It’s another edition of the HQ Roundtable! I am Sully Akbari — your host for this weekly column. As always, this weekly series looks into news surrounding the Toronto Raptors as well as other stories going on around the league. Joining me this week to discuss them are Josh Kern and Jay Rosales.
A lot has happened in the last week, so let’s jump right into our discussion!
On the Raptors:
1) What will be your lasting memory or highlight of Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, and C.J. Miles, who were traded for Marc Gasol last week?
Sully Akbari: Jonas Valanciunas — Losing JV was very sad to see. He gave the Raptors his all since the day he was drafted. While there were bumps in the road, whether it was his play or his role, he never backed down and that’s what makes it difficult to see him go. However, one thing that will always stand out to me, just like Josh, Jay, and any other Raptor fan, is his game-tying, buzzer-beating dunk against the Bucks. Oh yeah, more thing, he was fouled.
Delon Wright — Wright’s alley-oop dunk from Kyle Lowry in Game 2 against the Wizards in last year’s playoffs was everything. I felt the same way when Norman Powell dunked against the Pacers in 2016. It was one of the better game-clinching highlight plays, one that I will never forget from Delon. He was one of my favourites and it’s sad to see him go.
C.J. Miles — C.J. was definitely one of the more roller-coaster type of players the Raptors have had. However, that didn’t take away him being a great pro and person and that is my lasting memory of him. He always kept his head up when things weren’t in his favour, continued to work hard and was there to serve as a mentor to the young guys on the team. I also won’t forget his debut for the Raptors as he went off for 22 points and drained six threes against the Bulls. He is a true pro. (There is an ad in C.J.’s Raptors debut video, so don’t mind the first few seconds!)
Josh Kern: Jonas Valanciunas — The game-tying dunk on Milwaukee’s John Henson last season. He was fouled, goddammit. (Also, how great was it to see Dwane Casey bust out the same play for Blake Griffin this season?)
Delon Wright — Delon vs. Kelly Oubre Jr. in the first round of the playoffs last season. The Wizards are (or were, I guess, as they’ve since traded 75 percent of the roster) world-class shit-talkers who never backed up any of said shit-talking, so after seeing Oubre talk trash to the Raptors and Wright after Game 5, including this gem...
Oubre: "I'm not trying to do this psychological warfare. He can take it very personally, but at the end of the day if you want to go to war I'm the wrong person to go to war against, because if I die I'mma come back to life and kill you."— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 27, 2018
... it was sweet, sweet karmic justice having Delon close out Game 6 by blocking Oubre’s shot.
C.J. Miles — Miles shot a ridiculous 11-for-18 from downtown in back-to-back road wins against Western Conference foes early last season (Houston and New Orleans), and it was awesome to see him scorching the nets like that.
But for me it’ll always be the two Open Gym episodes featuring his family: the birth of his daughter Ava last season, and Ava’s first birthday this season. Just a wonderful look at life off the court for an NBA player.
Jay Rosales: Jonas Valanciunas — I’ll be honest; I was never a fan of JV until this season. His game has always felt out-of-touch with today’s game. Gone are the days of the bruising big man. However, he grew on me this season. His demotion to the bench brought out an efficiency monster on both ends of the floor. He will thrive in Memphis and fans will say the Raptors should have kept him, but his ceiling with this team, in this season, was simply not high enough. I don’t want his final moment/play/memory to be him screaming in pain, so I’ll go with his buzzer-beater vs. Milwaukee last year (should’ve been an and-1) and the various times he highlighted a teammate’s career high.
Delon Wright — Delon will always be the Oubre-destroyer:
And the one who euro-stepped Manu into retirement:
C.J. Miles — My lasting memory for C.J. Miles, rather, unfortunately, is the GoDaddy curse. When he was acquired for Cory Joseph, he joined the team as one of four players in the NBA to hit 40 percent of his threes AND 90 percent of his free throws. That shooting never really materialized and now we’re left with these onesies.
2) What are your thoughts on Marc Gasol and how would you like to see him utilized in the rotation?
Sully: I wasn’t so big on the trade for Gasol until now. We have seen just about everything from him whether it’s his passing, shooting, rebounding, ability to read defenses and set screens, literally everything. He’s a sound player and will be the perfect fit with this team and the current style of play in the NBA.
