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Raptors’ reserves rolling, and they don’t plan to let playoffs stop them

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DETROIT – Fred VanVleet remembers sitting on the end of the Raptors bench with teammates like Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam last season. None held a permanent rotation spot, and they discussed what they would do better if they got an opportunity.

“If you’re made of anything, nobody likes sitting on the bench,” VanVleet said. “So, we’re all kind of pissed off.”

They’ve gotten a chance to channel that frustration into production, and they’ve sure capitalized. Those four and C.J. Miles, who signed with Toronto last summer, lead the NBA’s best bench and comprise one of the league’s top lineups.

“The question has been whether we’re going to keep them in, that group, during the playoffs,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said without even being asked about the postseason, a time most teams shrink their rotation. “And why not? Until they prove us wrong and prove that they can’t perform in the playoffs, that’s our plan.”

Toronto is outscoring opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions with mostly reserves in, one of the best marks in the last couple decades. Here are the top benches by net rating since 1997, as far back as NBA.com data goes (with offensive rating/defensive rating/net rating):

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Many productive benches ground overwhelmed opponents into submission with tough defense. The Raptors’ reserves excel offensively and defensively. Their 110.8 points per 100 possessions ranks third among benches since 1997 (behind only the 2012 Spurs and 2018 Rockets).

Other benches are propped up by staggered stars who carry backups. Not in Toronto. The all-reserve lineup of Wright, VanVleet, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl is outscoring opponents by 22.2 points per 100 possessions. Of 43 five-man units to play 200 minutes this season, only the Timberwolves’ Tyus Jones/Jimmy Butler/Andrew Wiggins/Taj Gibson/Karl-Anthony Towns lineup has fared better (+23.4).

Here are the top lineups with at least 200 minutes (with offensive rating/defensive rating/net rating):

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Casey said he has seen opponents juggle their rotations to play more starters against his bench. Yet, the reserves have held up. That’s a big reason he has so much faith in the group for the playoffs.

But Casey didn’t have much choice to entrust these recently deep reserves with bigger roles initially.

The Raptors lost DeMarre Carroll (traded to Nets), P.J. Tucker (signed with Rockets), Patrick Patterson (signed with Thunder) and Cory Joseph (traded to Pacers) last offseason. Shedding that depth was necessary to re-sign Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and remain under the luxury-tax line.

Of course, Toronto knew it had developing players who might have been ready for larger roles. But the way everything has come together has been incredible.

These players mesh so well. They space the floor and pass willingly. Wright, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl all have the length and mobility to swarm defensively, allowing the pesky, but undersized, VanVleet to aggressively pressure the ball.

They’ve formed an identity without commonality, the outliers adapting to the group.

They like to talk about how they’re young players trying to prove themselves. Wright is 25, Siakam 24, VanVleet 24, Poeltl 22. But Miles is 30 years old and in his 13th season

“The exuberance they have and the way they play the game, it keeps me in it,” Miles said.

They bring how they’ve all been overlooked. Wright and Siakam were drafted in the 20s. Miles was a second-rounder. VanVleet went undrafted. But Poeltl was a top-10 pick.

“I feed a lot off my teammates’ energy, also,” Poeltl said. “I’m the type of guy that, if we all get fired up, I get dragged along with that. And then, at that point, I also bring a lot of energy to the table. That drags my teammates with me.”

Another trait contagious among the group: unselfishness.

Some emanates from Wright and VanVleet. Both essentially point guards, they were competing for a spot on the depth chart a year ago. Now, VanVleet is in a contract year, and Wright will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason. Both admitted some trepidation about playing together.

“It would be easy for me to be selfish going into my contract year,” VanVleet said. “It would be easy for Delon to try to make his mark going forward.”

Yet, they make it work. When VanVleet initiates the offense, Wright cuts. When Wright initiates the offense, VanVleet spots up.

“It was really our first stint of having a role on a team,” Wright said. “So, I don’t think there’s no time to be selfish when you’re just getting your opportunity.”

Of course, that attitude can’t last forever. The Raptors’ reserves are tasting success and hungering for more.

“People are asking why we’re so good. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” VanVleet said. “We’ve got good players.

“We know most of us, if not all of us, can start on other teams. And that’s something that we hold to our heart.”

