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The time is now for the Raptors to pick a direction for the season

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The Raptors are still in the middle of the pack and have to make a decision as to which way they want this season to go. In this, there are two paths: do more to win or do more to develop.

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Toronto Raptors Announce the Re-Signing of Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors are currently 10-13, sitting a half game back from 7th place in the East, with teams like the Knicks, Hawks and Hornets all ahead of them. It’s been a strange season for the league, but who would’ve predicted a sentence like that before the season started?

Sure, we knew that this Raptors squad wasn’t championship-bound. To have thought otherwise would’ve been pure fantasy. For the Raptors to have even sniffed a return to the NBA Finals, every single thing would’ve had to break right for them and incredibly wrong for every other East contender. And by breaking right, I mean:

  • Pascal Siakam improving on his 2019-20 All-Star and All-NBA season
  • Kyle Lowry continuing to put up his 2019-20 numbers and fight off Father Time
  • Fred VanVleet significantly improving his playmaking skills and finishing around the rim
  • OG Anunoby taking a Siakam-sized leap forward on offense
  • Norman Powell playing with consistency, building on his 2019-20 breakout year
  • Aron Baynes being an average outside shooter with the ability to get pick-and-roll buckets and defend the paint
  • Consistent production from Toronto’s bench

The bench has stepped it up as of late, but the Raptors have arguably gone 0-7 here so far.

Still, with a team featuring Lowry, Siakam, VanVleet and OG, you’d think the Raptors wouldn’t stumble out of the gates like they have. Fred VanVleet’s 54-point game and the recent victory over the Nets aside, the season has been disappointing, especially by modern day Raptors’ standards.

It’s also been a wild rollercoaster ride. At times, Toronto has looked like world-beaters with the ball humming and everything and everyone clicking at the same time (see again that Nets game). But other times, the Raptors have given off serious lottery team vibes with their seemingly never-ending offensive droughts and open rim policy on defense (see this year’s earlier Celtics game).

Of course, losing two more key members of the 2019 championship squad didn’t help matters. The team was able to paper over the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. But losing both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka this past offseason? Well, that may have been a bridge too far.

The Raptors (and their fans, for that matter) were spoiled these last 1.5 seasons, rostering two elite, floor-spacing, starting-caliber bigs when several other teams didn’t even feature one. This year’s team is clearly missing Ibaka’s steady pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll presence, along with his above average rebounding and shot blocking.

Gasol, while not the scoring threat that Ibaka was, may actually be the bigger loss. He had a huge hand in orchestrating both the offense and defense. He regularly snuffed out the other team’s dominant big man (see Joel Embiid’s zero-point game). And he was always the last line of defense against the NBA’s elite rim-runners (see the 2019 East Finals). Now with Baynes manning the pivot for large stretches, Toronto’s defense of the rim hasn’t been the same.

Another factor for their slow start: the East has gotten better. Teams like the Cavaliers and Hornets are performing much better than expected. The Hawks have vastly improved from last season. And the once scrappy Nets received a mega shot in the arm with an influx of top scoring talent in Kevin Durant and James Harden.

It goes without saying too that perhaps playing in Tampa is affecting the team more than we know. We do know for certain that they’re at disadvantage compared to the other 29 teams who get to play in their home markets.

So can the Raptors still right the ship and climb the standings? Sure, why not? They have enough talent and the right coach to do so. Plus, they’ve started to show some signs of returning to their defensive-minded and star-stopping roots, shutting down one-man armies like Luka Dončić, Kyrie Irving, and Harden.

However, with this being a bridge year between the team’s previous window of contention and whatever comes next (which we now know is not Giannis), it’s important to define the goal of the season. What do the Raptors hope to accomplish in 2020-21?

Masai Ujiri, the recently re-signed Bobby Webster, and Nick Nurse, along with the rest of the Raptors’ brain trust, must quickly decide what they want this season to be. Because right now, Toronto is at a crossroads.