For the remaining 24 games, I would like to see him starting at centre with Pascal Siakam at the four and Serge Ibaka coming off the bench. This would be a blow to Ibaka because he has played really well this season but I think this move maximizes the team’s play and helps Ibaka from a health and fatigue perspective. I think if Ibaka plays the remaining 24 games in this role, he would be well-suited come playoff time.
Also, I don’t think coach Nick Nurse should alternate the centre position depending on the matchup just like he did with JV and Ibaka because Gasol is a versatile big on both ends of the floor and both his and Siakam’s play complement each other.
Josh: Well, I think Gasol ultimately has to start and close games. It should be as simple as “play your best player at each position together the most,” but of course, it never is because there are egos and some manner of “seniority” involved. Serge Ibaka has absolutely earned his starting spot with his play this season, so it sucks to have a new guy come in and take it away.
So I don’t want to take anything away from Ibaka, but the things that Gasol brings to the table, the ball movement and basketball IQ on both ends, should be hugely beneficial to the rest of starters. (And as the recent spate of slow starts indicates, the starting group could use a spark.)
Beyond that, I hope the Raptors find ways to get Gasol the ball where he is most effective — in the high post and at the elbows. He mostly seemed to get the ball at the top of the arc or on the low block against the Nets, and I’d like to see that shift a little bit to maximize his “toolbox,” as he calls it.
Jay: When the trade was first announced, I thought Gasol should fill the JV role as the focal point on the bench. I thought Ibaka’s chemistry with Lowry and the starters was too strong to disrupt at game 58. I thought Gasol’s play-making abilities would allow Fred VanVleet to spot up from three, and provide opportunities for Norm Powell and OG Anunoby to cut for layups. After two games, those thoughts are still valid, but he could do even more damage with the starters. We all got a taste of it during the Nets game. Imagine this the following as Gasol gets the ball at the elbow; Siakam cuts to the basket and all hell breaks loose. Now it’s choose your own adventure:
- Gasol dishes to Siakam, who has a running start and is an above-average finisher around the rim, for the easy lay-in.
- Defense collapses into the paint, Gasol finds Green in the corner. SPLASH!
- Defense collapses into the paint, Gasol eyes Green, defender leans, Gasol finds Lowry on the wing. SPLASH!!
- Defense sags, Gasol hits the jumper (with Siakam already crashing).
- Gasol takes one step towards the basket, drawing attention from a help defender, Gasol dishes to Kawhi on the baseline, where he’s the best shooter in the NBA... SPLASH!!!
Best Shooters By Zone pic.twitter.com/ziGFS016IG— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) January 30, 2019
3) How important is the no. 1 seed for the Raptors? Should they go all out to win every game the rest of the way, or should they focus more on resting key players and experimenting with lineups?
Sully: Not important at all. We all saw what happened last season; although it was nice setting a franchise record in total wins and finishing first for the first time, it all came crashing down. This time around, the Raptors have a much better squad and the main emphasis should be getting healthy even if that means resting Leonard, Lowry, Siakam, Ibaka, or others on some occasions.
The team also needs to improve its chemistry, and seeing which lineups work best against certain teams or certain situations. With Gasol and Jeremy Lin in the mix and Fred VanVleet out three weeks with a thumb injury, it may take some time to figure it all out. All Raptor fans can hope for is a healthy and cohesive (I can’t stress that enough!) team ready for the playoffs.
Josh: There’s definitely a part of me that wants them to get the no. 1 seed, and to beat up on their competition the rest of the way, especially because who needs the angst of seeing the Raptors lose to bad teams?
But, I think finding the right roster fit, and getting to the postseason healthy, is more important. As has been pointed out various times in the past week, teams that make big mid-season trades don’t usually make the Finals, unless those teams have LeBron James on them. The Raptors are drastically reshaping their roster here, so if they want to buck that trend, they should be focusing on learning what works and what doesn’t.
Besides, one only need look to last year, when the Raptors worked hard to get to the top seed and 60 wins, and what did it get them? Only 59 wins, an injury to Fred VanVleet in the last game that left him unhealthy for the entire postseason, and a sweep from James and the Cavs. So the regular season doesn’t matter anymore, only postseason success does. I like wins, but I’ve seen wins. Extended postseason success is what I’m looking for now.
