What the Raptors Should and Shouldn’t Do

Start Khem Birch? Keep Lowry? Nah.

17 mins read
Image: sbnation.com

As I sit here waiting for the AstraZeneca to attack my innards and make its way down to my soul, I can’t help but think what I want and don’t want the Raptors to do this summer. So without further ado.

Get OG Anunoby to be Boringly Good

OG needs to master all variants of this move:

If you play the full video and not just clip I highlighted it shows OG’s entire offensive game. I picked that clip because those are shots that OG’s quickness, ball-handling and strength – a terrifying combination – can get him anytime. His ability to spin back to the other side and release the shot leaves defenses with no chance of contesting. Shades of Kawhi. Whereas you can see limitations in Siakam and VanVleet’s physique and talents, OG has all the fundamentals shored up and it’s a matter of linear improvement. Linear, boring improvement.

Anunoby benefits from not relying excessively rely on one aspect of his game to get his offense. Siakam bets on transition offense, VanVleet needs the deep three, but OG doesn’t care. His generality makes him a versatile fit into any offensive scheme, and given that he’s above average in every facet of the game (and improving), makes it easy to coach him. There’s never a bad time to play OG and the Raptors don’t necessarily have to do anything in particular to have OG expand his impact.

I don’t want to oversell the man because he’s good on the path to being very good. Last year this time we were talking about how he needed to add a step-back element to his game so crowding defenders could be warded off. We talked about him not being just a 3-and-D guy but putting it on the floor. We talked about him taking lighter matchups into the block. He’s improved in all the required areas, including his assist numbers which is half an assist higher PER36 at 2.5. Not fantastic but both improving and needing improvement.

As he gets into positions like the one show above and starts to increase scoring, the natural defensive reaction will be to double, much like it was with Siakam. OG hasn’t seen enough defensive variations thrown at him, but if his offensive trajectory continues he’ll see plenty more. This bodes well for the Raptors guards who, as mentioned earlier, struggled to get clean looks from three. Much like how Siakam unlocked opportunities for his teammates by increasing his scoring threat, the same should happen with OG.

Do not Re-Sign Kyle Lowry

There were some stories that swung by my RSS feed (yeah, I’m still on it) about Kyle Lowry and how the Raptors can receive the same offers they did at the deadline so nothing was lost by keeping him. I don’t believe it, but I’ll buy it if it means bidding a fond farewell to Kyle Lowry until he returns on a one-day contract to retire.

The saddest part of the season for me was having to watch Lowry sit out as he wasted a year when he could’ve been playing playoff basketball. Barring a Kawhi Leonard-type move, the Raptors aren’t taking title shots next year either, and it’s in Lowry and the Raptors best interest to move on. And he will:

The Raptors have to sort out their point guard spot as soon as possible and bringing Lowry back only delays that. What is Malachi Flynn made of? Can VanVleet take the helm proper instead of skirting around the creator duties? The Raptors could opt for bringing Lowry back to tutor Flynn, but we know that Lowry’s not playing less than 36 minutes a game so that strategy only works on paper.

The Raptors guard situation is like so:

Fred VanVleet, 6’1″
Malachi Flynn, 6’1″

Gary Trent Jr., 6’5″
Jalen Harris, 6’5″
Paul Watson Jr., 6’6″
DeAndre’ Bembry, 6’5″

If Lowry exits, the Raptors can either promote Flynn into the lineup and have VanVleet stick at the two. Or they could have VanVleet finally assume full-time point guard duties and create a fierce competition between Gary Trent Jr., Jalen Harris, and Paul Watson Jr. for the second guard spot. I like this approach as Flynn is best suited to break into his mold off the bench. He’s frankly not a good enough shooter to warrant anything more right now.

Whether VanVleet is “true” point guard is quite a boring argument, and somewhat redundant because the Raptors get enough ball-handling and playmaking via Pascal Siakam for this not to be a major concern. What is more interesting is whether having VanVleet on the ball more affects his three point rate. He has increased his 3FGAs every single year: 0.8, 3.4, 4.6, 6.9 and last year’s staggering 9.2, which he shot at a 35.6% clip compared to 39% the previous year.

The long three has become a big component of VanVleet’s arsenal and how much he handles the ball is a variable in that function. How significant of a variable? Well, we need to find out and we can only do that if Lowry steps back and let’s the near term core of this team assume greater responsibility. There will be struggles but that’s part of growing up.

Not to look too specifically at a particular matchup, but I’m looking forward to having some size in the backcourt so the likes of Boston pose less of a challenge.

Defend the Three, Or Make Them. Something.

The Raptors were 4th in three-point shooting rate, 15th in making them, and 23rd in defending the three. Putting those stats together what you get is a team that shoots a lot of threes, doesn’t make them well enough, and also gives up a high number of threes. Yikes! I call it the Triple Threat Shitfest. So how do we fix this? No idea. But partially this is addressed by getting interior help so guards don’t fake us out, drive in, and then kick out for open threes.

