The Raptors had a strangely up-and-down week, despite still being atop the league standings with a 20-5 record. They beat the Warriors (minus Steph Curry and Draymond Green, but still), then scrounged out an ugly win against the Cavaliers (without Kyle Lowry, but still), and then lost to the West-leading Nuggets (on a questionable late foul call, but still).
All in all, Toronto is still sitting pretty — and yet, it still feels like an air of discomfort is floating around this team. I can’t quite put my finger on it, though Lowry’s recent interview with ESPN might have something to do with it.
But still, we’ve got to take the Toronto Temperature.
This is getting a tad tired (just kidding, I never get tired of this), but Kawhi Leonard had himself another special week for the Raptors. It was so special, in fact, he recently won the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week award (peep the numbers here). Not bad — and the once and future King of the North hasn’t even unveiled his new New Balance shoes yet.
We did get a tasty look at what a branded Kawhi looks like though:
Look at him, just thrilled.
He’s not playing, but as our former manager in chief Alex Wong has it, maybe Powell is the key to the whole Kawhi Leonard saga. Check out the evidence:
main takeaway from kyle's ESPN interview is how valuable norm is to the raptors: pic.twitter.com/yqOEZd1o9n— alex (@steven_lebron) December 5, 2018
Look at him, just so happy.
It’s been a solid week for the Kawhi Leonard Is Staying true believers (I’m a member, and voting for myself as President of the club).
For one, Leonard is having a career year, despite sitting out for a huge chunk of last season. For two, he’s the best player on the Raptors and has been the difference maker for them time and time again as they’ve risen up the standings. For three, Kawhi is back to going to work on defense, and making crunch time shots that matter for a team with clear championship aspirations. For four (four!), the apparel deal with New Balance is, in one sense, dorky, but in another sense it signifies the company’s acknowledgement that Leonard is about to own Canada. A whole country! Think on it.
TL;DR version: He’s staying.
Toronto’s Defensive Rebounding
By defensive rebounding percentage, the Raptors are ranked 26th in the NBA. This means 25 teams are better at getting the defensive rebounds available to them. Folks, I’m no basketball genius, but this is not a great situation.
Now, the Clippers and Warriors are also not that great in this area, by the defensive rebounding percentage metric. Los Angeles ranks 22nd overall, and Golden State is in at 20. But the Raptors have seen games get away from them (even if they eventually came back and won) because they could not control their defensive glass. It’s a problem that could very well become more significant as the season continues.
Raptors vs. Multi-Dimensional Big Men
This isn’t the only reason the Raptors have lost their five games this season, but it does tie together as a theme (and with the previous point). First off, Toronto lost to the Bucks without Giannis — we’ll set this one aside because it had more to do with three-point variance. Then they subsequently dropped games to the Pelicans, the Pistons, the Celtics, and the Nuggets. The losses were all instructive in their way, and one lesson was: the Raptors are having trouble with big men with skills.
The Pelicans have Anthony Davis, the Pistons trot out Blake Griffin, the Celtics can lean somewhat on Al Horford, and the Nuggets of course have Nikola Jokic. Again, it is an oversimplification to suggest “good players = trouble for Toronto” but this particular situation, given the Raptors’ noted weaknesses, bears mentioning. Stellar play from Kawhi, or Pascal Siakam or, like, Fred VanVleet, is not going to stop those aforementioned talented big men from torching the likes of Jonas Valanciunas in the pick-and-roll, and it’s not going to suddenly make the Raptors’ defensive rebounding problems disappear, despite how hard Serge Ibaka is working.
It’s something to watch, is my point.
My guy Kyle just wants somebody to love, and for that love to come back to him. He’s wanted that his whole career; and while he has found it in Toronto, he’s had to watch as changes to the organization have made love harder to find. Winning helps, but it’s clear that Lowry is not as personally happy as he’d like to be — to which many of us can probably add, yeah, tell me about it, buddy.
I feel for Lowry. He’s smart, and he knows every millisecond he loses on his first step, every 0-for game he shoots from three (he went 3-for-13 from deep in the two games he played), every game he has to sit to rest his aging body, just gives Masai Ujiri the ammunition to eventually move on from Lowry altogether. If it wasn’t already clear, it’s a cold world in the NBA, and Lowry has to know that beyond next season, his professional life is likely set to change dramatically once again. There may never be an NBA title coming in Toronto (though here’s hoping), and the window may be closing for Lowry (again).
It is a hard fact of life to have to stare that reality in the face.