Terrence Ross has been a five year enigma. Blessed with astonishing physical gifts, he was originally billed as a three-and-D wing that could play alongside DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in the Raptors starting lineup, a potentially elite shooter that had the tools to become a premium two-way player in the NBA.
It hasn’t worked out that way, and fans have had to re-calibrate their expectations for T-Ross. Being miscast as a starting three for much of his early career didn’t help, but the struggles went far deeper than that. Despite some otherworldly highlights (his 51 point game and Dunk Contest victory being two of the highest), Ross struggled for much of his time in Toronto and has been roundly criticized for a lack of work ethic, poor basketball IQ and/or generally inconsistent play.
I’m speaking to you as someone who was once one of his biggest critics. I didn’t have a lot of time for a guy who had the tools to become a star, yet couldn’t be bothered. I consistently found myself comparing him to DeMar DeRozan, a guy with (slightly) lesser physical gifts, but who spent countless hours in the gym refining and toughening his game. I often spoke in favour of jettisoning him for a replacement player, be it a free agent like Wes Matthews or trade bait of all shapes and sizes.
As it turns out, the signing of DeMarre Carroll pushed Ross into the role that works best for him: a scorer off the bench. Ross has submitted his best all-around season as a Raptors to date, shooting the lights out off the bench, and playing engaged if not always effective defense. So what’s the problem?
A dude named Norm.
Norman Powell is everything the Toronto sports market loves — namely, an underdog. Undersized (by height, if not weight or wingspan), low draft pick. Tough make-up. Hard-nosed, yet skilled. Dedicated to his craft. Ready when called upon. Never complains. A bulldog, but one with talent. Compare him to the supremely talented yet lackadaisical history of Ross, and it’s easy to see why Norm has become an underground fan favourite. In some circles, it’s even hollered that if Ross weren’t making so much money, or wasn’t a fifth year player, Powell would already have usurped him in the rotation.
While I think that may happen eventually (or more likely, it’ll become moot when one of them gets moved), I’m here to tell you that this notion at the present time is bogus. These players are close to a wash at the moment, and while I think Powell’s skill set and work ethic set him apart from Ross in terms of being a long term piece, Ross’s performance this season can’t be denied.
Let’s take a closer look.
Both guys have been so good this season that it’s no surprise the team has played well with them on the floor. Ross is currently seventh on the team in minutes at 20.0 per game and has appeared in 26 of 27 games. Powell sits 11th on the team at 14.5 minutes per game (mpg). It’s a bit trickier than that though, because Powell has averaged 30.5 mpg in five games as a starter (when playing in back-to-backs for Carroll), and just 10.4 mpg in 18 games otherwise, with four DNPs, while Ross’s role has remained largely consistent.
Despite the disparity in roles, their extrapolated production has been remarkably similar. NBA.com has Ross with a net rating of +16.6 (118.8, 102.3), best of any Raptors regular except for Lucas Nogueira. They have Powell at a similarly gaudy +14.6 (118.2 on offense, 103.7 on defense). The NBA.com metric simply accounts for points scored for and against per 100 possessions, when the players are on the floor, without context. So the Raptors have been slightly better on both offense and defense with Ross on the floor versus Powell.
Basketball Reference however, uses a metric that was developed by Dean Oliver, and actually attempts to quantify happenings on the court, rather than just assembling blind data. These ratings aren’t about points produced by the team when a given player is on the court, but by the player themselves. Because of this they don’t actually calculate a ‘net’ rating, but their rating system likes Powell slightly better than Ross on offense (127 vs. 126) and defense (109 vs. 108). Those offensive marks are second and third best on the team, while the defense has them middle to lower in the pack.
Neither is a player who often dictates tempo. Both appear in some of the teams best lineups by net rating, often with similar supporting cast members.
For example, Powell appears in Toronto’s most effective lineup so far this year (+69.9 per 100 possessions) when he teams with Lowry, DeRozan, Lucas Nogueira and Patrick Patterson. That lineup has played just 25 minutes together over six games, but it’s clear why it would be effective. Ross however, is part of the vaunted Lowry plus bench lineup, along with Patterson, Nogueira and Cory Joseph — that group is a deadly +30.3 over 130 minutes, and is the second most used Raptors lineup this season. (An interesting note there: sub out Jakob Poeltl for Nogueira, and the lineup is a -14.8 in 43 minutes. Long live Sideshow Lob. But I digress).
