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Even with the injuries, the Raptors’ season couldn’t be going any better

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Despite the injuries, the shade, and the losses, the Toronto Raptors have got just what they needed. As the team gets healthy, a new notion emerges: watch out East.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

That headine’s a joke, right? I can’t be creeping onto your mobile device with a headline like that, and be taken seriously?

We’re talking about a season where the Raptors are sitting third in the NBA man-games lost to injury, and first in win-shares lost to injury? Where Pascal Siakam has lost precious reps as the Raptors QB.

A season where Toronto sports a 6-12 record against teams .500 or better? Including a number of gut-punch losses.

A season where the Raptors have seen their offensive rating skid all the way down to 19th?

Surely, I must be joking.

Well, I’m not joking. (And don’t call me Shirley.)

Despite surface appearances, a look under the hood shows that, for what really matters, this season has gone almost perfectly.

Let me explain.

Injuries and the Bench

We’ll start with an obvious one.

Remember way back at the beginning of the season, when coach Nick Nurse refused to give minutes to basically anybody who wasn’t returning from last season? Through the first seven games he doled out roughly 114 minutes total to anyone past his top seven.

Then? The bench was considered, far and away, the Raptors’ biggest weak spot. (In fact some idiot wrote that this might be their worst bench in recent memory.)

Now? Nick Nurse has more players than floor time.

It’s not just that the injuries have allowed pretty much every member of the Raptors an opportunity to play, it’s when they have played that’s really important.

Every single Raptor, with the exception of Shamorie Ponds and Dewan Hernandez, has either been entrusted with a start or a share of fourth quarter minutes in non blow-out situations. Aside from perhaps Malcolm Miller and Stanley Johnson, they’ve all had multiple moments where they’ve justified those opportunities.

Good teams finding out whether a player can play hard minutes, even if it might cost you a game, has always been a big thing for me. G.O.A.T. contender Gregg Popovich has done this for years. A fringe piece checks into a tightly contested game in the third quarter, and Pop let’s him get some run with the starters in the fourth. How does the kid handle playing time that matters? How does he respond to failing?

Playing 160 minutes of garbage time in a season tells you a hell of a lot less than playing 50 in situations where the game is still in the balance.

Those hard minutes have seen the Raptors bench answer a lot of questions. Matt Thomas can hold his own on defense enough to let his shooting play. Terence Davis is proving he’s more than an athlete who plays basketball. Chris Boucher can utilize his length at the NBA level despite that slim (Duck) frame. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s high IQ game has allowed him to fit into almost any line-up, regardless of his shooting woes. Oshae Brissett isn’t just a maple-flavoured 905 marketing ploy.

From a development stand-point, you couldn’t have asked for a better turn of events.

Injuries and the Core

Staying with making lemonade from lemons suffering from hamstring injuries, all those extra minutes have also provided the guys we did know about a chance to show us something new, or, in one case, something old.

You could go up and down the roster — OG Anunoby is back on the path that had people comparing him to Kawhi Leonard four years ago, Fred VanVleet has shown he can run the Raptors solo. Marc Gasol has proven that even with his shooting numbers approaching an historically range, he is still one of the best players on the court. (And after a looooong year of basketball, Gasol was going to break down. Having it happen in the middle of the season is a huge break.)

I’m going to focus on three players though, that I especially feel are getting, and/or showing, exactly what they needed to.

Norman Powell

With the Raptors desperate for additional scoring, Norman Powell stepped up with the best stretch of basketball in his career. He’s shooting 39 percent from three, goosing his career mark north of 35 percent, strongly suggesting the floor spacer he seemed to be last year and in his rookie season is real.

What’s more, Powell is getting to, and finishing at the rim at career high rates. The only guards in the league hitting more than Powell’s 68.1 percent of shots five feet or closer, on at least Powell’s four a game are Luka Doncic, Devin Booker and DeMar DeRozan. That’s good company to be in.

Powell still has moments of tunnel vision and erratic play, but it seems being one of the team’s veteran’s has helped him become more mature on the court. One thing to keep an eye out for are that Powell’s splits between being a starter and a sub are relatively stark — and of course Powell has teased with good play before — but with him potentially being the first one due back from injury, a starting spot, and the Raps’ need for offense, will give Toronto’s second longest serving player a chance to definitively show Masai Ujiri got good value on that contract after all.

Kyle Lowry

I’ve written several times over the years about how Kyle is a unique cat emotionally. Specifically, that Kyle has struggled to process the pressure he puts on himself.

In the playoffs it’s manifested in late-night shooting sessions that seemed like a round-ball version of self-flagellation. Last year, it felt like Kyle was figuring out how to process the DeRozan trade, while simultaneously doing everything he could to make it clear he understood Kawhi Leonard was the best player on the floor. A process that saw Lowry being weirdly passive for 60 percent of the season.

