Somewhere along the line, I thought it would be a good idea to get into an argument with Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic about basketball-related things. Quickly realizing there was no way Twitter or GChat could handle the voluminous thoughts of Murphy (and to a lesser extent, me), we started firing truth bomb emails back and forth about the Raptors' recent win streak, the minutes load of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, coach Dwane Casey's decision making and Blake's foolish assertion that he could beat me in a game of one-on-one. What follows is that exchange.
Blake Murphy: Alright, Dan. Listen. First we started discussing this through the official Twitter accounts, then it spilled into GChat, and only by force of geography were we able to prevent it from reaching the giant brawl crescendo that we've long been spiraling toward as the result of blog wars, hirsute competition, and your studio gangster 1-on-1 hoop threats.
So. I'm worried about the workloads of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. You, less so. I suppose we start with you calling me a fuddy-duddy for finding negatives in an 11-game win streak?
Daniel Reynolds: How dare you bring hirsute-ness into this, Blake. How dare you. For the record, I fully intend to escalate our blog war until there is only one of us left to tell Raptors fans, "Hey guys, let's be reasonable." And if that means I also have to son you on the basketball court, so be it.
There has never been a more Toronto sports fan thing than to find the downside of an 11-game win streak. Look, I understand that winning takes a lot of effort. There have been teams (the 2007-08 Rockets, for example) who've lost in the first round of the playoffs -- from exhaustion, presumably -- but I can't help but come back to that fundamental sports principle, espoused by the grand philosopher Herm Edwards: You play to win the game. How do you argue that logic?
Blake Murphy: I argue with that logic with an example that should still be in everyone's minds: The 2014-15 Toronto Raptors. The idea of "no naysaying in a victory" is one I understand but one that left a lot of Raptors' fans with egg on their face a season ago. I remember being similarly pessimistic in the good times last year, decrying the lack of defense and Lowry's workload, only to be told I'm too negative and pessimistic.
Now, to be clear, I am far less worried this time around. The 11-game winning streak has been mostly great, a lot of fun, and has helped affirm my growing belief that the Raptors might actually be the second-best team in the East. And in the case of the stars, DeRozan is used to roughly this workload, and Lowry is actually playing more than last year and has shown no signs of wearing down.
At the same time, Lowry's averaged 39.1 minutes during the streak, an obscene amount. He and DeRozan both rank in the top seven in total minutes played on the season. Even if they're in Ironman shape, the same shape that will allow me to dribble circles around you when we finally square off, that doesn't worry you at all?
Daniel Reynolds: I'm glad you specifically mentioned Lowry's minutes here because, really, that's who we're all worried about. Outside of that weird leg injury last year, I'm comfortable with DeRozan's level of durability (and he is three years younger than Lowry). I'm willing to give him a pass.
I guess the question then becomes one of degree. Most high usage/quality players are in the 33-36 minute range; they play the most because they're the best. So what's the difference between Lowry's 36.7 and, say, Russell Westbrook's 34.2 or LeBron's 35.7 or James Harden's 37.3? How do we decide which workload takes more of a toll? Sure, having the ball in your hands all the time can be tiring (something you'd know nothing about, obviously), but Lowry has tons of support now playing off of Cory Joseph and DeRozan. Why do we have to -- have to -- freak out about this?
Blake Murphy: I don't think anybody is freaking out, and you certainly don't have to, but at some point the heavy workload in wins threatens to become a Pyrrhic victory.
I understand that the difference in minutes doesn't seem all that extreme in sheer numbers. Sure, Lowry's fifth, but he's played only 56 total minutes more than, say, Paul George, who ranks 13th. I get that. And in terms of wear-down, the honest truth is we have no idea if and when to expect such a thing. Lowry's in phenomenal shape this year, like DeRozan, and there are certainly plenty of examples of 37-minute-a-night guys holding up.
But we saw last Tuesday what can happen when a player is needlessly playing too much - up 17 with fewer than four minutes to play, Lowry, who only has one gear, sprains his wrist getting caught on a screen. Against Detroit, he's out late with a double-digit lead in a game in which he was visibly laboring and constantly stretching out said wrist. Lowry's also 30, and while Joseph has taken some of the load off of him defensively, his usage rate is at a career-high and he plays a high-contact style.
Injuries aren't an issue until they are. I've always been extremely risk-averse when it comes to player workloads and injuries. That's especially true with Lowry, as the team has a bit of a window right now, one that shuts emphatically if he were to get hurt.
Daniel Reynolds: The Raptors aren't winning the title this year, so this is all a Pyrrhic victory. That said, I will concede that the injury risk is always a very real thing. Losing Lowry or DeRozan for any extended period of time would basically explode all of the good vibes the team has engendered over the season's first half. To be blunt: it would suck.
I do support the idea of resting guys when a victory feels assured. If, like against Detroit, the other team starts making a run, then it's up to Casey to decide how much that win is worth versus the risk to play his stars extended minutes. Not the easiest call, but I don't get paid millions of dollars to yell at basketball players. Which brings us full circle: Do you think this win streak is starting to affect some of Casey's decision making?
Blake Murphy: I don't think so, no. Even earlier in the year, he would leave the main guys in with a sizable lead or deficit. It's partially his fault for being over-cautious with individual wins with a low marginal product (and the risk having a huge potential marginal cost) and partially the reality of having a 10-man team. I'm no more or less concerned about it now than I was at the start of the streak, beyond some hand-wringing at Lowry playing when he doesn't look 100 percent. What about you?
(By the way, while we're conceding the other's point some - at least one team has had a pair of players in the top 10 in minutes the last several years, so it's not like the Raptors would be particularly special here).
Daniel Reynolds: Without all the fancy economics jargon, I'll just say this: I think Casey (like every coach ever) has always and will always play the players he believes will bring the team the most wins. If it means he has to lean a lot of Lowry and DeRozan, he'll do it. But I feel I should mention it's not as if these guys are complaining about playing too much. Good players like to play, and they like to win. And the Raptors are winning. A lot. You think Lowry likes coming out of any of these game? I'm confident he'd try to play 48 minutes every night if he could.
The bottom line is, if you're the Warriors or the Spurs you can rest guys, if you're any other team in the league you have to play your best players a lot. The NBA is tough. Now, we've been agreeing too much here, so let me add this addendum: There will be no rest, no relief and no relent, Blake, as a I run roughshod over you in our one-on-one game. Book it.
Blake Murphy: Not sure what would make me feel worse: Winding up being justified in my workload concerns, or distilling your entire existence down to a single Vine loop with a crossover.