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HQ Roundtable: The Raptors try to rebound, Kawhi still resting, and more

Should the Toronto Raptors’ rebounding issue be a concern? Is Kawhi Leonard 100% yet? We get to that and more in the HQ Roundtable.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the latest edition of the Raptors HQ Roundtable. I’m Sully Akbari, your host throughout this weekly discussion series about the Toronto Raptors and other news around the NBA. In this weekly series, I’ll be joined by two HQ contributors to discuss topics we come up.

This week, we’ve got Josh Kern and Jay Rosales. Let the discussion begin!

On the Raptors:

1) What adjustments can the Raptors make to improve their rebounding?

Sully Akbari: It’s been clear that the Raptors haven’t had great rebounding performances the last few games. They have been either out-rebounded, bullied on the glass, or simply not being aggressive enough to haul down rebounds in clutch/late-game situations.

The problem stems from playing small-ball, where the Raptors have Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, or C.J. Miles playing the four with Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas playing the five. This gives up size and rebounding but get more speed, space, and versatility in return. Although, I do like the Raptors playing small-ball in small doses, when they’re getting killed on the glass, something has to give. I would suggest playing Serge and JV together in very short spurts, just so that the offense doesn’t lose a step. This is the best they can get in order to solve their rebounding issues without ruining the Raps’ brand of basketball.

Josh Kern: This is a tough one, because the Raptors have made it part of their approach this year to play smaller (platooning Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas at the five, and Siakam and Anunoby at the four) and that, obviously, impacts the rebounding; of those four only Valanciunas is an above-average rebounder at his position.

So I’d just suggest better communication (so breakdowns like the one I pointed out against the Nets, where DeMarre Carroll grabbed a rebound, uncontested, while three Raptors watched, don’t happen), and greater effort from the guards to drop down and help (although Danny Green is averaging a career high in rebounds, Kyle Lowry is averaging his lowest RPG average since joining the Raptors, and Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet are both down from last season).

Jay Rosales: Let’s be clear that we’re only concerned about Toronto’s rebounding on the defensive end because the Raptors are actually solid on the other end, ranking third in defensive rebounds allowed. That’s a product of ranking second in field-goal percentage, second in two-point field-goal percentage, and fourth in free-throw percentage. The Raptors simply don’t miss as many shots, so their opponents don’t have a ton of defensive rebounds to corral.

On the defensive end, Toronto ranks fifth in opponent’s field-goal percentage, seventh in opponent’s 3-pt field-goal percentage, and eighth in opponent’s 2-pt field-goal percentage. In other words, there are a lot of missed shots and, therefore, plenty more rebounds up for grabs.

Yes, the Raptors ranking 26th in offensive rebounds isn’t a good look. But are we really willing to shake up our offensive/defensive balance to allow two less offensive rebounds per game (that’s the difference between Toronto’s average of 11.9 to Oklahoma City’s average of 9.9, which ranks 10th)?

I love how fitting it is that Toronto visits the two-time defending champion, Golden State Warriors, tonight. Do you know where the Warriors have ranked over the last two seasons in offensive rebounds allowed? Dead last!

2) Kawhi Leonard’s recent play has been excellent. Do you think he’s at 100 percent yet?

Sully: I think he’s really close to 100 percent. In terms of his play, I think he can improve even more when it comes to his shot-making and his play creation as we get deeper into the season. In terms of conditioning, well, it’s hard to tell because Kawhi seems to be able to take on big minutes as well as a big workload. We still don’t know if he can play back-to-backs yet though.

If you’ve been keeping track: the Raptors only have five more sets of back-to-backs, three in January and two in March. To me, the only logical back-to-back to play Leonard would be on January 5 and 6 when the Raptors take on the Bucks in Milwaukee then come home to play the Indiana Pacers. Overall, Leonard is almost there in terms of being who he was two years ago.

Josh: I’d say he’s above 90% for sure. His defensive effort has picked up, his general energy level has picked up, and he’s getting to the rim more and more. But he’s still leaving a few jump shots per game short, which tells me his legs aren’t fully back yet.

This road trip will be a good test; even if he gets one night of the back-to-back off, it’s still a long distance to travel in a short period of time with three (or four) games. I’m very curious to see how he looks in the last game of the trip and the first game back home. If he’s still got the same energy level then, well, look out, NBA.

Jay: Holy ‘Ship….. Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor! He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, field goal attempts/makes, and, most importantly to this question, minutes per game. From a health perspective, I believe he’s at 100 percent.

From a chemistry standpoint, he’s not there yet. He’s averaging a career high in 2-pt field goal attempts (and makes) — plenty of which are isolation plays. Leonard’s also averaging his second-most turnovers per game — a sign that he’s still trying to get comfortable with his new team.

3) How do you think the Raptors will do during this 4-game road trip?

Sully: At this point in the season, this is by far the biggest test the Raptors will face. The Raptors responded extremely well against the Los Angeles Clippers without Kawhi, blowing out them out 123-99.

Even with Kawhi’s status for tonight’s Warriors game as questionable, you would have to think that this is a sure loss. Going into Golden State on the back-end of a back-to-back with four All-Stars waiting for you is going to be a tough out. Other than that, I think Toronto goes into Portland and Denver winning both games. Outside of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, I don’t think the Trail Blazers will pose a threat to this team. Ending the trip in Denver is tough and think the Raptors will be exhausted but because of how shorthanded the Nuggets are (Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and Will Barton are all injured), I’m feeling confident the Toronto wins that game. Call me crazy but I think Toronto ends up going 3-1 on this road trip.