VanVleet probably won’t overtake Lowry or DeMar DeRozan to start in Toronto’s backcourt. But as a restricted free agent this summer, he’ll have the first opportunity to seek a starting job elsewhere. Toronto faces a potential luxury-tax bill next season and might decide not pay VanVleet, especially with Wright there.

For now, the Raptor reserves are just gearing up for the playoffs and enjoying each other’s company.

“The camaraderie we have as a unit is unbelievable,” Miles said. “It’s non-stop laughter, not-stop joking.”

The newcomer, Miles saw that brewing when he arrived over the summer. He recognized a group of young players who bonded over their lack of playing time and thought back to his first few seasons, when he was in the same boat. He told his emerging younger bench-mates he wanted to be part of what they were doing, not an outsider.

Now, they’re dominating.

“It’s really special when you think about it,” Miles said.

LeBron goes off on Cavaliers during loss to Raptors, which Kyrie Irving digs

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The Toronto Raptors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night, 133-99. It was a drubbing, and a particularly embarrassing result for LeBron James against one of the challengers to his throne in the Eastern Conference.

LeBron played well enough, but his team could not stop the likes of Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam from dominating off the bench.

At one point things got so bad that LeBron took over the team huddle during a break, gesticulating wildly and presumably playing the part of coach.

The scene was wild, and could only be enhanced if we had the audio from the outburst:

Of course, this moment spawned a flurry of activity on social media, not all of it coming from fans and media types.

The incident was posted to Instagram, and apparently found its way to former Cavaliers and current Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving.

Irving was caught by several folks on Twitter having “Liked” the video of LeBron going off on his former squad.

Of course, Jared Weiss was quick to point out that this might not be a case of Kyrie vs. LeBron after all.

Via Celtics Wire:

After posting this photo, a league source told Celtics Wire that this is most likely Kyrie enjoying his guy Phil Handy get the work from LeBron.

Handy is the Cavs assistant coach who probably had the closest relationship with Irving. He was an instrumental part of Irving’s renowned pre-game workout and Irving even credited Handy with giving a rousing speech that motivated the Cavs to win Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals.

Who is beefing with who is one of the hardest things to keep track of during the NBA season. We might need to start a running tally over here.

Meanwhile, what does this loss mean for the Cavaliers? That might be hard to judge. Cleveland is 7-8, 13-3, and 11-6 over their past three Januaries and in that time they’ve won one championship. They’re above .500, which is better than they can say for one of those seasons.

This team looks worse at times than you think they can, but they’ve also had multiple 14+ point losses spread out all over the past four seasons.

It’s reasonable to think this Cavaliers team looks worse than they have in years past, and less stable. But it’s also true that they always look bad at times, and they always make it to the final moments of the NBA playoffs come spring.

Until we’re out of winter, it’s probably best to pump the brakes on the Cavs and enjoy the beef.

Report: Raptors’ Delon Wright out a month

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Raptors guard Delon Wright dislocated his shoulder, but at least he won’t need surgery.

Raptors media relations:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Raptors (11-5), off to a surprisingly strong start, are second in the Eastern Conference. They’ve bought themselves margin for error. All in all, a month-long absence for Wright isn’t so bad.

Wright had been a key part of an excellent all-bench unit that included Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, C.J. Miles and Jakob Poeltl. Two-way player Lorenzo Brown has assumed Wright’s role, and Norman Powell – returning from his own injury – will provide a boost. Toronto can also stagger Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan more.

The chemistry of the bench mob was something to behold, but the Raptors should withstand this.

Three questions the Toronto Raptors must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 51-31, made the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth straight season, got swept in the second round by the Cavaliers

I know what you did last summer: The Raptors re-signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka but otherwise lost plenty of productive playersP.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph – in an effort to limit payroll. Only C.J. Miles and No. 23 pick O.J. Anunoby solidly counter the exodus of talent.

THREE QUESTIONS THE RAPTORS MUST ANSWER:

1) Does anyone lift Toronto to the next level? The Raptors look like a team that has peaked. Kyle Lowry is 31, and DeMar DeRozan is 28. Toronto pushed in on its supporting cast last season, trading for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker before the deadline. It didn’t work. The Raptors got swept by the Cavaliers in the second round. Ibaka is now a year older. Tucker is gone. So are the long-term assets used to acquire the veterans. With cost an apparent concern, the supporting cast has been downgraded.

So, was this the end of the ascent?