From where I stand (or sit at my laptop), there are two clear paths: Win now and try to go as far into the playoffs as possible in what could be Lowry’s final season as a Raptor. Or start embracing the transition to the future by focusing more on the development of the core (i.e. Siakam, VanVleet, and OG) and the younger players.

And no, there is no “blow it up” third option. Sorry to disappoint.

Raptor fans who thoroughly enjoy shouting “Tank!” or “Fade for Cade” from the Twitter-tops after every loss just tells me who the We The North era fans are. Because if you bore witness to those gloomy, heart-wrenching post-Vince Carter seasons, “blow it up” would be scrubbed from your vocabulary. It also tells me that you haven’t been paying attention. Tanking has not been Ujiri’s M.O — at least not since he tried trading Lowry in 2013 (thanks again, Dolan) — it relies too much on luck.

And anyway, if Toronto’s front office was planning to tank, they’re going about it the wrong way. They wouldn’t have signed talented players like VanVleet and OG to multi-year deals. And they for sure wouldn’t have handed Pascal Siakam a max contract. It nothing else, this team is too good to tank, so let’s look at the two paths facing Toronto.

Path #1: The Season is About Winning

If the focus of the season is to go for it and make a deep postseason run, then the Raptors must find ways to maximize the talent they have on the roster — or trade for some.

Capitalize on VanVleet’s shooting touch

There are a few roles that Nurse can shift to put players in the best positions to succeed, such as retaining Normal Powell as a starter even when OG returns. This would mean benching Baynes and going small, which, based on the lack of production they’re getting from the Aussie, isn’t such a bad idea.

Another role shift would be to use VanVleet more as a shooter than a playmaker. He’s shown time and time again that he’s much better off of the ball than he is on it.

Don’t get me wrong. VanVleet’s playmaking has gotten much better since his days of dribbling the air out of the ball until the shot clock clicked zero. He’s now finding teammates and initiating the offense earlier in the shot clock. He’s also dribbling into the paint, keeping his dribble alive and finding cutters or open shooters instead of trying to force a layup among the trees. It’s very clear that he’s been working hard to improve this part of his game.

However, his pick-and-roll skills still needs work. There are also times when the ball still dies in his hands, especially when the defense ratchets up late in games. And when this happens, it leads to disastrous results.

In other words, VanVleet is still not the team’s best creator. That designation, of course, goes to six-time NBA All-Star and one of the better playmaking guards in the league, Kyle Lowry. His court vision and basketball brain may be second to none.

Arguably, VanVleet isn’t even the Raptors’ second-best initiator. That title, in my opinion, goes to Siakam who has significantly improved his point-forward game, racking up a career high 4.6 assists per game this season. In fact, he dished out eight dimes in the second Magic game. His ability to consistently draw double teams, find open teammates and see over the defense gives him a leg up on VanVleet. With the game in the balance, I’d much rather Siakam bring up the ball than the Rockford, Illinois guard.

Yet despite all of this, the ball is constantly in VanVleet’s hands when it matters the most. Crunch time after crunch time, Nurse hands primary point guard duties to VanVleet while Lowry, the superior playmaker, operates off of the ball.

If Nurse really wants to maximize the talents of both Lowry and VanVleet, then he’d swap their roles.

There’s a tremendous amount of evidence to indicate that VanVleet is one of the team’s best catch-and-shoot players. VanVleet is at his best when he’s being a Splash Cousin — moving without the ball, coming off of screens, and getting himself open for shots, just like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

Look no further than his recent career and franchise high 54-point dominance versus the Orlando Magic on February 2. If you watch his highlight pack from this game, you’ll see that 10 of his 11 threes were of the catch-and-shoot variety, splashing shot after shot off of screens and passes from Lowry, Siakam and Powell. And as we’ve already witnessed, when VanVleet gets hot like this, there’s no stopping him (see the 2019 NBA Finals).