The Raptors also need Yuta Watanabe to be hitting them at a 40% clip consistently, and they need to replace Stanley Johnson with someone who can shoot and defend. Enter Paul Watson Jr. This guy needs to be the most improved Raptor next season by a distance. The Raptors have invested heavily in him and he’s shown glimpses of why, but injuries have hampered him just when he was hitting his stride. Watson shot 47% from three (not a typo) on 2.4 makes a game, which means that number is scalable. If Watson is able to stay healthy and play even defensively, he should see an up-tick from his 11 minutes per game, many of which were in garbage time.

It can’t be overstated that the Raptors were a mix-and-mash group this season with the rotations being constantly experimented with and zero rhythm. Though I shy away from making excuses for the team, it was hard to predict just who would play when at any point this season. This has the effect of the team looking disjointed at times, and down the stretch when the Raptors lost their key players, you saw how disconnected the group was. You would imagine that a fresh season with fewer open questions leads to more predictability in the rotations, which would lead to improved three-point shooting.

Three-point shooters have spots on the floor and have a feeling of how they’re going to get their looks, especially for guys who can’t create their own shots. The Raptors role players never got a chance to find those spots, so I’m confident that even though Watanabe and Watson looked shifty at times, those wrinkles can be ironed out. Both have yet to see defenses adjust to their game and as they get more playing time and scouting reports thicken, times will get tougher. The sooner they push through that experience the better.

Get Pascal Siakam to Finish

Top tier players are rare finds on the market or draft, almost generational. In the history of the franchise we’ve had only two players with that level of talent: Leonard and Vince Carter. To expect the Raptors to strike gold two out of four summers is wishful thinking which means we have to figure out how to elevate the stature of the current roster. That starts with Pascal Siakam. His homework for the off-season looks familiar: get the three-point shooting from 29.7% to what he shot last year (around 35.9%) and improve his ball-handling.

However, what’s holding his scoring back perhaps even more is his inability to finish with consistency around the rim:

As the shot chart shows, around either side of the rim he is remarkably below league average in his finishing, and slightly worse near the front of the rim. Just as his feel for the game improved and help him become a good playmaker for his position, the same bump needs to happen with his finishing.

Can he have another skill growth spurt where he elevates his production the way he’s done in some previous years? It’s a big question to answer because the scouting reports are out and teams know his tendencies. His reaction to the adjustments thus far is questionable, and this was the season where we were supposed to assess his reaction to league reactions. Covid postponed that project to next season, buying Siakam another summer to mull his game over.

Siakam remains a firm #2 option on a contending team, and I liken him to Chris Bosh in that respect. This space was hard on Bosh in his time in Toronto and will not make that mistake again. Though the skill-set is different, the critiques were the same: scoring consistency, not a “#1 guy”, small in big moments. Bosh needed two other Hall of Famers for him to finally find his groove because he wasn’t great at handling double teams. Siakam is adept at reading different looks and reacts to the game far better than Bosh did, so the comparisons stop there. But the larger theme is this: Siakam is an excellent two-way player who cannot be counted on to carry scoring loads consistently. He’s closer to Scottie Pippen and Lamar Odom. Neither ever had scoring consistency but have had high impact.

Don’t Anoint Khem Birch the Starting C

What we have here is a numbing of the senses courtesy of Aron Baynes followed by a cortisone shot in the form of Khem Birch. Birch played the poor man’s Serge Ibaka part perfectly on a team that gave the appearance of not trying to make the post-season because they knew they wouldn’t if they tried. It was a sad state of affairs down the stretch and it is in this context that Birch’s accomplishments need to be viewed: they were refreshing but ultimately most were meaningless games.

Birch is without doubt a serviceable player who mixed well with Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry, and opened up offensive sets firmly shut by his predecessors. He provided the rebounding presence lacking all season as the Raptors were stuck to the absolute bottom of the league in rebounding numbers. His rebounding and defensive impact was evident and it dented the argument that the Raptors forcing a lot of turnovers made up for being a poor rebounding team in any way.

Birch is a perfect backup center and the Raptors should be looking to acquire a #1 center in the market. Is it the Raptors biggest need? Arguably, because the bench needs fixing and Birch coming off it rather than trying to play a “level up” makes for killing two birds with one stone. Malachi Flynn is setup to be the De facto backup point guard and he’ll need a big to play with. The bench was 19th in scoring and for a team that’s hoping to contend, that cannot stand.

We have a history of falling in love with the scrubby hard-working type, and Birch feels like an oasis in the desert, but he’s not the full solution. The Raptors defense is predicated on having strong interior presence to offset the holes an aggressive perimeter defense leaves, and Birch alone can’t provide that cover. He needs help in the form of someone better than him. And though Freddie Gillespie is a pleasant surprise, pinning the Raptors C hopes on those two is not terribly different than repeating the mistake of last summer, as you would expect both to hit walls as defenses adapt.

There’s a lot more needed to bring us back to 2019 levels, but this is a good start.

My skin is turning red. Adios.


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