What in the world, Scottie Barnes. This is preposterous pic.twitter.com/qG3b8zh2eu
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) November 10, 2023
The trade calls will only grow in volume as the season progresses. From front offices, and from the team’s own fan base. There is no conceivable way the Raptors can come away with all three of Barnes, Siakam, and Anunoby without serious cap ramifications. And it’s hard to envision a path in which that would make sense from the perspective of the front office. (If the Raptors trade OG, I will cry.) For the past three years, the Raptors, despite having some of the most coveted players on the trade market, have consistently amounted to less than the sum of their parts, with one first-round exit and two seasons on the outside looking in. That isn’t a dynamic you commit to for any longer than you have to—unless Rajakovic’s radical love and 0.5 system work miracles in short order. Teams circling around contention, looking for the final piece, will come knocking, just as they have been for years. Golden State and Philadelphia are obvious suitors, as are the Lakers, who have become masters of the deadline facelift. In the meantime, the vibes have been restored after two important wins in Texas. If the comeback in San Antonio signaled an imperative motion toward a Barnes-led future, the decisive team win led by Siakam in Dallas momentarily corralled expectations back toward the present. It was a push and pull that felt inevitable as soon as they hired Rajakovic, a renowned player development coach tasked with leading a team that ostensibly still has postseason aspirations. It’s a push and pull that Ujiri seems to have built a cottage upon—scoffing at packages of multiple first-round picks, leaving the negotiating table on several possible trades for Damian Lillard or the no. 3 pick—biding his time while he waits for a perfect move that is looking less and less likely to come.
Time is a slippery thing, but it keeps a pattern. Vince Carter’s indelible reign in Toronto lasted just over six seasons. The partnership of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, which felt like a lifetime of regular-season highs immediately followed by humiliating postseason lows, lasted no longer. And while it might not feel like it—for global-pandemic-related reasons we’ll all need therapy in the coming decades to truly reconcile—this is the fifth season since Toronto’s championship. In one form or another, a new epoch in the franchise’s history is approaching. In the meantime, these Raptors will continue to adapt and conform to a new system. They will delight in the small victories and despair in the growing pains, building toward a future that won’t be promised to them all.
The Raptors rank eighth in defensive rating, allowing 107.6 points per 100 possessions
Staying power: Moderate to strong
I want to be even more convinced the Raptors’ strong defensive start will continue. After all, I predicted them to be a top-10 defensive team before the season started, and believe they have a ceiling to be among the elite teams on that end.
However, there is something that shows the Raptors have been a bit lucky on that end to start. Opponents are shooting just 32.5 percent from 3 against them. Under Rajaković, the Raptors have done smart work to limit corner 3s, which they were allowing a ton of in the past two seasons. The Raptors’ opponents shot 37.4 percent against them from deep last year, the third-highest mark against any team last year. There might be some stickiness to the percentage, but the number will rise. The Pelicans, who also are second in that category this year, held opponents to a league-worst 33.4 percent from 3 last year. No matter how much better the Raptors get at controlling their opponents’ shot diet, that percentage will rise.
The Raptors have now played Philadelphia (twice), Dallas and Milwaukee, all top-10 offences. The 76ers put offensive ratings of 121.3 and 117.5 on the Raptors. The Mavericks posted a 109.4, albeit without centre Dereck Lively II, an important threat at the rim.
Health will surely play a huge part here. The Raptors’ defence has been 19.5 points per 100 possessions better with OG Anunoby on the floor than not, and they don’t really have a replacement for Poeltl. If Precious Achiuwa brings some defensive stability to the second unit, that would go a long way in helping the Raptors maintain their start. He still has to translate his skills to consistent defensive results.
It’s funny that it all started in San Antonio because that was where Rajakovic learned his lessons at the feet of the master in Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Rajakovic did some scouting and worked as an assistant coach with the Spurs and the biggest thing he learned is the benefit of really creating a family atmosphere.
“It’s just (Popovich’s) care for people,” Rajakovic said. “Everybody knows what he did or he achieved as a coach. He’s a Hall of Famer. But when he got elected in the Hall of Fame, I texted him and I told him, ‘You’re a Hall of Fame human being.’
“He affected so many people, so many lives and helped so many people in our profession that you cannot count the people that he touched. He has genuine care for all the people that he gets in touch with.”
The Popovich-Rajakovic bromance goes two ways.
“He’s one of those under-the-radar kind of guys, he doesn’t seek attention or anything like that but he has a really brilliant mind,” Popovich said. “I don’t mean just for basketball, he’s really a sharp young man. But he understands the game, he’s come up the right way, he’s learned a lot overseas and he continued when he came here. He’s good with people, he’s a very straightforward, honest, no B.S. kind of guy you can always count on.”
One thing we’re learning about Rajakovic is that he has connections all around the league and it’s been impossible to find anyone with anything negative to say about him.
6. Dennis Schroder, Toronto Raptors
Tossed adrift by the Lakers, Schroder is enjoying a second life in Toronto. Suddenly, the offseason loss of Fred VanVleet in free agency doesn’t seem so painful for the Raptors. Schroder didn’t cost as much, and the returns are equal.
He’s one of Toronto’s top scorers (17 ppg), averaging 8.4 apg and keeps the mistakes to a minimum. He has stabilized the Raptors, and speaking of that … this is his fourth team in four years. Maybe he finally found a stable home.
