Since I didn’t get the watch the game last night, I’m forgoing my usual five thoughts game recap to offer up a few thoughts on the pre-season overall. As always, we can’t put too much stock into anything we saw, since the games don’t matter, but it was great to see the new-look Raptors in action and get a taste of what’s to come.
Kawhi Leonard is Looking Healthy—But Rusty
This one is both a relief, and entirely expected. The word ahead of camp was that Leonard was healthy, but after last season’s prolonged mystery in San Antonio, I for one was wary. Thankfully those fears were put to rest right away, as he looked and moved and played like he was completely healthy, he showed no hesitation or lack of aggression on the floor, there were no minutes restrictions and no precautionary measures. Phew!
As for the rust, again, we had to expect that, considering he’s barely played basketball in over a year. The short jumpers, the wandering foul shots, these will even out as Leonard plays more and gets back into basketball shape.
Besides, even with the rust and the 37.5% shooting, the guy still led the team in scoring at 13.3 ppg on 10.7 shots in 22.6 minutes in his three games. And his defense looks to be what the Raptors need: a defensive rating of 88.3, a net rating of 23.5 and a 12.7+/-. Yeah, that’ll do!
(Want some even better numbers? Danny Green: 84.3 DRTG, 34.6 Net and 16.8+/-. I can’t find lineup data for the preseason but safe to say all the predictions about the impact these two guys would have on both ends are all holding up so far.)
Nick Nurse seems Pretty Chill in His New Job
Oftentimes, an individual comes into a new job and feels the need to assert themselves. In Nurse’s case, that could have meant really pushing guys, playing his starters extended minutes, figuring out his lineups and attempting to use the preseason to prove himself.
Instead he was clearly more concerned with health and rest and not overtaxing anyone, as he gave his key guys plenty of rest (of the regulars, only Pascal Siakam, whose motor never seems to slow down, played all five games). He also trotted out plenty of lineups to see what would click, holding true to his declarations of experimentation.
All of this tells me that he seems comfortable using the start of the regular season to round the team into shape, and knows that he’s playing for May (and hopefully June).
The Bench Mob Seems Primed for Continued Evolution
The “player X looks great in camp” story has many, many sad endings, but so far so good for Toronto. C.J. Miles appears to be in better shape than last year. Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright both had excellent preseasons, each flashing more of the same brilliance on both ends that they did last season. Fred VanVleet didn’t play a lot, but he was excellent when he did, shooting 6-of-12 from downtown. Even Norman Powell had moments before getting banged up.
There is definitely a concern that, with the gaudy numbers the Raptors bench put up last year and the promise of new lineups this year, the bench won’t perform in the same way. But if the preseason is an indication, those concerns will fade quickly.
Who’s Going to Start...
I have no idea what the starting lineup will be in game 1, and if did, I’d have no idea if that same group would start game 2. Nick Nurse constantly shuffled guys in and out of the lineup to start games and second halves, and I don’t know if that’s his regular season approach or just a preseason/let’s get everyone in there approach.
Given all the talk of experimenting and trying different things, there’s a sense that Nurse might not use the same lineup every game. I’m not a fan of that approach. I think players like to know their roles and what’s expected of them. (That’s true in any job, really). Mixing it up sounds great in theory—you match up how you want with opposing teams, everyone gets a chance to play with everyone else, you establish players as equals with less hierarchy. But in practice? I think players are better off settling in to set roles night-to-night.
If Nurse does opt for a regular starting unit, I think Jonas Valanciunas, OG Anunoby, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Kyle Lowry makes the most sense. Those are your five best all-around players, and if you have to, you can bring Serge Ibaka or Siakam in off the bench early if more height or size is needed at the 4 spot.
And who’s Going to Fill Out the Bench?
The Raptors will start making cuts, assigning (or signing) guys to the G-League or converting them to two-way deals between now and Monday morning.
The team has 12 rotation guys locked up; Malachi Richardson’s contract is also guaranteed, though the team could cut him loose if needed. Lorenzo Brown’s contract is only partially guaranteed but he had a good enough pre-season that I suspect he’ll make the team. That leaves only one spot!
I don't think Jordan Loyd or Kyle Collinsworth did enough to earn it, or a 905 invite. Kay Felder played well, but the Raptors don’t need another PG; he might be a 905 candidate. Deng Adel, Chris Boucher, and Eric Moreland all had moments during the preseason so I suspect that roster spot goes to one of them—and based on need, I’d say it’s Moreland, given his size and athleticism. I do think the team will try and keep Adel and Boucher with the 905 and they might get moments with the big club at some point.
Bonus Thought: New Orleans Might be in Trouble
Finally a bit of a bonus thought: I didn’t see the game last night, but, that result is not good for the New Orleans Pelicans. Head coach Alvin Gentry approached last night’s game in the exact opposite manner of Nick Nurse, in that Gentry wanted to use it as a final tune-up for his guys, and played his regular rotation 24+ minutes each (while Nurse rested his regulars).
And the Pelicans still lost to the Raptors! Anthony Davis put up incredible numbers (36 points on 18 shots and 15 rebounds in 31 minutes) but the Pelicans allowed Toronto to score 134 points—69 of them from Richardson, Felder, Moreland, Loyd, and Brown. Yikes.
Preseason doesn’t matter and plenty of winless preseason teams have gone on to good regular seasons, but man, that result had to concerning for a team looking to make some noise in a competitive Western Conference.
That’s it for the preseason. The Raptors will continue to tune things up in practice and will solidify the roster, and we can finally get the real games underway! See you on Wednesday.