By: Dan Grant
With the 2015-16 NBA trade deadline dead and gone, it’s important to remember the Toronto Raptors still sit second in the Eastern Conference with a 35-17 record. That’s really good! Yes, that’s it. Step back inside. Close the window. Does that thing lock? Good. That’s good.
I know how you’re feeling, faithful Raptor fan. The Jays spoiled you this summer by going on a trading frenzy, and even the damn Leafs just made a deal that was universally lauded. This Raptors team was supposed to be going for it! So what gives? Is this OK? Are you right to be so frustrated?
The answer is both yes and no.
Now, it certainly doesn’t help when a guy as respected as ESPN’s Kevin Pelton writes things this:
I can’t help but fear the Raptors may look back on this season and feel they missed their moment to strike.
Yikes! He goes on to point that while the Raptors are sitting pretty, they’ve actually been outscored with Luis Scola on the court, and should have made an upgrade at power forward. You can read the whole thing here, if you have ESPN Insider.
So yeah, there’s a clear ‘yes’ part of the frustration equation. The Raptors’ weak points are pretty obvious. They lean too heavily on their All-Star back court, they lack a power forward without noticeable weaknesses in his game and they’ve had ugly exits the past two years in the playoffs. The trade deadline was the Raptors last opportunity to improve their core this season, and they either found the meal prices too high or the items on the menu lacking. The latter is perhaps understandable but the former? Well, after seeing the pu-pu platter it took to land Markieff Morris with the hated Wizards, and remembering that Toronto has four first round picks in the next two seasons AND four young players that can’t even get on the court, that’s a bit harder to believe.
Many fans will be crushingly disappointed by this, because this is 2016 and nobody feels emotions mildly anymore. Its either rage or passivity, atheism or fanaticism. And as Toronto was connected to every power forward and perimeter player under the flippin’ sun, I get it. I myself scrapped a 1,500 word column that was to run earlier this week because I just didn’t have a feel for what the Raptors were going to do and it all felt very forced and fleeting. I couldn’t figure out a perfect fit. It turns out, it was a telling sign that they weren’t going to do anything at all.
Still when you have obvious weaknesses and perceived trade chits and nothing gets done, frustration is inevitable. Acceptable even. That’s the ‘yes’.
Here’s the other side.
This is for ‘that fan’.
The person who already bought their Taj Gibson jersey, or has drawn up a manifesto about how Thaddeus Young and DeMarre Carroll could co-exist long term.
The person who is screaming that we’re destined for another first round exit, that Toronto is missing their window, that DeRozan is leaving and Lowry is exiting his prime and well…you know the guy. They’re on Twitter and message boards right now, using ‘Casey’ as a verb, and ‘explaining’ to people that the Raptors point differential is unsustainable and that having five players on the roster who don’t play isn’t asset collection, it’s mismanagement tantamount to fraud.
That person needs someone to hold their hand, and tell them that everything is going to be OK. They need a beacon of light in the darkness that is their fandom. They need hope.
I’ll do my best.
Here are five facts to cheer up that sad Raptors fan in your life.
A .500 record down the stretch means the Raptors will win 50 games
It’s true! Even in the Vince Carter ‘glory years’, the Chris Bosh playoff years or even this current generation of the Dinos, no Raptor team has ever managed to win more than 49 games in a season. 50 wins is the low-water mark for a real contender in the NBA; since 1980, only the 1995 Houston Rockets won the title while winning less than 50 in a non-lockout season, and they were defending champions. All Toronto has to do is win as many as it loses down the stretch and they’ll get there for the first time. This is a good thing.
Toronto is going hard for the 1-seed and they might get it
A tough early season schedule is going to bear fruit for the Raptors in the near future. It’s not a cake-walk by any means; 20 of the 30 games are against opponents that are currently holding a playoff spot, but it’s pretty cushy in other ways. They visit Texas twice, but all their deep Western Conference road trips are done, and 17 of their final 30 games are at home, with a 7-game home stand thrown in for good measure.
Cleveland is the team Toronto will need to catch, and the Cavs don’t have quite as easy a task remaining. Only 14 of their remaining 29 games are at home, and they have rough road games versus the Thunder, Raptors, Clippers and Pacers left, plus they get the Hawks and Heat on the second half of back-to-backs. They have a four game swing out to California coming up, which is really more a travel concern than an opponent concern, as they don’t play the Warriors on the trip. They also play the Bulls in mid-April, when Jimmy Butler should be back, in theory. Not a brutal schedule, but the Raptors definitely have the advantage, and could use that to close the gap over these final two months.
Kyle Lowry’s minutes are fine. No, seriously.