Sure, VanVleet isn’t going to go supernova every game. But the fact remains that he’s likely the team’s best spot-up shooter. Meanwhile, think of all the close games the Raptors may have won had their offense not dried up in the dying minutes. A game that comes to mind is the one-point loss to the Blazers on January 11. Late in the game, VanVleet was once again tasked with bringing up the ball. And once again, he struggled to make a play.

It shouldn’t have been that difficult to pick apart the Blazers who aren’t exactly known for their defense. And perhaps with the ball in Lowry’s hands, or even Siakam’s, the outcome would’ve been different.

Trade for another big man

Another way to improve Toronto’s playoff picture would be to make a trade to shore up the holes — namely, the centre position.

Like many, I had high hopes for Baynes when the Raptors inked him this offseason. And although he’s stepped up his big-on-big defense of late, relying on a slow-footed centre who butterfingers almost every pass, misses wide-open tip-ins and layups with regularity, and shoots 3s on his tippy-toes is quite precarious. Also, Baynes may be able to handle some centres, but there might as well be a welcome mat under the rim for everyone else.

As for Chris Boucher, well, he’s not exactly a centre. Nor has he ever been. His physique won’t let him be so. And until the last couple of games, he had cooled off quite a bit after already being anointed both the Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player by Raptors fans. That being said, he’s the best centre Toronto has right now.

The Raptors have all their draft picks and some young-ish talent. But unless Ujiri can Jedi mind trick another GM, they’ll have to give up something to get something. And you don’t want to sacrifice future assets for an incremental upgrade or rental like an Andre Drummond.

They could also look to fill their current open roster spot by dipping into the free agent market. Perhaps someone like a Dewayne Dedmon could catch the team’s eye — though admittedly, it’s pretty slim pickings.

Path #2: This Season is About Development

If management decides the team isn’t good enough to make a deep postseason run, it might make more sense to treat this season as a developmental year. That doesn’t mean tanking for draft positioning, or deliberately trying to lose games. But it does mean giving up some wins for the good of the future.

Sacrificing some wins is something that Nurse already does. He often experiments with different plays, defenses, and rotations to see what works, not for short terms gain (wins), but to build towards success down the road. However, over the past two years, down the road has meant the playoffs, not necessarily the seasons ahead.

So what can the team do to focus more on development?

Keep Fred VanVleet on the ball

Fred VanVleet just scored 54 points in a game. What more can we expect from the guy?

Scoring is one thing; we know VanVleet can shoot. But the idea here is that VanVleet hasn’t reached his playmaking ceiling yet, and he can continue to improve his lead ball handling/playmaking skill set. So Nurse should keep giving him the ball, especially late in games. Let him keep getting reps as the on-ball creator when the defense intensifies and the pressure is at its highest.

In other words, keep grooming him to be the point guard of the future, especially if this happens to be Lowry’s final year in a Raptors jersey. He might make some mistakes in crunch-time; it might cost them some games. But the experience VanVleet will get and the information the team can collect will be invaluable.

Maybe VanVleet will never be that guy. Perhaps he has hit his ceiling. This is the year to find out.

Treat Pascal Siakam as the team’s #1 option

If we’re focusing on development here, the Raptors should keep giving Siakam the ball in end of game and final shot scenarios. Can Siakam continually be that go-to guy down the stretch of games? Let’s find out.

Fans predictably got on Siakam earlier this season when he missed game-winning shots in back-to-back games. A) Both were decent looks in short clock scenarios. They just happened to rim out. B) He’s made big shots like this before, including one to basically seal the championship. And C) Do you know who else misses game-winners? Every player in NBA history, including top three player in the world, Kevin Durant. It happens. No one can make them all. But the more in-game reps Siakam can get this season, the better.

Free Malachi Flynn

Again, the Raptors aren’t hoisting the Larry O’Brien this season. So let’s see what first-round draft pick Malachi Flynn can do.

While he’s a rookie, he’s not your typical rookie. Like many Ujiri and Webster picks, he’s 22 and coming off a 4-year college career (with one red shirt season). He’s more developed than most one or two-year draftees.

