So here we are on the eve of the NBA playoffs. One regular season game remains for the Raptors, their first round opponent is still a question, but the mood is definitely — and defiantly — set. Toronto is in second place in the East with aspirations of going all the way. To do it, they’ll need to be at their absolute best as a unit. And unlike last season, they may now have the battle-tested players necessary to make the climb to the Finals.
Last off-season, after another embarrassing sweep, it was clear the Raptors did not have what it took to win an NBA championship. At the time, we applied what’s colloquially called Draymond’s Law to the the roster to determine just how many players on the team could be counted on to win a title. It was illuminating — and it is also wildly out of date. The Raptors are wholly different now, and as such we need to reassess the situation.
What follows is a breakdown of the Raptors under the Law’s rubric of 16 vs. 82-game players (with some additional categories designed to capture uncertainty). As the descriptor implies, the determining factor here is whether or not a given player has what it takes to excel in the hot house of the post-season, or if they exist at best as work-a-day talent over the long haul.
It’s been a long regular season for the Raptors, and it all leads up to this.
Again and again we come back to the Kyle Lowry question in Toronto, so let’s just get it out of the way first. There have been points over the past five post-seasons when Lowry was not great (the disaster in 2015 and the rough stretches in 2017 stand out in particular). But there should not be any question as to his value to Toronto — and the numbers do back him up. When the Raptors have been crushed in the playoffs it’s largely been because of two things: either Lowry was hurt and not himself (2015) or Lowry did not have enough help to get over the hump (2017 and 2018). This year he has the help, and while he may still be dealing with some ankle tenderness, it’s not enough to keep him down. In Toronto, Lowry stays on the floor.
Finals MVP in 2014. The reason we’re all here. Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor.
Truth is, Gasol’s best years are behind him. We know this. The decline he experienced this year before being traded to the Raptors is real — he’s not the scorer he was, he’s not the fearsome force on defense he was. Then again: there are also few NBA centres I’d trust more with the ball in their hands in a big spot than Marc Gasol. I hate to do this to him, but it needs to be said: while Jonas Valanciunas could be counted on to deliver in the post-season, he could also be predicted. Gasol can be counted on and we have no idea yet what exactly that will look like. The best part of that statement? Neither do the Raptors’ opponents.
Green is a career 41 percent shooter from three in the playoffs. If that was the only stat that mattered for Toronto, it would put him in this category, easy. That Green can also be counted on on the defensive end, and potentially kill teams in the post, while also remaining supremely chill under all conditions, means he is perhaps the most surefire 16-gamer the Raptors have ever had.
Could Go Either Way
Point blank: the Raptors’ post-season ceiling is tied directly to how Siakam responds to the upcoming moment, the first truly massive one of his career. So far this year, Pascal has risen again and again to the occasion — but that’s only been the case in the regular season. We’ve seen what happens in Toronto when teams start sniffing out weakness — like, say, a wonky jumper — and it does not end well. There’s a non-zero chance teams figure out how best to cover Siakam and it remains to be seen (in the playoffs) if he can respond to that kind of pressure.
If it felt wrong to put Siakam in this category, it definitely feels wrong to put Mr. Bet On Yourself here too. Where Pascal raises the ceiling on the starters, the play of VanVleet, which has been very good down the stretch of this regular season, will determine that of the Raptors’ bench-heavy units. Last season, thanks to a late shoulder injury, FVV was never quite himself. He missed a chunk of this season too, but has come back stronger. What we need now: to see him actually win the bet.
We forget now, after a season of strong play, just how bad Serge Ibaka looked after the first two games of last season’s playoffs. Ibaka was a stone statue, unable to move, unable to catch a pass, unable to finish at the rim or hit any jumpers. He’s no longer the team’s starting centre and only succeeds when paired with the right point guard (a fact VanVleet has figured out), so he’s both less of a focal point and less of a problem. Still, Ibaka has been to the playoffs almost every season of his career. You don’t just forget that feeling, right? I’m ready to believe again.
The “Mad Scientist” of the Raptors organization has shown a willingness to get wild with his rotations. This could be a good thing, especially when viewed through the lens of former coach Dwane Casey’s reluctance to get too funky. It’s possible to envision a scenario where Nurse cracks the code on a team with a lineup or scheme we haven’t quite seen before. It’s also possible he could completely crack under the pressure. It’s all in play! (I feel like I’m dying!)
Last playoffs, with the Raptors on the ropes against the Cavaliers in Game 3, it was a combination of Lowry and OG (and a couple others) who kept them in the game. Anunoby looked tough as hell while hanging in with LeBron James, only the best player on the planet. Sadly, that has not quite translated over to this season — and it’s given us pause as we watch OG (coming back from “concussion-like symptoms”, mind you) throw up airballs and look out of sorts on offense. We may need to wait until next season to see if Anunoby can ascend back to a 16-game spot.
There’s a case to be made that Norm should be a 16-game player. I said as much back in June despite a season so poor I had to bump him down to the last category here. Good news then: Powell has played well enough to be a marginal eighth or ninth man for the Raptors. Will he get a surprise start and save Toronto’s season? No. Will he randomly play well in a post-season game? Definitely more possible than last year.
The lead-in for McCaw is that despite being in only his third year, he’s already got two championships. The first of those titles (both of which were won with the Warriors) saw him playing a non-garbage 12.1 minutes per game, right on into the Finals. He’s got some experience, is my point. But then again: have you seen McCaw with the ball in his (non-injured) hands lately? Better to tag him with a “break glass in case of emergency” label for now. Sorry, Pat.
Not Included or Incomplete
Meeks is a gamer, a guy who has been in (and out of) various situations, regular season and playoffs. Despite his strong Darrick Martin-esque energy however, Meeks has never really been a significant factor for a team one way or the other, his best post-season run coming eight years ago in 2011. On top of that, Meeks is still just trying to fit in with the Raptors, which doesn’t make it the best situation for him to suddenly start firing away in the post-season.
It... was not supposed to be this way with Lin. Before the Raptors picked him up off the buyout market, Lin looked like a natural fit for Toronto — a steady ball-handler, a finisher, a man unafraid of the moment. Instead, here’s where we are with Lin: if he sees the court in the playoffs outside of garbage time, something has gone wrong.
We’re still a ways away from the true Slimm Duck Effect in the post-season, but I’ll give Boucher one thing: he’s got 16-gamer confidence, and that’s not nothing.
Miller’s lasting contribution so far to the Raptors in the post-season has been his face heavily featuring into one of the t-shirts from the 2018 run. At the time, he was on a two-way contract last season and not playoff eligible for Toronto (though he did appreciate the shirt). This year, Miller conceivably could play — but he won’t. The development curve here is a long one, and despite Miller’s 3-and-D skills, he’s not who the Raptors will rely on.
Ditto for Loyd. He carried the 905 as far as he could this past G League season, but there’s no space for him on the Raptors right now — even if he had the playoff crunch-time chops.