Welcome to the first edition of the Raptors HQ Roundtable. Each week I, Sully Akbari, will be your host throughout the season firing off questions to two other HQ contributors on what’s been happening in Toronto. For this week’s edition, I’m joined by Thomas Mooney and Mitch Orsatti.
The HQ Roundtable format is simple: I pose a handful of questions on hot topics regarding the Toronto Raptors. We discuss them all, and then give our thoughts here. Think of this as a podcast but in text-form. Got it? Good! Without further ado, let’s jump right in!
1) What are your impressions from the first week?
Sully Akbari: The first week has been nothing short of amazing! The Raptors have come out of the gates strong while showing little signs of a slow start. What has impressed me is how quickly the Raptors have clicked with the new additions of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Although, it’s understandable to see the ease in transition because Leonard can be inserted into any situation and literally take over, while Green, his 3-and-D style of play and the ability to be useful without the ball on offense, is just what the Raptors need from the shooting guard position (sorry DeMar).
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and that couldn’t have been better said for Kyle Lowry. So far, Lowry has been able to control the game, whether managing the pace, hitting a big shot, or making plays on both ends of the floor, he has just been phenomenal. Lowry’s numbers are also great as he’s averaging 21.5 points with 76.6% true shooting percentage to go along with 10 assists per game. The team has looked great overall, and with a few more practices this team will be very tough to beat from here on out.
One of the cool things about Kyle Lowry's 10 APG through 4 games? He's not averaging more than 1.8 APG to any single player, and is averaging more than 1 APG to 6 different guys.— Anthony Doyle (@Anthonysmdoyle) October 23, 2018
Thomas Mooney: My first impression? The Raptors are going to be scary good, if they aren’t already. It’s only been four games and you can already see the chemistry on both ends. They’ve been finding Danny Green for wide open threes, Kyle Lowry is shaping up for a career year, and Kawhi has been all over the place on both ends of the floor. Only four games in and I feel that the Raptors will be one of those teams that can take the will out of you with their defense, similar to what the Warriors are with their offense.
Mitch Orsatti: Whew! What a start! Like many, I have very high hopes and standards for this Raptors team, and right off they have not disappointed. It’s entirely possible that all four of the Raptors opponents since the beginning of the season have been playoff teams in the East and the Raps have handled them all with, yes, I’ll say it, relative ease! There was certainly some rust in the initial bout with Cleveland, but the rust that’s shown on individual players (Kawhi initially, the bench unit with JV) has actually given me more hope for this season. Kawhi at whatever percentage that clearly is not 100 percent effectiveness is still a terror everywhere he plants his feet on the court. The Bench Mob, I believe, is dead (R.I.P. Jak and Skills) but it will figure itself out with whichever rotating big man that is slotted in based on the match-up, and when those two factors click, the Raps are going to be even scarier.
2) What do you think of the Raptors lineups so far?
Sully: Coach Nick Nurse has been blessed with a versatile team. Not only can several players play multiple positions but almost everyone on this roster is a two-way player, some better than others, but still, Nurse has been able to maximize what he wants on both ends of the floor. The Lowry-Green-Leonard-Pascal Siakam-Serge Ibaka starting lineup has been used the most and has been solid. I do think it will be used the most throughout the season. That lineup is versatile on both ends of the floor and efficient (with a net rating so far of +27.8). They can all (mostly) shoot from deep, with an effective field goal percentage so far of 65.3 percent to back this up. Jonas Valanciunas and OG Anunoby may get some looks in the starting unit at some point or be the first ones off the bench depending on match-ups, with Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, Norman Powell, Greg Monroe, and eventually Delon Wright, holding down the Bench Mob — which has struggled a bit.
After playing 13% of his minutes at C last year, Ibaka's played 100% of his mins there this season.— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) October 22, 2018
Last year: 1.4 screen ast (100th in NBA), 3.7 OREB% (87th), 3.9 3PA/1.6 FTA, 4.6 pts in the paint.
This year: 4.0 screen ast (8th), 10.4 OREB% (11th), 2.0 3PA/5.7 FTA, 7.3 PITP.
Thomas: I really like what Nick Nurse has been doing to start the season. I’m a fan of him only playing one traditional big (Ibaka/Valanciunas) and putting them with the length around the perimeter has allowed him to play a free-flowing, switching style of defense. I’m hoping that when Wright comes back they’ll do some experimenting with Pascal Siakam at the centre spot.
Mitch: Give me defense! Give me Kawhi and OG over the world. Those two guys at the 3 and 4, especially when they are guarding on the same side of the floor, is game over for whichever hapless suckers happen to be saddled with the misfortune of being matched up against them. What’s even better is that it doesn’t even stop with them! Siakam is twitchy and switchy, Kyle has been drawing charges and, when engaged (which at his age and current situation isn’t 100% of the time), is an absolute menace. Oh, who’s that, Danny Green? Sure, another all-defender type that can make life hell on the opposing team! Dude was everywhere against the Hornets. Meanwhile Ibaka has been blocking everything but has also looked a little suspect at times, and JV is trying to figure out his life in his new tandem role with Ibaka. Still, those two dudes anchor an incredible defense that will only get better as the season progresses. Bonus points: didn’t even mention Delon, who is also fantastic on the defensive end.
Wright practiced today, but it was a lighter practice. Nurse said he's not 100% sure that Delon is ready to go yet, but sounds like they still expect him to return tomorrow vs Minnesota. "He's on track."— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) October 23, 2018
3) How about that Kawhi Leonard?
