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HQ Roundtable: On Nick Nurse, playoff prep, a Space Jam remix, and more

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With the Raptors back on the floor, the panel discusses Nick Nurse’s season so far, what the team needs to tighten before the playoffs begin, and more.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Wednesday, which means another edition of the HQ Roundtable is coming your way! Welcome! I am Sully Akbari – your host for this weekly series. We’re out from the All-Star break and here to discuss more second-half of the season questions on the Raptors and other fun NBA topics. Joining me this week is Dylan Litman — who is making his very first appearance — and a regular, Mitch Orsatti.

On the Raptors:

1) How would you grade Nick Nurse’s season so far? What’s the one coaching decision he’s made that bothered you the most, and one that impressed you?

Sully Akbari: I would describe coach Nurse’s run so far the Raptors as both good and bad others, which is an easy way to describe most coaches, but I feel it does indeed fit here. It’s the inconsistency of his rotations that bothers me, but I can’t put the entire blame on him for that, what with the Raptors’ injuries and recent roster turnover.

Yet we’re still seeing Nurse not being able to correctly rotate his lineups at the mid-way point in quarters and near the end of quarters/games. The main issue here comes back to not staggering the minutes of Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard and going with all bench lineups. It was a thing that worked last year with the Bench Mob, but as we’ve seen time and time again this year, Toronto’s bench has yet to form the same chemistry.

There needs to be one of Lowry or Leonard on the floor as well as at least one starter on the floor with the bench players. It’s just been too much of a gamble for the Raptors otherwise, as games can (and have) slipped away in as little as a couple of minutes for Toronto.

On the other hand, what has impressed me is Nurse’s ability to keep the team playing well with all the injuries they’ve faced and the many different starting lineups used. Before Toronto traded Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors faced challenges at the back-up centre position when he was out with his thumb injury. They’ve had OG Anunoby in and out of the lineup (and now Fred VanVleet), and Kyle Lowry was off for a bit with a sore back. Then there are the challenges that come with managing Kawhi’s load. Since Leonard is one of the best two-way players, taking him out of the mix creates challenges on both offense and defense. Still, the Raptors are 13-4 without him in the lineup which is impressive.

Dylan Litman: I’d probably have to give Nick Nurse a C+. My biggest gripe with Nurse isn’t so much related to the changes he’s implemented, but rather the lack thereof. Toronto’s crunch time offense looks eerily similar to last year (swapping out Kawhi for DeMar DeRozan of course). I can’t put all the blame on Nurse, though; integrating a high usage isolation-oriented scorer into a Lowry-led flowing offense can be a challenge, especially when said isolation player is a far worse passer than we’ve seen from our leading scorer in years prior. It’d be nice to see Kawhi utilized within our offense a bit more. I understand letting him iso for the last couple of possessions to limit turnovers, but with two to five minutes left in a close game, Nurse should still feel comfortable trusting Lowry and Marc Gasol to run a proper offense with cutters and shooters dashing around the perimeter off of screens.

Nurse has impressed me by essentially giving Pascal Siakam free reign. He brings the ball up the floor, initiates the offense, and has a great tendency to isolate on players that are slower and weaker, leading to easy buckets via euro step or spin move. I can’t see Dwane Casey recognizing and rewarding unexpectedly quick growth from a role player, so props to Nurse for seeing what Siakam can do.

Mitch Orsatti: I have gone back and forth with this question in my head on numerous occasions and I just can’t seem to land on a definitive grade one way or the other. Because of that, let me give you some factors that make this grade impossible to give:

  • Let’s call this a rhetorical question if I’m wrong, but, has any rookie coach had higher expectations placed onto them coming into a season? The Raptors have essentially been a Conference Finals team for a handful of years now and then Masai blew it all up by trading the leading scorer and beloved franchise icon, fired one of the longest-tenured head coaches in the league, brought in a superstar who basically hadn’t played in over a year and the expectation was, yeah, it’s championship or bust. And look, I get it — that’s every team’s ultimate goal, but come on, Ian Kokoskov wasn’t expected to even make the playoffs with the Suns.
  • Masai followed up his masterful off-season by, get this, trading another stalwart Raptor in Jonas Valanciunas along with entrenched role players Delon Wright and C.J. Miles for a former franchise player in Marc Gasol who has never played for another organization and then signed another higher usage player in Jeremy Lin to add into Nurse’s rotation.
  • Oh, wait. The Raptors are 45-17.

Okay, I change my mind, give Nick Nurse a damn A+. While he certainly has had some puzzling moments running this Raptors squad, I’m not sure you can really penalize the guy for his biggest potential problem: over-experimentation. The Raptors have had 1,000 different starting lineups due to countless injuries and pretty massive lineup turnover considering they had the image of a franchise built on continuity. And again, they’re 45-17, second in the East and a favourite to make it deep into the playoffs, maybe even the Finals. Could Nurse be doing better? Sure. Has he done a damn fine job thus far? You bet.

