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In Search Of: A centre for the Toronto Raptors

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Despite the talent on the roster, the Raptors appear to be inadvertantly tanking the season. In the process, the team may be looking for a centre or some other frontcourt option.

Toronto Raptors v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

With the Raptors’ playoff hopes slipping away, someone has to say it: Toronto’s front office moves in the off-season on have been something of a mess. Yes, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster locked up Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, but they failed to construct a coherent roster, let alone one that fit the style of play the team tries to play.

There are, of course, other contributing factors — like an unprecedented global pandemic — on which to blame the Raptors’ misfortunes. However, there’s no doubt that the big men that were brought in to replace the departed Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have flopped. Fast forward to the trade deadline, and the front office declined to address the gaping hole in the middle of the Raptors’ roster. We are now into buyout season, yet even marginal players like Gorgui Dieng are instead choosing to play in San Antonio than get a potential starting spot and/or guaranteed minutes with the Raptors.

There’s a section of the Raptors fanbase that’s fine with the roster as is — specifically at the centre spot. In this scenario, they even prefer Aron Baynes to stick around to give the team a chance to lose every game. After all, every loss moves the Raptors closer to the “Fade for Cade,” “Lowly for Mobley,” and “All-In for Jalen” lottery range. I can’t blame them, as the chances of landing a potential generational or high-ceiling player doesn’t come every year. Keep in mind, the last time the Raptors picked in the top five in the lottery was over a decade ago. And that pick became Jonas Valanciunas.

However, there’s still a case to made for the Raptors to acquire another big man this season, and it doesn’t have to be all about just trying to get into the play-in games of this year’s post-season.

The Original Raptors Formula

The Raptors front office has had at least two seasons of data on the types of big men who work well on Nurse’s system. The system favours mobile bigs with at least a decent defensive IQ. In this regard, Gasol is something of an aberration — his foot speed isn’t great, but his IQ, vision, and hands make up for it. In NBA Topshot speak, Gasol is in a Legendary Tier despite being past his prime.

In his prime in Toronto, meanwhile, Valanciunas was a walking double-double, offering pick-and-roll and post-up utility, and was arguably a top-5 centre in the East during his last season with the Raptors. At the very least — as confirmed by Masai himself — he’s better than Andre Drummond. Despite that, it took his departure (and subsequent trade for Gasol) to unlock the Raptors’ true defensive identity.

Let’s not forget though, that same trade deadline saw the Raptors dump Greg Monroe to the Brooklyn Nets with our 2021 second-round pick. That’s another slow-footed big with perhaps questional defensive utility — e.g. a big man who didn’t fit the system. So why would Masai and Bobby get two of the same type in Aron Baynes and Alex Len?

Making Financial Sense of It

Now, the Raptors will likely have money to spend this off-season, so it doesn’t necessarily make sense to overpay a non-top tier centre now. But if the front office can find and develop a decent big this season on a minimum contract — e.g. on the buyout market or as a call-up from the G League — it would keep the Raptors’ cap sheet clean. Yes, this is Basketball Business 101, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Tying up big money on a centre only makes sense if the price is reasonable and the projected long-term return is good. The Raptors have some other roster issues, particularly on the bench, and not just the centre position.

An Aside: What About Chris Boucher?

We finally have an idea of what Boucher can bring to the table for the Raptors. In 23 minutes per game this year, Boucher has posted averages of 13.4 points and 6.3 rebounds, while shooting 41 percent from three and becoming the only player in the league with over 50 blocks and 50 made threes. It’s been quite a journey for Boucher.

All that said: we should understand that Boucher is a power forward, not a centre. And while he may be a passable option in the middle with Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby on the floor, it doesn’t always work. (See: all three games against the Detroit Pistons, for example.) Unless Boucher gains 15-20 more pounds this summer — which seems unhealthy at this point — he ain’t it.

Ah Yes, the Learning Curve Factor

No doubt, there’s a learning curve factor inherent to the Raptors’ defensive system. Len got cut largely because he couldn’t figure it out, Baynes has been in and out of the lineup due to his own limitations within it. Hell, even a mobile big man like Boucher is only getting minutes at centre sometimes because of a lack of other options. This is also his third year with the Raptors after spending time developing in the G League. It’s taken time for Boucher to get to this point.