Josh: I’m writing this ahead of the Clippers game, but I’m going to say they’ll go 2-2. The Clippers game looks like the easiest on the schedule, with LA playing on the second night of a back-to-back. The Raptors then have their back-to-back, against the champs in Golden State, with the Warriors looking to avenge their earlier loss in Toronto — that’s likely an L for the Raptors even if Leonard plays.

The Raptors have won six straight against Portland (the Blazers haven’t beaten the Raptors since LaMarcus Aldridge left for San Antonio!) and I think that streak will continue. But in Denver? The final game of a four-game trip? That’s some NBA schedule BS, bringing a tired team into the high altitude like that, and pretty much a guaranteed win for the Nuggets.

Jay: You can always find my game predictions on The Rap-Up, but I’ll synthesize them here.

Clippers will be on the back-end of a back-to-back — an overtime win in Phoenix, no less. Raptors win the rebound battle, create more turnovers, and get the road trip started on the right foot with a victory.

Warriors game is a schedule loss if I’ve ever seen one. No team should ever have to play in Golden State on the back-end of a back-to-back. Plus, Curry and Green are back. Kawhi is likely going to sit. I’m not even mad at this.

Toronto’s won six straight against Portland. Make that seven!

The Denver game should be a loss. Last game of a road trip, in an arena that’s literally one mile above sea level, against a team that just beat us last week. However, they’ve just lost Millsap and Harris over the past week. If you don’t think losing two key starters is a big deal, look no further than their loss to the Hawks on Saturday. Toronto closes out their toughest remaining road trip with another victory.

Around the NBA:

1) How does the Bucks-Cavaliers-Wizards trade affect the playoff race in the East?

Sully: The Bucks get better by adding guard and forward depth with George Hill playing backup to Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, and Jason Smith serving as a backup big to Brook Lopez. If Smith gets the minutes and is on the floor with Giannis Antetokounmpo, it would create space for Antetokounmpo to go to work inside as Smith can, but is limited, in shooting the three-ball. The move solidifies the Bucks to be in contention for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.

I’m not sure if the Wizards get any better by acquiring forward Sam Dekker because they have too many forwards. While the move does add depth, it will be tough for Dekker to see minutes as he is behind Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, Jeff Green, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Tomas Satoransky. I still see Washington making the playoffs but they’ll end up only snagging a low seed.

Josh: I don’t know if it’s a significant impact, but the Bucks addressed what I felt was their biggest weakness (depth) by adding two usable players in George Hill and Jason Smith. Hill is an experienced vet who can calmly lead the Bucks through tough stretches, and he’s exactly the sort of guy who always seems to hit clutch shots when the chips are down. But he’s often hurt, so it’s hard to say how much of an impact he can really have if he can’t stay on the court. As insurance for Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe? He’s a great fit. And as for Smith, he’s not a high-impact player, but he replaces John Henson (who just got hurt) in the rotation so again, a nice depth addition.

Jay: The trade solidifies the Bucks as the two-seed (behind Toronto). Not only do they save approximately $19-million in cap space next off-season (Hill is only guaranteed $1-million, while Henson and Dellavedova each have $10-million left), Milwaukee also gets a well-documented Lowry nemesis. For the Cavs and Wizards, these moves do not move the needle. They’re both lottery-bound and prepping for tank mode.

2) Sunday was the 14th anniversary of T-Mac’s 13 points in 33 seconds. Which player do you think is capable enough to have a similar performance where he scores 10+ in 40 seconds or less to win a game?

Sully: There are a few guys in this league who can score in bunches in a short time. However, for this specific case, I would have to go with another Houston Rocket in James Harden. The Rockets opt to go with Harden in most of their clutch situations, and with him being able to score buckets as well as drawing fouls in a hurry, he could be capable in achieving that feat.

Not to mention, scoring 10+ points is much faster when you can draw four-point plays, and according to NBAMiner.com, Harden led the league last season in four-point plays with 14, completing all but one of them. With Harden’s volume scoring and the ability to perform well in the clutch, he could be the next to do it.

Josh: While there are plenty of guys who can score in bunches from downtown, you also need the length and defensive awareness to disrupt passing lanes and get the ball back, and the handles+speed combo to get to your spots. And I think only Kevin Durant fits that bill. You saw that game-tying shot he hit against the Raptors; how many guys in the league can do that?

The only other two guys I considered are also on Durant’s team — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. But I don’t know if Curry can get the ball back, and I don’t know if Klay has the handles and speed.

So Durant’s my guy in that situation.

Jay: Pick a Warrior. Any Warrior. Klay Thompson can hit five threes in 30 seconds… and zero dribbles. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant can each drain threes from the logo. With Draymond Green back in the fold, the Warriors have the ultimate defensive weapon to swipe/steal/harass a couple extra possessions in a tight game.

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That will conclude this week’s HQ Roundtable Discussion! Let us know in the comments below if you have any topics we should discuss in the next edition. Be sure to check back next Wednesday as Toronto will finally come home to play the Indiana Pacers.