The seeding will also be interesting to watch. It’s unlikely, but if Indiana stays in the third spot, then finishing second might actually be the best outcome for the Raptors. (Heck, even if Philly finishes third — I’d rather the Raptors face the Pacers or 76ers than the Celtics in round two.)
Jay: Health is #1. Chemistry and lineup composition is #2. Hit one more three per game is #3. The Raptors have already defeated a fully-healthy, fully-engaged Bucks squad in Milwaukee... and that was before acquiring another former Defensive Player of the Year.
Health — Toronto has two 3-games-in-4-nights instances remaining and, within those instances, two back-to-backs left. That’s it. Toronto’s final 24 regular season games make up one of the easiest remaining schedules. Whether it’s reduced playing time or the occasional day off, the Raptors cannot afford to go into the playoffs less than 100 percent healthy (like last year when Dwane Casey stupidly played the full roster on the final day, leading to an injured VanVleet).
Chemistry — I get Nurse’s reasoning for constant experimentation. For the most part, it’s worked because he’s uncovered some benefits that weren’t explored previously (i.e. splitting up Ibaka and JV). I’m not sure what the magic number is, but at some point in March, Nurse needs to settle on his 8/9-man playoff rotation. The Bench Mob was the league’s best last year, but that type of depth doesn’t work in the playoffs. Lowry-Green-Leonard-Siakam-Gasol-FVV-Ibaka is your core 7, with one wing (Norm or OG), making up the bulk of the minutes. In other words, get Gasol as many reps as possible!
3-point shooting — Did you know the Raptors are averaging 11.5 three-pointers made per game, which ranks 13th? Did you know that if the Raptors made just one more each game, they’d rank 5th? HQ staff writer Daniel Hackett wrote this last week. Between Lowry’s resurgence (16-for-34 from three over the last four games) and the upgrade from JV to Gasol, Toronto is trending upwards at the right time.
Around the NBA:
1) Your sweetheart has asked for one gift for Valentine’s Day: which highlight(s) from this season that would make anyone a Raptor fan.
Sully: The Raptors are up 67-39 against LeBron James and his Lakers. Pascal Siakam dribbles it up the court, does a quick crossover move to drive into the open paint and dunks right by LeBron to make it 69-38. Nice.
Josh: I think I might just show them the two Open Gym episodes I mentioned above! And I had a whole other sequence from a December game queued up for this answer:
But then last night’s super-fun Raptors-Nets game happened. The whole fourth quarter was a blast, and who doesn’t love a good game winner?
So I’d show them the final minute, including Danny Green’s clutch three:
And Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning bank shot:
Jay: I’m just going to leave this here:
2) What are you looking forward to in each All-Star Weekend event and who do you have coming up on top in each event?
Mtn Dew Ice Rising Stars Challenge — Team USA vs. Team World
Sully: It seemed like everyone had Luka Doncic winning Rookie of the Year before he even stepped onto the court and now that he has played and has been phenomenal, he’s basically solidified to win it. Now, the player who has been left out in all of this is Trae Young. He and Doncic will trade highlights back and forth, making this the most exciting event of the weekend.
Team USA beats Team World 146-133 with Trae Young winning the MVP while putting up 15 points, 15 assists and five rebounds.
Josh: Oh man, you’re going to make me pretend to care about this stuff? Can’t I just channel my inner Doug Smith and declare my interest only in games that actually matter?
Looks to me like the World roster is about a zillion times better than Team USA. Doncic, Ayton and Simmons? Team World wins it 133-119 and Doncic is your MVP with 19-7-8.
Jay: Between Deandre Ayton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Cedi Osman, Josh Okogie, and Rodions Kurucs, I’m looking forward to the announcers butchering names all night.
Team USA will win 150-140, but Luka Doncic will take home the MVP with 36 points, 12 assists, and 8 rebounds.
Taco Bell Skills Challenge
Sully: I was looking forward to seeing Pascal Siakam in this competition but unfortunately, he was snubbed. Instead, I’ll be looking forward to seeing Nikola Jokic cruise through the competition from the wings/bigs side and De’Aaron Fox coming out from the guards side. With the two going head-to-head, I would have to choose Fox winning it all.