Now, suppose the Raptors strike out with their preferred big men options in the next free agency period. Hey, it happens. In that case, they might end up with subpar players who might not have the ability to grasp the team’s defensive system within the season. This could also very reasonably happen — especially if we’re talking about a younger player.

That means it’s decision time. Patience is something the Raptors cannot quite afford if they have any contending plans next season. As we have witnessed this season, not having a decent big man can be the difference between being a playoff team.. or being a lottery team. Ideally, the Raptors should be able to find a functional big man somewhere who can learn the Raptors’ system early. That theoretical player (I’m eye Khem Birch, personally) could hold the fort early next season while, hopefully, this hypothetical prospect at the middle gets up to speed. I admit, there are a lot of variables to consider here.

Wear-and-Tear Concerns

Right now, Anunoby and Siakam are burning through a lot of minutes in the frontcourt, playing at an undersized high intensity every game just for the Raptors to have a chance. They have significant responsibilities defensively, as Nurse likes to trot a very small backcourt (even Norman Powell and Gary Trent Jr. are undersized as small forwards). Then they are also expected to cover for the ineptitude of whichever centre is out there with them at times.

Siakam and Anunoby have to constantly fight for the boards and provide rim protection in the paint. Often the pair faces bigger and stronger opposing centres. If they are switched to the perimeter, there’s a high likelihood of the Raptors coughing up the offensive rebound, which only puts more pressure on them defensively. It suddenly becomes understandable why Siakam and Anunoby look exhausted.

Unfortunately, the Raptors have to lean on Siakam and Anunoby a lot just to have a chance to win. At this point, whether the Raptors have a chance at the playoffs or not, it makes sense for them to try and secure some sort of short term frontcourt help if only to preserve their two prized frontcourt players. When we factor in the COVID-19 situation, it only makes matters worse.

Lineup Flexibility

One of Nick Nurse’s Raptors key attributes is their ability to effectively go big, small, or get funky with their lineups. That lineup malleability depends on the opposing team’s offense, and sometimes their best player — but it’s been something Toronto could rely on in the recent past. Unfortunately, that’s flexibility has been absent this season.

In effect, Nurse is often trying to counterpunch while backpedaling in most games, which often leads to relying on his best five-man unit early and often — and only. If that best lineup struggles, the Raptors don’t have much of a Plan B. This has been an issue all year as more teams have gotten used to seeing the Raptors roll-out their small-ball starting lineup. Does having one more 6’11” guy on the roster change all that? Maybe not, but it may allow Nurse’s creativity to unlock a few more variations to his lineups.

Risk of Winning Too Much?

I know what you’re thinking: winning too much is the problem? Look, the Raptors could have won several games this season that they ended up losing had they had a net-neutral centre playing instead of Baynes and/or Len. Obviously, a team plays with the players they have, but those are the facts. With 25 games left in the season and with the Raptors at 11 games under .500, the odds of them making the playoffs are shrinking. Or, to think of it another way: a fight to squeeze into the play-in game may not be worth it. What was once a team too talented to fail, now may have a few good reasons (and methods) to fall apart.

Reason 1: Kyle Lowry’s injury and contract situation. To his best (and Toronto’s) interest, the Raptors should not run Lowry into the ground. If they want to re-sign him, they have to keep him as healthy and happy as possible. The word right now is that Lowry is nursing a bit of a foot injury — so maybe he’ll miss a game or more down the stretch.

Reason 2: Assuming the Raptors do start looking around for buyout or 10-day contract options, it’ll take time to get any new player acclimated, which may cause problems. Remember the learning curve!

Reason 3: Much like Lowry, Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and even Anunoby (despite some of his injury-related absences) have all logged heavy minutes this season. No one should look down on the idea of giving them a break now and then.

Reason 4: According to Tankathon, the Raptors have the seventh hardest remaining schedule — this for a team already playing all its home games on the road. After the games against the Detroit Pistons, you can’t even count the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder games as automatic wins. Toronto will have to play hard for every W it gets from here on out.

Reason 5: Toronto lost Norman Powell, who was the best player right now in the deal for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood. In short, that trade was not a win-now move by the Raptors.

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I realize there’s a lot of information to unpack here, and no easy answer. The Raptors are in a tough spot — because of the pandemic, bad luck, and their own roster moves. While the future is unwritten, it’s clear something has to be done to address a few different issues.

Or failing that, I’ve created a Job Posting for the Toronto Raptors to use on LinkedIn.