Morning Coffee – Tue, Mar 28

Downtin Abbey time

Raptors and Jeff Dowtin Jr. represent important opportunities for one another – The Athletic

Dowtin’s recent play has been meaningful for the Raptors, but his future might be more meaningful for what he represents: a return to the Raptors finding contributors in unusual places. As has been discussed throughout the season, the team helped turn Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby and Norman Powell — two bottom-third first-rounders, a mid-second-rounder and an undrafted player — into high-end NBA players has been unable to cobble together a consistent bench this year. Blame doesn’t have to be given entirely to the front office, the coaching staff or the players themselves. It’s a group effort, and the Raptors have not thrived in an area they used to exploit better than most. They need to get back to doing that.

Before that, let’s get into the specifics of Dowtin’s situation. Along with Ron Harper Jr., Dowtin signed a two-way deal with the Raptors in the offseason. Last year, after he went undrafted, he initially signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Orlando Magic, before being claimed by the Golden State Warriors, who signed him to a two-way contract before the season started. He was waived in January, signed 10-day contracts with the Milwaukee Bucks and then Orlando, and then his season ended. All the while, he was one of the better guards in the G League, which earned him his summer league shot with the Raptors. He was the best Raptor in Las Vegas, and earned the two-way deal.

Given Dowtin’s relative importance and utility, why hasn’t he been converted to a full-time contract already? Money and math, of course.

The Raptors entered the trade deadline about $4.5 million below the luxury-tax threshold. They added money by trading Khem Birch, making $6.7 million, for Jakob Poeltl, making $9.4 million, essentially cutting that space in half. After that, they signed Joe Wieskamp to fill the 15th roster spot on the main roster. That spot was previously freed up when the Raptors waived Justin Champagnie, a former two-way-turned-main-roster player, for the pro-rated minimum salary for a second-year player. They then waived Juancho Hernangomez, who was on a fully guaranteed contract, to sign Will Barton to the pro-rated veteran minimum. That brought Toronto precariously close to the tax threshold, which the Raptors do not want to exceed for a middling team. That’s how the vast majority of NBA teams work.

In hindsight, signing Wieskamp, who is now injured and has played 30 total minutes with Toronto, was the mistake keeping the Raptors from converting Dowtin earlier, getting him more money in the process. Given how poorly the Raptors have shot the ball for much of the year, it’s understandable that they wanted to take a chance on a player who has shot better than 38 percent from 3 in the G League. The problem is the Raptors had so many minor roles to fill — the bigger point — that if Wieskamp could not earn coach Nick Nurse’s trust quickly, it would essentially be a wasted roster spot. Nurse doesn’t trust players easily, generally with good reason. The Raptors, so close to the tax, are incentivized to keep Dowtin on a two-way deal, which does not count against the salary cap or tax calculations, for as long as possible in order to avoid going over. (The Raptors are close enough to the threshold that mismanaging that situation could send them beyond it, especially if a few of their other players reach unlikely incentives).

Despite small sample size, Dowtin Jr.’s contribution to Raptors cannot be overlooked – Sportsnet

It could be because the more Dowtin Jr. plays, the better the Raptors seem to do. Sunday night’s win over the Washington Wizards was the latest example, just as Toronto’s win over the Detroit Pistons was in the game before that.

Dowtin Jr. played 49 minutes combined in the two games — the most he’s played in consecutive games this season and Toronto was plus-24 during his time on the floor.

It’s an ongoing theme. In the 10 games the slender point guard has played 10 minutes or more (it’s actually been just nine, but we’re rounding up the 9:39 he played against the Orlando Magic back on Feb. 14) Toronto is 7-3. He is plus-19 in those games, which is more impressive considering Dowtin Jr. averages just four points a game in those stretches of extended playing time and is most notable for barely touching the ball — his usage rate typically hovers around low double-figures, which is rare for a point guard. Against the Wizards on Sunday, it was just 4.3 per cent. The game before against the Pistons, it was just 11.9 per cent.

He’s shown the ability to not only do the right thing more often than not but almost never do the wrong thing, which is sometimes more important and all the while letting the team’s big guns do their thing almost uninterrupted. Proving he can impact games without the ball is not something players on two-way contracts like Dowtin Jr. can often manage.

“He’s just another guy who was a connector and organizer and he’s just a leader and he’s one of those traditional floor general-type of guys who can get you into sets and get guys in the right spots and he can defend so we need that, we need more of that,” said Fred VanVleet, who sees some of himself in Dowtin Jr., another undrafted, undersized point guard whose appeal grows over time. “Anytime his number is called, he’s ready to go. So, he’s in there working his butt off every day. And whenever he gets his opportunities he’s out there and he’s producing at a pretty high level. Give him the ball and he’ll make some shots too. So, Jeff has been great for us whenever his number has been called.”

