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HQ Roundtable: What’s up with the Raptors’ bench, Ibaka, JV, and more

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The HQ Roundtable is back to discuss the Raptors’ bench, Serge Ibaka’s stellar play, JV’s case for Sixth Man of the year, and other storylines around the NBA.

Toronto Raptors HQ Roundtable: The bench, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas and more David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Hello and welcome to the third edition of the Raptors HQ Roundtable. My name is Sully Akbari and I will be the host of this roundtable discussion series throughout the season. Joining me this week is Conor McCreery and Jay Rosales.

In this week’s edition, we will be talking about the Raptors’ bench play, Serge Ibaka’s resurgence, Jonas Valanciunas’ case for Sixth Man of the Year award. Outside of Raptors material, we’ll also dive into the NBA’s high-scoring offense and the Lakers’ start to the season.

But first, a quick recap.

The Raptors are off to their best start in franchise history with a record of 10-1. They have won their last four games and are 3-0 in their current 4-game west coast road trip. They defeated the Suns, Lakers, and Jazz in convincing fashion and will wrap up the trip tonight in Sacramento against the Kings.

Alright, let’s jump right in!

1) Are you concerned about the bench’s play?

Sully Akbari: Nope. The bench isn’t the same as last season’s Bench Mob but that is only because of how the season began with the three key bench players in OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet all missing time. The Raptors haven’t had a full game where all three of them are utilized to their fullest abilities and that is why I am not concerned, even with C.J. Miles struggling mightily and Norman Powell producing much better in the time he is given than last season (before getting injured in the game against Utah).

Conor McCreery: Concerned? That might be a strong word. After all, we’re still not even technically an eighth of the way through the season. And, of course, the bench hasn’t really played a single game where all the primary pieces have been together/in full health.

Still, there are two places to be nervous: the amount of ball-handling, and the interior defense, both of which are tied into Pascal Siakam getting so much run as a starter. While as currently constructed the second unit, especially if Powell is playing, has enough play-making from the guard spots, it’s very thin in the frontcourt — regardless of whether that’s Ibaka or Big Val at the 5.

Siakam was a huge part of that second unit’s ability to attack from all angles, and the Raps don’t really have a replacement for him — unless they decide to force field Anunoby reps as a sort-of small ball 4. Even doing that would require OG to greatly improve his decision-making. I like that idea long-term, getting OG comfortable with the ball in his hands would unlock a LOT of intriguing possibilities, but I don’t think it’s happening this year, or at least in the next few months. Not to mention that OG, as strong as he is, would be vulnerable to true power-forwards attacking him in the paint and on the boards.

This leads into the second part — defense. Again, this is Siakam-related, but also shows where the Raps miss Jakob Poeltl’s rim protection, and relative mobility for a seven-footer. Not to mention his at least average rebounding (and on offense, nobody has quite replicated his and Siakam’s mind-meld in terms of cheeky little high-low feeds).

All that’s to say is that the bench will be better than it’s been so far, but without Siakam, and maybe even WITH him, I don’t see the bench being as good as it was last season.

Jay Rosales: On a scale of 1 to “sound-the-alarm”, I’m only at 2. The only reason this isn’t a 1 is because we’ve only seen the full roster for one game (in Phoenix, where a still-recovering Delon Wright only played 6 minutes).

How can we be concerned when a) the calendar just flipped to November; b) we have yet to have a fully healthy roster; and c) the presumed “bench mob” lineup of VanVleet/Wright/C.J./OG/JV have played as many minutes together as I have as the 15th man (the answer is zero but thank you for hesitating). The fix is simply time (and health).

2) Is Serge Ibaka becoming that third star for the Raptors, and could he form a Big 3 with Lowry and Leonard?

Sully: This is the Serge Ibaka I was hoping the Raptors would get out of and hoping to see myself when they traded for him back in 2017. Serge has been excellent on both ends on the floor in being active on D, but most importantly, he isn’t forcing or rushing anything on offense as he used to.

Now, to say that if he can be the third star for Toronto isn’t entirely a reach. I certainly think Ibaka can be a fringe-level All-Star if he further enhances his game, but at the moment, he is forming a solid trio with Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard. What I really mean is that the highest potential for him would be for teams to game-plan for him to take him out of his offensive flow.

Conor: Like most of us, I’m very impressed with how Ibaka has played. But I need to pump the breaks on him being the “third star.” In the end, Serge is too limited in terms of play-making to be a true star in the modern pace-and-space NBA.

Still, if the increased patience on offense, especially in the post, where Serge used to rush against mismatches, is for real, Ibaka is going to create a lot of match-up issues on offense – and help solve a few for the Raps on D.

A true third star is more likely to be Siakam — if he can hit enough jump shots to punish defenses that will surely leave that shot for him to take.