Sully: Kawhi Leonard has fit seamlessly and has picked up where he left from the 2016-17 season. It was quite noticeable to see that the first game against the Cavaliers was for Leonard to get back in game shape, even though he had a solid night, scoring 24 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. However, from there, he has steadily gotten back to his old self. I wasn’t surprised by the Raptors deciding to rest Leonard against the Wizards, which was on the second night of a back-to-back; it was also the right decision. In fact, I hope the Raptors rest him when they play weaker teams and either on the front or back end of a back-to-back. If we get the same type of performance from Leonard, and maybe even better (as in the game against the Hornets), then he may indeed be right back in the MVP discussion.
Thomas: Even at less than 100 percent, Kawhi is a top-5 player in the league. It’s crazy how after basically a season off, it doesn’t look like his game has lost a step. In his first two games, you could tell he was trying to shake a bit of rust off, but he absolutely took Charlotte apart on Monday. As much as I loved DeMar DeRozan, Masai Ujiri absolutely fleeced the Spurs and it’s not much of a question anymore.
Mitch: Honestly, I’m not sure what else could be asked of Kawhi at this point in the season. As I mentioned, he was a bit rusty in the Cavs game, but still managed to finish with a 24-point and 12-rebound double-double. When it was time to go up against the apparent best team in the East (according to Celtics Twitter), the Boston Celtics, Kawhi produced the moment that Raptors fans had been waiting for: he took over. In the third quarter, Kawhi put the Raps on his back in a moment where the game wasn’t even all the way out of reach. Long have Raptors fans been used to the grand comeback effort lead by a herculean effort and being down by 10+, but Leonard, a top-5 player in the NBA, knows the moment and would not let Toronto fall into that hole. I feel like I should mention the Charlotte game at some point in this roundtable, but — lol — they’re big trash and the Raps dispatched them while the Celtics lost to the Magic (sorry).
4) What do you think of coach Nick Nurse?
Sully: The Raptors played it safe in hiring Nick Nurse to be the franchise’s ninth head coach and it has paid dividends. I like the idea of not having a set starting lineup in the power forward and centre positions because teams either go with the traditional two bigs at those two positions or go small — which the Raptors have to adjust to. So far, Nurse has done a good job with determining which lineups will match-up well against the four teams they have faced but most of all, making adjustments on the fly.
Thomas: I liked the hire originally, but I’m still pleasantly surprised. I’m in favour of rotating the starters and getting different lineups out there, even if It’s just for preparation of what they might have to do in the playoffs and force some chemistry early on. In that regard, I’d start JV more often than not, if only because the spacing of the starters favours his game. The only concern (if you can even call it that) I have is the amount of isolation sets I’ve seen so far. But they’re for Kawhi Leonard, so I can’t even be that mad.
Mitch: Could Nick Nurse and Dwane Casey be any different? Casey was well known in his time for Toronto for failing to make adjustments to his lineups until it was much, much too late and Nurse doesn’t even have a set starting five yet! While Nurse is definitely a bigger gambler than Casey, I think it’s a touch too early to get too far into analysis on him. The offense still looks like an abridged version of a hybrid of last year’s and the defense is doing plenty of work but still has some holes in transition due to the integration of new pieces Leonard and Green and the wrinkle of having JV playing with the bench. Nurse seems to be pulling all of the right strings for now, and it should be interesting to see his flair start to show itself a little more in his play-calling as the season progresses. I suppose if I were to find a similarity between the two, it’s that they both leave players in too long in a blowout? I know, it’s a reach.
5) What are you excited about so far?
Sully: If the first four games are just a glimpse of what we’re going to see for the next 78, with improvements along the way, then HOOK. IT. TO. MY. VEINS. Once Wright comes back, and when the chemistry and play style become familiar to all, then I believe this Raptors team can reach the NBA Finals. It may be early, but this year’s team could very well be one of the special teams in Toronto sports history. I also may have to side with HQ editor John Gaudes:
Wow the Raptors won again only 79 to go— John Gaudes (@johngaudes) October 21, 2018
Thomas: I’m excited to see the eventual lineup combinations when Delon Wright gets back. The length and versatility on the defensive end is already good, and Delon will make it that much better. Hopefully, it will also allow OG to return to the starting lineup, and put Pascal back in with the bench-mob where he’s a much better fit at this point in the season.
Mitch: Sign me up for the NBA’s first 82-0 season, followed by a championship banner hanging in the Scotiabank Arena (ugh) that isn’t 50 years old. While one or maybe two of those things won’t happen this season, this iteration of the Raptors leaves much to be excited for: Kawhi at full capacity, Lowry mean-mugging his way into the hearts of us all and the continued development of Fred VanVleet, Siakam, OG and Delon. With that development, the thing I am most excited about is OG’s explosiveness. Raptors broadcasters love to remind us all that OG wasn’t playing at a full clip last year, and they are right too. This guy was meant to be a lottery pick and he is showing why early on in the season. He looks springy, aware and solid (albeit a bit behind in some coverages) on the defense end and is doing what is asked of him on the offense end — hit open jimmys, make the right play when the defense collapses on his shot, and occasionally throw down a spinning dunk in the lane in a blowout against the Hornets.
That will do it for this week’s HQ Roundtable discussion! We’ll see you all next Wednesday. Let us know if you have any topics we should cover in the comments below.