It’s still hard to get a handle on these Raptors, but if Pascal Siakam is back, as he was in Dallas, Toronto will win a lot of games because the defence is outstanding.
OG Anunoby is as good as it gets as a defender, Barnes has made a leap as a sort of rover, causing havoc all over the court and Siakam seems more engaged defensively. Jakob Poeltl is a strong interior defender and eventually they’ll get help from Precious Achiuwa and Christian Koloko. Malachi Flynn has been disruptive and Otto Porter, is big and smart, a good combo when it comes to defence.
Siakam got what he wanted offensively against Dallas and even though Barnes had a quiet offensive night, he was everywhere and still stuffed the scoresheet. There’s no question the two can co-exist defensively, and we believe they can click offensively too, but probably not when non-shooter Jakob Poeltl is on the court (which is probably why we’ll keep seeing Porter finishing games with Barnes filling in at centre). Against Dallas, Toronto had its most effective offensive game in the half-court.
The numbers for the Raptors against teams that guard the interior well and those that don’t are stark.
The Raptors shot 42% in the paint and 40% on two-point attempts against Rudy Gobert and Minnesota to open the season, they went just 39.5%/38.2% against Philadelphia in the first meeting, but 56.8%/54.9% in the rematch, 51% against Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs.
Against donut teams (those with a big hole in the middle), the Raptors have shot 65% in the paint (against Chicago) and 63% from two. They were even better against Dallas, scoring on two-third of their paint attempts and 60% of their two-point shots overall. They also shot 52% inside against Portland.
We are throwing out the Milwaukee game (77% in the paint, 68% from two) because the Bucks didn’t show up for that one and didn’t know how to play defence then and had to switch up their system after that.
What will happen in the next week? Well, the Raptors get a really big Boston team (Kristaps Porzingis, Al Hereford, etc., plus lots of big guards and strong wings), followed by a Washington team that stinks, but does boast some shot-blocking (ninth in blocks per game) and then there are the revamped Bucks and the Celtics again. It will be interesting to see how Toronto finishes inside in those games.
But more significantly is that Porter Jr. seems to infuse the lineups he’s in — typically with a mix of second-unit players who need it — with an almost point-guard-like calm. He directs traffic. He makes simple passes, and he moves for the benefit of others.
It’s always been thus. Garrett Temple was with the Wizards when Porter Jr. joined Washington as the No. 3 pick out of nearby Georgetown. Even as a teenaged pro, it wasn’t his athleticism that popped.
“His rookie year, Glen Rice Jr. was the [Wizards second-round pick] and he was the high-flyer, athletic, just a bucket getter,” Temple recalls. “And early on guys were like ‘Otto’s the three pick, he’s not as ‘boom’ as you’d expect’. And then once you start to see how he plays and talk to him and just really see him play, you understand this is why he was so effective at Georgetown and how he’s gonna be in the league for a long time … he’s always been very cerebral, had a high IQ.”
While Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic is trying to impress upon his team the need to cut and pass and move for the benefit of the next player, for Porter Jr. it’s just ‘how to play basketball’.
“I mean, I’ve been playing this way since I was in elementary school,” he says the native of Morley, Missouri, a small town in the southeast part of the state. “Growing up I was taught to play the game the right way. It’s easy for me to play like that. It’s how I know how to play.”
If there’s an old-school feel to Porter Jr.’s game, it could be because he’s got a direct link to basketball royalty and an earlier age. He’s the last remaining client of one-time NBA super agent David Falk, who helped shape the business of basketball in the 1980s and 1990s as Michael Jordan’s representative. Falk also represented Jordan’s Olympic teammate, Patrick Ewing, the first of a long line of Georgetown clients he had on his roster.
Though it was a slow offensive start for both teams, Canada eventually got the offence rolling — starting with a nice mid-range jumper from Kia Nurse. They eventually got out to a 23-8 lead in the first quarter. Kia Nurse led all scorers with seven points. After her, fellow WNBA player and NCAA champion Laeticia Amihere had a nice four points, four rebounds. Bridget Carleton added a three pointer to the score sheet, and Kayla Alexander grabbed six rebounds in the first quarter alone.
Luckily Canada had such a big lead going into the second quarter, because they went the first five minutes of the second quarter without scoring a single point. It was Kayla Alexander who broke the scoring drought with 4:48 left in the quarter. After that, it started falling more for Canada. Kia Nurse got an and-one, completing the 3-point play, and shortly after Shay Colley did the exact same.
Canada went into the half up 42-15, with Kia Nurse leading all scorers at 10 points on 4-9 shooting.
The third quarter wasn’t huge offensively for Canada but they maintained a large lead throughout. Sami Hill got on the board with a three and an assist, and followed it up with two more three pointers, just for fun. Bridget Carleton was up to 10 points. They were up 64-25 going into the final 10 minutes.
Sami Hill was all over in the second half. She not only lit it up from three, she was directing the offence, being gritty on defence, diving for balls and overall just being a dominant presence for Canada.
Laeticia Amihere also had and extremely dominant performance, ending the night with 11 points, 11 rebounds, one assist and two blocks. Amihere, who just played her rookie season in the WNBA with the Atlanta Dream, looked extremely tough out there in the front court and even hit a three pointer.