Jay: The short answer is yes. Ibaka is averaging career highs in your conventional stats (points, field goals made, FG%, steals), as well as the advanced stats (eFG%, TS%, WS/48, Assist %, Steal %, Usage Rate, and OBPM).

There are a plethora of reasons as to why he’s improved: the lineup change that separated Ibaka and JV; the spacing that has opened up with the additions of Danny Green and Leonard; Lowry’s improved play-making; a steady diet of lamb brains. Whatever the reason, Ibaka’s playing out of his mind (hitting 27 of his last 29 shots), and the domino effect is being felt throughout the lineup.

3) Is Jonas Valanciunas making a case for Sixth Man of Year?

(Note: a player must start fewer than 41 games to be considered for the award.)

Sully: Except for ClippersLou Williams, who won it last season, as of recent years, I feel as if the Sixth Man of the Year award is given to whoever scores the most while coming off the bench. Williams had a great all-around offensive season but previous winners such as Eric Gordon, Jamal Crawford, and J.R. Smith, they have won mainly because they scored/averaged the most points rather than having an impact in other areas of the floor as well.

Enter Jonas Valanciunas. I do think he is making a strong case for the award and to add, he’s having one of the best efficient seasons in NBA history, but because he is not putting up at least 16 or more points a night, I don’t think the media will recognize him for the award. As long as JV plays like this, he not only has a case for the award but should very well win it, even if he doesn’t lead bench players in scoring. He would become one of the few true centers to win the award.

Conor: If he keeps this up, then yes, he’ll have to be in the discussion. The narrative would be a good one: “Former starter selflessly comes off the bench to brutalize second units.” The numbers would also be incredible. Still, I think at the end it’s going to be a “no” for two main reasons:

1) While he may start less than the 41 times needed to disqualify him from being eligible, Jonas will start in the mid to high 30’s which will have some voters dismissing him as a “true” sixth man (even though his minutes played will be below a lot of his rivals).

2) Fred VanVleet, and perhaps Delon Wright will also garner sixth man buzz, cannibalizing JV’s candidacy, and their own.

Note, I DIDN’T say it was because JV can’t keep up the pace. While he’s blowing away his Per-36 minute scoring averages (25.8 vs a previous high of 20.4), he’s doing it on a career high in shots per-36 (18.4 to 14.3).

If anything, that number could go up. JV has actually taken a slight step back in some areas — he’s hitting shots at the second lowest clip of his career. His rebounding is the same as last year per-36, and while steals, blocks and assists are all up, you can make the argument that’s all sustainable, given role, and comfort.

In the end, JV could very well be worthy of the award, but a smaller gunner is going to get it.

Jay: It’s only 11 games in, but Jonas Valanciunas is playing at a historic level. In the history of the NBA, no one has averaged more points (13.9) while playing less than 20 minutes per game. Since 1980, no one has averaged more rebounds (7.3) while playing less than 20 minutes per game. JV has come off the bench more times (6) than he has started (5), and currently leads the team with a 101 defensive rating.

In summary, Valanciunas fits the NBA’s criteria of a Sixth Man, is hitting historic levels of offensive efficiency, boasts the best defensive rating for the league’s 6th-ranked defense, and plays for one of the best teams in the NBA (if not the best).

General NBA Topics:

1) On this date (November 7, 1990), the Spurs defeated the Nuggets, 161-153. With scores currently jumping to those levels again, can we expect a game that hits those kinds of highs (i.e. 150 for both teams)? If so, which two teams?

Sully: It’s not a matter of “if” but “when”, so I most definitely expect a game that will feature a total score of 300 points. We’re only three weeks into this season and there have been 62 games in which a team has scored 120 or more points in a game. In fact, the Sacramento Kings vs. New Orleans Pelicans game on October 19 almost closed in on 300 points, as the Pelicans pulled away with a 149-129 victory.

Of course, this could be accomplished much easier if the game goes into overtime but that’s not the case for this question, so the game that I would have to go with would be when the Houston Rockets take on the Pelicans on January 29, 2019. The Rockets are known for their three-point barrage and the Pelicans are known for their up-tempo style of play, making for an up-and-down high-scoring affair.

Conor: I’m going to say no. As fast as the game is now, it still pales in comparison to the track-meets from the ‘70s and ‘80s. This year teams are averaging almost 101 possessions a game — the highest since 1986-87.

The thing is, in the 13 seasons before that (the NBA only started tracking pace back in ‘73-’74), this year’s pace would be the lowest of all of them. And considering that compared to the 16 years before that, ‘73-‘74 had the lowest average points-per-game, it’s safe to say that the NBA has seen close to 30 seasons where the game played faster than it is this year.

The other problem is that three of the top five scoring teams, the Warriors, Bucks and Pelicans can all put out functional, if not elite defenses. That reduces the chances of them being in a 300-point total shootout.

