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Player Review: Finding value in Cory Joseph’s up and down year

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Joseph’s role with the Raptors varied wildly this season, and his future may be uncertain, but he’s proven his worth anyway.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t a player currently on the Toronto Raptors roster who could see more fluctuation in his role than incumbent back-up point guard Cory Joseph.

After an up-and-down season, Joseph has shown himself to be a capable back-up, who is probably best suited for exactly that job. As he enters his age-26 season, there is undoubtedly still room for improvement, but also a prevailing feeling of “what you see is what you get” with the Toronto-born guard — that is, fair outside shooting, mostly strong defense, good ball security and very good basketball IQ.

Despite that pleasant and growing certainty, Joseph’s potential future runs the full gamut of possibilities, none of which are under his current control. Three completely different scenarios are in play, all of which will greatly affect the reality of his 2017-18.

Before we get to those, let’s look at how his season went.

The Good

This season, Joseph transformed himself back into the capable outside shooter that he was in his final year in San Antonio. After hitting only 27.3% from deep in his first year in Toronto, Joseph managed a 35.6% number this season, and particularly shone during the early months of the season; he hit at 42.9% in December and 40% in January, helping the Raptors attempt to weather injuries to DeMar DeRozan and Patrick Patterson.

Following Kyle Lowry’s wrist injury, Joseph stepped into a starting role after the All-Star break, and the Raptors hardly missed a beat. They went 15-7 without Lowry in the line-up, and Joseph stepped into his shoes admirably, bumping up to 32.6 minutes per game (he averaged 22.2 as a reserve, for the season), while managing equal 110 offensive and defensive ratings — the defensive mark is far from ideal, but the fact that he represented essentially a draw in term of his on-court value was a win for the Raptors.

The highlight of the season for Joseph came in a sports movie moment, as Toronto was nearly pissing away the clinching Game 6 of their first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Toronto let a 25 point lead evaporate, and disaster seemed on the horizon. Joseph was apparently quite vocal in the huddle, was inserted into the game by coach Dwane Casey, and responded by scoring five points and keying a clutch 9-0 run that sealed the game.

Per NBA.com, Joseph was a calming force that helped the Raptors just barely hang on:

“I’ve seen a lot of playoff games from my previous team and being here last year. I’ve been in a lot of situations like that. You just always have to play until that clock is zero, zero, zero, zero, whatever. You could never get too high or you can never get too low. Sometimes we get lazy. a little lazy. We tend to miss rotations and stuff when we build that cushion. We’ve got to be more disciplined. I was just saying during that timeout, because the scene was a little bit intense, guys looked tight on the bench, I was telling them relax, let’s move the ball, let’s run some plays, let’s do the things that got us up that high in the first place and just try to calm them down”.

Then he did this:

The Bad

Despite the positives, there were definitely some negatives for Joseph this season as well.

After a mostly excellent first season on the defensive side of the ball, Joseph really struggled on defense for much of his sophomore season as a Raptor. He posted an ugly 113 defensive rating (per Basketball Reference) before the All-Star break, good for worst on the team, by far. While he improved down the stretch, his 110 DRtg on the season tied him with DeRozan for the worst mark on the team. Unlike DeRozan, however, Joseph didn’t really make up for on the offensive side of the ball, posting a 108 offensive rating, good for worst among Raptors regulars outside of Pascal Siakam. Serge Ibaka was technically worse as well, but his 23 game sample size needs more time to breathe.

The worrying sign for Raptors fans is that Joseph’s struggles seem to be directly linked to him being handed a larger role. He thrived upon his arrival from San Antonio last season, but as the year went on and he set a new career high in minutes, his play hit a huge wall — after a hot start and mostly consistent play throughout the year, the Raptors leaned heavily on Joseph in February and March of last season. He responded by posting a team worst 116 defensive rating in February, and even and more abysmal combination in March: an 87 ORtg and a 110 DRtg.

You can be wary of small sample sizes and aware of hot and cold streaks until the cows come home, but if you squint, this year was more of the same. Earlier, we discussed Joseph re-tapped capabilities as an outside shooter. On the whole they were there, to be sure. But when thrust into a starting role, Joseph’s three point shooting dipped to 29.3%, versus 40.1% as a reserve. In games where Joseph played between 20-29 minutes, he shot 39.7% from three. In games where he was between 30-39 minutes, he shot 28.2%.

You might point to these as growing pains, and Joseph is still young. But it seems like there’s a very real ceiling on his potential as a player. To be clear, there is not a damn thing wrong with that, but the fact is that Toronto likely doesn’t have a burgeoning starter on their hands, they have a very good back-up.

The Grade: B

Joseph did his job for the Raptors. He did it capably, and without fuss. Despite briefly losing his job mid-season to Fred VanVleet (inspiring one of my favourite pieces of the season, by Eric Koreen of the Athletic), he performed with professionalism. When he unexpectedly had to start for a quarter of the season, he handled that too. Pretty much all of the warts you can find on his body of work have to do with being pushed into an uncertain role.

Unfortunately for CoJo, his future is as uncertain as his role was this year.

Let’s quickly look at those scenarios we mentioned off the top.

In Scenario 1, Lowry returns as the Raptors starting point guard, and everything stays the same. As mentioned above, Joseph is well suited to a back-up role, and the Raptors would likely love to have him back in that spot next season.

In Scenario 2, Lowry leaves the team, and Joseph is thrust into a starting role. This is less than ideal — some fans have pointed to the Raptors 15-7 record with Joseph as a starter as evidence of his ability to start, but as we see in the numbers listed above, this had far more to do with the mid-season additions of Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, as well as en fuego play from DeRozan, as opposed to any great improvement that Joseph showed. Still, as a back-up plan, the Raptors could certainly do worse, provided they are able to improve their roster elsewhere in Lowry’s absence (gulp).

In Scenario 3, Lowry returns to Toronto, but the Raptors need to clear salary in order to avoid a tax crunch. The most obvious candidates (as discussed in my series with Daniel Hackett), for this financial clear cutting are DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas, but Joseph and his $7,630,000 salary for next season (plus a player option for 2018-19) are not an insignificant number, particularly when you consider both Delon Wright and VanVleet exist, and on rookie contracts.

Clearly identifiable quantities in the NBA can be few and far between, especially in mid-rotation players, and the fact that the Raptors have one locked up to an eminently reasonable contract is a net positive.

What they wind up doing with that quantity will be a significant point of interest this summer.