Will the Raptors Keep Having Fun?

Winning isn't always controllable, but relentless effort can keep basketball fun for players and fans alike.

There’s about as many games left – 25 games, to be exact – as a regular NCAA season.

The Raptors have a 7.9% chance of making the play-in (h/t to Aaron Rose for the link), and though they’re coming off a two-game win streak, things will oscillate between optimism and hopelessness (though expectations have been somewhat tempered by reality). 

Just as resilient families find a way to be happy living on shoe-string budgets, the Raptors need to find fun whenever and wherever they can. In the East, a franchise that was once a rival – the Boston Celtics – are now on the penthouse floor, and standing on that rung of the ladder seems distant worlds away to a team living next to the Eastern Conference slums. 

To build on the analogy, if the Raptors are poor, they need to act like they’re rich – the classic fake-it–till-you-make-it approach. The difference between “I’m broke” versus “I’m not rich yet.” Fun basketball is predicated on effort, and even if the Raptors aren’t going anywhere this season, they can make the best out of their penniliness staycation.

A few weeks ago, Jontay Porter talked about how the team morale in the locker room didn’t reflect their record, and that’s exactly the type of vibe this team will need to keep.

In the remaining games, Barnes’ leadership – and his resilience – will be determined by whether he can remain positive in spite of the team’s circumstances – will he spread good will and build rapport with teammates? Will he high-five them? Even the analytics say touching (appropriately) can lead to winning.

Barnes left the office early against San Antonio, but made up for it by putting up a tremendous spirited effort against the Pacers. He spent the All-Star Weekend around the NBA’s best, and has had two wins since.

Even Barnes’ body language changed markedly in the Pacers game. Late in the fourth, he didn’t show an ounce of frustration after turning the ball over as he tried to drive on Siakam. When RJ missed the last shot, he went to tap him on the chest as if to say, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.”

He’s been channeling emotions on the court productively, too. Against the Hawks, after being angry at a goaltending call, he harnessed that frustration, and got a bucket right away on the offensive end. He continues to be one of the league’s best fourth-quarter scorers.

Since the All-Star Break, Barnes is 1-for-2 from putting up my baseline expectation of 15+ points and 1+ made three on FanDuel. Even though Quickley is starting to look for his own buckets more, 15+ points and 1+ made three per game is a modest baseline expectation from a betting and developmental perspective.

RJ Barrett

RJ has exceeded all expectations. The circumstances around him, however, force him to keep his standards super high — he’s back home and Paris is right around the corner. Even if scrutiny has lightened in comparison to his time as a Knick, there’s an impending national expectation to medal, and Barrett should be at the forefront of that.

“Not everything is in the baseline stats — and we’ll get into the massive change in the underlying stuff later — but RJ’s offensive numbers have gone from, fundamentally, a very low efficiency volume scorer to a high efficiency, second-side creator. That change is extremely meaningful.”

-Samson Folk

Barrett’s been great inside, but we can also expect him to continue being a three-point threat. Though he’s been a consistent offensive force, his scoring has varied – he’s had 14, 13, 23, and 12 points through the last four games, and expecting him to score 15+ points per game consistently is reasonable, though a little riskier

Immanuel Quickley 

Quickley is not only fun to watch, but embodies the adjective. He’s a selfless guard that’s working on becoming more selfish when needed.

Just as he’s been dropping more dimes as a Raptor, he’s also been dropping gems in his candid interviews. He admitted to NBA players taking “days off” in the second half of the season, and was honest about how they, too, can check out when the going gets rough. In response to a follow-up question after Louis asked Quickley about Gradey’s defence, he talked about how some NBA players don’t always try on defence.

Quickley, as well as Barnes and Barrett, will need to continue setting the tone for the next 25 games. And Darko will also need to implement a zero-tolerance policy for a lack of effort because without it, having fun is impossible.

Just as Barrett has the Olympics around the corner, Quickley is trying to pass Toronto’s IQ test with flying colours. His restricted free agency is coming up. We knew this before he got here, but he’s proving that he’s an elite three-point shooter – shooting 6-for-11 against Atlanta (55%) and 5-for-8 against Brooklyn (63%). Though he shot poorly against the Pacers (1-for-5), expect him to make 2+, even 3+ threes, based on his increased attempts.

Against the Hawks, there was a specific play midway through the fourth, where Quickley started with the ball at the half, Poeltl came to screen, Quickley got blitzed, and dished it to Poeltl who passed it to Brown. Brown didn’t get the look inside, so he dribbled up to the top of the arc. Quickley wanted a DHO, but instead, Brown faked the hand-off (DHO keep) and attacked the basket. Quickley clearly wanted the ball in his hands, and that’s one play indicative of how he’s looking more for his shot when it’s the right play.  

Zulfi made this important distinction between Quickley initiating the advantage versus playmaking/passing to create one.

“A lot of what Quickley has tried to do as an offensive initiator with Toronto prior to this stretch has been passively moving the ball in an attempt to create an advantage, rather than creating an advantage to then move the ball through.

Pass first, score later, point guards a la Jose Calderon of Raptors old, are a thing of the past. The top-three assists leaders in the NBA today are guards who are scoring threats before all else (Tyrese Haliburton, Trae Young, and Luka Doncic), and they use that ability to bend defences and create playmaking opportunities”

Against the Hawks, the threat of his three-point shooting was the best playmaking tool. He threw a pump fake on Dejounte Murray at the top of the arc, he bit, and that created the opportunity for a beautiful dump-off pass in the lane. That basically means exploiting Quickley’s ability to get his own shot = more fun for the offense. 

The Raptors swinging – whether they rise or go down – is vital in maintaining a strong culture. We all know what Heat culture looks like. On the flipside, we might associate Charlotte to a culture that doesn’t really care to win. KG, known for being an alpha dog, complimented the Raptors for being one, before the trade deadline. 

“Toronto gone be like the East Coast Utah. Ain’t nobody gone seen them coming,” he said. “They gone hit your ass in the mouth. BAM!,” swinging his right arm for emphasis. The Raptors may not be that anymore, but setting the expectation that they’ll be competitive every night is vital in closing out the season strong, and preparing for the next. 

March is right around the corner, and things are starting to feel different. The Raptors face significant odds, but there’s a newness in the air. As Bobby Webster said post-trade deadline, “We’re all watching new players, so there’s probably different parts of your brain going off as you watch Quickley coming off a pick-and-roll, or you watch RJ slash through the lane, or you watch Scottie interact with them, or you watch Jordan Nwora come in and have those games…so I think it’s more fun, there’s a different energy around the team. I think we’re enjoying this part of the process with a younger team as we grow and develop.”

Expect them to keep trying as they develop. Without trying, there is no fun to be had for players and fans. Anybody can observe body language, energy, and effort, so look for this qualitative data before placing your bets.