2) We’ve seen several close wins and several ugly losses in the last month. Which area(s) do the Raptors need to improve on before they begin their playoff run?

Sully: I have been keeping a note of this for quite some time and it’s simple: Toronto has to keep their three-point shooting at a respectable percentage. In the month of February, they’ve caught fire from deep, making 37.7 percent of their shots while making 12.7 threes a game and shooting a total of 33.6 per game.

The Raptors have had issues with their long-range distance shooting since the season began and to finally see it turn the corner is a relief. The last thing the Raptors want to do is finish off the regular season and head into the playoffs with poor shooting performances, especially in today’s three-point heavy era of basketball.

Dylan: As has been the case for years, the Raptors tend to get jittery near the end of close games. Aside from my aforementioned suggestion of running an actual offense in crunch time, I’d suggest utilizing Siakam more as a cutter. When things look bleak, having Marc Gasol at one of the elbows dishing passes to guys careening towards the rim is one way to throw off opposing defenses, even when they’re locked in. Siakam is one of the fastest players in the league and is a 6-foot-9 burgeoning passer. He can reach dishes that other players can’t reach, and can consistently fire quick, accurate passes to the perimeter. Finding open shots in clutch moments is a difficult task, but instead of opting for Kawhi isolation plays over and over (and over) again, Gasol provides an alternative focal point. Siakam, Danny Green, Lowry and Fred (when he returns) are all smart off-ball guys and should be utilized more as opposing defenses tighten up.

Mitch: What I am going to do here is tease that out by singling out a certain player that no one wants to talk about because we all want him to stay and I’m the same, okay! But when is Kawhi Leonard going to start playing more often? William Lou brought this up in his 10 Things article and it’s a very valid point. Sometime soon, Kawhi is going to have to start playing with more regularity if the Raptors have any chance of erasing this dual mentality that they’ve developed when he sits.

Kyle Lowry seems like an entirely different player when Leonard is off the floor and the team seems to respond better to his free-flowing, get everyone involved style of play (go figure). The Raptors are going to need Kawhi to be a part of and tap into that same energy when the playoffs roll around because, without him, this team will not get far in the second season.

3) Exactly 19 years ago on February 27, 2000, Vince Carter scored a then-franchise record 51 points to give the Raptors a 103-102 over the Phoenix Suns. Do you think there will be a 50-point outing for Toronto soon?

Sully: Let me start off with this: if any two players on the Raptors’ roster can drop 50 in a game, it’d be Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard. Both are highly-skilled offensive players that can shoot from anywhere on the floor and they can create space to drive to the hoop or get a good shot off, which needless to say is an important skill to have to go off for 50.

Now, would a 50-point outing happen any time soon? I would say no, even considering Siakam’s recent 44-point outburst against the Wizards. I say this because it’s not in the Raptors’ play style now to go totally iso-ball and rely wholly on one scorer. They may try feeding the ball to the hot hand, but the Raptors have a more balanced attack this season and are quick to change things up, especially in a close game. Maybe next season we’ll witness a 50-point game by a Raptor, but not any time soon.

Dylan: Siakam was pretty damn close the other night! In all seriousness though, out of all the players on the Raptors, you’d think Kawhi would be capable. There are some days when Kawhi is locked in, doing whatever he wants on the court. However, it’s extremely rare that Kawhi shows up to play and nobody else on the roster does. I think Siakam, Lowry and Green would need to struggle mightily for us to witness a 50-point Kawhi game this season.

Mitch: You heard it here first: Kawhi Leonard will score 55 points in a playoff game this season and then re-sign with the Raptors after they beat the Golden State Warriors 4-2.

Around the NBA:

1) There have been reports of Draymond Green swapping out his agent for Rich Paul, and becoming a member of the Klutch family. Let’s speculate: if this happens, will he be joining LeBron James and the Lakers when his contract ends in 2020?

Sully: Even with all the back-and-forth (friendly?) banter Green and LeBron have had in the past, it’s not totally crazy to think Green could join forces with James and the Lakers. With Anthony Davis already bound for L.A., if not traded by 2020, Green would be an intriguing piece to add to what could possibly be more than a big three (in James, Davis, and Green himself). With L.A. being a top destination for free agents, there may be even more talent inbound too.

However, it would only be an intriguing fit if James and Green can sustain their current play and health — and it should be noted that both are getting up there in age. If all that falls into place, then the Lakers would be a top contender for the 2020-21 season.

