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HQ Roundtable: On Raptors death lineups, grades, Kawhi’s leadership, and more

This week we’re discussing important matters: the Raptors’ death lineup, overall grades for the season so far, and, sure, the Markelle Fultz-76ers situation.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Greetings and welcome to the sixth edition of the HQ Roundtable discussion! I’m Sully Akbari, your host throughout this weekly discussion series about the Toronto Raptors and other news around the NBA. As always, I’m joined by two HQ contributors to discuss these topics: this week we’ve got Josh Kern and Satbir Singh on hand.

Let’s get right to the questions!

On the Raptors:

1) Ahead of Warriors vs. Raptors, what would your version of Toronto’s death lineup be and why?

Sully Akbari: My version of the Raptors’ death lineup would be Kyle Lowry-Danny Green-OG Anunoby-Kawhi Leonard-Pascal Siakam. That combo is quick and versatile, featuring both a potent offense and stifling defense. Although, the strength of the offense depends on how well Green and Anunoby are shooting the ball.

This Raptors lineup would likely struggle to rebound the ball, but it’s a risk I’d take when playing small-ball, particularly against Golden State. The Warriors don’t have as strong a set of rebounders in their death lineup, but they still outplay their opponents anyway. This begs the question, if the Warriors can play without rebounding well then why can’t the Raptors? Let me pump the brakes right there because, yes, the Warriors’ lineup does feature five All-Stars, two NBA MVPs (Curry, Durant), two NBA Finals MVPs (Durant 2x, Iguodala), and a Defensive Player of the Year award winner (Green). Nonetheless, I still think the Raptors will do damage with that lineup.

Josh Kern: I think it has to be Lowry-Green-Anunoby-Leonard-Siakam. It’s a bit undersized, but it features all five of the team’s best two-way players. It matches up pretty well with that Warriors lineup — as well as anyone can — and the Celtics best-five lineup as well. I don’t know that the Raptors will use it often, or ever, but I hope Nick Nurse gives it some run, and forces other teams to match up and adjust to it, because I would love to see what it can do in the regular season — and keep it in reserve for the playoffs, just like the Warriors do.

Satbir Singh: I’m not a big fan of playing the match-up game, but rather playing the best players that fit together. So, if this question is about the best death lineup that matches well against the Warriors death lineup, you aren’t getting that answer from me (hence why I’m not a basketball coach).

To answer this question, I went straight to the lineup stat page to see which lineups have worked well for the Raptors so far this season. The best net rating with at least 20 minutes played: Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Serge Ibaka. However, I can’t accept a death lineup without Kawhi Leonard.

Therefore, give me the lineup of Lowry-Leonard-Anunoby-Siakam-Ibaka. This lineup hasn’t played together, but it can be dangerous offensively, defensively and has tremendous potential. Lowry and Leonard are your two best players, Ibaka is having himself a solid season as a big that can spread the floor, and Anunoby and Siakam are still showing growth. And, the lineup matches up well versus the Warriors.

2) What are your thoughts on Spurs coach Gregg Popovich saying Kawhi Leonard isn’t a leader?

Sully: We all know Kawhi Leonard isn’t the most vocal player on or off the court but that shouldn’t dictate him being a leader or not. Kawhi is a leader in his own way: by example through his work ethic. Players learn from him in all facets of the game because of his play style, but most importantly his experience from his successful years in San Antonio.

We don’t know what happens behind closed doors but I’m sure Kawhi speaks up during practice or during film sessions to point out things they’re doing well as well as things the Raptors need to work on. I guess that is more or less being a leader of some sort. For now, Lowry has been and is the Raptors’ leader anyway, which is just fine because he knows how to lead a team no matter what the situation is.

Josh: I’d like to think that Popovich wasn’t taking a shot at Leonard, as much as building up the players he still has, specifically Patty Mills, about whom the question is being asked.

Leonard may not be the most vocal leader, but that’s OK, because not every great player has to be that. Look at that Warriors lineup — I think you can easily argue that Green is the vocal, emotional leader of that lineup, and he’s the fourth-best player in that group.

Kyle Lowry is this team’s vocal and emotional leader. Leonard simply has to do what he does best — play hard at both ends — and that’s all the team needs from him.

Satbir: Should I get into how wrong Gregg Popovich is or the fact that Kawhi Leonard is a lead-by-example kind of leader? Here’s my thing from a fan perspective, I don’t care if Kawhi isn’t a vocal leader. I’ve heard his Raptors teammates and coaches praise him since he’s arrived. Secondly, Lowry and veteran guards like Green and C.J. Miles are the perfect vocal leaders for the Raptors.

Each Raptors player knows they can go to Kawhi at any time to talk basketball because he’s known as someone who loves the game — that’s a characteristic of a leader right there, someone who simply loves the game and is willing to talk about it. Pop can take the shots he wants at Kawhi, but he’s a leader and there’s no further discussion needed.

3) We’re a quarter of the way into the season, what overall letter grade would you give the Raptors as a whole?

Sully: They could be an A+ but I am settling for an A-. The team has been great overall but one main concern I have with them is blowing their leads, which is why I’m docking them a bit. Toronto has tended to play great in the first half of games, but seem to lose their momentum in the second, which leads to close games and big minutes added to the starters that shouldn’t be necessary. Of course, there are games where teams lose their footing and cough up their lead but this is happening a bit too often for the Raptors. As good as they are, it’s a concern and something they need to work on.

