Five Things I Dig and Don’t Dig About the Toronto Raptors

For this season's first Five Things, we talk Schröder Screen Scuttling, Veteran Support, Youth Confidence, and one of the many problems of the In-Season Tournament.

Ten games in.

Each one its own adventure. None we choose, sadly. Just anxiously witness.

Confident victories. Unusual collapses. Epic reclamations. Near escapes. Bad losses. Blow [them] outs. Blow [us] outs.

It’s already been a lot.

A lot to dig and not dig.

Let’s roll.

(To save the reader, there’s only Four Things this week).

1. Schröderinger Screens

Not all things are zero sum.

We can celebrate Freddy VanVleet in Sam Houston, Texas. We can dote over Dennis Schröder. The world of binary need not persist beyond magnetic fields of the earth.

That said…cheeky, Adon, cheeky…I really love how seamlessly Dennis has filled Freddy’s void.

Dennis is teeming with pep. A pack of overfilled Gushers. Bursting at first touch. Smack talk. Fisticuffs. Offence. Defence. In the locker. On the moon. Wherever. Dennis is full of vim + vinegar.

The team needs that. A self-catalyzing entity of interminable energy. (Scottie might eventually become that once again). An untempered swagger to thwart trying times. It’s glaring, Toronto not having a back-up point guard. It also feels like a favour to Dennis.

He’s never been anointed lead point guard of an NBA team (Dennis and Franz Wagner marshalled Germany’s World Champion national team this summer). In Atlanta, he was default until they refused to pay him and shipped him. In Oklahoma City, he was three’s company with Chris Paul and Shea Gilgeous-Alexander. In Los Angeles, none contend with LeBron. In Boston, it was Marcus Smart. Here, in Toronto, it is Dennis and Dennis alone.

And, Dennis has repaid the favour in kind. He’s averaging a career high in assists and nearly career lows in turnovers and usage rate. With Dennis off the floor, the Raptors give up five points per 100 possessions. Read Lou’s piece praising Dennis even more.

Dennis is also the spearpoint of the NBA’s 7th best defence. With immensely long arms (6’6″ wingspan) and aforementioned boundless energy, Dennis hounds opposing guards like a wiseguy looking to square a debt. His efforts shrink shot clocks and disrupt sets. Watch poor De’Anthony Melton not even make it past half-court.

One way Dennis remains so pesky, is by navigating and evading screens with ease. Watch the montage so wonderfully put together by Lou Zatzman below.

Dennis slithers his way around screeners’ jutting legs. Slipping past, he denies primary options and prevents mismatches pick and rolls hunt. Defensive stability is maintained. Scrambling and defensive commotion averted.

Often you’ll see, Dennis get “skinny”. A more adept and difficult maneuver. By standing straight up from his defensive position and squeezing between the ballhandler and screener, Dennis eludes screens altogether. You’ll see that here as Kris Middleton sloppily initiates a dribble-hand-off with Dame Lillard.

You’ll see it even more impressively below.

Picking up Kyrie Irving full court, Dennis enshrouds Kyrie’s dribble. As Tim Hardaway Jr. comes to dislodge Dennis, Dennis bolts upright, skinnies, and skitters past Hardaway’s hip. Kyrie remains crowded, he is forced to give up the ball, and rendered useless for the rest of the play.

2. Vet Offensive

This year has already been a raucous.

A lot for any roster, let alone a young one with new coaching infrastructure.

It’s also to be expected. In my October preview, I lauded the subtle additions of veterans, Garrett Temple and Otto Porter Jr. (Otto left the team to rehab his toe for the majority of last season) for that very reason.

Amid early tumult, they, alongside Thaddeus Young, are the ballast. On court, Otto is the interstitial muscle an imbalanced offence needs. He’s wasteless in decision-making: instant extra passes, immediate snipes, purposeful attacks, simple kickouts, opportune rebounds, timely helpsides.

Otto provides the kind of offensive humility a brash youthful roster needs to halter unbridled zeal. Otto admits as much to Michael Grange of Sportsnet.

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.”


“Me, family, where I group, we’re old-school type people,” said Porter Jr. whose mother and father each won state championships in high school as did four of his uncles, his younger brother, and a long list of first cousins.  Playing selfish, me-first basketball was not an option.

“That’s just been my mentality, from my parents, my uncles, that’s the way the game is played. Do the little stuff, that’s how I was taught,” he says as he sucks down a recovery drink after practice. “There is no ‘I’ in team. In basketball it takes five guys.”

Sportsnet, Michael Grange

It takes time for these understated qualities to be celebrated. Lottery picks are held to an objective standard. Pre-conceived expectations projecting who they want players to become and not who they are meant to be.

For someone like Gradey Dick, who shares many of Otto’s “intangible” skills, and is still discovering his NBA identity, it’s meaningful to have a mentor demonstrate their value on and off the court.

