February 6, 2017, 3:00 pm
One Big Thing: Panic Time?
The Toronto Raptors are in a bit of a skid. Before Sunday’s win over the woeful Nets, the Northsiders were 2-8 in their previous ten games including losses to Philadelphia, the skidding Hornets, a Kawhi-less Spurs unit, Phoenix and Orlando. Twice. They lost to Orlando twice.
The win over the Nets sure is nice, but it’s hardly indicative of a turnaround. It’s more of a feel good thing than anything else; a team with aspirations as high as Toronto’s shouldn’t take anything meaningful from a victory over Brooklyn.
If forced to pick something, they should be concerned that it took another high-minute maestro performance from Kyle Lowry to make it through the matinee.
So is it time to panic?
No. Concerned? Yes. One hundred percent. One million percent, if such a mathematical construct existed. But not panicked. The Raptors have been very bad lately, but they’re still good at their core.
There are lots of issues to sort through, namely Jonas Valanciunas’ awkward fit in the modern NBA. He’s made strides as a passer and continues to stretch out his jumper, but his bread and butter will always be working deep in the paint. His relative immobility is the sort of thing that handed some of his minutes to Bismack Biyombo last season and he’s ceding time to a sneakily impressive Lucas Nogueira this time around.
When JV isn’t pounding the glass it’s hard to argue that he makes a lot more sense than Nogueira, who’s a much better passer, defender and rim protector. In last week’s game against Boston, JV could not get going. He was undone by early ticky tack fouls that essentially removed him from the game and robbed the Raptors of their one clear advantage over the Celtics.
On the flip side, Boston needed another insane fourth quarter out of Isaiah Thomas to eke out a win over a DeRozan-and-Patterson-less (with an unofficially absent JV) Toronto team on the second night of a back to back- a game which the Raptors led by 18. On the flip flip side, Boston was without Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk and did make a great comeback. Toronto’s duo is far more important, but each of the three games between these teams has had a main character missing. We might not see them go toe-to-toe at full strength until the playoffs- a proposition that’s equal parts exciting and troubling for those involved.
But still, this extends to the rest of the team. JV’s dearth of footspeed is exacerbated by some poor perimeter defense, and the team as a whole has struggled on that end of the floor. Kyle Lowry is the team’s finest in this regard but handles far too many minutes to ignore thoughts of a breakdown. Norman Powell also excels but, for some unexplainable reason, can’t get legitimate minutes until injuries arise. Cory Joseph has faltered in a big way this season, and that might be far more important than any issues posed by Valanciunas.
Toronto’s Lowry + Bench units have traditionally been outstanding, in large part because Joseph’s presence allows Lowry to play off the ball and defend a lesser player for a handful of minutes at a time. That simply hasn’t been the case this year, with Joseph’s defense in particular changing with the wind. Joseph received a bit of a mental break over the last two games with Fred Van Vleet looking decent in his minutes with and without Lowry. Against Orlando on Friday, Joseph was headed for a presumed rest day only to draw in during the final quarter. He was -6 in one minute and received a DNP-CD on Sunday. This can’t continue, because there’s no way that Dwane Casey will trust Van Vleet with the minutes that Joseph handled in big moments- and that could spell doom for Lowry.
It’s an odd spot to be in- the Raptors would kill for the Joseph of last season, but point guard is their organizational strength at this point with Lowry, Joseph, Van Vleet and former first rounder Delon Wright. If you need a contract to balance the books in case of a big trade, Joseph is one of the only candidates on the roster…
While that’s unlikely, it’s possible. Masai Ujiri works in complete silence and we know the team would benefit immensely from acquiring a power forward on the trade market. Let’s call him Maul Pillsap.
But still, there are reasons for optimism. As I said earlier, the Raptors are actually good. A ten game sample is hardly enough to turn on a Conference Finalist, regardless of how dispiriting those ten games may be.
Sometimes you just don’t get a break. Sometimes you don’t deserve those breaks, but it’s not like the Raptors are clicking along as usual and suddenly losing. Over those ten games, the Dinos were 29th in field goal percentage and dead last from deep. In clutch situations, the Raptors have a net rating of +5, with only a 15-18 record to show for it. That has to turn, especially as the schedule gets easier- though the sheer number of clutch situation games calls into question the notion that Toronto consistently plays to the level of their opponent, for better or worse. Simple regression to the mean will help. Staying the course isn’t always easy to stomach, but it’s the proper thing to do for Toronto.
And the biggest source of trouble, of course, is health. DeMar DeRozan has missed seven of eight. Patrick Patterson has missed 12 games. Those are the second and third most important players on the team, full stop.
It speaks to DeRozan’s growth that the team misses him so clearly. When a torn groin tendon forced him to miss 21 games back in 2014, the Raptors went 12-9. This time around it’s painfully obvious that the Raptors rely on his scoring despite his inherent efficiency cap. The team has been crafted to leverage his strengths, and it’s wheezing along without his midrange jumpers and parade to the free throw line.
As for Patterson, he’s long been a favorite of the Illumistati. A rockstar by just about any metric, he’s the unsung hero that makes the Raptors work. Lineups with Patman post phenomenal net ratings, and he essentially plays starter minutes coming off the bench. His absence is killer and it falls on management that the power forward spot is a black hole when he’s out. Jared Sullinger was a shrewd if imperfect signing but is still struggling to get back up to speed. It’s forced Nogueira to play out of position with rookie Pascal Siakam just not ready for real NBA minutes. The team has turned to DeMarre Carroll and Norm Powell in small lineups, but without Patterson they’re headed nowhere fast.
So what can the Raptors do? Take their lumps. They’ve committed to DeRozan and will presumably do the same for Lowry this offseason. They’re mired in a run of bad luck and poor health to key players and just about to come out of a rough schedule. A proactive trade for a real power forward would help, but this iteration of the Raptors is at worst on par with last year’s.
The schedule from here on out isn’t too taxing, and there will be some bounce back. The Raptors will be alright, but we’re learning more and more about the cracks in their game. There are issues here that even health and good fortune won’t fix, and the longer they flounder the less likely it is that the key cast members get some rest as the season winds down. It’s not time to panic, but it’s past time to get concerned.