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O.G., Trent, and Thad cleared for play | The early returns on Poeltl; but was it worth it?

Every NBA Team’s Biggest Flight Risk This Offseason | Bleacher Report

Toronto Raptors: Fred VanVleet

This is one of the tougher calls in the league, as Fred VanVleet’s player option, which brings unrestricted free agency into play, gives him such a clear path out of town. Then again, the Toronto Raptors didn’t trade him at the deadline, which means they might intend or expect to re-sign him this summer. Sign-and-trade constructions are still in play if FVV finds a team that wants him but lacks cap space, which only further clouds the picture.

Not to mention: Gary Trent Jr. also has a player option he’s likely to decline, Thaddeus Young’s contract is only guaranteed for $1 million and new acquisition Jakob Poeltl isn’t quite a lock to return with his own unrestricted free agency creating the possibility of a massive offer from another team.

The pick is still VanVleet because his exit would so fundamentally change Toronto’s makeup. Oddly constructed and heavy on positionless wings and forwards, the Raps don’t have a quality lead guard behind him. If FVV goes, Toronto will have to fill a gaping void in its first unit. Scottie Barnes may still project as an oversized, next-generation playmaker, but he won’t be ready to take over for VanVleet in that role by next season.

In discussing how difficult it’d be to replace VanVleet, it starts to seem as if the Raptors actually can’t afford to lose him. Maybe they’ll pony up three years and $100 million like they did for Kyle Lowry in 2017. It might take that much to beat the market, a scary proposition for a small guard whose production has slipped this year and a major reason VanVleet’s return is far from assured.

Energy Renewed |

Early indications for Poeltl are that this season’s individual drop-off numerically was an anomaly on a team with a net rating of minus-10.3 and neck-and-neck with the Houston Rockets for the worst record in the league.

After being eased into action off the bench against the Utah Jazz, Poeltl has been a plus-29 in 62 minutes across two starts. In the other 34 minutes, the team was outscored by 18 points. Over a very small sample, teams are attempting shots within four feet of the basket seven percent less frequently than when he’s off the court and are also shooting 8.6 percent worse on those attempts. Through three games with Toronto, his defensive field goal percentage allowed on shots within six feet of the basket is back to a more familiar 54.5 percent.

“Defensively, he does a great job of playing the cat-and-mouse game so you’re not really able to finish at the rim,” Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley said after the game. “When you’re there he’s blocking shots so he’s gonna add a great piece to this team.”

“Man, he’s crazy,” Jalen Suggs added. “He’s a force in the paint. When trying to box him out, you can’t outjump him and he’s really strong and physical down there. He fits what they want to do, he’s a big, physical big, he’s gonna hit you in the mouth and have no remorse about it. I think I can respect that a tonne, I respect that style of play and level of physicality and it hurt us tonight.”

While the backline protection has been the most pressing need with all the Raptors’ defensive struggles, the manner in which Poeltl has provided a boost on the offensive end has been just as encouraging. There will certainly be nights where the lack of volume three-point shooting from a frontline of Poeltl, Siakam, and Scottie Barnes will hurt, but the strengths of Poeltl in the pick-and-roll have greased the wheels of an offence that consistently got stuck in mud.

The Spurs have prepared him for this moment. As a team, they ranked 28th, 29th, 28th in three-point attempt frequency the last three seasons and are 28th again this season. Poeltl identified cutting and general off-ball movement as a crucial way to negate a lack of shooting threats, but there is something to be said for vertical spacing as well, something he brings in spades

His threat as a roller has opened up more options for VanVleet as a ball handler – he finished with a season-high 15 assists against Orlando – while Siakam can have no qualms about the dumping the ball off to Poeltl when getting trapped because the Austrian has great touch around the basket, will forcefully punish switches, and is equally adept at picking a pass as well. When Poeltl rolls, he rolls hard and that consistently holds defences accountable and forces them into difficult split-second choices. When they make the wrong one or don’t react quickly enough, he’s smart and skilled enough to take advantage.

“I’ve always enjoyed that,” Poeltl said of being a playmaker. “I’ve always tried to look for the extra pass, always tried to look for the best possible shot. I’m definitely looking forward to that, for now I’m just trying to figure out the system, figure out all the stuff. I’m probably gonna make my way into the system and then as I get more comfortable, really pick my spots to put my game and the things I can bring to the table, apply those to the team and hopefully help us win more games.”