Rookie Gradey Dick — who projects to play a similar role as his sharpshooting veteran — has already been able to pick Porter Jr.’s prodigious basketball brain.

“As a rookie it’s really cool to see not only what he’s doing right now, but draw on the experiences he has,” says Dick. “He’s been kind of a role model. We talk about different windows or gaps you can get in on the floor based on where the point guard is at, where the defence is at. A lot of advice I wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

Sportsnet, Michael Grange

With Temple, value is off the floor. He’s considered the archetypical ‘exemplary veteran’. A representative of the establishment. A mediator. A historian and teacher. An emissary. A dignitary. A consigliere to whoever’s willing to heed his wisdom: coach or player.

For example, after a poor shooting night against Milwaukee, Dick was swiftly encircled by Temple and assistant coach, Ivo Simović, as told by Eric Koreen of The Athletic:

“I said, ‘Man, I was 1-for-12 one time’ — in Toronto, actually, my worst ever,” Temple recalled of the conversation on Tuesday. “But if they’re open shots, you’ve got to shoot them. That’s what you’re on the team for.”

The Athletic, Eric Koreen

Such anecdotes are surely few of many. And, undoubtedly, impactful. ‘Twas merely months ago this locker room seemed at the brink of civil unrest or mutiny or both.

3. Youth Confidence

The last few years we’ve watched Toronto’s youth movement enervate. A once flowing talent pipeline slow to a drip.

There’s plenty blame to go around. Some attribute it to the mass exodus of Toronto coaches. Others, poor drafting (I dare anyone to ask Brendan about the Desmond Bane pick). Others [me], blame Nick Nurse’s short rotations.

Whatever the cause, Nick always had a choice. Ready or not, good or not, younger guys like Yuta Watanabe, Dalano Banton, Malachi Flynn, Justin Champagnie, among others, deserved consistency and confidence. They were provided neither.

Last year, early, I noted (#2) how wildly Banton and Flynn’s minutes fluctuated. One would start a half; another the other half; neither played in one quarter; both played another; one or both benched for chunks of the season; then not.

A year before that, Watanabe, Toronto’s lone back-up 3+Der, could not – despite an endless motor, despite O.G. shelved for a month, despite half-a-dozen stadium-shattering blocks and dunks – find a lick of time on the floor. Inexplicably so.

We watched the starters slowly disintegrate (#1) (everyone and their pet hedgehogs foresaw it) and the depth chart shrivel. Wicks burned at both ends. Compounding effects Nick bore responsibility for.

Verdict: guilty.

Why? Because NN™ always had a choice. We know that, because we’re seeing new head coach, Darko Rajaković, do the opposite. Inexperience and mistakes be damned, Darko’s playing his guys.

Some twitter fans – one very disgruntled fella in particular – hate it. I see why.

They’re losing minutes: 26th in bench points per game; 26th in bench net rating. Once again, starters’ leads forgone by benches’ ineptitude. Boston’s Raptor-culling a prime example.

News to Raptors fans, the bench was ALWAYS losing.

Darko’s leveraging the suffering, not capitulating to it. The long-term at the forefront of his intentions.

Malachi Flynn is the best example. Darko clearly anointed Flynn Toronto’s back up point guard – not that he had much of a choice. For the first two games of the year, Flynn played 9 and 4 unimpressive minutes, finishing -14 in both games and scoring a total of 3 points. That’s premise for burial. And, likely, would have in previous iterations.

Instead, Flynn continued playing. His minutes went up – playing at least 13 minutes in the last 8 games. His production – 10/22 from three, 17 assists and 8 steals to 10 turnovers, a more respectable +/- [if you ignore the Boston game] – and confidence incrementally up too.

Flynn was at the precipice of NBA anonymity. Darko had no obligation to him. Flynn’s chance(s) were had. But that’s not who Darko is as a coach. Ample evidence suggests the opposite, in fact.

Gary Trent Jr. said he’s never communicated with a coach so much prior to a season. Flynn echoed similar. The buzz around the gym has been starkly positive. Suggesting Darko’s optimism and intimacy already pervades the team.

The same mistake of mishandling youth won’t be made with Gradey Dick. He’s been afforded wide margins of error already. For 8 of the 10 games, Dick played at least 13 minutes, despite a three-point shooting slump. Dick’s nominally on the floor as a shooter. In theory, if he’s not hitting, than Chris Boucher or, perhaps, even Jalen McDaniels are more helpful.

Again, the plan is not about immediacy. But progression. Each game we see Dick make a remarkable pass or advanced defensive decision or more confident score. Accruing experiences one mistake or success at a time.

On Monday, against the Washington Wizards, the Raptors started the game like they had Quaaludes in their Gatorade. Gatttorrrluddddees. Swiftly and decisively down 20 by half.

In past years, NN would have doubled down on the starters. Not Darko.

