For the first time since the Landry Fields era (term used loosely) the Toronto Raptors are 0-2 to start an NBA season. It feels pretty awful! The sky isn’t falling by any means, but we can look at last night’s 119-114 loss to the San Antonio Spurs and identify some areas of concern that the Raptors need to tighten up — and soon — before the short season gets away from them.
1. Slim Margin For Error
Let’s focus in on that thought for a second — the shortened season. There are only 72 games instead of 82 (and only three preseason games) which means the teams that gel and find themselves early will have a bigger leg up as the season goes on. There’s simply less time for teams to work through things and figure out who they are. Add to that the potential for players (and heck, whole teams) missing games for COVID-related protocols, and the margin for error shrinks further.
A slim margin for error also applies to the way the Raptors play on the court, at least by early indications. Last year’s team was middling-to-bad on offense, but the defense was so good it covered for a lot of mistakes. With Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and even Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gone, the Raptors are simply lesser on defense, which means they need to be better on offense. They simply can’t afford the kinds of scoring droughts that hit them in the second and fourth quarters last night.
2. This is What We’re Missing
Speaking of the guys that are gone, it’s very clear what the Raptors are missing at the centre position. Both Aron Baynes (6-for-11 FG, seven rebounds, 13 points) and Chris Boucher (9-for-13 FG, 3-for-4 3FG, 10 rebounds, seven (!) blocks, 22 points) had good games last night, at least on paper and at an initial pass of the eye test. But there are little things missing from their games that showcase what the Raptors are missing without Gasol and Ibaka:
- The midrange: Kyle Lowry, as he does, executed picture-perfect pick-and-rolls with Baynes and Boucher last night. But in pop-out scenarios, those guys simply don’t have the offensive versatility that Ibaka does, most notably when they get the ball at that 15-foot range. Both can shoot threes, both can finish at the rim, but they’re both lost in the midrange.
- The rebounding/boxing out: Baynes’ foot speed isn’t good enough for him to rotate/close out to shooters and get back in position to rebound. Chris’ is, but he’s not strong enough to hold position (and he likes to chase blocks that take him out of position). Ibaka and Gasol weren’t high-volume rebounders either, but there’s enough of a difference — and again, a slim margin for error.
- The “quarterbacking”: This is the big one. Gasol may have lost a step or two in terms of his physical ability, but he saw the game on D so well, and was so comfortable directing his teammates, that it more than made up for it. Boucher isn’t that type of player, and it doesn’t seem like Baynes is either. And at this point, no one else on the Raptors has stepped up to be that defensive playcaller either.
3. Giving up Threes is OK, But…
We all know by now that the Raptors’ defensive perference is to wall off interior lanes and rotate/close out hard. That means giving up three-pointers.
That’s Trey Lyles with a galaxy’s worth of space to line up and settle into a three-pointer (that he made). No one even moved towards him, let alone closed out aggressively! This came after an offensive rebound/tap out by Jakob Poeltl, but still: That’s not something you would have seen from the Raptors last season.
4. Finish at the Rim
Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam combined to take 20 shots in the paint last night. They only made seven of them:
Not great, Bob! This is a concerning continuation of unfortunate trends:
- Powell has a history of not finishing at the rim that appeared to be fixed last season. It looks now like he’s reverted.
- VanVleet also has a history of not finishing at the rim, and it doesn’t appear to have improved at all in the offseason.
- Siakam, on the other hand, has a history of successful forays to the rim… at least he did before last season’s hiatus.
It’s a small sample of course, but again — that margin for error creeps back in. Getting good shots, but missing them, is something the Raptors can’t afford.
5. “Our Guys”
I’ve joked, on here and on Twitter, about “our guys” — guys who played for the Raptors and who, despite leaving the organization at some point, remain beloved by Raptors fans (and in most cases their former teammates and the franchise too).
DeMar DeRozan is one of those guys, obviously — despite his flaws, despite the fact that most fans at the time (and certainly every fan now) agreed the deal for Kawhi Leonard was one that had to be made at the time it was made. Jakob Poeltl is another one, I think — a guy who came up in the organization, who wasn’t well-known when he was drafted, developed nicely and had some great moments before being traded. It’s always nice to see those guys, and even when they beat the Raptors it’s nearly impossible to cheer against them. Seeing DeMar drain three threes against us was maddening — but also heartwarming. I cannot help but want him to succeed.
I am not the only person, nor the first person, to comment on “our guys”. But as far as I know, no one has ever written the definitive list of “our guys.” It sounds like a Sean Woodley piece, but he hasn’t gotten around to it yet… maybe I’ll make that my 2021 project!
Ultimately the results — two losses — are not particularly worrisome, but the process behind them is. The Raptors have a lot to clean up, and with their next game in Philadelphia against the revamped and thus-far impressive 76ers, they’d better start doing so right quick.