Josh: I like De’Aaron Fox and Trae Young in this event. I mean, not enough to like, watch it or anything. But I think Fox takes it.
Jay: All the bigs flop, leading to a ton of “Siakam should’ve been there” tweets. I’m going to take Fox over Kuzma (and it ain’t even close).
Mtn Dew Three-Point Contest
The #MtnDew3PT field at #NBAAllStar #StateFarmSaturday!@DevinBook *defending champ@sdotcurry @StephenCurry30— 2019 NBA All-Star (@NBAAllStar) February 6, 2019
Joe Harris@buddyhield @DGreen_14 @Dame_Lillard @Khris22m @swish41 @KembaWalker pic.twitter.com/itivvE5wcN
Sully: I love that the NBA expanded this competition from eight participants to 10 this year because more participants equal more excitement. Obviously, the attention is on the Curry brothers, so that will be something to look forward to. If I were to choose one out of these 10 contestants, I am going with the dark horse in Damian Lillard. Yes, Dame Dolla will upset Stephen Curry (and Seth for that matter).
Josh: I don’t know how you can bet against Stephen Curry in any shooting contest. I think Steph wins this with a score of 28. (The fact that my autocorrect changes “Curry” to “Curries” is hilarious, considering both Steph and brother Seth Curry are in this. Also, who wants Indian tonight?)
Jay: Dell Curry makes a surprise appearance and outscores both sons. Dirk Nowitzki doesn’t finish his last rack on time (have you seen him move lately?). I said it on the Raptors HQ pod last month, that all the attention will be on the Currys, but I think the winner will actually be Curry 2.0 (according to Kings owner Vivek Ranadive), Buddy Hield. Hield will hit 20 shots, (one shy of the Craig Hodges record) but have a score of 29 (one more than Devin Booker’s record from last year).
AT&T Slam Dunk Contest
Sully: This is an interesting field because the dunk contest features two players well-known for their dunks in Dennis Smith Jr. and Miles Bridges but then it also features Hamidou Diallo and John Collins as the two players not known for their flashy dunks, but can still get it. With that in mind, this should be a great balanced event.
After what happened in last year’s dunk contest, I have Dennis Smith Jr. winning it over Miles Bridges.
Josh: Boy, the dunk contest was so much better back in the day, when I had to walk to school uphill in two feet of snow both ways. I think Bridges is the best dunker in this group, so he’s gonna take it over Dennis Smith Jr.
Jay: The same thing I look forward to every year... seeing a dunk I’ve never seen before. Miles Bridges defeats John Collins after he dresses like the old Hornets mascot and goes between the legs twice!
NBA All-Star Game – Team Giannis vs. Team LeBron
Sully: I am looking forward to seeing LeBron going out of his way to make sure he feeds the ball to every one of the 2019 impending free agents on his team so that they can get a sense of what it’s like to play with him (except for Kyrie Irving). Him drafting his team caused a stir but can you imagine if he did all that and not one of those free agents be a Laker by this summer? Other than that, I think this will be the same as any other All-Star game. A few awesome plays, dunks, threes, and if the game is close, defence being played in the final minutes of the game.
I have Team LeBron defeating Team Giannis 152-145 with Kevin Durant winning the MVP while recording 37 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks.
Josh: I can’t imagine a deadlier one-two punch than Giannis Antetokounmpo and Steph Curry, so I’m giving this one to Team Giannis, and I think Giannis himself is gonna be the MVP with 29, 14 and 6.
Jay: I look forward to one final LeBron-Wade alley-oop, Lowry drawing a charge on Kawhi, and Curry launching 25 three-pointers in hopes of getting the MVP in his hometown.
Team LeBron will get an easy 178-165 win, with Kevin Durant garnering MVP honours, recording 45 points, 10 rebounds, 5 dimes, as he out-threes Curry 10 to nine.
That will do it for this week’s edition of the HQ Roundtable! If you have any questions for us to discuss, let us know in the comments below! For now, enjoy tonight’s game against Wizards as well as the All-Star Weekend!