There’s this feeling that settles into the pit of your stomach as it’s happening. You know the one I’m talking about. The score gets tight, the crowd starts getting loud (on the road) or tight (at home), and suddenly the Raptors don’t look as invincible as they have for most of this season. It happens — but also: it sucks.
In those moments, with the ball being desperately passed around the perimeter, there’s this pleading sense to the Raptors as a whole: please, someone, do something to restore order. In those moments, the hope is that the ball finds its way to the right person, the hot-hand, the best player, the clear-eyed decision maker. Usually, that means DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry stepping up, but sometimes other players get involved — and of course, coach Dwane Casey has some idea of who he’d like to have the ball.
But who really calms you, the viewer, the most? When the ball is in so-and-so’s hands are you at peace, or would you prefer it ends up somewhere else? As the Raptors make their way to the playoffs, let’s discuss: who do you really trust on this team? I don’t know about you, but this matter weighs heavily on my mind.
The Never See the Floor Guys
The Raptors roster runs 16 men deep, assuming we’re counting the two-way contracts of Malcolm Miller and Lorenzo Brown. But really, we know it is extremely unlikely that Miller, Brown, 13th man Alfonzo McKinnie, 14th man Malachi Richardson, and even, sadly, Lucas Nogueira, will see the floor in a critical moment. The Raptors are built on the idea of a program, a continuum that hopes to nurture these players towards a role they (and the franchise) feel comfortable with. None of these guys is there yet — and with Bebe, it feels like his status as a break-in-case-of-emergency guy will remain intact (right up until he’s, sigh, off the team).
If pressed, my trust ranking goes as follows: Nogueira (I could write another 3,000 words about the proper time and place to play Bebe, but we’ll leave that for another day) > Miller > Brown > Richardson > McKinnie.
The Make Sure the Ball Moves Guys
Now here’s the tier of Raps players who, in certain circumstances, can be very useful — but who can also be overwhelmed in the wrong situation or game-planned against even in the right one.
There was a time, for example, when playing Norman Powell in the clutch felt like a no-brainer for the Raptors. This season though, if Norm is on the court in the dying minutes of a game — or in almost any other high leverage situation — it’s a sign of something gone wrong. Powell’s decision making and shooting have just not been there. Unfortunately he’s at the bottom of this group, and I can imagine you may be able to guess who else joins him here.
The young gun trio of Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and Pascal Siakam has proven itself to be tremendously useful over a long season for Toronto. But, sigh, there are still causes for concern here with all three. Wright has a slippery sense to his game, which can move him in mysterious ways to the right place at the right time — especially on defense. But he can also be pushed around, and his jumper is dutiful at best. Wright still plays like a little brother, which, if you are or have a younger brother, feels like a fair criticism.
Poeltl meanwhile most definitely has a use as a defender and heady player — but he’s not going to shoot, and he can be bullied by the wrong match-ups. That the refs give him zero respect (still!) doesn’t help either. In a sense, this group is named after Jak’s sensibility. He knows he’s not out there to take the final shot, or make the big play (usually); but he can try to go after the ball and make sure it ends up where it should. Finally, Siakam, bottomline: he can be ignored on offense. Maybe one day though...
The final member of this group is OG Anunoby. There will be a time, I believe, when he is the most fearless player of this bunch, but right now he’s still a rookie, and clearly still learning. My final trust ranking: Wright > Siakam > Poeltl > Anunoby > Powell (though who knows, maybe there’s some Playoff Norm magic coming).
The Make the Call Guys
Controversy abounds here — but only because it depends when we’re talking about this next group of players.
A couple weeks ago C.J. Miles would have absolutely been in the upper echelon of players you’d want executing down the stretch. But since a battle with, uh, his guts, Miles has looked hollowed out. (Saturday night’s game against Boston was easily C.J.’s worst performance of the season — or in multiple seasons.) Meanwhile, Serge Ibaka looked like he was on vacation earlier this month, but now has been one of the better Raptors for a few games going now. He’s been active on defense, and purposeful with his moves on offense. And unlike everyone else on the team, he’s actually been the Finals (a fact we often forget — especially when Serge makes a boneheaded play. Hey, it happens!).
Rounding out the bunch: Jonas Valanciunas, a guy who can absolutely create a shot for himself against almost anyone in the NBA, and a centre who can hit free throws (which is no small thing). Working against him: speed! My god, how it bedevils him sometimes. Also, I’ll throw this out for the JV Hive: coach Dwane Casey (who belongs in this group too as something of a bonus) still wavers with his belief in Valanciunas. We’ve seen him close with JV and have it payoff, and we’ve seen him lost as to how and when to toss him out there. (Of course, Jonas has something to do with that too — he sometimes looks lost too.)
Let’s ring it up: Casey (you don’t coach a team to almost 60 wins by accident) > Ibaka = Miles (too close to call) > Valanciunas. Sorry if this offends.
The Shoot Your Shot Guys
We knew where this was going from the start. The Raptors have always been built around Lowry and DeRozan, and as such, they get the final call more often than not. The surprise here — at least as it compares to pre-season expectations — is that Fred VanVleet, the undrafted and undersized guard, is in this group too.
Think about this for a second. When the ball swings to FVV now, whether he’s about to make a drive, or setting up for three, it actually feels good. We know VanVleet is betting on himself and that calm sense of confidence is infectious — we bet on him too. The Raptors closing every game with Fred on the floor feels like a matter of course. He helps organize the offense, is relentless on defense, and can be counted on to make the right play. Not bad for a guy who was once just an afterthought at the end of the depth chart.
That Lowry and DeRozan, the apex of the Raptors roster, are here is no surprise. What’s amazing is that this is the first year where I feel more comfortable with DeRozan making the final call than Lowry. The former has just been so purposeful with the ball all year — in his passes, in his shots, and in his ability to get to where he wants on the floor. DeRozan has had a pile of signature clutch moments this season. Lowry meanwhile is still the dead-eyed shooter of the team, but his value has switched to more of an off-ball threat. (In fact, I’m of the opinion we haven’t seen the Raptors figure out a way to effectively use Lowry down the stretch; but maybe that’s just me.)
In truth, you can’t go wrong with either of those two (or FVV) with the ball in their hands with the game on the line. You can say there are more clutch (or just plain better) players in the league, but the Raptors will have to live and die with them making the decisions down the stretch. It can work; it has to work.
So here we go: DeRozan > Lowry > VanVleet (but the gap between these last two guys is way closer than we would have thought at the beginning of the season).
How do your Raptors trust rankings look?