17. TORONTO RAPTORS (30)
Some fans are concerned about strategic homogeneity — every team playing spread pick-and-roll, chasing the same shots. That concern is overblown, but there is an easy antidote: Watch the positionless, avante-garde basketball experiment unfolding in Toronto!
The Raptors’ rotation amounts to Fred VanVleet and several tall people who can do lots of things on offense and guard everyone on defense. They leverage their length in ways you’d expect, and some you might not: switching, playing wacky zones, bombarding the offensive glass, and posting up size mismatches. They do the unthinkable on defense: allow lots of 3s (basically) on purpose, confident their speed and preposterous arms make for frightening closeouts. (Only Matisse Thybulle has blocked more 3s than Chris Boucher over the past three seasons.)
Playing mismatch ball can be laborious; Toronto possessions after made baskets lasted 18.3 seconds — highest in the league, per Inpredictable. But even the grueling nature of its half-court offense runs counter to trends in a way that makes it appealing.
Pascal Siakam is a fine all-around No. 1 option, and VanVleet is that greater-than-his-statistics guy you appreciate more the longer you watch him. Every seemingly innocuous move — every cut, dribble, wink, shoulder fake — opens a few inches of space, and those inches eventually add up to an open shot.
You never know where that first Precious Achiuwa dribble might lead — everything from a dunk to a pass into the fifth row is in play — but his transformation into a stretch center changed Toronto’s offense.
The announcers, court, and red-and-white jerseys are all great. The pitch on Jack Armstrong’s “Get that gah-bage outta here!” call somehow gets higher every season. Thumbs down to the alternate black-and-gold look.
Of the 20 players the Raptors have in camp, 13 are on guaranteed contracts and two – Jeff Dowtin Jr. and Ron Harper Jr. – are on two-way deals, which means they will split their time between Raptors 905 in the G-League with the big club, where they are eligible to play in 50 games. Dalano Banton has arguably been the Raptors’ best player in the preseason and will almost certainly earn the 14th position, leaving four players fighting for the last spot: incumbent Justin Champagnie; three-point ace Gabe Brown; young big man D.J. Wilson; and Josh Jackson, the No. 4 pick in the 2017 draft who has struggled to find an NBA home. Each provides something a little different, and it really sounds like the final decision – which is expected to be announced Saturday – will come down to the wire with Nurse saying that team need and offensive pop would factor into his choice. “It’s always a tricky thing,” Nurse said of the final roster decision. “We’ll see how it all shakes out. I think there are still a lot of questions to be answered.”
Champagnie is a known quantity and well-liked at all levels of the organization after playing well on a two-way deal last season. What’s hurting his cause is that with fractured thumb in the off-season and a more recent hip strain, he hasn’t had the volume of chances he’s likely wish for to show the strides he’s made in his game. It could come down to a strong showing on Friday night. The 6-foot-7 forward understands his role, however. “For me, it’s just going out there and making my presence be felt,” he said after practice Wednesday. “I know, in all actuality, that if I make the team and I’m playing with the older guys, it’s not going to be me getting to shoot 20 shots. (So) just go out there and play my role still, rebound, play defence, hit open shots if they come to me. Just be a little bit more aggressive.”
Boucher (and Porter) out for game in Montreal
Chris Boucher’s only game as an NBA player in his hometown of Montreal was a preseason start on the eve of the 2018-19 season while fighting for a two-way contract. The sold-out crowd at Bell Centre chanted his name and the local son nearly brought the house down with a pair of threes after he checked in late in the fourth quarter. Boucher’s career has taken off since – he’s kicking off his fifth NBA season and has the security of a three-year, $35-million contract to his name. But a strained hamstring will keep him out of action Friday. Nurse said he’s hoping both Boucher and Otto Porter Jr. – the veteran free agent signing who has been out for two weeks and counting with a hamstring strain – will be ready for Oct. 19, but that date is very much written in pencil. “I think (the season opener) was kind of always the goal with Otto,” said Nurse. “When that happened, that we would try to hold him and see if we can get him ready for the start. But I think the start is still, what, about a week away, right? Yeah, and I think we’ll need probably need all that time to decide.” Third-year guard Malachi Flynn remains out with a fractured cheek bone.
How to approach Friday night?
One of the messages coming out of the Raptors’ preseason was that they wanted to use their bench more and take the pressure off key players with an eye toward keeping them fresh come playoff time. Last season, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam tied for the NBA lead in minutes per game (37.9) and OG Anunoby (36 minutes) would have been fifth had he played enough games to qualify. Gary Trent Jr. (35 minutes) was 14th.
