There is no doubt that this season has been a disappointing one for the Toronto Raptors. While losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol this past offseason was less than ideal for Raptors fans, they were still expected to build on last season’s 53-19 record after keeping their core of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby together on long-term contracts. In addition, they also still had Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell in the final year of their respective contracts. Despite this, the Raptors have struggled this year, currently sitting at 25-34, half a game back of the Washington Wizards for the final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors have had plenty of excuses for their failures this season. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced them to play their home games in Tampa, effectively meaning that every game is a road game considering that the majority of fans at home games are likely American. Injuries and health and safety protocols have forced core players to miss several games, with Lowry, Anunoby, Siakam, and VanVleet each missing at least 12 games this season. And finally, some of the role players that many expected to have significant impacts on the team simply didn’t pan out. Most notably, Aron Baynes’ 43% shooting (23% from three), 5.1 rebounds per game, and career-low -1.5 defensive box plus/minus has forced him to the bench despite starting the year as the team’s starting center and Ibaka/Gasol replacement. Beyond Baynes, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, Patrick McCaw, and Alex Len were all players who were given some run earlier in the season but were disappointing enough that they were either waived or traded to create roster space.
So, with all of this having happened this season, many fans have been calling for the team to tank in hopes of landing a potential franchise player in what many believe to be a talented and deep draft class. In fairness to these fans, the Raptors have seemingly obliged, first by trading an expiring contract in Norman Powell for a younger player that they can re-sign for cheaper in Gary Trent Jr., and second by starting to rest their core players in games of significance in the play-in chase. Before last night’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, the Raptors had omitted at least three of Lowry, VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, and Trent Jr. in each of their past three games, leading to the NBA fining them for breaking the league’s resting policies and failing to report injuries. Based on this, it would be a safe assumption to say that the Raptors are no longer too concerned about winning this season.
Despite their alleged attempts to lose, the Raptors have just put up a four-game winning streak, their longest since a four-game winning streak in mid-February. The most impressive part about this streak is that the wins have come off the backs of strong performances from role players — something that they haven’t been getting much of this season. Even if two of the wins were against weak opposition (in the Orlando Magic and the Oklahoma City Thunder), the streak is impressive nonetheless based on the lack of star power in the first three games and the fact that they were coming off of four losses in five games. This article looks at the role players that have stepped up during this streak, what this streak says about the play of their core players this season, and what it could mean moving into next season.
The Floor General
It seems as though all it took to get Malachi Flynn going was some reps being the primary ball-handler. Looking at Flynn’s stats as a whole this season doesn’t do him much justice, as his 5.7 points and 2.2 assists per game on 35/31/74 shooting splits — while not very pretty — are deflated from his lack of chances and confidence throughout much of the early part of the season. During the recent stretch where the Raptors missed at least one of VanVleet and Lowry in 7 of 8 games, Flynn looked like a completely different player from earlier this season and has been the talisman for the improved play of the Raptors’ role players.
Flynn has played at least 30 minutes in 9 of the last 11 games, also having started 6 of 8. During these 11 games, Flynn’s production has been extremely impressive considering how his numbers looked prior. During this stretch, he has averaged over 12 points, 5 assists, and nearly two steals per game with shooting splits of 38/42/78 and an average plus/minus of +4.1.
What does this say about the Raptors’ core guards?
Realistically, it is tough to blame either Lowry or VanVleet for any inconsistencies this season given the fact that both have missed time with injuries and that VanVleet struggled with COVID earlier this season. However, the one thing that the recent step up from Flynn can speak to is the relative lack of efficiency from VanVleet this season. While VanVleet is putting up a career-high 19.4 points per game this season, he is also having his least efficient shooting season since his rookie season, as well as the worst three-point shooting season of his career. Flynn’s field goal and three-point percentages over the aforementioned ten-game stretch are both higher than VanVleet’s season averages. While Flynn takes fewer shots than VanVleet, his efficiency over this stretch is something that could be expected of VanVleet but with greater volume during a more normal season.
What does this mean moving into next season?
These past ten games have been a huge development for both Flynn and the Raptors. Many had speculated that the late deadline-day trades of Matt Thomas and Terence Davis were to create roster space to take in more players for a potential Lowry trade. While the Lowry trade never happened, it seems apparent based on these trades that the Raptors do not expect Lowry back next season, especially if he will be demanding similar money to what he is already being paid. So, if Lowry is not with the Raptors next season, Flynn has shown that he would be capable of being the primary ball-handler and facilitator for the second unit next season. This gives the Raptors more options regarding free agency, as they will not need to be on the lookout for a potential backup point guard to VanVleet.
The Raptors have a new dynamic duo in Paul Watson Jr. and Yuta Watanabe.
Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch, but the two of them — along with another supporting wing in Stanley Johnson — played like world-beaters against Orlando on Friday. The trio combined to score 64 of the Raptors’ 113 points on 22/32 shooting from the field and 13/20 from three. Watson’s contribution was the most surprising of the three, as he scored a career-high 30 points (20 in the third quarter) while making his first career start in only his second game back after missing 11 games due to health and safety protocols. This could in part explain his scoreless, 0/10 shooting follow-up against Oklahoma City on Sunday. Even with Watson’s off-night, Watanabe and Johnson continued to chip in against Oklahoma City, with both putting up double-digit points in the win. Watanabe’s play has even been so impressive during this streak that the Raptors decided to convert his two-way contract to a standard NBA contract.