Part of the blame could be not having a fully healthy team and the slump players are or were in as well as. The Raptors have only had one game where all players were healthy, with OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell in and out of the lineup. I believe once they get a good stretch in where everyone is available, they’ll be able to start and finish games well.

Josh: Gonna give them a B+; that seems low for the team with the league’s best record, but I’m concerned that that record has come against an easy schedule and, with the exception of the game against the Bulls, the Raptors still haven’t played a great 48-minute game. Their effort level seems to wax and wane from quarter to quarter, and it hasn’t bit them too hard yet, but if they don’t fix it, it will — and the upcoming schedule is much tougher so they’ll be tested.

Satbir: A+! Is that a significant answer? With an 18-4 record, the best in the NBA and an impressive 5-1 record without Kawhi, this team has been crazy good.

I was one of the rare people that thought there would be early season growing pains for this team with a new head coach, the addition of Kawhi and Green, and greater roles for guys that aren’t used to extended minutes. However, everyone’s adapted beautifully, and I don’t have anything negative to say. You wish that three-game losing streak never happened, but every team is bound to have some hiccups along the way. It’s a long season.

Around the NBA:

1) Reports indicate that Markelle Fultz is no longer in the 76ers’ future plans. If they do plan to trade him, where do you think he could end up and why?

Sully: I think the best-case scenario for Markelle Fultz would be to get traded to a team where there are veteran players who can help him with his game and basic fundamentals, because let’s face it, the kid needs it and a young 76ers squad can’t help him with that.

The best team I can see Fultz thriving in would be the Portland Trail Blazers. The Trail Blazers have too many forwards and could use guard depth and the 76ers have too many guards and could use forward depth — especially after trading Robert Covington and Dario Saric in the Jimmy Butler trade. The perfect trade for both teams would be Fultz for Mo Harkless straight up, with the 76ers probably being able to get a draft pick in return.

Fultz would get a fresh start in Portland and learn the game and fundamentals from one of the best point guards in the game in Damian Lillard as well as C.J. McCollum. The Sixers get a young and versatile forward in Harkless to give them a lift at the small and power forward position. Trade Machine

Josh: I’m sure they’d love to trade him at this point, but what could they get for him, and who would take him? I guess the most likely landing spot is the Phoenix Suns, because they need a point guard; the Orlando Magic, perhaps, could use one as well. But again — what would these teams be willing to give up for Fultz, who hasn’t proven he can play but is making almost $8.5 million this season — and almost $10 million next season? That’s a lot to gamble on. I’m sure someone will take the risk -- we’ve seen it again and again, there’s no such thing as an untradeable contract in the NBA. But it’s a big one.

Satbir: This being the Philadelphia 76ers, you have to assume that they’re looking to acquire draft picks. Also, with them heading towards a potential deep playoff run, acquiring veteran role players would be beneficial.

I can see both the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns being options. The Cavaliers have veterans they can get value for, such as Kyle Korver and George Hill (if they can make salaries work). I doubt a J.R. Smith would intrigue the Sixers. For the Suns, they already have a nice young core with Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and T.J. Warren. Again, if salaries work Trevor Ariza would be a good get.

The only question is, would these two struggling young teams want to give up draft picks and veterans for a recent former first overall pick? I’d personally take the gamble.

2) Which team do you think has had the most disappointing start to the season — Boston, Houston, Washington, or Utah?

Sully: I would have to say the Celtics. The teams mentioned above either brought the same team back, made insignificant changes/additions, or lost key pieces in the offseason. However, this Celtics team made it to the Eastern Conference Finals — were one game away from the Finals a season ago — and were only supposed to get much better with both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning from injuries this season. The fact that they have offensive issues to the point where they are having troubles closing out games as well as losing to teams that they should be winning to is concerning.

Sitting at 11-10 in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics have to turn it around fast to at least have a chance at being a top-3 team as many expected.

Josh: The only disappointing thing about Washington is that they haven’t blown it up yet! Boston will figure it out, and I expected Houston to take a step back. That leaves Utah, a team that I expected would finish second in the West after a great second half last season. A lot of it has to do with cold shooting — Joe Ingles hasn’t been the same as last year, Ricky Rubio has regressed to his Minnesota shooting days, and Donovan Mitchell hasn’t taken a step up (yet) in his sophomore season. I suspect some of that will turn around, but they’ve dug themselves a pretty big hole — they’re going to need a big second half, just like last year, to stay in the mix.

Satbir: As a Raptors fan, it’s easy to say Boston or Washington, and I’m going to assume one or both my colleagues will go with one or the other. So, I’m going to pick the Houston Rockets.

I thought the Carmelo Anthony signing was a bad signing from the get-go, so good on the Rockets for recognizing early that it wasn’t working. But at 9-10, this was supposed to be the team that competed with the Warriors in the West — which has been super competitive so far with 14 teams at 9 wins or more. It’s still early, but losing Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, among others, seems to have hurt them more than the Rockets thought it would. I can see the Rockets bounce back, but that conference is tight, and you don’t want to fall behind too early. They need a quick turnaround.


That will do it for this week’s edition! Let us know in the comments below if you have any topics we should discuss in the next edition of the HQ Roundtable. Be sure to check back next Wednesday for more lively discussion from our panel.