — so maybe he’ll miss a game or more down the stretch.
Reason 2: Assuming the Raptors do start looking around for buyout or 10-day contract options, it’ll take time to get any new player acclimated, which may cause problems. Remember the learning curve!
Reason 3: Much like Lowry, Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and even Anunoby (despite some of his injury-related absences) have all logged heavy minutes this season. No one should look down on the idea of giving them a break now and then.
Reason 4: According to Tankathon, the Raptors have the seventh hardest remaining schedule — this for a team already playing all its home games on the road. After the games against the Detroit Pistons, you can’t even count the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder games as automatic wins. Toronto will have to play hard for every W it gets from here on out.
Reason 5: Toronto lost Norman Powell, who was the best player right now in the deal for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood. In short, that trade was not a win-now move by the Raptors.
I realize there’s a lot of information to unpack here, and no easy answer. The Raptors are in a tough spot — because of the pandemic, bad luck, and their own roster moves. While the future is unwritten, it’s clear something has to be done to address a few different issues.
There are extenuating circumstances that have landed the Raptors where they are, of that there is no question.
Needing to relocate to Tampa because of border issues was a major inconvenience — less of one when the Raptors were on a 14-7 stretch in the first third of the season it must be pointed out — and the long-term effects of an outbreak of COVID-19 within the organization was a crushing blow.
For each of those reasons the roster gets a bit of a pass but the underlying issue, the inability to fight through adversity no matter in which form it comes, has been the team’s undoing more often than not.
Perhaps, though, it was by design.
Ujiri and Webster, when they made the conscious effort to let Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol go, would have wanted to see how a young group handled it, how unproven players reacted to more demands for leadership and guiding a team through the inevitable rough patches that pop up in a season.
Sure, they wanted to save money for a foray into free agency this summer and, at the time, Giannis Antetokounmpo was the big prize being dangled.
But upper management would also have wanted to see who emerged, who became the face, the conscious, the leadership of young group.
They would have suspected that Fred VanVleet would handle it as well as he has and they would have known what they would get from Kyle Lowry because of their personalities and histories.
But OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, and to a much lesser degree Chris Boucher, were going to be charged with taking charge and how they handled, or didn’t handle, the task would give Ujiri and Webster something to consider when the free agency period opens this summer and another roster remake may be at hand.
But they will have found out what’s worked, who’s emerged and have a far better idea of what’s needed. It will allow them to search for the veterans they need for specific roles and to have a year of important experience for their still-growing younger players.
The crazy thing is, though, the season is not dead. It may be seriously wounded but there is still a chance for the Raptors to claw back into a playoff race. And since gaining experience and watching key players evolve is such an integral part of this season, having a bit of playoff run might be beneficial in the long-term.
Being the only team to play their entire season in a foreign market is a disadvantage no matter how nice you gussy up your new digs.
A 2-8 start after a rushed training camp while trying to meld a roster that included just eight returnees followed and the Raptors were immediately playing from behind.
There was that rally from the middle of January into the third week of February that looked very much like the Raptors had turned the tide, but then a series of injuries to key personnel and the ultimate season-destroyer, a COVID outbreak that took out three key starters, two reserves and six coaches for the two weeks around the all-star break, arrived.
All 11 are back now, but the effects of that layoff continue.
“It’s really hard right now to like sit here and be upset,” admitted head coach Nick Nurse when asked about the lack of a perceived mental toughness to fight through the present circumstances. “I just, I think the guys are, they’re attentive and they’re trying and they just can’t quite move like they’d like to right now and I can’t put my finger on it other than it’s a little harder to come back from all this stuff than we’re realizing. We’re just in the middle of it, kind of, as experimental guys and I don’t know. I’m hoping we can get some rest and some juice back in our legs and get ready for the next one and play a lot more physical, a lot tougher mentally and physically”
Even now the Raptors are down two more bodies, both reserves, but contributors thanks to another visit from the virus.
As Nurse suggested, it’s a lot when it comes at you like that in bunches.
“You’ve got to at least be cognizant of the fact that it is choppy waters,” he said refusing blame one thing for the team struggles. “It’s been choppy waters for some time. We found only one stretch of smooth sailing, and we beat a lot of the best teams in the league, one after the other, for a couple weeks. And then we get hit with the break and the COVID and then we’re in choppier waters than ever. We’ve got to keep working. You can’t blame anything. There are no excuses. You’ve got to do something.”
So, Nurse and the Raptors have 25 games remaining and without getting into all the permutations and combinations, the likely best possible finish is a spot in the play-in playoff tournament barring a complete meltdown by a few clubs ahead of them.
It’s not what we are accustomed to with this team, but that is where we are for all the aforementioned reasons.
“They deserve a chance to make a push,” Nurse said of his players about a week before the deadline, “because they’ve proven they can play well against the best teams in the league.”
And last week Ujiri seemed to echo that sentiment.
“Our option was playing out this season, giving it all we have, because I think the guys deserve that,” Ujiri explained after he let the deadline pass with Lowry still a Raptor.
He said he admired his players because “they fight.” But since he’s said those words, where’s the scrappiness? You’d think a roster that received a de facto endorsement of its playoff viability on Mar. 25 might have returned the favour by showing some semblance of ferocity. Alas, there’s been no discernable post-deadline bounce. There’ve been few on-court signs of gratitude to Ujiri for giving this group one last chance to make a run.
There’s plenty of positive talk, mind you. After Monday’s loss to the Pistons, OG Anunoby said the team isn’t “getting too down” because it knows things can turn around fast.
“We could win 10 games in a row very easily,” Anunoby said.
Maybe, but the Raptors haven’t won two in a row in more than a month. Which makes you wonder: if Ujiri knew last Thursday what he knows today — that an easy pre-deadline win over Denver wasn’t a harbinger of a win streak but a prelude to three straight losses to Phoenix, Portland and Detroit — would he have been a little less precious about the return on his iconic point guard?
Maybe there’s still hope that something comes of the remaining 25 games. Maybe, if the Raptors play it right, Toronto maximizes its draft-lottery odds in a year that promises a talent-rife class of prospects. Maybe it’s not an all-out tank. Maybe it’s not a #FadeForCade, as the social-media hashtags would dub it, in homage to presumptive No. 1-overall pick Cade Cunningham. In today’s attendance-optional NBA, engineering a late-season swoon that improves the franchise’s chances in the lottery isn’t exactly a complicated proposition. You never enunciate the intention. You don’t do what Dallas owner Mark Cuban did a few years back and get fined $600,000 by the league office for saying publicly that “losing is our best option.” Instead, you encourage a key veteran player or two to put health first and nurse any nicks. You encourage Lowry to play 36 holes on game days. You encourage Nurse to choose development over everything, increasing the roles of the likes of Trent and Malachi Flynn and Chris Boucher. You wave bye-bye to improving the team in the buyout market, publicly lamenting your “near-miss” recruiting pitches for all that talent that might have helped in the stretch run.
Last week Ujiri said he was “comfortable with any direction that (the deadline) went.” This week, maybe he wishes he’d dumped Lowry for the best offer available. Every loss that’s come since, after all, has only underlined the grim truth. For all Nurse’s hopefulness, the future probably isn’t now. The lifelessness we’re witnessing in Raptorland, to the contrary, looks a lot like the dog days of a lottery season.