Ross has always had the tools to be a great shooter, but this is the season he’s finally put it all together. His slash line of .488/.434/.904 is good not just for him, but for any NBA sharpshooter. The more important thing is the consistency with which he’s produced for the Raptors — he’s averaging 1.8 three point makes per contest, equal to each of the past two seasons, but he’s doing so in 0.7 fewer attempts per game, while playing his fewest minutes since his rookie season. He’s been a storm in a teacup. After a slow three game start to the year, Ross has made multiple threes in 15 of his past 23 games.
The thing is, Powell has been nearly as good. Despite his inconsistent minutes, Norm has been lights out from the field with a .515/.429/.750 slash of his own. He does shoot the three less often right now (only 2.7 makes per 100 possessions, versus 4.6 for Ross) but that’s something you could see increasing with an expanded role. It would be interesting to see if Powell, a career .313 three point shooter in college, has truly improved his distance shooting, or if what we’ve seen is fuelled by garbage time triples against third stringers. My money is on the improvement being legit — he was over 40 percent last season as well, though he did struggle in the playoffs.
Powell is the clear winner here. He seemingly always makes the right pass, and rarely turns the ball over. His assist percentage (9.2), assist to turnover ratio (2.20) and assist ratio (15.0) are all fair to middling, but all are far better than Ross in the same categories. Ross is a gunner, Powell is an all-around guard. This isn’t a big surprise.
Here is where the surprises may lay for some. Ross is well known for his defensive lapses, but as someone who has watched most his career, I can tell you that there’s been a marked improvement in his effort on the defensive end this year, and the numbers bear that out. His 1.7 deflections per game rank fourth on the team and his active hands have generated 2.3 steals per 100 possessions, tying him for second among regulars behind only — you guessed it — Nogueira. The man he’s tied with? Norm Powell. You can’t make this stuff up.
Ross has also generated a team leading 29.9 percent of his own points off turnovers this season, as opposed to only 13.5 percent for Powell. While Powell is seen as the better defender (and he absolutely is, in terms of being in position and overall IQ), Ross has finally been making use of his superior athleticism and is generating positive results on the defensive end — Powell is better, but it’s closer than you might expect.
So where does this all stand?
A Tie is Like Kissing Your Sister
Where in the hell does that saying come from, anyway? It’s terrible.
Basketball Reference can have the final word.
In Box Plus Minus, their stat that calculates the offensive and defensive production of a player versus the league average, both Powell and Ross rank as negatives on the defensive end of the floor. Powell is clearly better than Ross (-0.7 vs -1.9) on this end, but Ross equally dominates Powell on the offensive end (+4.1 vs +3.0). Their overall Box Plus Minus? Ross is +2.2 and Powell is +2.3. Basketball Reference is quick to stress that it’s more difficult for the player with the larger role to maintain the efficiency that goes into this calculation, so let’s go ahead and call this thing a wash.
I want to re-iterate, I’m speaking to this season only. I have a lot of faith that Norm will continue to grow, and even understand that people think the way he’s being handled is hindering his development. I’d call this a success problem. I think what we’re seeing now is likely peak Ross or close to it. But for the intents and purposes of the 2016-17 Raptors, that peak gives them a look that Powell can’t just yet.
What it comes down to in the end, for me, is role. If you put Terrence Ross and Norman Powell into a vacuum, devoid of contract and history, and asked me to choose one, I’d pick Powell. I’ve heard from some corners that Powell’s defensive numbers would be far better if he was in the same role as Ross, because he would benefit from playing with the Lowry plus bench lineup, rather than being stuck playing significant minutes with either rookies in garbage time or DeRozan/Valanciunas/Pascal Siakam in the starting lineup.
While I do believe this is a fair assessment, I also think that this iteration of the Raptors and particularly the Lowry plus bench lineup would greatly miss Ross’s ability to create his own shot. Of note is the fact that 58.6 percent of his two point baskets come unassisted, and while he’s mostly a catch and shoot player from three (91.4 percent assisted three point baskets this season), Powell is completely and utterly that, with 100 percent of his three point shots assisted by a teammate. Again, we’re dealing in minute differences here, but when DeRozan is on the bench, the Raptors need somebody other than Kyle Lowry who can create his own looks. Powell has shown some aptitude in this area, but would you really be comfortable if he was a major offensive creator for this Raptors team starting tomorrow? I wouldn’t, not yet.
The solution? Maybe we should just shut the hell up about all this and play them together. Powell and Ross are currently the Raptors best two-man combination of any that has played more than 30 minutes together this season — in 76 minutes when both players are on the floor, the Raptors have a gaudy net rating of +42.7.