When a team summits a mountain like the Raptors just did, the natural impulse is to focus on those final steps. The last grasping effort to pull yourself up, so that you can stand alone at the top, bloodied but unbowed.
But, you know, if you didn’t take those steps to the car at 3:00am first, you never would have even made it to base camp.
From that vantage point, let’s take a moment to reflect on the season of three Raptors who were sacrificed at the altar of Marc Gasol, but who nevertheless played a part in the 2018-19 season for Toronto: Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles.
The JV Hive is dead! Long live JV Hive!
Valanciunas’ season is the most interesting to me, not just of this group, but maybe of the whole team. The Lithuanian big man started the year by accepting coach Nick Nurse’s plan to platoon the centre position. It was a decision that made a ton of sense, but it would have been easy for Valanciunas, who has sometimes struggled to get consistent playing time in his career despite being the Raptors’ starting centre, to balk at a situation that would end up with him playing the fewest minutes a night in his career.
Instead, JV dominated. On a per-36 minute basis, he set career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals, while getting to the line more often than ever before, and shooting a career-high 61.1% from two-point range. At one point JV was in line to become one of the most prolific bench scorers in league history, hitting new peaks in his efficiency despite the drop in minutes and usage.
It wasn’t just on the offensive end that JV improved. He put up a career low defensive rating of 102.5 too. Valanciunas also held opponents to 58.7 percent shooting on shots near the rim (within five feet), a mark that put him just behind players like Tyson Chandler and Serge Ibaka, and ahead of rim-protectors like Jarett Allen, and even Marc Gasol.
Valanciunas’ thumb injury, the one that would ultimately end his Raptors career, remains one of the franchises greatest Sliding Doors moments. What if JV had come back three weeks earlier? Could he have played well enough to keep Masai Ujiri from making the Marc Gasol trade? Could the Raps have won the title anyway?
It’s an interesting thought exercise — JV would have squeezed out enough points in the Philly series to help end it in five and keep Kawhi fresh! JV’s defensive improvement would have been exposed by Milwaukee and the Warriors! — but ultimately it obscures the best thing about JV, something that could never be measured by numbers, Valanciunas is one of the all-time good guys in the league, and we all hope he can find success in a featured role in Memphis.
Given that Valanciunas’ per-36 minute numbers held up, or improved (especially in assists, play-making long considered JV’s main bugaboo), while his efficiency slid only marginally, that seems likely — and that should make Raps fans smile.
HQ readers will know that I have long been a Delon Wright stan. At the end of the day though, it’s tough for me to say that Delon’s biggest impact on the Raps success in 2018-19 was anything but being part of the package that landed Gasol.
That’s not to say Delon had a bad year. He didn’t. Using the per-36 minutes as a guide, Wright was more or less the same guy he’d been for Toronto for the past two seasons. That was part of the problem though, as Delon was one of the few Raptors who clearly did not benefit from Nick Nurse’s tutelage. For whatever reason, Wright was never able to earn Nurse’s trust, even early in the season when Fred VanVleet struggled mightily.
Raptors fans know Wright can take over ballgames. His performance against the Washington Wizards in the 2017-18 playoffs, when it can be argued he was the biggest factor in two of Toronto’s wins in the series, proves that. It’s just that Wright has rarely been able to stay aggressive enough, on both ends of the floor, to consistently show that ceiling.
His tenure in Memphis was a microcosm of that tendency. While his overall numbers in Grit and Grind land led to career highs (per-36) almost across the board, Wright started very poorly in Memphis before taking advantage of the increased playing time down the stretch to finish strong — posting three triple doubles in the final four games of the season — in games that, ultimately, didn’t matter.
The Raptors could have used Wright at times in the playoffs, especially against the length of Orlando and Philadelphia. The luxury of having a third, extremely playable point guard, was seen as the Raps struggled to find depth in their backcourt (Jodie Meeks played in playoff games!), but in the end Wright was just that, a luxury.
(Still, the Grizz, potentially with four ex-Raptors and two Canadians, are definitely my dark horse League Pass team for 2019-20.)
The jinx was real!
After doing his Go Daddy commercial, Miles promptly put up his worst season since 2006-07, and arguably his second worst of his career. This is largely because his three-point shooting completely, and inexplicably, dried up. Miles shot 31.4 percent from deep, well below his 36 percent career average, and his worst mark since 2011-12.
Watching Miles labour through games in November and December was truly heart-rending, especially because that was also when both Kyle Lowry and VanVleet were shooting well below their career averages as well. At the time it seemed like the team’s lack of three-point accuracy might doom the Raps to another early first round exit.
Miles also created some contract issues as he was almost assuredly going to opt in to his $8.7 million player option, further limiting the Raptors options for the off-season.
Unfortunately for Miles, unlike JV and Wright, he didn’t enjoy the Beale Street vibe. While his three-point accuracy rebounded back to the his career average, Miles finished as a net negative in terms of his on-court impact as his defense continued to regress, and his offensive value was really limited to the one or two threes he’d bang in a game.
Still, Miles never complained as his minutes were slashed, and he was always seen as a positive influence around the team. In short, it’ll be nice to see him get his championship ring when the Grizz come to town.
(The second set of CJ PJs ads, which addressed the trade, didn’t hurt his stock either.)