Still, if you want the best chance for one of those — pay attention to the last week of December, that’s when the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings play twice in four days. Both teams combine high-octane offenses with, shall we say, “youthful” defenses.

Their first game of the season is also the highest scoring one so far this year – a 143-142 crazy-fest the Kings won in the dying seconds. So, if you wanted to bet against me, those might be the games to choose (especially as that’ll likely be before the annual “let’s totally shuffle up LeBron’s team” trades).

Jay: With the right teams, pace, health, and schedule, I think it’s possible to have a 300-point game. One of those teams is definitely going to be the Pelicans. They rank top 10 in pace and offensive rating, as well as ranking in the bottom 10 in defensive rating.

For the second team, let’s go with the Clippers. They’re one of two other teams that rank in the top 10 in pace and offensive rating (the other team is the Bucks, who rank first in defensive rating).

I’m circling January 14, 2019 on my calendar, when New Orleans visits the Staples Center. Both teams will be playing the Warriors shortly after (January 16 for the Pelicans; January 18 for the Clippers), so it’s also possible that both teams may be looking forward instead of focusing on the game at hand.

2) Has the Lakers’ start changed your mind about how successful they can be with LeBron this year and beyond?

Sully: I knew before when the Lakers’ season began that it would be a roller-coaster ride early on but has it changed my mind regarding how successful they can be this year and beyond? No, not in the slightest. I predicted the Lakers to win 45 to 48 games and be in contention for the 4th or 5th seed, so to give up on that and them because of their 4-6 start this early doesn’t make sense.

I am a strong believer in that when any team has LeBron, he makes them a playoff team and what I am seeing from the Lakers, as of now, is not quite a playoff team but I can see it down the road. So far, he has played great and has kept his same style of play but it has been a struggle for the other players to get in a rhythm, mainly from three-point land and on the defensive side of the ball. I think those areas will eventually be improved upon as the season goes.

So far, this is the only reaction I have for the Lakers’ season:

Conor: Speaking of the Lakers and changes… I originally pegged the Lakers as a 4-7 seed — given how tight the Western Conference is — and thought they were a better than average threat of winning a series. I’m not completely ready to shuck that after 10 games, because of LeBron, but also because the problem everyone complains about – not enough shooting, seems like a false flag.

The Lakers are 4th in points-per-game, and even with their shooting woes, are a top-ten offensive team by efficiency counts. Speaking of the shooting woes — while guys like Rajon Rondo (53%) and JaVale McGee (50%) won’t keep this up, neither will guys like LeBron (29%), Kyle Kuzma (28%), and Caldwell-Pope (22%). The swing shooters for me are Brandon Ingram (33% - but 39% last year), and Lonzo Ball (41% - 31%).

There are reasons to think Lonzo will shoot the ball better than last year – he hit 36% of his “catch and shoot” looks post-All-Star break — and for all the talk of weird form, and ball preferences, he still hit a very high percentage in college. As for Ingram, maybe 39% might be too high, but if he can settle in at league average, the Lakers offensive weakness will largely disappear. They might not be elite — but they’ll have the shooting to punish you.

The real issue is on the defensive end. While the Lakers have some willing defenders, KCP, Ball, Josh Hart, Rondo – they lack size, especially in the front-court (though Tyson Chandler will help). The team is young, and young guys often struggle on defense. And, despite the attempt to save some of LeBron’s energy by keeping him from having to “do it all” on offense, LBJ still seems to be sleeping on D — the Lakers are almost three points better defensively when the King is off the court.

I’m going to bet that more time for the kids, more interest from LeBron, and missing fewer threes, which lead to long-rebounds, and fast-break opportunities, will combine to make L.A. defense closer to league average – a mark they exceeded last year. And THAT, will keep them well in the hunt for both a playoff spot, and the title of “team nobody wants to meet in the first round.”

Jay: The Lakers have not changed my mind at all. The collection of players that were signed to surround LeBron James had been questionable from the start. Where were the elite shooters? Why sign all these basket cases? But take a closer look and they’re overachieving in some areas while underachieving in others. They rank third in points, fourth in pace, tenth in offensive rating, and for all this talk about a lack of shooting, third in FG%.

On the flip side, they rank 27th in points, 23rd in defensive rating, and have already allowed over 120 points in half of their games played to date. The Lakers’ preseason projection was somewhere in the 7th-9th range, and according to Basketball-Reference.com, their expected record is 5-5, which would be good for 9th.

As jaded Raptor fans, we’ve seen this LeBron for the last few seasons. He will turn the proverbial switch on when he feels like it and give us the Warriors-Lakers first-round match up we’re all hoping to see.

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That’ll do for this week’s edition! Let us know if you have any topics we should cover in the comments below. Make sure to check in next Wednesday as Toronto will be at home for the next three games against the New York Knicks, Pelicans, and... Detroit Pistons! Former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey will make his first trip back to Toronto. Stay tuned!