The NBA regular season has quickly come and gone. The 2016/17 playoffs are just around the corner and most teams find themselves either fighting to keep playoff hopes alive, battling it out for ping pong balls or winding down in preparation for a run at the Larry O’Brien trophy later this month.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors are simply trying to figure out ‘Who the hell are the Toronto Raptors?’
After a blistering 23-10 start to the year, the Raptors found themselves mired in a mid-season slump that saw them swiftly drop from a tight grip on the East’s second place spot to fighting for home court advantage in the first round.
Toronto was on the verge of a complete meltdown heading into the All Star break. After blowing a 16 point lead at Detroit in February, Kyle Lowry publicly called out both the team and the front office: “something’s gotta give, something’s gotta change”. Raptors GM, Masai Ujiri, wasted no time bringing in reinforcements in the form of 3-and-D wing, PJ Tucker, and former All Star Power Forward, Serge Ibaka.
The two Raptors newbies bring some much needed energy on the defensive end, helping the team to a 14-7 record since All Star weekend while posting a 102.7 defensive rating, good for fourth best in the league over that period. This has all come without the contributions of Toronto’s unquestioned leader, Kyle Lowry, who has been sidelined with a wrist injury since the arrival of Ibaka and Tucker.
Lowry was back at it on Wednesday night though, finishing with with 27 and 10 in a heroic 41 minutes of action at Detroit. When it comes to Kyle Lowry, it’s simple for the Raptors – you have a 2-time All Star PG who is going to give you 100% every time he steps on the floor. After that, everything gets a bit more blurry.
Due to the combination of injuries and mid-season trades, we are yet to see Dwayne Casey’s likely playoff rotations in full swing. Second year guard, Delon Wright, has provided key minutes in Lowry’s absence and Norman Powell has stepped in to provide a scoring punch off the bench since the departure of Terrence Ross. As the postseason rotations tighten up though, several questions arise: Is Jakob Poetl the backup center? Who is the 8th man – Powell or Delon? Are we still going to see Lowry and the bench mob?
Most importantly, who’s on the floor in the dying seconds of game 7?
Toronto likes to close games with their most versatile defenders and at least two competent ball handlers on the floor. Last season, this led to Lowry-Joseph-Derozan-Carroll-Patterson closing out the fourth quarter more often than not. This year, Dwayne Casey has made it clear that the Raptors shiny new acquisitions were not brought in to cheer on the sidelines when the game is on the line, as both Tucker and Ibaka have become fixtures in any crunch time unit . Of course, the All Star backcourt is already locked in, so that leaves just one slot for 3 of last years closers: Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph or DeMarre Carroll.
Patrick Patterson is the least likely to see the floor due to a late season shooting slump and a poor fit with Ibaka. Carroll provides solid D and stretches the floor for DeRozan to get into the lane, but the Raptors are known to get stagnant when the opposition’s defence really locks in and Joseph gives the Raptors the extra playmaking they need to keep the offence flowing. Joseph likely gets the nod over Carroll, giving Toronto a defensively versatile 5 man unit comprised of Lowry-Joseph-DeRozan-Tucker-Ibaka. This is the type of lineup that will match up well with most teams on the East, but the Raptors might need to get creative if they want to go the distance.
Jonas Valanciunas had some up and down performances during the Raptors postseason run last year, but the 7-footer is an enticing alternative to the usual small ball group down the stretch. Despite his defensive liabilities, JV has shown that he has the tools to dominate opposing centers come playoff time and his recent aggressive play might be enough to earn him some consideration for Casey’s crunch time unit.
Valanciunas appears to have joined the league 20 years too late as an old-school bruiser in a league that values athleticism and 3-point shooting above all else. In April however, that old-school style becomes a little more fashionable. Defensive rebounding and a reliable post game are much more valuable in playoff basketball as the game slows down and the defence locks in. If the Raptors play through their big man they will be able punish the opposition for going small, but if JV is just a bystander to the Lowry and DeRozan show then they will suffer the consequences of a self-inflicted mismatch at the 5.
In the modern era of pseudo-big men, Valanciunas is a man among boys at times and, if used correctly, a man capable of being the x-factor against any Eastern Conference foe. The Raptors may look to challenge the small-ball revolution and show the league that size really does matter.
Rotations aren’t the only unknown surrounding this team. The Raptors haven’t established a true identity; they’re not an elite defensive team (106.6 Def Rating, 11th), they don’t shoot the 3 at a particularly high rate (24.3 3PA per game, 22nd) and they don’t really share the ball on a consistent basis (Assists ranking, 18.5 APG, 30th). The one thing the Raptors are known for is consistently getting to the free throw line (24.9 FTA per game, 6th),but once the playoffs come around a friendly whistle is far from guaranteed.
This isn’t a new issue for the Raptors. Ever since the departure of Rudy Gay, the Raptors have relied on daily brilliance from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. This approach has been good enough to to earn a trio of 50 win seasons, but it appears to be an unsustainable model for playoff success. In the postseason, opponents are able to meticulously game plan for the all star duo, often trapping DeRozan and forcing Lowry into taking on the bigs in the paint.
If you look around the league, the top teams have a clear road map for the plays to get behind; the ‘Grit and Grind’ Grizzlies, the ‘Shoot at Will’ Rockets, the ‘Unselfish’ Spurs. The Raptors had hoped that defence would be their calling card, but they are yet to show consistent effort on that end of the floor. With just a week left in the regular season, it’s still not clear what Dwayne Casey wants his team to be.
That being said, the Raptors seem to always find a way to win games. The DNA of this team is that of hard-nosed grinders and because of that, you can never truly count them out; they lead the league in both wins after trailing by 19+ points and wins when trailing during the 4th quarter. Dwayne Casey has instilled an ethos that has remained with this team throughout his tenure – ‘never give up’. The team is regaining its momentum from earlier in the year, but their goal never changed. The Raptors want to go to the NBA Finals.
The team’s core has been together for 3 straight playoff appearances, and last season found themselves just 2 wins away from a trip to the Finals. That core has received a significant upgrade this season and, on paper, looks like it is ready to go toe-to-toe with the big boys. They match-up pretty well with the Cleveland, despite an 0-3 record against the Cavs this year, and possess a raw talent level unmatched by most of their Eastern Conference peers.
Ultimately, we still don’t know if what we see on paper translates to the hardwood, and with just 3 regular season games left to integrate Lowry and the new pieces, time is beginning to run out.