What does this say about the Raptors’ core wings?
*Gary Trent Jr. will not be considered a core wing in this argument purely for the sake of not judging him based on his small sample size as a Raptor and because he is not currently signed for next season.
The game against Orlando may have been a one-in-one-thousand night. By that, I mean that Anunoby and Siakam cannot be expected to consistently score a combined 51 points on 17/24 shooting like Watson and Watanabe did against Orlando. However, similar to how Flynn’s play has highlighted VanVleet’s relative efficiency issues, the Orlando game showed how good the Raptors can be when they get efficiency out of their wings. While Anunoby’s efficiency numbers in terms of his shooting have remained consistent this season with last season’s numbers, his ball-handling efficiency numbers have gone down this season, much as a result of being asked to handle the ball more frequently. Anunoby has averaged the most turnovers per game of his career this season. On the flip side, while Siakam has improved his assist-to-turnover ratio this season, his shooting efficiency has plummeted. After shooting over 35% from three in each of the past two seasons, Siakam’s three-point percentage is down to 28% this season, allowing defenders to play off of him more and defend his drives to the rim more easily.
Again, Siakam and Anunoby do not need to shoot the lights out or get point-assist double-doubles every game, but the efficiency that Watson and Watanabe displayed in Orlando showed how good the Raptors can be when they combine their dogged defence and good guard-play with efficient wing players. As such, efficiency is something that their core wing players (specifically Siakam) need to work on. Last night’s win against Brooklyn showed how dominant the Raptors can be when Siakam and Anunoby play efficiently, with the two combining to score 52 points on 18/33 shooting.
What does this mean moving into next season?
While Flynn seems like a shoo-in to be in the rotation next season, the same cannot be said for Watanabe and Johnson, as their contracts are expiring at the end of the season and both will likely have suitors elsewhere. However, Watson is locked up for next season and could provide solid depth on the wing. Assuming the Raptors are back to winning ways next season, guys like Watson, Watanabe, and Johnson may not have the same opportunities they are getting this season if Nick Nurse loads up on minutes for Siakam and Anunoby. Even if this is the case, this recent streak has at least ensured that the Raptors have good enough wing depth to cover for injuries to the likes of Siakam and Anunoby should they be able to keep one or both of Watanabe and Johnson.
With the Raptors being the second-worst rebounding team in the NBA, the play of their new supporting big men has potentially been the most pleasant surprise during this past stretch. It took only three games of Aron Baynes being annexed from the lineup before the Raptors were able to grab a season-high 54 rebounds, and much of it is down to the fact that Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie are mobile bigs that are actually capable of catching the ball with their hands.
I won’t be too harsh on Baynes. It has been a tough season for many and he and his Twitter fan club have already taken enough of a beating. However, considering the fact the Raptors have grabbed more rebounds than their season average in each of the four games that Birch has started and Baynes hasn’t seen the floor, it’s difficult not to place part of the blame for their lack of rebounding all season on the shoulders of Baynes. Of course, rebounding woes are also bound to come when you play small-ball, like the Raptors’ third-most played lineup this season of VanVleet, Lowry, Powell, Anunoby, and Siakam.
Moving past the Raptors’ rebounding struggles this season, Birch and Gillespie have been a breath of fresh air for the Raptors, with both being guys that can contribute on both ends of the floor, yet don’t need any plays run for them. Gillespie’s 6.1 points, 4 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 16.5 minutes per game was enough to earn him a second 10-day contract, while Birch’s athleticism, rim protection, and surprising offensive production of 8.8 points per game on 50% from the field and from three-point range got him into the starting lineup in only his third game with the team.
The type of athleticism and energy that Birch brings is something that the Raptors have missed with Baynes this season. As a personal observation, Birch reminds me of Bismack Biyombo when he was on the Raptors in the sense that he runs his tail off, protects the rim at will, at hustles to keep balls alive on the glass. They may not be mirror images of each other, with Biyombo having been a more dominant physical force and Birch being a better ball-handler with a smoother shooting stroke, but they both bring an abundance of energy onto the floor when they play.
What does this say about the Raptors’ core bigs?
The success that the Raptors have had with Gillespie and Birch speaks more to the glaring hole they have had at the center position all season than to any core player. It’s difficult to even say that the Raptors have a core big, as Siakam plays more like a wing player than a big in the sense that he handles the ball face up and often looks to facilitate. And Chris Boucher, while an important player for the team, is likely not a player the team would build around as part of their core. Essentially, what Birch and Gillespie have brought to the table has mostly just highlighted what they missed out on by not being able to re-sign Ibaka or Gasol.
What does this mean moving into next season?
Again, this has mainly highlighted the idea that they need to address their center position and their rebounding need for next season. Whether Birch and Gillespie are part of this solution remains to be seen — Gillespie just signed a new 10-day contract and Birch is not signed past this season — but they have at least shown where the Raptors’ concerns should be at moving into next season. Birch would be a nice guy to bring back. Even if not starting, his energy and athleticism are something that the Raptors do not currently have much of, and the fact that he is Canadian is the cherry on top for fans.