Three days without any basketball is too much for anyone to bear, so we got a few members of the Raptors HQ team together to talk about second half storylines. A refresher for those who are new here, the Raptors are 35-17, on pace for their best season in franchise history, and seem pretty rock solid in the two seed. What could we have to talk about? Well, there are a few things.
Harsh: I’d be shocked if anyone said that the Raptors haven’t exceeded their expectations. With Amir Johnson leaving, we all had concerns about how their defense would perform without their anchor, and that’s without even getting into how much of a true glue-guy he was on the offensive end. The Raptors have not only passed that test with flying colours, they’ve done it with Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll missing large chunks of the season. They’re one of 6 teams ranking top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Going into the season, we all expected the Raptors be in the hunt for a mid-level seed in a muddled East, but they’ve clearly been the 2nd best team in the conference.
Sean: Thanks to the offense being far more efficient than I predicted, the Raptors have blown past my expectations. I thought the defense was due for a big bounce back - how could it not be with Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams being replaced by Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo and DeMarre Carroll (for a handful of games, at least). Throw in a new, more conservative defensive system that better utilized Valanciunas, and I thought the defense could creep back near the top-10. The offense maintaining as a top five or six unit has surprised me though. If you go back and listen to some of our early season podcasts, it’s pretty clear nobody expected DeMar DeRozan to make such gigantic strides in his development. His drive and kick game along with better shot selection has kept the Raptors offense humming even through the injury woes. I was predicting in the ballpark of 46-48 wins at the outset of the season, and thanks to that steady offense and usually dependable defense, they might blow past that by the end of March.
Daniel: Totally exceeded, to be honest. I thought the Raptors would have another strong year in that uninspiring 47-win, 4-seed kind of way, so to see them basically lock up the 2-seed and an eventual 50-win season is amazing. In retrospect though, I shouldn’t be that surprised. Everything coming into this year suggested they’d be better -- DeRozan was set to improve, Lowry was in shape, the defense was bolstered, the team chemistry and character would be high. That it’s all come true just feels like a surprise because, damn, how often does that happen?
John: Every year brings injuries, but coming into the year it was hard to predict that the team would be missing starting players for such a long stretch. I think assuming full health this team has met my expectations coming into the year. Taking it as a whole, though, they’ve absolutely exceeded them. The free agent additions have done their job and then some, Lowry and DeRozan are playing in their prime together, and Dwane Casey has implemented schemes that work on both ends.
Harsh: Like an 8? A week or two ago, I looked up how many players were in Lowry’s range for win shares over a season, with that minute load. Here were the names: Oscar, Jerry West, Kobe, MJ, Magic, Wade. That’s basically it. Lowry’s barely 6’0 tall and is turning 30 in a month. He can’t keep playing 37 minutes a night (and rising month over month), it’s absolutely asinine. I’ll take 4 fewer wins if it means Lowry’s healthy for the playoffs. Whether he’s improved his fitness, or his role differs with Joseph is besides the point -- there’s a reason why there are so few players in that minute range. The Raptors haven’t discovered a new inefficiency with respect to keeping players fresh while still keeping them on the court. And to top it off, DeRozan’s also among the minute leaders in the league. Stop it, Dwane.
Sean: I’ll be controversial and go with a 3. Lowry’s improved physical shape is proving to be a real difference-maker. At this time last year, we were already a month into Lowry’s descent from the early season heights he reached. And while he’s playing even more minutes than he did last year, we’re getting to the point where we can accept that he’s more physically capable of holding up over the grind of the season. On top of that, the minutes he his playing, while bountiful, are less demanding than the ones he played last year. He’s deferring to DeRozan and Joseph to initiate offense more often - a luxury that didn’t exist last year. He’s spotting up off the ball more, piling up 3.9 catch-and-shoot three pointer attempts per game this year compared to 2.6 in 2014-15. Lowry’s also being asked to do less on defense with Joseph flanking him routinely. The memory of last season still looms, but I believe in skinny Kyle.