Yes, the Raptors coaching staff sometimes needs to do a better job of getting Lowry rest, particularly in games that are out of reach. Daniel Hackett over at Raptors HQ wrote an excellent break-down of this issue earlier in the month. He played too much in January, when he was close to 40 minutes per game. Getting him down to 32 or 33 minutes per game would be ideal. But the thing is, this Raptors team isn’t quite at that level yet. They can’t be successful without their stars and they can’t afford to give any games away, not yet. Everyone points to the Spurs, Warriors and Cavaliers as teams that rest their guys and do a good job managing minutes, but most teams don’t have that luxury.
Look at your NBA minutes leaders. The list is riddled with good guys on good-but-not-great teams. Their teams lean on them heavily and need them on the floor to be successful. Jimmy Butler, James Harden, John Wall and yes, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Even great teams need their big guns. Kevin Durant is coming off multiple foot surgeries and he’s over 36 minutes per night in OKC. And he’s got Russ! Most teams don’t have multiple Hall of Fame calibre players who can carry a team on a given night.
Everything Lowry has done to combat the fatigue that overtook him last season is working. Yes, he’s struggled a bit late in games, but that’s generally when defenses are tightest anyway. A dip in his percentages there might not be entirely due to fatigue. He’s in fantastic shape and the Raptors coaches have done a good job at putting him in situations where he’s not bearing the brunt of the load when he’s on the floor. Of his 36.8 minutes per game this year, he’s on the floor with Cory Joseph for 15 minutes per game, on average. That means that he’s the primary ball-handler only 59% of the time. That doesn’t even take into account the 7.7 minutes per game that Joseph-Lowry-DeMar Derozan are on the court together, when DeRozan is frequently handling the ball and creating. Yes, these are just averages and yes, Lowry will of course sometimes handle the ball when Joseph is on the floor, but you get the point. He’s playing more minutes, but the stress of those minutes is being lessened.
You’ll also notice that Lowry is averaging a career high 7.1 three point attempts per game as well; he’s looking for opportunities away from contact and he’s thriving. When you add all these small adjustments up, it points to recognition of the issue at hand, while still understanding that for the Raptors to be at their best, Kyle needs to be on the floor.
A final note: Lowry, at age 29, has played a lot less than other players from his draft class. Take the other elite point guard drafted with him in 2006, Rajon Rondo. Rondo has averaged 32.8 minutes per game for his career, but he’s also missed 139 games in his career due to injury. Lowry has missed a remarkably similar 145 games over the same time period, though 72 were in his rookie season due to a broken wrist that required surgery. Despite being a top 5 minutes guy this season and last, Lowry has still averaged only 30.1 minutes per game for his career, well less than Rondo. He’s played 18,876 career minutes, while Rondo is at 20,453. The guy doesn’t have a lot of tread on his tires, relatively speaking. He can handle adding some.
The Raptors power forwards actually aren’t terrible
Yes, Kevin Pelton was right when he said that the Raptors are a net negative with Scola on the floor, and yes, Patrick Patterson’s ceiling is a perfect bench guy who hustles and shoots threes. However, these guys aren’t trainwrecks. They’re both professional dudes, who know their role and do everything they can to excel in it. Yes, both have gaping flaws and unfortunately for both, these flaws often get exposed on the defensive end. But would any of the Raptors trade targets have fit that much better?
- Thaddeus Young is a great hustle guy and defender, but, except for one stretch at the end of last year, he’s never been much of a three point shooter. Subtract Patterson for him, and you’d have had to for salary purposes, and one of your best weapons (Toronto ranks third in the NBA in three point percentage) is deadened.
- Kenneth Faried is fun to watch and hustles, but he’s a poor on-ball defender who gambles too much and is frequently injured. We already have a guy like that in James Johnson.
- Markieff Morris, despite my personal touting of his upside and cheap contract, might be a crazy person.
- Even Al Horford…well no. Al Horford would have been great. Let’s stop talking about Al Horford. That’s where that whole ‘price tag’ thing comes into effect. Also, a-holes with fake Twitter accounts, amirite Reynolds?
After that, who were you even looking at? Taj Gibson? Luol Deng? PJ Tucker? I’m good with 2Pat and my man Luis, thanks very much. And if you’re desperate for reinforcements at the four, well, let me direct you to my final point.
The Raptors are actually going to make a mid-season acquisition: DeMarre Carroll!
Yes, I stole that from Masai Ujiri, but that doesn’t make it less true.
It’s important to remember that this Toronto team is already really friggin’ good, and they’re not even at 100%. The Raptors most glaring need is a wing player who can play strong defense, stretch the floor as a small-ball four and fit in with the current roster. Sound like a healthy DeMarre Carroll to me.
Get better soon, magic man. And bring your hat!
It’ll cheer up this guy I know.