Dylan: If the Lakers are looking to bolster their defense (spoiler alert: they are), then I can definitely see this happening. On top of the obvious basketball reasons why this move would make sense, LeBron and Draymond are apparently pretty good friends.

Also, Draymond’s relationship with KD seems rocky at best. There are many rumours surrounding Kevin Durant’s free agency (e.g. Bill Simmons recently said on his podcast that he’s 90-95 percent sure Durant will be on the Knicks next season), so it wouldn’t surprise me if Draymond feels spurned by the Warriors’ organization and is ready to move on.

Mitch: Oooooh, I love speculation, but man do I hate LeBron and the Lakers, so I’m torn on whether I even want to like this question!

Obviously, a lot can happen in the span of an NBA year, so it’s hard to even envision what the Lakers roster will look like when Draymond’s contracts come off the books (though you can bet it’ll be a smouldering heap by the time LeBron leaves). I’m of two schools of thought here:

  1. You never have to speculate Draymond’s love for theatrics and what could be more theatrical than the Warriors and Lakers playing in a 1st round series where Draymond and LeBron are seen talking under their jerseys after the Warriors sweep a LeBron James team for the second year in a row? If you see this, then it’s confirmed, Dray and Bron 2020.
  2. There is no way that Draymond Green would ever take the kind of crap that LeBron piles on his teammates. What kind of crap, might you ask?

This is but one instance of LeBron’s thrown shade and every part of me believes that that factor alone would keep Draymond away from LeBron — same agent or not.

2) Is there a combination of current NBA players that would be able to outperform Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Larry Johnson, and Muggsy Bogues in the upcoming Space Jam sequel?

Sully: Definitely! I think my cast has to be made up around Steven Adams. Many would get a kick out of Adams saying all the lines from Barkley’s role, just because of his realness and personality. The actor that Chris Paul is on and off the court (those State Farm commercials are ‘meh’ at best) could work to literally fill in Bogues’ shoes — if only he were 5-foot-3. Still, standing 6’ tall (or short?) is close enough.

Since Shawn Bradley’s basketball career is made up him being on dunk posters, I’m going to base his role replacement on that. So, what better player to fill that role than Aron Baynes, who was only put on this earth to be posterized.

Patrick Ewing’s role can only be replaced by someone who is seemingly modest. I think the best replacement for his role would be Julius Randle. And for LJ, is it too early to talk about getting Zion in there?

Dylan: If Boban Marjanovic is not in the next Space Jam reprising Shawn Bradley’s role, I’m going to be visibly upset. Isaiah Thomas already mentioned that he wants to be the next Muggsy, so who am I to take that away from him?

Nobody can replace Charles Barkley, though I feel like Luka Doncic is a funny and outspoken enough guy, not to mention popular, that he could work in a similar role. Lastly, I want to see nothing more than Nikola Jokic pretend to lose his talent. Watching one of the most talented offensive big men of all time fail to catch a ball and whip passes out of bounds would bring me immense joy. As for the Larry Johnson spot, I think Blake Griffin would do an admirable job, if only so I can see how goofy he’d look in a hospital gown.

Mitch: I am going to take a different approach in answering this. Hmm, outperform is an interesting way to look at this because the answer is emphatically yes. Shawn Bradley lived on every dunker’s poster and Muggsy Bogues was pretty good but not great. Here’s who I’ve got as the beefed-up Space Jam 2 lineup:

C (Shawn Bradley): I’m stuck here, because the premise for these guys in my head is that they are bad guys on account of the tiny baby alien power stealers. In that regard, Joel Embiid and DeMarcus Cousins would be perfect fits. The problem is that other than Charles Barkley who is a real-life monster, the NBA counterparts who had their power stolen all seemed like good dudes. My solution is to go as close to the NBA players as I can, so the answer here 1000% has to be Nikola Jokic.

2nd C for some reason (Patrick Ewing): He’s affable. He loves games and he’s basically a big kid. Go ahead, throw KAT out there!

SF (Charles Barkley): Here’s my one true villain, so the one true answer is Draymond Green and I will not hear any other opinions.

SG (Larry Johnson):

PG (Muggsy Bogues): There’s a non-zero chance that Kyrie Irving is not in this movie. I just don’t see a world where the great reconciliation isn’t given the Hollywood treatment. There’s also some real layup Uncle Drew jokes that they can spice in.

BONUS POINT: Sully, how could you leave out the Bill Murray role in this amazing All-Star team? My heart wants to see Michael Cera’s adorable headbanded head on the court sheepishly tossing alley-oops to Babs Bunny and I don’t care who knows it.

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That will do it for this week’s edition of the HQ Roundtable! As always, we’d love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions for us and we will be sure to include it in next week’s edition.