We’ve approached the Sliding Doors portion of the Raptors season: the trade deadline.
Two years ago, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster swung for the fences and landed Marc Gasol. Had the proverbial doors been closed on that deal, it’s hard to tell if Jonas Valanciunas at Center would have still ended with a Raptors championship (I personally don’t think so).
Last year, with Gasol and Serge Ibaka on expiring contracts and the Raptors housing the 3rd-best record in the NBA (and riding a 12-game win streak at the time), the front office ultimately decided to stand pat. Was there a Sliding Doors scenario where Toronto lands a difference-maker that would’ve propelled them to a repeat title? (I personally don’t think so).
One pandemic-induced nightmare of a year later, the Raptors have yet two more expiring contracts in Kyle Lowry and Norm Powell, but no one-trade-fix-all remedy on the market. What will Ujiri — who is also on an expiring contract — do this week to help his under-performing roster? Is there a deal that helps Toronto in the short-term (Rebounding? A serviceable Center?) while also perserving the cap flexibility the front office has built towards? (I personally... think so).
When we look back on the events that will (or won’t) transpire before Thursday’s trade deadline, the hope for all Raptors fans is that the doors slid in Toronto’s favour. For now, keep your Woj and Shams notifications on, we’ve got 3 more sleepless nights left!
Now, onto this week’s picks.
March 22 @ Houston Rockets
As I write this, the Rockets are about to tip-off against the Thunder that will be playing without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Al Horford, Darius Bazley, George Hill, and Theo Maledon. If Houston doesn’t find a way to halt their 19-game losing streak, especially with Christian Wood back in the lineup, they may not win again this season! (Update: they did not win. The pressure is on Toronto to not be “that” team!)
PJ Tucker finally got his wish and was shipped out of Houston, along with Rodions Kurucs, to the Milwaukee Bucks for DJ Augustin and DJ Wilson.
Houston Rockets removing PJ Tucker sneaker collection from the locker room pic.twitter.com/RWNPrXSGT0— Rich (@UptownDCRich) March 17, 2021
As a Michigan Wolverine fan, it’s been tough to see Wilson languishing on the Bucks bench. With Houston, he’ll serve as Wood’s backup and has a clearer path to playing time. As a Raptors fan, I’m chuckling at the thought of Tucker being any kind of saviour for Milwaukee (more on this in the Fun Fact section).
Both teams enter this matchup on the second half of a back-to-back. While the teams have combined to lose their last seven such games, they head into this game at opposite ends of the health spectrum. The Raptors have a fully healthy roster, save for a few minutes restrictions for those returning from health & safety protocols. The Rockets will be without [large inhale] Eric Gordon, DJ Augustin, Kevin Porter Jr., Dante Exum, Chris Clemons, KJ Martin, and David Nwaba.
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
I realize this space should be dedicated to the Rockets, but it’s a lost season for them and, frankly, all numbers are very negative. A large contributor to those negative stats was PJ Tucker, whose role in Milwaukee will be a small-ball Center or backup to Brook Lopez.
Tucker is shooting 56.2 percent at the rim, which ranks in the 13th percentile among bigs — just one spot ahead of Aron Baynes. When he was with the Raptors four seasons ago, Tucker pulled in defensive rebounds of field goal attempts in the 88th percentile among forwards. This season, he’s plummeted to the 2nd percentile among bigs. He could turn things around in Milwaukee, but as he nears his 36th birthday, this may be another failed use of assets by Jon Horst.
With the full squad back and inching closer to their pre-COVID form, the Raptors will look to punish a Rockets squad that turns the ball over a lot (#20 in turnovers), doesn’t shoot well from three (#30 in 3-pt FG%), and, for a welcom change, is the undermanned team. Toronto takes out the Rockets, 125-110.
March 24 vs Denver Nuggets
How do the Raptors stop Nikola Jokic and his MVP-calibre season?
Name your advanced metric — the Joker is probably leading the league in the stat: PER, Win Shares, BPM, VORP. According to dunksandthrees.com, Jokic has an Estimated Wins value (11.2) that’s 25% greater than the next highest, 2-time reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo (8.7).
The Nuggets have won 10 of their last 14 games, boosting their record to 25-16, good for 5th in the West, and putting to rest (fairly or unfairly) the only blemish on Jokic’s MVP resume.
The rest of the squad has rounded into form too. Jamal Murray continues the growth he displayed in the Bubble, averaging career-highs across the board and doing it very efficiently (21.1 points on 48/41/85 shooting). Earlier this season he became the first player in NBA history to score 50 points WITHOUT getting to the free-throw line. His True Shooting percentage of 100% was the second-highest in a 50-point game in NBA history (behind Fred VanVleet’s magical night against the... um... Magic).
Michael Porter Jr. has evolved into the reliable 3rd scorer Denver fans have been salivating over. Among forwards, he’s among the most efficient scorers (96th percentile in eFG%) at the rim (94th percentile) and from long mid-range (92nd percentile).
As for the question at the beginning of this section, I think we all know the answer.
all 7 of OG Anunoby's steals vs. Nuggets pic.twitter.com/4dEiP9P5qc— William Lou (@william_lou) March 2, 2020
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
If we’re living in the 3-and-D era, then let’s take it as literal as possible to find players that can knock it down from outside and knock out an opponent defensively.