However, after some successful pre-season outings, Flynn failed to impress in his spot regular season minutes, and was recently assigned to the Raptors 905. Although it’s an understandable move on the surface, it may not be the right one.

It seems clear that Flynn’s confidence is shot. It’s tough — especially as a point guard — to be constantly looking over your shoulder at the bench, worried that the next play or coverage you mess up could send you into the doghouse.

In a story Blake Murphy wrote for The Athletic last year about rookie Terence Davis, assistant coach Adrian Griffin was quoted as saying, “You’ve got to allow them to play through some mistakes. You can’t play tight, you can’t play in fear, and I think that’s one thing that Coach Nurse does with all our players is giving them the confidence to go out on the floor, not worrying about looking over their shoulder or looking over at the bench.”

Except this is the exact opposite of what Nurse is doing. The rare times Flynn has had a chance to play meaningful minutes, he’s been given a quick hook. No wonder he’s looked shook. It’s difficult to play freely if you’re constantly worried about making mistakes. So why not let Flynn play without the fear of being pulled?

Nurse gave a lot of minutes to Davis last season. And last I checked, he was a rookie. Some of it was out of necessity due to injuries. But Davis continued to get some playing time even when the full roster returned; you might recall after one particularly bad game, Nurse actually went ahead and started Davis the very next night.

This year, though Davis provides an unusual Nick Nurse test case. Usually, in order to buy minutes in Nurse’s rotation, you have to play defense at a high level. Yet, Davis has been a consistently poor defender this year, while Flynn is tenacious and seems to make few mistakes.

I’m normally a proponent of rookies having to earn their playing time. DeMar DeRozan, for instance, might’ve developed into a better defender had the Raptors not handed him a starting spot right away. Starting job security allowed him to be lax on D without any consequences. But in this case, why not let Flynn fly?

Who knows, he might even help the team win given the chance. Despite the VanVleet comparisons (which, by the way, are 100% based on appearance), Flynn’s game actually resembles that of Lowry’s much more. His court vision and playmaking abilities have Lowry written all over them.

Again, more Flynn minutes right now might cost the Raptors a win or two. But it’ll prove to be valuable in the years to come.

Unleash the Bench

Development means reps. Start giving more rope to players like Stanley Johnson, Yuta Watanabe, Paul Watson Jr., DeAndre’ Bembry, Matt Thomas and Davis (for now), and let them get more real game experience without the fear of being pulled after a mistake or two.

Nurse has already started going deeper into his bench, working Johnson, Watanabe and Bembry into the rotation, along with some spot minutes for Watson Jr. and Thomas. But how much of this was because both OG Anunoby and Norman Powell (who’s since returned) were out of commission?

Also, like Flynn, it appears that Thomas is suffering from looking-over-your-shoulder-itis. He doesn’t seem as loose or confident as he was in the bubble or even earlier this season. He more than anyone might benefit from a longer leash.

The Kyle Lowry Situation

If the team chooses to lean more heavily towards the development route, you have to consider how Lowry will feel about it. He’s not one to stand in the way of player development. Quite the opposite, actually. Just look at his mentorship of VanVleet.

At the same time, he’s not going to want to see his minutes scaled back to make room for the youngins. Especially not with his overwhelmingly strong desire to win and the fact that he’ll be a free agent after the season.

However, cutting back his playing time might benefit him and the team in the long run by preserving his legs for the playoffs. And for his next contract. Right now he’s averaging 36.2 minutes per game, which is a little on the high side for the soon to be 35-year-old.

But if Lowry’s not on board with the development direction and would rather play for a team with more immediate championship aspirations, then the front office will have to seriously consider trading the Raptors’ G.O.A.T.

The Time is Now

I’m not suggesting that the Raptors must choose to go one way or the other — 100 per cent winning or 100 per cent development. Over the last five years, the Raptors have been one of the better franchises at developing players while still winning. But so far this season, they seem to be split right down the middle, which runs the risk of not being able to accomplish either goal.

That’s why, at 10-13, 23 games into a (hopefully) 72-game season, the time is now to decide which way to lean.