Relevance is a funny thing. I went into this column wanting to address the Raptors’ power forward position, for the two reasons we’re all aware of.
First, it’s been the most fluid position on the Raptors roster for three seasons. While Patrick Patterson has become more of a bedrock, playing 28-30 minutes a night in the backup role, there’s been a turnstile of starters ahead of him — none of them doing much better than “dragging the team down”. Last season, we dealt with Luis Scola. This year, it’s rookie Pascal Siakam. Both have very different flaws, but flaws nonetheless.
The second reason is the lack of depth. With Jared Sullinger’s injury, the Raptors are left perilously thin at their weakest position. Any missed games for Patrick Patterson results in a very different team — one that needs to rely more on small lineups and trust that their starter can make the jump to a 25+ minute role.
So yes, relevance is a funny thing. Last week, the waters were blue and we were imagining a world where Antonio Davis got in a time machine. Now? We’re treading in something much more murky. Patrick Patterson left last night’s game against Phoenix with a knee strain. He has no history of knee injuries, and we haven’t yet got any word of the severity.
Any lost time for Patterson, though, is a major concern for the Raptors. Last night, after Patterson left the game early in the second quarter, Dwane Casey reverted to a new small ball lineup — with Ross at the three and Carroll at the four. The gameflow chart from Popcorn Machine shows how the minutes were divided up the rest of the way. Siakam, the only true power forward to earn any time, was a team-worst -14 in the end — and was on the court when the Suns built their biggest lead of the game (-10 through the back half of the third quarter).
This is ultimately a microcosm of what Casey would have to do without Patterson and until Sullinger returns in February(ish): play small lineups and hope that Siakam can tread water when they’re forced into a bigger lineup. DeMarre Carroll, the team’s best small ball four, is still on a minutes restriction, and simply doesn’t match up well with teams with two true bigs.
This is all to say: is Siakam ready? Let’s look at the flashes he showed last night, and what we can hope to see in the near future.
The Basketball Fit
Thrust into an everyday starter role after the Sullinger injury, Siakam has played 17.8 minutes per game, averaging 5.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 0.8 blocks. His minutes, though, have seen a precipitous drop on this West Coast trip — he played just 5:30 in Utah, 6:07 in Portland, and 4:20 (blaze it) in Golden State. Patterson’s injury has come at a time when Casey has been most reluctant to play Siakam — 2Pat has been the third quarter “starter”, and opposing teams have grown wise to Siakam’s offensive and defensive flaws.
On offense, Siakam shows a nice future, but is a bit deer in the headlights at this point. Teams are playing off him, and while he understands his role and doesn’t take a lot of bad shots, there’s nothing to be gained in situations where the Raptors are 4-on-5. He’s energetic on the offensive glass, but Jonas Valanciunas occupies much of that space, leaving Siakam to fight for long boards.
On defense, we see flashes. He moves his feet well enough to stay with guards, and can leap to block shots — an example of both came last night on this questionable foul call.
His coupling with Bebe Nogueira against Phoenix showed both the upside and the current flaws of this pairing. Neither are all that solid in man situations, often getting caught in ugly switches and having to haplessly defend guards. As off-ball helpers, though, they’re long-armed and smart — able to glide in for challenges at the rim.
The Emotional Fit
We went into this season praising Siakam as a Coach Casey favourite, and he’s certainly showed that skillset. Playing important minutes has certainly accelerated his growth to a degree, but he’s still a late-first round pick starting for a 55+ win team. Not ideal.
There’s no question Siakam has a bright future with the Raptors, and fits nicely with this roster. The crossroads we’ve arrived at is can he handle a larger ask?
How this plays out won’t make or break the Raptors season, but it is another arbiter arriving on a West Coast trip — which is undoubtedly frustrating for onlookers. It was this trip in 2014 when the Raptors went off the rails, and the past always creates bias for the present.
There’s no Greivis Vasquez here, though. No Lou Williams trying to guard elite guards. If Pascal Siakam can, like we say, tread water for any lost Patterson time — the Raptors should be okay in the long run.