So far, through four preseason games, restraint in the theme. The Raptors starters have all averaged between 17.7 minutes (VanVleet) and 24.5 minutes (Trent Jr.). But with the regular season looming, could Friday be used to ramp up the starters’ minutes to levels they are more likely to experience in the season opener?
Siakam, who is coming off a healthy off-season and earned third-team all-NBA honours, said he’s good to go: “I think I’ve been trying to increase minutes as I go. To be honest, I want to play whatever, you know what I mean? If it depended on me, I’d play right now, so I don’t really care about (Friday) that much because I feel like obviously the game is different, it’s really different, but I just feel like, yeah, I’ll be capable of playing my normal minutes.” Nurse says he’ll consider the starters’ wishes regarding minutes, while also trying give those on the bottom of the roster fighting to make the team a fair shake as well.
Is Barnes ready for that next step?
Expectations are sky-high for the NBA’s reigning rookie of the year, and with good reason, given not only how steady Scottie Barnes was in his age 20 season, but how he seemed to keep improving month after month. With a season under his belt and full off-season of training to bolster it, the hopes are that Barnes’ presumed improvement will help the Raptors lift themselves past the 48 wins and first-round playoff exit they managed last season. But he hasn’t looked particularly good so far in preseason, shooting just 36.4 per cent from the floor and 9-of-18 from the line, while offsetting his 10 assists with 12 turnovers.
A season ago, it was rare for Barnes to have a bad game, but by his standards he’s had four of them so far in preseason play. One explanation? The star is behind the pace after sitting out for three weeks before training camp with a sprained ankle. “Listen, Scottie is playing a little bit of catchup here and it’s noticeable,” Nurse said this week. “I don’t think he has shown a whole lot here in the preseason. … I think he’s just behind a little bit, conditioning-wise, feel-wise, all that kind of stuff. … We just need to keep plugging away and get him feeling so he can feel like he can be out there playing really hard.”
But Achiuwa was the centrepiece of the Lowry return and, naturally, his development would ultimately determine whether or not they made the optimal choice. So far, the team and its fans have reason to feel good about what they got for a player – albeit a great one – already on his way out the door.
It took some time to get here. Achiuwa’s sophomore campaign, and first with Toronto, got off to a rocky start – understandable for a young player making the transition to a new team and a new role. The Raptors gave him more freedom than he had with Miami. They put the ball in his hands and encouraged him to shoot it and make plays. It wasn’t always pretty – even the coaching staff would often cringe when he took a couple dribbles and barrelled his way to the rim – but, clearly, the reps paid off.
Something clicked for Achiuwa after the all-star break and, since then, he’s looked like a completely different player. Over the final 25 games, he averaged 12.2 points and shot the three-ball at a 39 per cent clip, up from 7.5 points and 31 per cent over the first 48 games. His transformation wasn’t just limited to his improved jumper. He was more comfortable with the ball in his hands and began to establish himself as one of the team’s best defenders.
Those are skills he feels that he’s always had. He picked up the sport later than most kids, but was a guard before he hit his growth spurt, and then showed that he could handle the ball and make plays in his lone year at Memphis, where he played for the great Penny Hardaway. Finally, he was starting to see that he could do it at the NBA level, and he took that renewed confidence with him into the summer.
“I’m just getting back to how I used to play in high school and college,” Achiuwa told TSN last week. “Of course, I’m also improving my overall game. I’m improving my reads and seeing the floor better. I put in a lot of work, a lot of time watching film, getting more comfortable. Things that I used to do, that I know I can do, I’m just getting comfortable doing them again.”
There’s still work to be done, as Sunday’s preseason season game – a 115-98 loss to Chicago – showed. Achiuwa was the last of the regular rotation players on the floor late in the fourth quarter, giving him a chance to run the offence. The results were mixed at best, with Achiuwa forcing a few tough shots around the rim and missing a couple three-point attempts.
There are those who would find way to parcel out some blame. The 25-year-old Jackson accepts responsibility.
“Every place is different,” he said after a practice this week. “I can’t say that every organization that I’ve been a part of has been great in helping its players succeed but, with that, what I have learned is you’ve got to be the one to make sure that you’re getting everything that you need.
“You have to make sure you’re working on the things you need to work on because, at the end of the day, it is your career, it’s not theirs.”
Jackson, a six-foot-eight guard-forward, is trying to rekindle his career with the Raptors with a non-guaranteed one-year contract and a chance to win the last available roster spot. It could be seen as a bit a comedown for a young player so highly thought of after one year at Kansas that Phoenix picked him fourth five years ago.