Only two players in the NBA average 1.5 threes, 40% 3pt FG%, and 1.5 steals per game: OG Anunoby and Nikola Jokic.
There’s a possibility (I’ll leave it to you on how low or high) that this is the final game for this iteration of the Raptors. Every single Raptor outside of FVV, Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam is on the proverbial trade block until the deadline passes on March 25 at 3pm EST. Would you really be surprised if the Raptors get blown out, followed by 18 anxiety-inducing hours of trade rumours? Toronto and Denver have two of the best transition offenses and two of the worst transition defenses. This should be a fun, fast-paced game. OG may not put together seven steals again, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past him. I’m really torn on this prediction because Norm may have himself a night, feasting on Denver’s weak corner-three defense. Ultimately, Denver tire out from the second game of a back-to-back. The Raptors beat the Nuggets, 115-114.
Whatever happens at the trade deadline, it’s Kyle Lowry’s birthday, so make sure you check out the KLOE Madness Bracket!
The KLOE Madness Bracket continues as @SullySays__ and I move on to select Kyle Lowry’s best moments in the Sweet 16 stage!#RTZ #WeTheNorth #MarchMadness https://t.co/IxM1RczRG1 pic.twitter.com/V2aB36wXGG— Jay Rosales (@Rosalesaurus) March 20, 2021
March 26 vs Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns exited the Bubble undefeated and never looked back. They’re breathing down the necks of Utah for the best record overall and hold bragging rights over the top teams in the league: 5-0 against the Sixers, Bucks, Jazz, and Lakers.
Chris Paul has been everything the Suns could have asked for and more. This is his 5th different team and it will be the 5th time he’ll lead his new team to a better record than their previous season.
At this point, we’ve all grown accustomed to teams bombing away relentlessly from three. Well, beware of the Suns in the corner. They’re #4 in corner three frequency and #3 in corner three accuracy. Pick any game this season and it’s not hard to believe the Raptors rank 28th in frequency of corner threes surrendered. [gulp]
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
It’s funny what perception and record can do for a player. Consider the cases for the Suns and Raptors potential All-Stars.
Chris Paul: 16.0 points, 8.7 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 59.0 TS%, 22.4 Usage — named All-Star reserve
Kyle Lowry: 17.6 points, 7.5 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 59.2 TS%, 22.3 Usage — not even on the snubs list
Devin Booker: 25.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 Win Shares, 0.6 VORP — All-Star replacement
Fred VanVleet: 19.8 points, 6.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 3.3 Win Shares, 1.5 VORP — not selected to the All-Star team
This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison because they’re in different conferences, but the West is a harder roster to crack. Actually, I’m going to stop right here. This was supposed to be a fun fact, but now I’m bitter.
Judging by how the Raptors have played lately, I’ve probably already asked too much by predicting a win over Denver. Phoenix handled Toronto quite easily the first time they played this season (don’t be fooled by the final score). They’re at full strength and clicking on all cylinders. The Suns get by the Raptors, 120-108.
March 28 vs Portland Trailblazers
Between the difficult games against Denver and Phoenix, and whatever happens at the trade deadline, I worry about the Raptors’ fans’ psyche heading into a game where you’ll have to re-live Siakam’s buzzer-beating miss.
For the second time this week, the Raptors will be facing a top-5 MVP candidate. Damian Lillard has been nothing short of stellar this season. His career-high 30.6 points per game, trails only Bradley Beal. He’s actually increased his already-high 3-point attempt rate from 50% last season to 54% this season, yet raising his True Shooting percentage (63.2%).
His teammates have stepped up this season to help build quite the impressive 3-point shooting arsenal. CJ McCollum (4.7), Gary Trent Jr. (2.9), dunk champion, Anfernee Simons (2.0), Robert Covington (1.9), and Carmelo Anthony (1.8), all join Lillard (4.4) in raining multiple threes every game.
In addition, Enes Kanter has filled in admirably while Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic recover from injuries. Kanter ranks 6th in rebounds, 3rd in offensive rebound percentage, and 5th in defensive rebound percentage.
Covington has recovered from a slow start
to save my fantasy season and is currently the only player in the NBA in the top 20 in both steals (#5) and blocks (#17) per game.
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
There’s a strength-on-strength matchup to keep an eye on. Portland is #2 at protecting the basketball, while Toronto is #1 at forcing turnovers. When they played in Portland earlier this season, the Raptors forced Damian Lillard to commit a career-high 8 turnovers.
The last two times these teams played, the Blazers used a furious 4th quarter comeback to overcome a double-digit deficit and win in the dying seconds. Last season, it was Carmelo Anthony with the game-winning bucket with four seconds left. This season, it was C.J. McCollum with the game-winning bucket with nine seconds left. (I don’t recall what happened with the remainder of that game). Portland has a poor defense that Toronto needs to expose. They rank in the bottom-10 in all four defense factors: eFG%, Turnover %, Offensive Rebounding %, and Free Throw Rate. Desperate times call for desperate measures. This Toronto team is desparate for wins and Portland brings out the best in them. The Raptors beat the Blazers, 108-105.
Last Week: 1-2
Season Record for Predictions: 19-23
MORE SELF-PROMO!! If you think my predictions are bad here, imagine being called out on live tv!