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The Rap-Up: Witnessing the changing of the guard(s) in Toronto

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As the season comes to an end, it’s amazing to see how quickly Toronto has begun shaping the next era of solid backcourt play. Before jumping into this week’s picks, let’s see how their guards have fared and what it means for next season.

Toronto Raptors v Detroit Pistons Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

It’s the penultimate edition of The Rap-Up! With only seven games remaining, and the likelihood of additional games dwindling with each passing day, it’s time to take stock of what the Raptors have to look forward to.

Pick your obstacle — global pandemic, social injustice issues, the perpetual road trip — and it grows increasingly obvious these Raptors were doomed to fail. But while the losses became larger in number than the wins, something special was happening with the team. A changing of the guard has taken place before our eyes!

In 2017-18, Fred VanVleet showed early signs of his outstanding two-way ability. While leading the Bench Mob, VanVleet averaged 8.6 points, 3.2 assists, 0.9 steals, and 1.4 threes on 43/41/83 shooting (surprisingly, his career-best FG% in a single season). The following season, FVV would play an integral role in Toronto’s first championship.

In a hopeful sign of foreshadowing, Malachi Flynn has lived up to his draft/pre-season hype. While leading Toronto’s ragtag bunch off the pine, he’s averaged 12.7 points, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.9 threes on 43/41/88 shooting in the month of April. I’ve been reprimanded for trying to make “Red VanVleet” a thing, but at least Flynn is already proving to be VanVleet’s heir apparent.

With Flynn primed to take over the VanVleet role, let’s do the same comparison with Fred and Kyle.

In 2017-18, Lowry was the lead guard for the Eastern Conference’s #1 seed. He averaged 16.2 points, 6.9 assists, 1.1 steals, and 3.1 threes on 43/40/85 shooting.

This season, FVV has quietly surpassed Lowry as the lead guard. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 6.2 assists, 1.7 steals, and 3.3 threes on 39/37/89 shooting.

Sticking with guards, here are Norm Powell’s numbers in his breakout season last year. He averaged 16 points, 2.1 threes, and 1.2 steals on 49.5/40/84 shooting.

Powell’s trade for Gary Trent Jr. has borne fruit for the Raptors, thus far. In his 14 games as a Raptor, GTJ has averaged 15.9 points, 2.6 threes, 1.2 steals on 41/36/81 shooting.

So, why did I arbitrarily pick those seasons for those players when comparing to Toronto’s current core of guards? In each instance, they were a precursor to greater things in the following season.

Lowry would cement his status as the greatest Raptor of all time, while VanVleet would continue his growth — even nabbing an NBA Finals MVP vote — and help Toronto hoist the Larry OB. Powell carried his improvement into this season, where he put up Steph Curry MVP-like numbers for Toronto.

This season started with an undeniably solid backcourt of Lowry, VanVleet, and Powell. With possibly only one of them returning next season, it’s inspiring to think the Raptors may enter next season with a VanVleet-Flynn-Trent Jr. backcourt that kickstarts the next great era of Raptors basketball!

For now, there are still seven games to be played. As I’ve said in previous Rap-Ups and on the podcast, don’t focus on wins and losses. Instead, pay attention to the development of Toronto’s future core. They’ve performed well enough to keep this writer positive about next season. Let’s see how they’ll do in the second-last week of the season!

May 4 @ Los Angeles Clippers

May the Fourth be with you!

The fourth force has not been kind to the Raptors on this day. In 2007, a spirited effort by the underdog Raptors fell short against the Nets in a heart-breaking, one-point loss in Game 6, ending Toronto’s season. In 2014, an, at times, underwhelming effort by the favourite Raptors fell short... against the Nets in a heart-breaking, one-point loss — this time in Game 7, ending Toronto’s season.

Two members of that 2014 Raptors roster go head-to-head as Lowry and Patrick Patterson share the floor once again. That’s the only ex-Raptor I care to acknowledge.

Just kidding. Kawhi Leonard returned to the lineup on Saturday. The load management process that he and the Raptors made famous during the title run is now common practice in the NBA — as well as Leonard and Toronto. Kawhi has missed 18 games (approximately 27%) this season. During his tenure with the Raptors, he missed 22 games (approximately 27%) in 2018-19.

Serge Ibaka has been out since March 14. If that seems like a long time... it is. Think of it this way. Jalen Harris played four minutes in Saturday’s loss to the Jazz. Before then, he hadn’t seen the floor since March 14. I hope Serge is finding ways to occupy his time.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Kawhi really messed up a good situation in Toronto. It’s still fair to say that both Toronto and San Antonio “won” their sides of the Kawhi-DeMar trade. The Raptors got their championship and the Spurs successfully replaced their ball-dominant alpha.

It’s also fair to say both Toronto and Kawhi “lost” their sides of Leonard’s departure. We don’t need to re-hash Toronto’s misfortunes. The Clippers were embarrassingly kept their streak alive last season of never making the Conference Finals. This season, they couldn’t take advantage of an injury-ravaged Lakers team and grab the Conference by the horns. Instead, they sit a tier below the Suns and Jazz.

Paul George has averaged 23.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 3.2 threes on 47/42/87 shooting. Since returning from injury, OG Anunoby has averaged 22.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 3.3 threes on 51/42/88 shooting. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but it’s the closest advantage LA has when comparing rosters.

The Clippers’ other players to log 1,000 minutes or more are Nicolas Batum, Ivica Zubac, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Terance Mann, and Luke Kennard. Toronto’s other players to log 1,000 minutes or more are Pascal Siakam, FVV, Lowry, Chris Boucher, and Norman Powell. You don’t need any more stats to compare the two groups.

