Morning Coffee – Thu, Feb 16

Raptors play Pelicans before the the ASG break | Centerless basketball no longer a thing

The Raptors have taken a 180 on their team philosophies | The Star

Still, there’s a reason the Raptors ditched the centre-less philosophy at last week’s trade deadline by re-patriating seven-footer Jakob Poeltl to the franchise that drafted him ninth overall back in 2016. Despite the occasional rumour of their imminent demise, seven footers with know-how and heft and skill remain a valuable commodity in the NBA.

Indeed, there’s a reason why Nikola Jokic, the centre for the Denver Nuggets, is currently favoured to become the first player since Larry Bird to win three straight most valuable player awards. And there’s a reason why, in voting for Jokic’s previous two MVPs, the runner-up was Joel Embiid, the centre for the 76ers. An NBA centre that wraps the virtuoso skillset of Jokic and Embiid into an uncommonly hulking package is a rare prize, to be sure. And perhaps the rarity speaks to the reason the Raptors hadn’t employed even the palest of imitations until they acquired Poeltl.

Now, nobody’s pretending Poeltl should be mentioned in the same conversation as Jokic or Embiid. But he does play the same position. And he’s already demonstrated, in three games as a reborn Raptor, that there’s a lot to be said for team management finally getting around to filling a gaping chasm in the roster. Certainly Poeltl’s uber-efficient production in Tuesday’s win over the Magic, in which he reeled off 30 points on 15-for-17 shooting while adding nine rebounds and six blocked shots, suggested he’s stepped into a ready-made role that’s been waiting too long for a competent occupant. As a setter of screens who can pop open for a mid-range jumper or roll to the hoop with a soft touch, as a physical presence who can rebound and protect the rim — the evidence is slim and anecdotal, and its repeatability will be tested in the 23 games that’ll unfold after this weekend’s all-star break, but it’s not exactly difficult to imagine the Raptors looking like a more formidable team featuring an actual centre than they did trying to go without one.

“I think that was the goal of the trade. I can fill that true centre position,” Poeltl said after Tuesday’s win over the Orlando Magic. “I just feel like I’ve been just getting more comfortable with every game out there.”

Now, whether or not it made sense to bet on this particular iteration of the Raptors with the Poeltl trade is another matter, entirely. Tossing away a top-six-protected first-round draft pick in 2024 and a couple of second rounders, not to mention Khem Birch, to acquire an impending free agent — it reads more like a panic move for instant gratification than a masterstroke in long-term team building.

Exactly where the Raptors can go in the final 23 games is anyone’s guess. But if they make their predictable rise in the standings they’ll be simultaneously hurting their 2023 draft position in exchange for a sniff at the play-in tournament, or maybe a modest playoff seed. Two years ago Ujiri scoffed at such a futile pursuit by coining a trademark phrase, “Play-in for what?” Now, apparently, the mood has shifted: “The play-in’s for us.” The play-in’s for us, and so is a traditional centre. Whether it was wise to make a run at the former by paying dearly to acquire the latter — at least the Raptors have yet again created their own direction. Wherever it is they’re headed, it’s in the screeching wake of a late-season organizational 180.

10 things: Raptors’ Achiuwa gets job done defensively against Magic’s Banchero – Sportsnet

It’s not an oversimplification to say that Jakob Poeltl was the difference between this win and the two harrowing losses earlier in December. Poeltl was dominant on both ends, especially on offence, where he hit 15-of-17 from the field for 30 points.

Orlando sold out to stop Toronto’s main playmakers, which is a sensible strategy on a night the Raptors were missing two of their three best shooters (O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr.) but this game demonstrated that the Raptors have counters at their disposal.

Poeltl repeatedly found himself open on rolls to the rim, and with the seven-footer making his first nine attempts, his teammates were more than happy to find him. Poeltl got only three types of looks — rolls to the rim after setting the screen to start the play, post-ups over Orlando’s wings, or tip-ins — and that’s the strict diet within the offence that will maintain his efficiency moving forward.

His soft touch around the basket means he doesn’t have to get all the way to the hoop, as he can just as easily make floaters and push shots to create angles against his defenders. Poeltl makes for an easy pressure release in the middle of the floor, and his efficiency in the lane offers a reliable counterbalance to the offence.

Our grades reflect a disappointing Raptors’ season to date | Toronto Sun

Pascal Siakam: B+
The Raptors’ lone all-star has been one of the few constants on a team full of inconsistency. A right adductor strain cost him 10 games or about three weeks in November, but other than that, he has nightly set the bar for his teammates with his hustle, desire to win and ability to execute. He has played the most minutes, scored the most points, pulled down the most rebounds and basically had more impact on the Raptors’ limited success than any of his peers. He probably needs a rest more than he needs to go to the all-star game, even if he wasn’t named when he should have been, instead having to wait for league commissioner Adam Silver to put him in there as an injury replacement.

Fred VanVleet: C-
This one hurts because we know VanVleet is much better than this. He has started to show it of late too, with his game picking up midway through January and his shooting returning to the levels he has established as his level since coming into the NBA. But there is no denying his inability to find a dependable three-point shot or even keep opposing guards from going off has played a major part in the team’s current record.

Gary Trent Jr.: B-
Trent Jr.’s slump wasn’t as long as VanVleet’s or as drastic, but like every player not named Siakam, he had his down time and his happened to come in November when the team was still playing decently. A good November by Trent Jr. could have improved that 7-7 month and helped offset the coming 5-10 disaster that was December. But other than that month of November when Trent Jr. shot just 27% from three and under 40% from the field, he has been solid.

Scottie Barnes: C-
Like VanVleet, Barnes’ season didn’t really get going until January. The reigning rookie-of-the-year struggled to find both role and rhythm in Toronto’s offence this year until the calendar turned to 2023. He’s still not looking to score as much as it feels like he could, but there’s no arguing with his late-game aggression, where he seems to turn it up in the fourth quarter. Expectations were probably too high for a guy in just his second year, but until January it felt like he was slow-walking his game into the season.

O.G. Anunoby: C+
Just when it felt like Anunoby was going to kick that can’t-stay-healthy qualifier that seems attached to his name, a sprained wrist off a bad collision in Golden State put another damper on his season. Anunoby had the opposite trajectory of VanVleet and Barnes. His scoring and offensive impact started to tail off in January, just when the rest of the lineup was catching up with Siakam, or at least closing the gap. Defensively though, he has been a rock for most of the year and you see how much he’s missed in those eight games since going down in San Francisco. The defence is clearly missing its biggest cog.

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