This season we were treated to a bit of the same. It was obvious to everyone that Nurse was going to empower Pascal Siakam to expand his game and try being the head of the snake. The super early returns were encouraging. Lowry was his usual self, and despite Siakam’s usage spiking, Lowry wasn’t giving up his opportunities to get Pascal touches.

Then Kyle got hurt, and Siakam became the undisputed number one. When Kyle got back, he struggled. The worrying part wasn’t the shooting (like the 2-for-18 night in his return in an OT loss to Miami), it was that, aside from the game he’d been injured in, Lowry hadn’t had a single digit shot attempt performance all year. In the seven games Lowry played before Siakam got hurt against Detroit he had two.

At times Lowry looked like he was back with Kawhi, trying to make it clear that he respected a new world order, and in doing so, losing a certain Kyle-ness.

With Siakam’s injury came a re-birth of the full KLOE experience. Lowry’s been all over everything the Raptors do — he hasn’t taken fewer than 13 shots in a game since the injury, and his efficiency bounced right back to it’s usual levels.

Finding KLOE

SITUATION GP MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG AST% AST/TO REB% EFG% TS% USG% PIE
SITUATION GP MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG AST% AST/TO REB% EFG% TS% USG% PIE
With Pascal After Injury 8 38.6 105 103.3 30.2 3.37 6.6 39.3 50.1 19.6 10.4
After Pascal's Injury 11 40 107.9 104.5 33.2 2.51 4.8 51.6 58 24.5 12.7

Having tried it both ways this season, it feels like Kyle has re-discovered how much better everything works when he’s the Alpha.

Pascal Siakam

Siakam has been thrust into the role of top banana and the top-line results have been incredible. The list of NBAers averaging at least 25 pts, 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 threes a game is a short one: Karl-Anthony Towns, Luka Doncic (there’s that name again!), and Siakam.

Despite that, this season hasn’t been without it’s warts.

KEEP GETTING BETTER

YEAR PLAYER OFFRTG DEFRTG AST% AST/TO REB% EFG% TS% USG% PIE
YEAR PLAYER OFFRTG DEFRTG AST% AST/TO REB% EFG% TS% USG% PIE
2019-2020 Pascal Siakam 111.6 102.5 16.6 1.35 10.2 51.7 55.5 29.3 13.6
2018-2019 Pascal Siakam 114.8 104.2 14.1 1.61 10.5 59.1 62.8 20.5 12.4

Siakam’s improvement has come with a noticeable cost in efficiency. He’s also seen a spike in Assist-to-Turnover rate, and a small decrease in rebounding rate.

Some of this is a natural impact of taking on more possessions. Some of it is very much the cost of taking on more possessions while lacking elite players around you.

To really drive that latter point home, let’s take a look at Siakam’s numbers from before and after Lowry went down, through to Pascal’s own injury.

Pascal dealing with Kyle’s Injury

Lowry Injury GP MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG AST% AST/TO REB% EFG% TS% USG% PIE
Lowry Injury GP MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG AST% AST/TO REB% EFG% TS% USG% PIE
Before 8 34.6 112.4 101.5 19 1.12 12.4 57.8 62.8 30.7 17.3
After 19 37.5 111.3 102.9 15.8 1.48 9.3 49.2 52.5 28.7 12

Now, we’re obviously dealing with incredibly small sample sizes, but Siakam was on a massive tear to start the year. Despite the fact that his usage surged almost 50 percent from the year before (30.7 to the 20.5 on the previous chart), Siakam’s efficiency hadn’t gone down a lick — a big part of that being that the Cameroonian came back with a much needed above the break three. (For those who don’t know, PIE is EPSN’s all-in-one number. For reference, Siakam’s 17 would be 10th in the NBA this year.)

Predictably, after Lowry went down, so to in many ways did Siakam. He was scoring less efficiently, turning the ball over more, and also rebounding less — while also using fewer possessions. (Back to PIE, 12 is the equivalent of Jamal Murray or Ricky Rubio this season).

Opponents were doing the obvious thing — with Siakam surrounded by lesser talent, teams threw even more players at Siakam, forcing the ball out of his hands, and forcing Siakam into ever tougher shots.

The eye-test showed that Siakam was unfortunately willing to take them. He constantly tried to make high-degree of difficulty shots, while also dribbling himself into areas of the floor where the passes were harder to make (hence the spike in assist to turnover).

What’s worse, these bad habits stuck with Siakam when Lowry returned. Maybe it was exacerbated by Lowry’s epically bad shooting night on his return against Miami, but it seemed like Siakam pressed even harder when Lowry was back — taking even worse shots, and lacking discipline on both sides of the floor.