Daniel: I’m at a 4. I think there’s always that risk of injury, which gets people nervous. But I don’t think it’s a huge deal to play Lowry 36, 37, 38 minutes a night. Again, the best players play the most and the jump from 33 (which is maybe more ideal) to 38 is a matter of a small degree. I know the worry is that Lowry will completely break down like he did last year, but I don’t know, have you seen him play lately? Does he look like he’s breaking down yet to you? As I’ve said before: only a couple of teams have the luxury of resting their key guys all the time (Spurs, Warriors), but everyone else has got to play to win the game and that’s that.
John: I would say about a 7 right now. I spent some time looking at the analytics for last week’s piece, but there’s something to be said for how Lowry is playing in those minutes, not just how many minutes there are. Watching him this year with the bench unit, there’s a real sense of control and understanding in his play. When he needs to take over, he does. When he doesn’t, he can fade off ball and be a spot-up shooter while Cory Joseph runs the offense. Watch him enough and you can see the possessions where he’s taking active rest. I still have full belief that 38-40 minutes a night is too much, but given how he appears to understand the issue in-game, I’m not at max stress.
Harsh: A 4? A 3? Medical sciences come a long way when it comes to knee injuries. I’m no doctor, but anecdotally speaking, we’ve seen Adrian Peterson cross 2000 yards months after tearing his ACL; we saw Marcus Stroman come back late in the Jays’ season last year too. I like that the Raptors have shut Carroll down this season. There’s no point to make him fight through niggles as the playoffs arrive. His contract goes for another three years after this, so, even if they’re looking at this strictly financially, to recoup this investment, it behooves the Raptors to look long-term.
Sean: Probably a 4. It’s certainly disconcerting that he’s been injured for the better part of a year, and the cloud of persistent knee issues never totally clears. The hope is that the Raptors are just far more cautious with him moving forward. We should never again hear about Carroll playing while nursing minor ailments like we did at the start of the season. With proper management of his minutes, and rest incorporated in his schedule, Carroll can hopefully be kept fresh for the playoffs every year, which is exactly what he was brought in for. If he can’t stay healthy over the next couple years, though, at least the salary cap is inflating to a level that should keep Carroll’s deal from mutating into a debilitating tumor on the cap sheet.
Daniel: At this point, a 7 or 8. It’s been a real bummer during this banner season for the Raps to consider how much better they could be with Carroll at 100 percent. He went in for surgery on January 6th, and now it’s almost six weeks later and there’s been zero update on his situation. While I have little doubt Carroll will be back before the regular season ends, it’s going to be tough to just toss him out there. He looked a little out of sorts (on offense) when he was healthy at the beginning of the year. And now, after being in and out of the lineup for most of the season, it’s not the best time for him to still be trying to figure things out. Carroll’s a smart player and he won’t actively hurt the Raptors, especially not a D, where he is an absolute wrecker on the perimeter. But again, I’ll be stuck imagining what it would have been like to have him play 70 plus games in top form. It’s not the best feeling to remember Carroll is under contract for another three years. Here’s hoping for the best.
John: Depends on how long-term you want to look. I’d say a 6 for contributing this year and a 3 over the span of his contract. Like Sean said, it’s a bargain deal considering cap inflation over the next two years, but if you’re hoping for him to be at full health for this year’s playoffs, that has to at least be a question mark at this point. Carroll hasn’t been healthy since last year’s playoffs and has played through minor injuries before. I would hope that doesn’t continue, but he’s never been passionate about exercising caution.
Harsh: This might change as of the time this gets published, but maybe have a more competent starting PF? Luis Scola tries hard, and has added a three pointer to his game, but the Raptors are unbelievably good without him on the court. The Raptors get outscored by 0.9 points per possession he’s on the court (lowest on the team among regular rotation players), and are 9.1 PPP better than their opponents when he’s off. Even if the Raptors don’t acquire a new PF, there are ways to mitigate their weaknesses. Slide Patterson into the starting lineup, give more spot minutes to James Johnson at the 4, and let Scola play well against bench lineups. This one is long overdue.