Why Dowtin Jr.’s number hasn’t been called more often is a fair question.

The way two-way contracts work is that a player in Dowtin Jr.’s situation is paid a pro-rated amount of the NBA rookie minimum — about $509,000 — and can dress for a maximum of 50 games. Any more than that and he would need to have his deal converted to a regular contract, taking up one of the 15 roster spots with the big club, and the salary he earns counts against the cap for luxury tax purposes.

As well, players on two-way deals can’t appear in the play-in tournament or playoff games.

With 46 games on the Raptors’ active roster, Dowtin Jr. has four games remaining to play on his two-way deal. Given Toronto has seven games left, beginning with Tuesday night’s game with the visiting Miami Heat, something is going to have to give if the Raptors want to have their best lineup available for the rest of the regular season and beyond.

It can be confusing, and Dowtin Jr. claims he’s not completely up to speed on the nuances either other than he knows something will likely have to change sooner than later.

“It’s just basketball at the end of the day,” he said Monday as the Raptors practised in advance of their meeting with the seventh-place Heat. “Whenever my name is called I’m ready to play and ready to compete. I’m not really thinking much about any of the other stuff except winning ball games and helping the team win and just playing when my name is called.”

Toronto Raptors’ Jeff Dowtin Jr. making late-season push for extended stay on roster | TSN

Dowtin checks off a few boxes. He gives them a bit more size than Flynn and is a better shooter than Banton. He’s an excellent perimeter defender, which is also something they’ve needed from the position. And with his age and experience there’s also a level of maturity and consistency to his game that the team really likes.

“I think he’s played well for us just about every time he’s gone out there,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “We’re always talking about solid play, which is guarding your position as well as you can and executing at both ends of the floor. He’s got us running stuff and is capable of scoring a little bit on his own but doesn’t overdo it. He just fits in nicely there on both ends.”

“He’s just a leader and one of those traditional floor general-type of guys who can get you into sets and get guys in the right spots,” said VanVleet. “And he can defend so we need that, we need more of that. Anytime his number is called he’s ready to go. He’s in there working his butt off every day and whenever he gets his opportunities he’s out there and he’s producing at a pretty high level.”

So, why hasn’t he been able to hold on to a spot in Nurse’s rotation? He’s had a few solid stints, including a three-game stretch in late February just before the team signed veteran journeyman Will Barton, who was miscast as a backup point guard (and it showed). The problem is that the Raptors have had to be conscious of and manage his games, especially over the past month as he’s approached his maximum.

It’s a double-edged sword. Two-way contracts were introduced in 2017 to give players like Dowtin an opportunity they may not have gotten before. Teams are allowed to carry a couple of extra players that don’t count toward their 15-man roster or under the salary cap, while those players get some valuable NBA reps and a bump in salary compared to their development counterparts in the G League. Dowtin’s two-way deal allowed him to get his foot in the door, but it’s also what’s prevented him from earning a bigger and more permanent role with the Raptors.

That should change over the coming weeks. To convert his deal, they’d have to waive somebody from their regular roster. Sparingly-used shooter Joe Wieskamp would seem to be a likely candidate – he’s played just 13 minutes since they signed him on Feb. 11 and isn’t owed guaranteed money beyond this season. Neither is Banton, who’s had an underwhelming sophomore campaign, but the 23-year-old still has plausible upside and several high-ranking fans in the organization.

Raptors’ Jeff Dowtin Jr. emerges as reliable backup point guard | The Star

Neither general manager Bobby Webster nor vice-chairman Masai Ujiri have ever commented on how they see Dowtin’s fitting in but those most affected by his presence sing his praises.

“I think he’s played for us well just about every time he’s gone out there,” coach Nick Nurse said Monday. “We’re always talking about solid play, which is guarding your position as well as you can and executing at both ends of the floor.

“He just fits in nicely there on both ends.”

Said Scottie Barnes: “He knows how to put people in the spots, he knows how to play. He’s a really smart basketball player, high IQ. He knows how to do his job and it’s easy playing with him.”

What Dowtin has become is a reliable backup point guard to Fred VanVleet who plays smart, safe and under control. He’s not going to have a major role if he sticks around — and it’ll diminish further if the Raptors get in the playoffs and VanVleet plays 40 minutes a game, as everyone expects.

Dowtin has, however, passed Malachi Flynn on the depth chart, primarily because of his defensive abilities, and with Dalano Banton fighting injuries, there is a role to fill. It may be 12 minutes a night now, or much less in the post-season, but Dowtin has the skill set needed.

A steady hand, even in the shortest of stints, is vital in tense games at the end of the regular season and into the play-in tournament that seems to be the Raptors’ destiny.

“He knows how to play and has a good read on how the pieces of the offence work so he can help direct traffic out there a little bit,” Nurse said of Dowtin.