He lasted just two seasons with the Suns and was traded to Memphis in a four-player deal after the 2018-19 season. The Grizzlies run was a failure — he played just 22 games — and he spent a season-and-a-half in Detroit before ending last season with Sacramento.
There were off-the-court issues: A vandalism charge at college; an arrest after trying to elude police when he was stopped from entering a VIP arena at a Miami concert; a suspension from Memphis’s G League team for unspecified reasons. Nothing earth-shattering but still part of his overall body of work. Jackson is quick to admit there have been missteps on and off the court that he’s had to learn from.
“I’m a strong believer in just taking something away from everything that happens — good or bad,” he said. “That’s all I’ve been trying to do my entire time in the league and, also, from mistakes that I’ve made in the past. I’m trying to help young players to not make those same mistakes.
“Any time I can give a little bit of knowledge that I have to another player who’s come up after me, I take the chance.”
Whether Jackson can stick in Toronto remains to be seen. He’s fighting with a handful of other possibilities — Justin Champagnie, D.J. Wilson and Gabe Brown are his primary rivals — and no one has really jumped up to take the job.
It’s the most asked question and the one Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse hates the most: Who is going to start?
Frankly, there’s good reason for his distaste of the question. Who cares who starts? Isn’t the far more important question who finishes? Who logs the most minutes? Those questions, though, are far more difficult to answer and depend almost entirely on how the game is going. So here we are.
All indications are the Raptors are going to go with the same starting lineup the team had for the bulk of last season with Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, O.G. Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam. As Nurse said Tuesday, “they’re probably clearly the five best players.”
That, however, could change pretty quickly depending on the night.
“Do we really want Scottie, Pascal, or O.G. guarding a really good big five to start the game? I don’t think we probably do,” Nurse said, referring primarily to Philadelphia 76ers superstar center Joel Embiid. “So we’re gonna have to make some adjustments to that. Or it’s just going to be three minutes and we’re sending in a guy.”
For years now Nurse has floated the idea of changing his starting lineup on a nightly base depending on the matchup. One night, for example, Precious Achiuwa could start if Toronto needed a little more size against a bigger opponent. On the next night, Trent could shift back into the starting lineup when size was less of a factor.
It’s a good idea on paper but one Nurse has never implemented, usually opting for cohesion both within starting lineup and off the bench. For Toronto’s returning bench trio of Chris Boucher, Thad Young, and Precious Achiuwa, who finished last season plus 14 in 169 minutes together, that familiarity has been helpful.
Technically the Raptors have two spots open but given the play of Dalano Banton to date and all that the team has invested in him to this point, it’s an almost a given that he takes that first spot.
Champagnie is right behind Banton in terms of investment with a full year in the system under his belt and plenty of development time to boot that comes with its own cost.
But his off-season has been derailed a few times by injury preventing him from opportunities to show the development in his game to the people that will make the roster decisions.
Coupled with the arrival of Jackson, a one-time lottery pick with a defensive bend that is line with the Raptors philosophy not to mention his five years of NBA experience, Champagnie has some competition.
Then there’s DJ Wilson, brought in last season on 10-day contracts three times. Wilson is another known commodity by the Raptors and, with a solid all-round game, could be what the Raptors need at the end of their bench.
But the feeling is this is Champagnie’s job to lose.
He has a unique ability to rebound the basketball, something this team has struggled with and before the off-season injuries started to pile up, and his three-point game was much improved.
First it was a small fracture in his left thumb that prevented him from playing for the Raptors Summer League team in Vegas.
Then in training camp, a right hip injury kept him out of all game action until he hit the floor Sunday against the Bulls.
Champagnie played eight minutes in that game and, while head coach Nick Nurse commented on his energy level and effort, the results weren’t really there.
His last chance to make an impression before the roster is finalized comes Friday in Montreal.
Both Otto Porter Jr. and Chris Boucher are expected to miss Friday’s preseason finale in Montreal with hamstring injuries, Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Wednesday after practice. Malachi Flynn also remains sidelined though he did take part in some shooting Wednesday with a mask on as he recovers from a fracture in his left cheekbone.
“I think that would be the goal,” Nurse said of having Boucher and Porter back for opening night on Oct. 19. “I think it was kind of always the goal with Otto when that happened that we would try to hold him and see if we get him ready for the start.”
With five days between the preseason finale and the opener, Toronto has a little more wiggle room to get healthy. It’s been a chaotic preseason with games across the continent and a little break will certainly be welcomed, Nurse said.
Flynn is expected to be ready when the regular season tips off though he’ll have to continue wearing the mask until his face fully recovers.