In Flynn and Dick came. As they had in games prior. (Dick had already broken his three-point lull going 2/2 in the first quarter [the Raps finished the game 4/20 from three]).

They both helped spark the late 3rd quarter comeback and finished the quarter +12 and +9, respectively. In the dying seconds of the game, with the score tied, there was Flynn closing the game with Chris Boucher and the starters.

They were not heroes by any stretch of the imagination. Dick and Flynn fulfilled their roles and nothing more. But they did so when the Raptors desperately needed something, anything. And they did so confidently. With Darko’s approval close by.

4. In-Game Season Tournament Folly

By Friday, the Toronto Raptors will have played their first in-season tournament, round-robin game.

You’ll know by the paint puddle courts.

You’ll know from the bludgeoning of your consciousness by way of punditry and pageantry.

You’ll know because otherwise you wouldn’t have known.

I had a good friend, who follows sports meticulously – albeit NFL, MLB, and NHL more than NBA – ask me two days ago, “What the in-season tournament was all about?” Not like, what’s happening in it? But, WHAT IS IT? Two days ago.

My father, an avid NBA fan, hours ago, walked into the room and asked my brother and I, “What the Hell is this stupid tournament thing, anyway?” Just now, he yelled from the other room asking, “If these games counted towards the regular season, and if that means some teams will play more games!? …ADON!?”

Zach Lowe, ESPN writer, analyst, and NBA guru, admitted the other day, on The Lowe Post, he had no idea what team is in which “division” of the tournament. Despite games already played. Lowe’s guest, The Ringer‘s Howard Beck, was challenged to name some. He could not.

No one knows. All the PR in the world and, still, no one knows.

Not the fans. Not the media. Not the players.

No one.

To be clear, I’m all for the NBA trying new gimmicks. I’m not anti-innovation. I’m no luddite. I’m not old man yelling at kids these days. I want imagination, I want improvement, I want success.

It’s just, the in-season tournament (I’m calling it IST now) isn’t it. Not by imagination, not by improvement, not by success.

I get the NBA has nothing to lose. When, if ever, did fans care about early December games anyway? We didn’t.

Now, with pungently coloured floors and promotional pizzazz and Las Vegas ooo Vegasssss we’ll care a little bit more about games in December than we did before. One is definitely better than zero.

And, I get we can’t truly measure the success of this venture until years from now. This is a longitudinal experiment. Metrics around excitement and consumption measured year after year.

And, I get all of this is our imagination anyway. “National” or “World” championships. Fandom. Sports. It all exists because our collective minds will it so. Corporations and participants profit accordingly. So why not add one more thing to our collective fantasy. What’s one more make-believe thing turned real, Peter Pan?

I even get there’s precedent for it too. The NCAAB has March Madness – a single-game knockout extravaganza to end the season and crown a champion. The English Football League has the FA and EFL Cups – also single-game knockouts where teams from multiple league levels battle one another; the events have no implications for respective league seedings and playoffs. No sense why the NBA can’t have one too.

(Though, both examples have much richer significance. There’s national/state/college prides to represent; there’s the history of the competitions themselves; there’s the multitude of storylines, such as the small “David” school or club taking on the “Goliath” favourite, or the “cinderella story”, or the cross-town, cross-state, cross-country rivalries drawing hordes of patriotic fans from afar.)

I get it all. There’s plenty of reason to have an IST.

That’s not the problem, though. The problem is the IST is a distraction. A distraction from the real problem. The entertainment problem.

The NBA is using the IST as way to draw more interest. Create buzz in an otherwise quiet time of the season. But it’s not that December is a quiet time, it’s that the bulk of the season is quieting.

First, it was the end of March and April when the standings were finalized and tanking was on; then, it was the doldrums of January and February with teams conserving health and energy; now, it’s November and December. Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus can’t come soon enough.

The NBA – aware of it or not I do not know – has a much larger entertainment problem. One caused by a myriad of issues. Here are a few:

  • Its games are too long and dragged out (multiply TV Timeouts by Challenge Reviews by Automatic Reviews by In-Game Timeouts by Fouls-Called and you get one Boring-Ass end to most 4th quarters);
  • Its season is too long;
  • It’s regular season seeding structure and post-season playoffs structure disincentivize regular season competition – the Play-In has helped;
  • Its players and management rest and load manage players because of the first three issues;
  • Its fans have waning attention spans.

The NBA is using the in-game tournament as a tool to attract and retain attention. No harm in trying. The real harm is that it’s a superficial attempt or, more likely, a compromise to fix real problems.

Less games. Less travel. New standings structures. New incentives base. Etc., etc., All drastic measures no one – not the Players’ Union nor the League – want to address.

And, so, all we get instead is a brainwashing of why the in-season tournament matters to you!

[AI Image Generator prompt: An Uncle Sam poster with Adam Silver’s face on it]