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HQ Roundtable: On the Raptors’ important players, mid-season highlights, Vince’s return, and more

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We’re at the halfway point of the season as the panel discuss which Raptor has had the better season, highlight plays, drama in Philly, and more!

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the latest edition of the HQ Roundtable! Welcome! I’m Sully Akbari, your host for this weekly discussion series. This column is dedicated to news and topics regarding the Toronto Raptors as well as other happenings around the NBA. A lot has happened in the past week and here to discuss this week’s questions with me are Josh Kern and Justin Robertson.

Let’s get to it!

On the Raptors:

1) Given the hostile atmosphere in San Antonio and the giant egg the Raptors laid, are you concerned about their ability to rise to the occasion in big games?

Sully Akbari: In the past, yes, but this season, not so much. They have answered the call in big games this season but also dropped a few — though none have been worse than the game against the Spurs. I do think the Raptors still have a few things to work on to smooth out their play on both ends of the floor. And I know saying that could be questionable as we’re through more than half the season. Still, I think after the All-Star break when Toronto gets even more comfortable with playing with each other (and gets healthy), they will be able to come through in big games.

Josh Kern: Maybe, just a little. They played great in two high-pressure U.S. national TV games against Golden State; they beat two big Eastern Conference rivals just this past weekend. So we know they can play at the level needed to win big games. To me it’s not so much the on-court part of it that makes me nervous, but the mental part — when you’re on the road, when the opposing crowd is amped up, when you get off to a bad start or get a bad couple of breaks, how do you weather the storm and respond? The performance in San Antonio was not a good sign. And I don’t know that there are really any more test like that to come on the schedule, so we might not know for sure until the postseason.

Justin Robertson: This year they’ve won some big games and lost some big games. They are a different team this year and are far more consistent stringing together four quality quarters. I would bring the Spurs loss down to the fact that the Raptors didn’t rise to the occasion that night and it’s obvious they need guys like Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas to be able to compete against strong teams in pressure cooker games. Panic? No. Here’s proof that the Raptors can win the big games. In 2018-19 they defeated: Philly (26-14), Warriors (26-14), Celtics (24-15), Pacers (26-13) and the Bucks (28-11).

2) Other than Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard, which player’s performance has been more important to the team: Serge Ibaka’s resurgence, Pascal Siakam’s rise, Fred VanVleet holding down the PG position, or Norman Powell getting back on track?

Sully: If I were to choose one, I would go with Serge Ibaka getting back to playing at a high level and arguably playing the best of his career. Had Ibaka continued to regress after last season’s disappointing campaign, this team would have been in troubled waters. Given how thin the Raptors are in the frontcourt (even before JV’s injury), it would have been a huge problem for Toronto to have to rely on last season’s Ibaka. I would have expected the Raptors to move on from him — except, luckily, that’s not the case, and now we’re seeing Ibaka as a key performer for the Raptors.

Josh: They’ve all been important, but I think you gotta give it to Pascal Siakam. He’s the favourite for Most Improved Player and I think he should make the All-Star team, and he’s been a perfect fit as the third star next to Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. It’s not just the highlight run-outs, spin moves and soft touch around the basket, either; it’s his ability to handle the ball and make plays for others, his defence, and yes, even his shooting. He’s even played solid minutes as a small-ball centre. He’s bringing everything to the table right now and you can practically see the confidence oozing out of him.

Justin: I’m on the Pascal Siakam train. I remember earlier in the season Nick Nurse saying his form has come on quicker than expected but the belief that he could be this player was always there. His rise has been timely too as his workload and aggressive play has filled a void with the injuries that have hit the Raptors. I think overall he’s more confident in his ability, in what he can do and his ceiling is untapped right now.

3) As we pass the halfway point of the season, what have been your three favourite highlight plays/performances from this season?

Sully: My first highlight of the season would have to be the starting lineup introductions on opening night. It was the first we got to hear the Raptors’ in-arena host Mark ‘Strizzy’ Strong announce the two new additions to the team — Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. I was able to feel the energy from that loud roar for Leonard. I still get goosebumps hearing Strizzy say “from Californ-i-a, the call him The Klaw, give it up for number 2 — Kawhi Leonard!”

My second highlight of the season is Leonard’s no-look steal against the Timberwolves. I still don’t know how he was able to come away with the pick. Either way, as crazy as it was, it shouldn’t come as a surprise as the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is one of the best defenders in the league. Side note: Leonard still has the impressive feat of recording more steals (785) than fouls (757).

My third highlight of the season is OG Anunoby’s monster dunk against the Cavaliers. It was a close game and that dunk gave the Raptors just enough energy to finish off the Cavs. It’s my favourite because it had (and has) been a tough stretch for OG, so seeing that emphatic dunk that tied his career-high in points with 21 was awesome.

Josh: Three!? You’re really taxing this old man’s memory.

The first that came to mind was the Kawhi Leonard-Danny Green double block on Jayson Tatum in the second game of the season. Just an awesome defensive moment in a game against the presumptive Eastern Conference favourite.

Second, Leonard’s performance against the Sixers on Oct. 30 — when he put the clamps on Ben Simmons and forced Simmons into 356 turnovers (numbers approximate).

Third, and there’s a recency bias at play, but from Saturday, Serge Ibaka’s stuff of Giannis at the rim, and then burying a three-pointer the other way, was a huge moment in an important game.

Justin: First one, Ibaka’s chase down block on Giannis then follows up with a three. This was a monster block but the play itself — including the three — was huge for shifting momentum.

Second, Siakam’s dunk on LeBron against the Lakers. I mentioned Siakam’s confidence as being a huge factor this year in his upward trend in form. This dunk on the King illustrates that.

