Morning Coffee – Mon, Apr 17

Scottie needs to do better and work harder

A time for new laurels |

For the ninth season in the last 10, the Raptors secured a record of .500 or better and the lone exception was the Tampa Tank. Humans are creatures of habit, and when you get used to winning at the clip Toronto has over the past decade, the goalposts shift. Excluding the 2020-21 season, fans saw the team average 51.4 regular season wins over nine years with eight playoff appearances, 46 playoff wins and a championship. For context, over the previous 11 years, the franchise averaged 32.5 wins and made the playoffs twice where they earned just three wins.

Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and co. have worked hard to redefine what success means for this franchise and now must work even harder to ensure that missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons is an exception and doesn’t become the new normal.

When it was Fred VanVleet’s turn to speak, he expressed the need for a new identity, that the championship residue had worn off and that any hope or belief that it still resides in the air and would magically carry them in years to come needs to evaporate. Newness was a theme, and particularly how what was ingenious last season became antiquated this season.

Toronto created significant marginal gains last season with their innovative style of winning the possession battle via forcing turnovers and crashing the offensive glass. The league as a whole saw an opportunity to be had with offensive rebounding and reduced that advantage this season. The ball pressure and scramble aspect of their defence was picked apart far too often while their gains in the fast break offensively were negated by their transgressions defensively.

“We didn’t execute at a high level, we didn’t perform,” VanVleet said. “I don’t know how many games we came in talking about energy, and not playing hard enough or tough enough or smart enough. So, there are a lot of things that we could’ve done better, obviously, in hindsight. But when you’re in the moment it’s just funky like that sometimes. All in all, like I said, just a disappointing season from our standards and where we want to be and the tradition that we’ve built here. We just didn’t meet that mark for this season.”

If someone were to name traits of the organization’s identity over the past several years, hard-nosed and defence-first would be among them, but the whole being greater than the sum of its parts would likely be right up there, too. That was perhaps the most puzzling absence of all, and speaks volumes of why the second-half collapse in the Play-In Game against the Bulls was more a theme than an anomaly.

The best teams have a swagger to them but also humility in not taking anything for granted. There is a ways to go in terms of the team as a whole understanding the value of each possession and recently acquired centre Jakob Poeltl lamented the team going “too much into cruise control.”

“We’re just at times a small step behind,” Poeltl said. “It seems like a tiny adjustment that we need to make. I feel like we have everything we need, we’re just not quite there. It’s about figuring out what that is to put us in a spot where we are really good on a consistent level. What those adjustments are, it’s not always easy to figure out. Maybe a small change of mindset here, it might be a small tactical change. I don’t know, I couldn’t tell you that. It’s about figuring that out to become a winning team, a really winning team.”

Poeltl was a big part of the positive note the Raptors finished the season on (15-11 record), the presence of a seven-footer at centre with strong rim protection skills and a soft touch around the basket addressing a major need. The starting group posted a plus-9.5 net rating after his arrival, and re-signing him will play a huge role in the team’s hopes of success in 2023-24.

There were arguably no bigger individual positives than the play of Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby with both expected to contend for end-of-season awards, the former for what could be a third All-NBA appearance and the latter for a first selection to an All-Defensive team. Anunoby led the league in steals on both a cumulative and per game basis, while Siakam finished as one of just five players to average at least 24 points, seven rebounds, and five assists alongside Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and LeBron James.

Again, the starting pieces are there, but how they can be complemented to get the team better results is the main challenge that lies ahead. A major component in putting it all together is Nurse, who expressed his passion for both the franchise and how to get it back to the level of success it’s become accustomed to.

“Listen, I love it here. I love it here and we have built a really strong culture,” Nurse said. “That is what Masai is doing. That is what Bobby is doing. That’s what I’m doing. We’ve got to all evaluate how we can get that culture back where we need it and get back to being a playoff team and then getting to a level of winning it all. That’s what we want to do. That’s what we get up and go to work for the last 10 years.”

From players to coaching staff to front office, this is a summer for serious reflection and evaluation. What are the minor details that are missing? Who will look in the mirror and acknowledge their own shortcomings?

Failure can be a great teacher, and the action or inaction this summer will show exactly what the team has learned.

End-of-season Raptors report card is stingy on high marks: We the ninth – The Athletic

Nick Nurse — D+
41-41 (9th in East), plus 1.5 net rating (12th in NBA), 114.6 offensive rating (13th), 113.1 defensive rating (11th)

It is perpetually difficult to separate a coach’s performance from his roster’s. Here’s what we know: Everyone on this team felt it was capable of more. The coach and his players frequently cited energy and effort as issues. Nurse’s aggressive defensive tactics weren’t nearly as effective as last year. And despite dominating the possession battle in the vast majority of games, this team was average. The coach has to wear his fair chunk of that. Demerit for bringing up his own future with the team for no real reason, despite how often he says he was asked about it (he wasn’t, in public, until he mentioned it himself) at the end of the season. There is no doubt Nurse is a great tactical mind, but this team rarely looked fully prepared to execute a 48-minute game plan.

Masai Ujiri, president, and Bobby Webster, general manager — D

We could go through the front office’s moves, transaction by transaction, and pick them apart. That story has largely been told. More than anything, a front office’s job is to make sure an organization, from executives to the coaching staff to players, is well aligned. That wasn’t the case this year. There have been far more calamitous situations in the league, both this year and in the past, but the Raptors’ vaunted culture and organizational structure took a real hit this year. Add that to some questionable roster management and a lack of results on the player developmental front, and the front office grabs the biggest share of the blame for this disappointing season.

The question: Do they trade either Siakam or Anunoby and re-orient the future of this team around Barnes?

Raptors Looking For More From Scottie Barnes in Offseason – Sports Illustrated

Year 2 was a bit of a wake-up call for Scottie Barnes.

For now, it’s nothing too concerning. The 21-year-old reigning Rookie of the Year was just fine as a sophomore. He didn’t quite live up to expectations, he acknowledged that, but it was far from a disaster. He was, generally speaking, the same player he’d been as a rookie for the Toronto Raptors, a lackluster shooter with a prolific playmaking package, who played inconsistent and at times disappointing on-ball defense.

This summer, though, Barnes can’t take it easy.

“I’d say probably just change up my conditioning-wise, just try to get a lot of conditioning in,” said Barnes who reportedly had disappointed the organization with his offseason workouts last summer. “I feel I probably need a different level of conditioning for the way I want to play.”

Barnes eased up on his self-criticism a little bit when pressed on the topic. He said he didn’t think his conditioning has a “super” impact on the way he played, but he said he does want to get in better shape to help his defense.

“I felt like I’m in pretty good condition, but I just want to take it to another level with my training,” he said. “I always play with a lot of energy when I’m out there on the floor, try to stay locked in. That’s just something I try to focus on.”

Nobody is going to disagree with him.

“Just get in the lab. That’s it. That is the only thing I ever tell him,” Fred VanVleet said of Barnes. “Scottie is going to be as good as he wants to be, as good as he wants to be as a player. I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do on the court, but just be a gym rat. Stay in the gym. That will speed up the process and he’s doing that.”

Skills-wise, it’s the offensive end Barnes needs to work on the most if he wants to take the next step. He can throw virtually every pass imaginable, but his pass-first mentality is inhibited by his sub-pass shooting. He regressed as a shooter this past year from every area on the court and every shot available.

That can’t happen again.

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