Sean: Harsh nailed it. Luis Scola has become a problem. He’s too slow to keep up on defense, and even though he’s draining more threes than he ever has in his career, defenses aren’t exactly abandoning their principles to contest his looks from the corner. An upgrade at the trade deadline would be nice, but then again I’m not sure a Thad Young, Ryan Anderson or Kenneth Faried (PLEASE not Kenneth Faried) really raises the team’s ceiling all that much. I think the in-house solution of going small more regularly (when health allows for it) might be the better way to go about fixing the hole Scola has created in the starting 5. Start Patterson, use Carroll and Johnson at the four in small looks - these should be good enough stop-gap measures before Masai Ujiri can look more carefully at the long-term situation at power forward. Scola starting could also just be a matter of maintaining continuity throughout the regular season. Come the playoffs Casey will learn quickly that Scola is a liability, and I’m sure will quickly resort to one of the multiple options at his disposal.
Daniel: Ideally putting Scola into a more Chuck Hayes-like role, where he comes in for 10 minutes and maybe powers the offense for a bit, would be the change I’d like to see made. But as we’ve all noted: there is not a lot to be done right now about the power forward spot. The only player to my mind that the Raptors could acquire who really moves the needle, and represents a true all-in move, is Al Horford. Short of that, it’s a lot of lateral moves (or riskier ventures) that probably aren’t worth the risk. What sucks about this is we already know where the Raptors weakness is and how it will be exploited come playoff time. Teams will run hard at the Scola-Valanciunas combo and force the Raps to play from behind to start, or go to their bench early (not the worst thing, but still). All we can do now is change our attitude: accept this situation and pray it doesn’t bite the Raptors later.
John: Like the others alluded to, the obvious move here is to put Patrick Patterson into the starting lineup and limit the Jonas Valanciunas / Luis Scola pairing as much as possible. We’re seeing teams take advantage of this already, but in the playoffs it’s going to be an absolute heel. The last two years, Toronto’s playoff opponents have picked on a weakness in Casey’s rotation to great success (Joe Johnson vs. DeRozan, Wall vs. point guards and Valanciunas in pick and roll). This cannot happen this year with so much on the line at the organizational level. Make the switch and commit to being better defensively, rotations be damned.
Harsh: If the Raptors go .500 for the next 30 games, they still finish with 50 wins. I’ll say they won’t keep up their 0.673 win percentage, which has them on track for 55 wins. So let’s say 53 wins and the second seed.
Sean: 54 wins and the second seed. That said, the Raptors have a real incentive to push for the top spot in order to gain any possible advantage in a possible Conference Finals clash with Cleveland. The Cavs on the other hand, could be on cruise control, looking to keep LeBron and Irving fresh for the playoffs in the season’s final couple weeks. A top seed wouldn’t shock me. What a time to be alive.
Daniel: Astoundingly, I’m going with 54 wins and the two-seed. Easily the best regular season Raptors team ever and, if they win a playoff round or two, the best team in franchise history. Not bad.
John: 55 wins and the second seed. I don’t see them catching the Cavaliers and I don’t see any other East teams being good enough to make up four games.
Harsh: The Raptors would face the Bulls if the playoffs started tomorrow, and that scares me a lot. The Hornets have long been a bogey team for the Raptors too, so I wouldn’t feel terribly happy about that either. Realistically though, the Raptors should beat most of these teams. The only team I might pick to beat the Raptors is the Bulls.
Sean: The Bulls in their current state don’t scare me as much as they would have at the start of the season. Jimmy Butler is outstanding, but the rest of the team is awkward-fitting and riddled with injuries and poor play. I think we have the start accepting that the Raptors might be on the verge of actually winning a playoff series, no matter how much past failures may colour our perspective.
Daniel: The Bulls, obviously. Yes, they have injuries, yes, they seem to be a bit out of sorts with regards to personnel and coaching, yes, the regular season record between these two teams doesn’t technically mean anything, but to all this I say: no, no, no, no, no. The Raptors want no part of the Bulls in the first round and if it happens, it’ll make me the most anxious I’ve been in a long time. My heart won’t be able to take it!
John: The bottom half of the East is such a mess right now, it’s impossible to predict what the matchup will be at this point. I would absolutely hate, though, to see Chicago if they stay as low as they are now. I think the Raptors should be able to beat any of the other teams in six games or less.