The restarted Raptors are still seeking to defend their 2019 NBA title. For our latest series, Things for the Rings, we’ll break down what each essential person on the team can do to answer the major question on every fan’s mind: What does each Raptor need to do to make a Toronto repeat reality?
Thing for the Ring: Show that this Norm is for real
Norman Powell has famously earned the “Playoff Powell” sobriquet for his occasional explosions in the post-season. As fun a name as it is — and those moments have been extremely fun — the fact those explosions are exceptional has been Norm’s biggest issue as a pro with the Raptors.
Powell has been famously up and down through his NBA career. At times he’s played well enough to credibly earn a starter spot on one of the better teams in the league, at others he’s been not worthy of being in the rotation.
This season though, something seems to have clicked. Powell has been playing the best, and most consistent basketball of his career. Not only is he shooting the three at a near-elite level (39.8 percent), he’s, as I wrote earlier in the season, been one of the best guards in basketball at finishing at the rim. It’s turned him into one of the most efficient bucket-getters in the league.
(A quick note: I limited the above chart to players at 6’9” or below — functionally wings or guards, though you can argue about Collins and Clarke. To weed out small sample sizes I made sure minutes were over 1,000 and Usage rate was at least 15 percent.)
This study produces a collection of the most accurate three-point specialists in the league (Duncan Robinson, Seth Curry, George Hill, J.J. Reddick, Doug McDermott, and Ben McLemore all take more than half their shots from downtown), two elite roll guys (Brandon Clarke and John Collins), plus All-Star Khris Middleton and Powell.
All right, so Powell isn’t Khris Middleton — his play-making, rebounding, defense and size all tell you that — but the fact Powell is as efficient as Middleton on a not completely dissimilar diet of shots (Middleton definitely does more in the mid-range), shows how far he’s come this season.
The eye-test suggests the big difference is in Powell’s better understanding how to attack defenses and leverage his athleticism. Once a player who would put his head down and drive into trouble, Powell is now figuring out what to do at the rim before he gets there. While he’s still not a plus play-maker, Powell’s also managed to cut down his turnovers on a per-possession basis — another example of his more mature offensive game.
The Raptors are going to need that skill-set to keep defenses from being able to lock in on the Raptors’ best actions, such as the inverted Siakam/Lowry or VanVleet pick-and-roll. If this Powell is real, Playoff Powell will be dead, and the Raptors will be far better for it.
Can He Do It?
Because of Powell’s history of inconsistency, you’d be forgiven for doubting. The biggest reason to believe it’s real? In a season filled with injuries, Powell has incredibly hit the ground running each time he returned.
After scoring in double figures in 16 of 20 games between November 8th and December 18th, when he first got injured, Powell scored 20+ in his first five games back, and put up double figures in nine of 11 contests before getting hurt again. Coming back from that, Powell ripped off five straight with at least 22 points, before playing just two minutes in the final game against Utah.
Chances of It Happening: 8 out of 10
The defenses will be better in the playoffs, and teams will game-plan for him more, but Powell has been so good for so long this season it’s time to accept he may now be one of the best microwave scorers in the league.
If that’s true, then Powell will play a huge role for the Raptors as they work towards shocking the NBA once again.