“He’s been good all year, from the start all through, really. He’s played good. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He shows it consistently, practice, games, whatever.”

If he gets to show it in the last week of the regular season or whatever games the Raptors have after that, great.

Raptors Praise Jeff Dowtin Jr. as Contract Decision Looms – Sports Illustrated Toronto Raptors News, Analysis and More

It’s maybe a little hard to believe the Toronto Raptors’ backup point guard is as unaware of his contract situation as he’d like to have you believe. He remains on a two-way deal, eligible to play in only four of Toronto’s final seven games and ineligible for post-season play including the play-in tournament.

Asked if he knows how much money Toronto is below the luxury tax ($693,021), Dowtin laughed.

“I have no idea,” he said, unaware that the Raptors will be right up against the number if his contract is eventually converted.

Has he spoken to his agent about the situation?

“No, like I said, at the end of the day I’m just focused strictly on basketball,” Dowtin added. “If coach gives me the call and says I’m playing tonight, I’m 100 percent ready and prepared. At the end of the day, that’s all it is.”

But it’s hard not to be aware of what’s coming. At some point in the next week, Dowtin’s contract is going to be converted to a standard deal. He’s shown over and over again that he’s among Toronto’s top 12 players and deserves both a spot on the roster and at times a spot in the rotation.

“I think he’s played for us well just about every time he’s gone out there,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse following Monday’s practice. “We’re always talking about solid play, which is guarding your position as well as you can and executing at both ends of the floor. He’s got us running stuff and is capable of scoring a little bit as well on his own but doesn’t overdo it. He just fits in nicely there on both ends.”

He’s an “organizer,” said Fred VanVleet. Dowtin understands what he has to do on the court and he sets his teammates up to the best of his abilities. It’s why he’s begun to set himself apart from the rest of the backup guard pack, finding a niche as a two-way player ahead of Malachi Flynn in the rotation, having already passed the injured Dalano Banton, and quickly approaching the minutes Will Barton once filled prior to his ankle injury.

“He’s in there working his butt off every day,” VanVleet added Sunday. “Whenever he gets his opportunities he’s out there and he’s producing at a pretty high level and give him the ball and he’ll make some shots too.”

That’s been Dowtin’s M.O. for his whole life. He’s not a ball hog or possessions eater and has never led his team in field goal attempts, not in college nor in the G League despite having a case for always being the best player on his team.

For the Raptors, crunch time has arrived and Barnes has to step up | Toronto Sun

As it currently stands, the Raptors and Atlanta Hawks are tied with identical 37-38 records.

The Hawks hold the tiebreaker.

A win Tuesday night looms large for a Raptors team that desperately needs to reach the .500 level.

How much noise the team is capable of generating in the post-season remains unknown, but it’s within Toronto’s reach of playing host to a play-in game.

After that, the normal best-of-seven series awaits.

In recent games and weeks, the likes of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby have shown an ability to take over games with their offence.

The latest example was provided by Anunoby Sunday night when Washington came to town.

Anunoby set the tone early and then fuelled a fourth quarter run to begin the final quarter en route to a 10-point win over the Wizards.

Barnes has proven he can score, but now comes the hard part of persevering through wrist discomfort he first developed in Milwaukee last weekend.

Not surprisingly, in his first game back Sunday the wrist was sore when Barnes got hit a few times.

Admittedly, he’ll have to manage the pain for the balance of the regular season and into the post-season.

“Nothing major,” he said. “It’s getting better”

For the Raptors to be better, Barnes must step up.

It begins Tuesday night when plenty will be at stake.

Including Miami’s visit, the Raptors have seven games remaining.

A 4-3 run will take the Raptors to the .500 level, which won’t cut it.

What the team must do is end the season with five wins, a total that will vault the Raptors into a winning season at 42-40.

When the season began, there was talk of competing for home court and surpassing the 50-win mark.

No sustained stretch of high-end play has been achieved and no sense in detailing the various issues that have plagued this team.

With the season on the line, there’s no better time than the present for the Raptors to make that necessary breakthrough.

Following the Heat game, Toronto will be in Philly and then move on to Charlotte for a two-game set against the Hornets.

Then comes an additional two-game set against the host Boston Celtics before the Raptors close out the regular season with a home date against the Bucks on April 9 with a matinee tip.

There’s a chance the Raptors might be good enough to salvage this season given the lofty expectations that surrounded the team heading into the season.

What they must avoid is the disinterested style of play that plagued the unit Sunday when Washington’s undermanned group dominated the home side, which lacked any sense of desperation.

Say what you want about the Raptors and whether their lot can be best described as residing in that undesirable status of being not that good and yet not that bad, but this team can be dangerous and a potential post-season threat, as strange as that may sound for a team sporting a losing record.

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