Poeltl will now get some quality time to go through the iPad he’s been given containing all the offensive sets and defensive coverages the Raptors run as the team won’t return to action until Feb. 23 against the New Orleans Pelicans. As much as he may want to, he won’t actually be able to work through them in practice as teammates and coaches alike will be far, far away from the OVO Athletic Centre. It does however speak to the level of his basketball acumen just how quickly he’s been able to have a winning impact on the team.

It’s also testament to a past that has seen him grow with an organization like the Spurs and one of the all-time great coaches in Gregg Popovich.

“He’s just seen so much more and he went to another system,” Fred VanVleet said. “Pop has got a great system and he’s such a teacher that he’s learned so much in the four, four-and-a-half years that he was down there. He’s played with DeMar [DeRozan], he’s played with Dejounte [Murray], and he’s got to learn from the experiences down there.

All-star break was just what the doctor ordered for ailing Raptors | The Star

“They look good, they look healthy and ready to go,” said Nick Nurse about the roster Tuesday evening at the OVO Athletic Centre, where the Raptors took part in the first team practice following the All-Star weekend break.

He was specifically referring to a trio of Raptors players who had missed several games due to injuries prior to the mid-season break —OG Anunoby has been out since late January with a wrist injury; Gary Trent Jr. and Thaddeus Young both missed a few games prior to the All-Star weekend.

All three of them are expected to be in the lineup Thursday, according to Nurse.

The entire team, except two-time all-star Pascal Siakam who represented The North in Salt Lake City, was at the facility for the practice, a welcome sign for a team sitting in the 10th place in Eastern Conference standings, with 23 regular season games to go.

“I think they got through today OK, you know, maybe a little bit of what you’d expect. They missed a bit of time leading into a week off so there was a little bit of rhythm and rust and conditioning and things that we’ll have to get through here for a couple of games,” Nurse said.

The campaign to get into the playoffs starts Thursday when the Raptors host the New Orleans Pelicans, who will be in town without their star forward Zion Williamson. The 22-year-old star has been out with a hamstring injury and is expected to be out of their lineup for the next several weeks.

With everyone back at full strength, confidence is high on how far the Raptors can go and what they can accomplish, despite a litany of setbacks they have faced so far this season.

“We got a lot of work in front of us, so I’m excited to be back, and I think we feel good about where we’re at and the challenge that’s in front of us,” said Fred VanVleet at practice.

He thinks the Raptors have what it takes to finish strong and even possibly jump into the sixth place in the standings, thus avoiding the play-in tournament.

The Washington Wizards, the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat are all chasing the New York Knicks, who are hanging onto the sixth seed as the second part of the season begins. The Raptors are two games clear of the Chicago Bulls, who are in 11th.

“Again, it’s not going to be easy and at this point we’ve just got to put our heads down and go to work and focus on one day at a time. We got a tough team coming in Thursday, and that’s our focus trying to find a way to be successful against New Orleans,” VanVleet added.

Raptors’ VanVleet in a better spot to help team through final stretch | Toronto Sun

The good news is VanVleet starts this second half both healthy and in form.

“I haven’t had — knock on wood — an injury,” VanVleet said. “I suffered an injury last year and I missed time. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do anything different because we got ourselves in position to be the six-seed last year. I knew what I was doing and it hurt at the end of the season to finish like that but all of that is behind us. We’re in a different spot this year, I’m in a different spot physically, we’ve got some ground to make up and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

VanVleet altered his off-season regiment to ensure that he was peaking later in the year rather than to start. That too came with a cost, but it has left him in a pretty good position to make this final run.

“I think that he’s in a better place, I think, right now, then maybe (this time last year) … I think he was already kind of at a point where he was maybe a little tired or whatever…,” Nurse said.

VanVleet, given his veteran status, probably could have extended the break an extra day had he pushed it, but he obviously didn’t.

He knows the road ahead is a tough one and doing whatever he can to best prepare for it, is all that he is thinking about right now.

“It’s time to work,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work in front of us so I’m excited to be back, I think we feel good about where we’re at and the challenge in front of us.”

Where they are at is currently in the 10th and final spot for the play-in, two games clear of Chicago and only 41/2 games back of the Knicks who are alone in sixth, the spot which avoids having to take part in the play-in. VanVleet sees that as a realistic goal even if it requires jumping over four other teams currently ahead of them.

“Absolutely, four-and-a-half games (back) with 23 left,” VanVleet said of reaching the sixth seed. “Again, it’s not going to be easy and at this point we have got to put our heads down and go to work and focus on one day at a time. We got a tough team coming in Thursday and that’s our focus, trying to find a way to be successful against New Orleans.”

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