Prediction

In the grand scheme of things this won’t make a difference, but why oh why would the NBA schedule the Raptors for a Utah-Los Angeles Lakers road back-to-back, followed by a day off, then a date with the Clippers? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give Toronto the day off between Utah and Los Angeles, thus making the back-to-back for Lakers-Clippers? Anyway, the Raptors enter this game with (surprise) a rest disadvantage as the Clippers last played on Saturday. They’ll likely be without Pat Beverley (hand) and Ibaka, but, as mentioned, Kawhi should be back (of course LA’s stars return from injuries in time to face the Raptors!). While it would be fun to watch Lowry destroy the point guard-hungry Clippers, Toronto’s leaky 3-point defense will be on full display. The Clippers field the most accurate 3-point shooting team in the league, while the Raptors rank 28th in 3-point attempts allowed. Even without knowing who is likely sitting out for Toronto, it’s hard to see the Raptors pulling this out. Clippers defeat the Raptors, 110-100.

May 6 vs Washington Wizards

This had the makings of a playoff-type game just a few days ago. Now, the Wizards are closer to the 8th place Hornets than they are to the 12th place Raptors. Washington’s odds of making the playoffs (16%) are almost similar to Toronto’s odds of landing a top-3 pick (17.8%).

Jokes about the (L)eastern conference have never felt more apt than this season. With the play-in allowing two additional teams to the postseason field, it just highlights further the gap between the conferences. The 8th-seeded Charlotte Hornets (30-32) would not qualify for the play-in out West.

With two key rotation pieces, Deni Avdija and Thomas Bryant, lost for the season, and the team, at one point, 15 games under .500, it’s mind-boggling how they’ve turned their season around on the strength of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal (and not much else).

Fun fact that may only interest me

Russell Westbrook is four triple-doubles short of Oscar Robertson’s career record of 181.

The Big O was synonymous with triple-doubles, not only because of the amount he amassed over his career, but because he was the only one to average a triple-double for a season (1961-62).

It’s astonishing enough that Westbrook is the only other to accomplish that feat. It’s even more mind-boggling that after he’ll average a triple-double for a season for a fourth time! Oh, did I mention he’s played 100 fewer games than Robertson?

Prediction

If Toronto enters this game with anything less than a three-game difference with Washington, a Raptors victory could really shake things up in the play-in race. The Wizards will be playing the second game of a back-to-back. They kick off a 5-game road trip in Milwaukee the night before, then wrap up against other playoff contenders, Indiana and Atlanta (twice). In a season full of fake comebacks and narrow losses, expect nothing less than a nail-biting, tense matchup between foes that, frankly, Brooklyn may not want to face (both teams have won their season series with the Nets). Washington’s #4 offense and #7 defense over the last two weeks pushes them over the top. The Wizards dash the Raptors’ fleeting play-in hopes, defeating Toronto 112-110.

May 8 vs Memphis Grizzlies

Similar to last season, Memphis is right in the thick of the playoff/play-in race. They’re in a 3-way battle with the Warriors and Spurs for the 8th spot, who are all within a game of each other.

With Lowry’s time as a Raptor (possibly) coming to an end, it’s fitting he gets a reunion with the team that drafted him while reuniting with the big man he’s shared most of his career with, Jonas Valanciunas.

JV, who just turned 29 on May 6th but is shockingly the oldest player on the roster, has carved himself quite a role on the 4th-youngest team in the league. He’s averaged a career-high 12.3 rebounds (3rd in the NBA), shooting 58% (10th in the NBA), and owns a team-high PER of 23.9 (14th in the NBA).

Jaren Jackson Jr.’s return to the lineup, while it chews into Canadian Brandon Clarke’s minutes, is a welcome addition to Memphis’ playoff hopes.

Of course, the present and the future of Grizzlies basketball lie in Ja Morant’s capable hands. He’s avoided the sophomore slump, increasing his scoring (17.8 to 19.3) while keeping his rebounds, assists, steals, and most importantly, unwavering leadership at the same levels he did last year. Regardless of how short or long their post-season run goes, the reps these young players are getting will be instrumental in their continued growth.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Three of Memphis’ four largest salaries this season are being paid to players not even on the team.

Gorgui Dieng ($16.6 million) was waived on March 26th. Not signing with Toronto was probably a blessing in disguise since Khem Birch has instantly gained cult status with the Raptors.

Justise Winslow ($13 million) has played 24 games this season, has never played more than 25 minutes in a game, and is buried behind Kyle Anderson and rookie, Desmond Bane, in the small forward depth chart.

Dion Waiters ($12.7 million) was waived February 9 — last year — then signed with the Lakers and won a championship.

Prediction

The Grizzlies conclude their short 3-games-in-4-nights road trip with a visit to Tampa. Typically, that would be an advantage for the opponent, especially at the end of the season. However, playing the Timberwolves and Pistons beforehand isn’t exactly a murderer’s row of opponents. Memphis should still have the legs to battle Toronto — a matchup of the top two transition offenses in the league. The Raptors won the matchup earlier this season in Memphis. With Birch and Freddie Gillespie playing instead of Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher, I’d imagine Valanciunas will not have more offensive rebounds (10) than the entire Raptors team (7). On the flip side, Toronto’s four double-digit scorers won’t have the same impact this time around. Boucher will either be out or recovering from injury. Powell is no longer on the team. VanVleet and Siakam have been a mixed bag of poor shooting nights or resting due to various injuries. At this time of year, the desperate team normally wins out. Memphis beats Toronto, 117-112.

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Last Week: 1-4

Season Record for Predictions: 31-34