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HQ Weekly Roundtable: The starting centre question, City Edition thoughts and more

We’re back to discuss the hottest topics of the week, including the best teams in the East!

Toronto Raptors v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s week three of our Raps HQ roundtable. The HQ staff is gathering around our group Slack and taking our shots at all the most interesting things in the world of the Toronto Raptors and the NBA in general (given the current leaguewide state of offense, we’re mostly putting up bricks).

Have a question you want us to chew on? Throw it down in the comments below and we’ll try to get at it!

So, without further ado...

1) Has anything about the Raptors’ start changed your pre-season opinion of the team?

Conor McCreery: How good they’ve been offensively: they sit 14th overall in offensive rating, but if you take out the opening night stinker against the Wiz, the Raps have been the 5th best offense in the NBA. If they’re closer to that then middle of the pack, this team is a legit top-6 threat in the East, and a threat to win a round in the playoffs.

Mitch Orsati: Two things have happened that have changed the perception about this team. The first is not just how great Scottie Barnes is, but how great he is NOW. I had originally thought this was going to be a situation where Masai looked like a genius further down the road for drafting Barnes over Jalen Suggs. We’re already here!

The second thing is Gary Trent Jr.’s defense. To be frank, his efforts were not cutting it last season and there wasn’t a whole ton of evidence to think he would improve to the point he’s at right now, which is... leading the league in steals and tied for the league lead in deflections, somehow!

Josh Kern: I’m with Mitch, Scottie Barnes is much more ready than I thought he’d be, that’s for sure. But I’m still not sold on the offense the way Conor is, so I’m not ready to revise my thinking just yet. I think the upcoming West coast trip will really tell us who this team is.

Joel Stephens: Collectively, no. I expected the team to mesh well with Nurse leading what I will assume to be the best practice drills in the league. These guys are crisp. Individually — the captaining work of Steady Freddy, the scoring ability and new triple threat option from Anunoby, and finally, as Josh described above, Barnes. Barnes is a legit star in this league. A 2021 version of Josh Smith... prime Josh Smith.

Joseph Strauss: Aside from Barnes looking way ahead of schedule, the Raptors feel like they’re playing as expected: Annoying menaces on defense who, uh, need to get creative from time to time to generate offense. But I expect Siakam’s return to make the offense run much smoother.

2) True or false: Khem Birch will start the majority of the rest of the Raptors games at centre.

Sully Akbari: Gonna cheat here and say TRUE... eventually. Birch has looked great in his bench role, but after what Achiuwa has (or hasn’t) given on the offensive end, the Raptors will need to move forward with starting Birch at the 5. Birch has shown a more polished game than Achiuwa and that should be the deciding factor to have Birch start for the remainder of the season. I don’t even see a situation where matchups/lineups should have Achiuwa starting over Birch because Achiuwa still has a lot to work on. However, we shouldn’t give up Achiuwa just yet. I believe he will be a fine bench big after a full offseason or two to work on his game.

Mitch: False. I want this to be true so very badly, but...

It will be interesting to see what happens when Pascal returns, though.

Conor: TRUE. I had felt Birch would be the starter to begin with, because his skill set meshes nicely with the better offensive players in the starting unit. Achiuwa is better served stretching his game when he isn’t taking shots away from clearly better options. Plus Nick Nurse is maniacally competitive and Birch’s steady play gives the Raps a better chance to win at this point.

Joel: TRUE. Khem Birch has been one of my favorite Raptors signings of the past three years (not including RFA). Totally underutilized in Orlando, Birch is now being used as that pivot centre, a utility player with tons of potential in Nurse’s offensive schemes, especially in the new defensive world teams exist in. Having a centre that can lob an outlet pass 40 feet is a huge asset. I think Birch starts at least 50 games this year, if not the rest of them, barring injury.

Joseph: I’m still gonna go ahead and say TRUE if for no other reason than that Nick Nurse has given us false info before. I think the more telling stat is who closes games. And who knows — when Siakam returns, it might be neither of them.

3) The Raptors released their new City Edition this week. What’s your thirty words or less review?

Joseph: It could be worse!

Sully: Toronto has always had their City Edition jerseys OVO-themed, so I’m not really surprised they went with the same theme again. Personally, I would’ve liked the Huskies this year.

Mitch: I’m so tired. Do we have enough jerseys yet, or no? Also, enough with the black and gold.

Conor: I love the Raptor being back! But like Sully said, why not 75th anniversary Huskie colours?

Josh: It’s just a mashup of last year’s, plus the classic dino. It’s fine, but unoriginal. Agreed that not doing Huskies for the 75th was a big miss.

Joel: Ugh. Uninspired, unimaginative and pointless. My partners have already said enough. You want history — put the pups back up.

4) To start the season, NBA offenses are struggling (field-goal percentage in the NBA is at a close to 20-year low, three-point shooting at a 25-year low). Blip or trend? And how does this impact the Raptors?

Mitch: Funny what happens when foul-hunting shots from anywhere on the floor aren’t called as fouls and appear in the box score as missed shots instead, right? Ultimately, players will figure out other ways to get to the line and the number will climb closer to the last couple of years, so it’s probably some version of a blip, but it’s certainly not nothing.

As for the Raptors, this is great for them! They’re an aggressive defensive team that has a propensity for fouling and now they have one less way of catching calls. Also, they don’t really have a foul-hunting player on the roster, so... double bonus!

Conor: After I asked this question Seth Partnow from The Athletic did a deep dive on this. Basically bad shooting early in seasons is usual, and these rates are actually pretty normal for this point — except for the fouls. I think we’ll see that total down all season, and maybe not having to send multiple guys to the ball handler as much will keep overall shooting down a bit?

As for the Raps, as Mitch said, given they lack on-ball threats and are a defensively focused team this can’t be anything but helpful.

Joel: Conor mentioned the changes in defensive shooting fouls that are called by officials. They are giving defensive players a TON of leeway regarding making an authentic attempt on the ball while it’s in play. Players like Luka Doncic, James Harden and Trae Young used to feast. Bradley Beal used to kill us at least twice a game with a 4-point play.

I don’t think it affects Toronto’s style — mainly cutting, motion offense and ball movement to find the open shooter. If we had a ball dominant guard whose offense was carried by driving into the lane for a couple FTA, yes.

5) In the East the two consensus top teams, the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, are both off to slow starts. Which team has more to worry about?

Josh: Definitely the Nets. The Bucks have their ’chip, they literally have nothing to worry about. The Nets are still waiting to get something out of their roster of All-Stars.

Mitch: Oh, definitely the Nets. Harden has been hamstrung by the rule changes, though, as I said above, he’ll figure out how to dance around the rules in no time. Kyrie may never play another game for them, or anyone again, which means they’re riding out KD until he propels them to the promised land, or his wheels fall off. A dicey proposition.

Joel: Undoubtedly the Nets, as a whole. They spend almost half a billion dollars on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, investing their entire future (once again!) into James Harden — who, as Mitch noted, is mortal! — and now have to face chemistry issues and off-court dramatics. The Bucks are now seasoned, and that’s got to worry a lot of East teams. They know the motions of a championship season from start to finish.

Conor: I think the answer is neither. Sure, the Bucks are dealing with some injuries, but Giannis’ game has looked better than ever - and they have that D to rely upon.

Meanwhile, Harden is already showing signs of life — it was always going to take a bit of time for him to play himself into shape (which is dumb, but...) Any team with Durant is going to sing, regardless. Assuming injuries don’t take them out then by Game 82 the Nets will again be the odds-on title faves (at least behind the Heat).