Things are less hectic than usual for the Raptors. The team is nearing full health with Serge Ibaka’s return earlier in the week and Kyle Lowry getting close, but still day-to-day with a back injury. The team will also enjoy a lighter schedule this week, facing the Orlando Magic tonight and the Chicago Bulls on Sunday.
As the Raptors’ rotations fall back in place, the focus can shift to the team’s chemistry. The bench unit will still of course miss Jonas Valanciunas, but Norman Powell has stepped up, playing cool and calm in four straight games since returning from injury. The starting unit can get things going again as well. Kawhi Leonard is reading the defense better every game, making the correct reads out of double teams more often than not (the final play against the Heat where he broke a double team to find Ibaka stands out).
The Magic, meanwhile, are simultaneously fun and bad. Terrence Ross always brings the heat and Jonathan Isaac is an intriguing prospect. But the Magic, who have missed the playoffs the past six seasons, once again appear hard-pressed, currently two games back from the eighth seed.
Here are your details for tonight’s game.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One, 7:00 PM EST
Toronto - Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Orlando - D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Nikola Vucevic
Toronto - Jonas Valanciunas (thumb dislocation - out), Kyle Lowry (back - out), Chris Boucher (ankle - questionable)
Orlando - Timofey Mozgov (knee - out)
The Magic have a unique roster, don’t they? They have all sorts of rangy wings and bigs. It’s striking to watch the 7’10” wingspan of Mo Bamba and the 7’1” wingspans of both Jonathan Isaac and Wesley Iwundu float across the court — all Jeff Weltman draft picks by the way.
The Magic have missed the playoffs the past six seasons so management has kept veteran players around to round out their chances at a playoff berth. Players like Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic are key to the team’s success — especially Vucevic, who is enjoying his most efficient season (more on him later).
Still, the Magic sitting at 14-19, have a roster that leaves much to be desired. Aaron Gordon is once again playing out of position at small forward and D.J. Augustin is overmatched at point guard. The Magic’s offense just isn’t dynamic enough to keep up with the speed of today’s game — they are 27th in offensive efficiency.
The Magic are a curious team ahead of the trade deadline, because they are bad enough to justify sinking into the lottery (they could reasonably attain the league’s 6th worst record) and yet close enough to the eighth seed to make a couple of additions worthwhile. The bet is they stay the course or add a piece, hopefully an aggressive, score-first point guard.
Raptors and the Trade Deadline
Around this time of year, about 35 games in, teams can start to see what they have, and more importantly what they don’t have. For the Raptors, the impending trade deadline is critical because the team is quite possibly the closest they’ve ever been to a Finals appearance (Kawhi Leonard will do that).
Masai Ujiri will need to evaluate every potential upgrade on the market. The Raptors don’t have a rebounding, switching center. How important is that? Is Pascal Siakam the answer? Can Norman Powell be the attacking swing piece the Raptors need?
It’s likely the Raptors come away from the trade deadline without any dramatic departure from the status quo. It’s difficult to match salaries and find a mutually beneficial trade. The buyout market is an option, as is converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA contract (something Ujiri did last season converting Lorenzo Brown’s two-way contract for the playoff run). These decisions are down the road. The trade deadline is February 2nd. The buyout deadline is March 1st. How the Raptors grow until then will make the whole picture much clearer.
Nikola Vucevic, An All-Star?
Nikola Vucevic is good, like really good, maybe even top-4 offensive center good — with Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid being the other obvious considerations. The Magic’s offense lives and dies with Vucevic. When he is on the court, the Magic are equivalent to the league’s 20th ranked offense. When he sits, the offense falls apart, over six points worse per 100 possessions than the Bulls’ 30th ranked offense.
What should the Magic expect from those minutes? Do they unleash Aaron Gordon? Run a D.J Augustin/ Mo Bamba pick-and-roll? Let Terry be Terry (Terrence Ross that is, and credit to Sean Woodley)? Well actually, you might want to let Terry be Terry. Anyways, I’m getting sidetracked. Vucevic is good. He flings all sorts of cool passes, has a solid post game, and makes himself open to the ball-handler on the pick-and-roll, finishing with a soft touch.
It’s the defense that limits his effectiveness. He can’t defend in space and smart teams hunt him out in the pick-and-roll. On the season, he is averaging 20.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game — which might be enough for him to make an all-star team for the first time in his career.