Things Only Get Worse

SITUATION GP MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG AST% AST/TO REB% EFG% TS% USG% PIE
SITUATION GP MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG AST% AST/TO REB% EFG% TS% USG% PIE
With Lowry 8 34.6 112.4 101.5 19 1.12 12.4 57.8 62.8 30.7 17.3
Without Lowry 11 38.4 116 100.7 17.5 1.62 9.4 50 52.6 28.4 12.4
With Lowry Part Two 8 36.4 104.7 106 13 1.24 9.2 48.2 52.3 29.1 12

With Kyle back in the line-up, Siakam lost the plot even further. His effective field goal percentage fell below 50 percent, and his true shooting percentage slotted in below guys like Pat Connaughton, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Frank Kaminsky.

In short, Siakam wasn’t providing the offense of a number one option, he was providing the offense of a so-so reserve.

The malaise also hit his defense. A year after Siakam was considered a dark horse contender for the NBA All-Defense Team, he’s seen his defensive rating fall to the lowest of all the Raptors starters. In those last eight games, Siakam, seemingly impossibly for a player of his talents, earned a net negative rating.

So, wait. Isn’t this an “everything is awesome” column?

It is, and here’s my take. Those struggles are actually a good thing, what’s more they’re a necessary thing. To expect Siakam, and his teammates, would seamlessly adjust to him becoming a number one option on a team with championship aspirations wasn’t realistic.

Siakam’s struggles without Kyle was instructive for all parties. Furthermore, Siakam becoming a mediocre player when Kyle returned is going to be one of the best things that ever happened to the 2019-20 Raptors.

The man they call Spicy P has proven himself to be an incredibly hard worker and ferociously intelligent basketball player. The Raptors’ organization, and Nick Nurse in particular, are stupendously well-prepared. There is no way the team hasn’t been feeding Siakam a steady diet of film.

This is where the injury actually helps. Instead of having to play through the struggles and fix them on the fly, Siakam has been able to have a mini training-camp, spending time to process what he learned in a way he wouldn’t be able to if he had been preparing for a game every other night.

My prediction? Siakam is going to come back and put up numbers that will firmly put him among the top 10-12 players in basketball.

That Championship Reputation

This has long been the biggest bug-a-boo for the Toronto Raptors.

Now, some of the perceived gap between how Toronto fans view the city and team, and how they feel they are viewed is illusionary. We should now all be able to admit there was a very good reason those NBA insiders, and vets who’d won it all, didn’t think the Raptors could do the same. They simply didn’t have the personnel to be taken as anything more than the wildest of wild cards.

Still, it was infuriating to see the early season conversation around the East, once again, leave Toronto as an after-thought. Sure, there were a few outliers (Fivethirtyeight.com’s mathematical models have always liked the Raptors more than most), but it felt like the Raptors were being unfairly ignored — again.

But, with the team’s results in the face of losing every roster player (save Davis) for at least one game, the league is taking notice again. While the talk is still a little too: “hey, look the Raptors are somehow still good!” for my taste, there have been a few comments from talking heads like Max Kellerman and Steven A. Smith that show they see this team as a realistic dark horse to make the Eastern Conference Finals.

On one hand this doesn’t matter at all. But, in a more real way, it does. While players and agents make decisions independent of the media, being a market the media pays attention to has proven to be pretty important.

Since 2010, pretty much every truly big-name free agent who has switched teams has ended up in New York/Brooklyn (Durant, Irving), Miami (Bosh, Allen, LeBron), Golden State (Durant, Iguodala), Boston (Al Horford, Gordon Hayward), or Los Angeles (LeBron, Kawhi, Nash). Your exceptions: LaMarcus Aldridge was wooed by the San Antonio Spurs, Dwight Howard went to Houston, and LeBron James’s return to Cleveland.

You look at the exceptions and see a guy who went home, an All-Star who’s short of being the best player on a title team (and maybe even second best), and Dwight Howard. Breaking into that group of elite NBA destinations is nigh impossible (and if you want to argue Boston really hasn’t done it — and that Horford and Hayward are second banana types — I’ll nod along).

I’ll argue the Raptors success through all the challenges sends a more interesting and powerful message to players and their agents than if Toronto was fully-healthy and four games better.

What’s the biggest problem stars encounter on championship teams? The ability for the team to put enough championship caliber players around them given the financial limitations of their contract.

The Raptors have scared up a close to .700 basketball team using the equivalent of two rolls of (admittedly premium) duct tape, a left-handed hammer, and rusty nails. What’s more, they’ve shown they’re potentially stocked with young, cheap, and actually good players who could easily fit around Siakam — and, say, Giannis’ salary.

Who knows what two summers from now will bring, but by overcoming adversity, Toronto has strengthened it’s case that it deserves to be in the discussion on every big NBA name.

That, combined with the discovery of a bench, the re-discovery of Kyle Lowry, and the approaching Hurricane Siaka (alongside Tropical Storm Powell), means that not even a Carmelo Anthony mid-range heart-breaker should be able to wipe the smile off a Raps fan’s face.