Third, Danny Green’s overtime winner against the Magic with 0.5 seconds remaining. It was a good feeling and good moment for Green who has reinvented himself at the Raptors as a key cog as a shooting, defensive role player.

4) It’s becoming an annual tradition saying that Vince Carter could have very well played his last game in Toronto on Tuesday. With that in mind, is retiring in a Raptors jersey a reality for him? And, should it even happen?

Sully: It’s a very slim reality but something I would like to see. Although a trade or buyout from Atlanta seems unlikely, I think the only way he retires in a Raps jersey is him signing with the team in the upcoming off-season — whether that would him returning to play on a one-year deal or signing a one-day contract to immediately retire. Now, should that even happen? Well, time heals all wounds, and we know the history of what he had done for and to the Raptors organization.

No matter what happens in the off-season, I want Vince signing to retire with the team and apologizing (unlikely) for what he did as that is the only way he can partially heal those wounds that he left deep inside Raptors fans 15 years ago.

Josh: Well, it’s a bit of a loaded question. Like Sully said, if he retires this offseason, I’m fine with him signing a one-day contract and retiring as a Raptor. That’s cool. If he wants to play another year, then I think it depends on where the Raptors are. If Kawhi Leonard leaves, and the team isn’t a contender, then sure, why not sign Vince as your veteran leader, and give the fans something to cheer for? But Carter doesn’t have a role on this team as a contender and would probably just be more of a distraction.

So — if they can do it in such a way that it’s not a distraction, sure. Otherwise, let the past be the past and find another way to honour him.

Justin: As sentimental as this would be, to have Sir Vince Carter back in Toronto, the whole thing doesn’t make sense. The Raptors are in a good place. They are contenders now. The value for Vince is being a mentor for a team like the Hawks, which is where he is at. The Raptors roster has matured. Could the Raptors contract him for one last, farewell, game in Toronto? I’d like to see that.

Around the NBA:

1) On a scale of 1-10, how shocked are you that Jimmy Butler is apparently making waves in Philadelphia?

Sully: To many people’s surprise, I would have to say five. On one hand, we’ve come to expect this from Butler, but on the other, this 76ers squad is far different than the Timberwolves team and organization. So, to see him still disappointed with how he is being used, it did raise an eyebrow because even with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid at the 76ers helm, he shouldn’t have to be the number one guy night in and night out.

One thing that should be considered is that Butler got traded in the midst of the season, so he didn’t have an off-season or training camp to know about the 76ers’ system. I think it’s just a matter of time before Butler feels comfortable with how he will fit in with this team.

Josh: Hmm, negative-27 sounds about right. I’m only shocked it took this long. Butler has proven himself to be a terrible teammate who seems to only care about himself, putting the team success secondary to his own. His “I only care about winning” mantra is proving to be demonstrably false, as the team is 18-9 since he arrived (which is awesome considering their terrible depth and the fact that integrating major pieces always takes time). He only seems to care about being the focal point of the offence, which in turn will help net him his max contract this summer.

It’s gotta be disappointing as a Sixers fan, since a veteran two-way player like Butler would seem to be a great fit next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, but as it turns out, his leadership skills are simply non-existent. As a Raptors fan, pass the popcorn, you know?

Justin: I’m leaning toward 1. He had issues at the Bulls, Timberwolves and now 76ers, which is not entirely his own doing, but he’s definitely the common denominator out of all those situations. At some point you have to ask, what’s up with that? I feel Butler has hit the NBA’s version of a mid-life crisis and is not sure what he wants out of his remaining years with basketball which makes it hard to fit in with club cultures. The fact he’s also putting an end date of 35-years-old on his career says to me he’s already got one foot out the door.

2) After the firing of Timberwolves’ head coach Tom Thibodeau, which coach(es) do you believe will be fired before the end of the season?

Sully: I think there is a chance only one coach gets fired before season’s end: the Sacramento Kings’ Dave Joerger. The Kings are 21-21 on the season and this is as good as they have been in a long time. However, if they go on one long losing streak of five-plus games, Joerger could get canned. We could even see this happen in February when the Kings go on a 4-game trip against the Nuggets, Warriors, Thunder, and Timberwolves. After that trip, they host the Bucks, Clippers, Knicks, and Celtics. I definitely think there is a chance they lose all those games except to the Knicks. I hate to see Joerger let go, but this is the Kings organization we’re talking about — they botch everything.

Josh: The first two candidates that came to mind were Scott Brooks in Washington and Alvin Gentry in New Orleans, as both of those franchises had high expectations and so far aren’t close to meeting them. But with John Wall’s injury, I think Brooks is off the hook. Gentry? With that team desperate to keep Anthony Davis, and sitting at 20-22 and three games out of a playoff spot as I write this, and Davis recently declaring that he only cares about winning... canning Gentry might be the only way the franchise has to signal to Davis their commitment to turning things around quickly.

I also feel like it’s inevitable that Luke Walton will get the boot in Los Angeles, but I think that’ll happen after the season.

Justin: Alvin Gentry at the Pelicans would be high on my list. After 328 games, he’s yet to produce playoffs with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins (when he was there). If they are thinking about cleaning house — i.e. trading Davis — they should factor in Gentry as well. He was hired to mould a young Davis but that hasn’t translated into playoffs or championships. The Suns and Cavs are wait-and-see prospects. The Suns are rebuilding. And the Cavs have little talent, so there’s no point bringing in a new coach until their roster improves — except to develop some of the rookies like Collin Sexton.

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That wraps up this week’s HQ Roundtable. Check back next week as we will continue to discuss hot topics on the Raptors and the NBA. And if you want us to discuss some of your questions, let us know in the comments below!