If so, it wasn’t a bad run. Correction: It isn’t a bad run. The Raptors are still solidly a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, and the four straight postseason appearances – including a trip to the 2016 conference finals – is nothing to sneeze at, especially in Toronto.

But a taste of success only increases the appetite for more. The Raptors would love to break through LeBron James in the Eastern Conference before the Celtics develop chemistry and the 76ers ascend. The Wizards lurk, too.

The mystery: How does it happen? Toronto’s veterans look established. Its young players – Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira and Pascal Siakam – are varying degrees of formidable, but these aren’t high-upside options.

Perhaps, one of those young players defies expectations. Maybe Bruno Caboclo breaks out, though the indicators are negative for the project. O.G. Anunoby could get healthy and become a difference-maker.

The odds appear against it, but with the Raptors already establishing such a high floor, attention turns intently on their search for players to raise their ceiling.

2) Will Dwane Casey oversee a culture reset? If the roster isn’t getting better, Masai Ujiri isn’t giving up. The Raptors president called for a “culture reset.”

But he kept the coach and two players (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) most responsible for Toronto’s style, and many doubt major change will occur.

Still, the Raptors’ offense looks modernized in the preseason so far – more 3-pointers, more passing. If Casey and the players stick with it, the adjustment could pay off in the playoffs, where the team’s isolation-heavy style has been repeatedly stifled.

That’s still a major if. Old habits die hard.

If Casey could coach a more efficient scheme, why didn’t he do it before? Likewise, if Lowry and DeRozan could play a more efficient style, why didn’t they do it before?

They’ll get a chance to prove it’s not too late for them to adapt. If this doesn’t work, though, it could cost Casey his job.

3) How will center shake out? The Raptors owe Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka nearly $115 million over the next three years. That’s too much for a couple players whose best position is center – especially when Toronto also has capable backups in Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira on rookie-scale deals.

Ibaka is more of a modern center who can shoot 3-pointers and protect the rim. The Raptors can build some nice small-ball lineups with him at the position.

Valanciunas, on the other hand, sees his role significantly reduced in the playoffs. The back-to-the-basket post player becomes a liability.

Toronto seems to realize the problem, shopping Valanciunas this summer. But few teams need a center, and he’s highly paid (three years, nearly $50 million remaining). If the 25-year-old plays well, maybe the Raptors can move him and address other positions.

But if he plugs along at his current pace – which is hardly bad! – Toronto will face some difficult decisions about how to use him and Ibaka.

Malcolm Brogdon, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid headline NBA All-Rookie teams

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Later Monday night, at the new NBA Awards show (did you forget that was coming?), the NBA Rookie of the Year will be announced.

In advance of that, the NBA released the All-Rookie Teams.

This was not a deep rookie class, making it a challenging vote. Also, a number of players came on the second half of the season, showing promise that made the process even tougher.

Two players were unanimous first-team choices: Malcolm Brogdon of the Bucks (the front-runner for ROY), and Dario Saric of the Sixers. Saric’s teammate Joel Embiid also made first team, but there was enough concern among voters (100 members of the NBA media, and full disclosure I had a vote) that he only played 31 games that seven voters had him on the second team, and 11 left him off entirely. A full list of who voted for whom will be made public on Tuesday by the NBA.

Here is who made the cut (players got two points for a first-team vote, one point for a second-team vote).

2016-17 NBA ALL-ROOKIE FIRST TEAM

Player (Team) Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Malcolm Brogdon (Milwaukee) 200
Dario Saric (Philadelphia) 200
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia) 171
Buddy Hield (Sacramento) 154
Willy Hernangomez (New York) 128

2016-17 NBA ALL-ROOKIE SECOND TEAM

Player (Team) Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Jamal Murray (Denver) 123
Jaylen Brown (Boston) 106
Marquese Chriss (Phoenix) 91
Brandon Ingram (L.A. Lakers) 83
Yogi Ferrell (Dallas) 63

Other players receiving votes, with point totals (first-place votes in parentheses): Rodney McGruder, Miami, 61 (7); Caris LeVert, Brooklyn, 36 (2); Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City, 19 (4); Tyler Ulis, Phoenix, 10 (1); Patrick McCaw, Golden State, 8; Skal Labissiere, Sacramento, 7 (1); Kris Dunn, Minnesota, 5; Juancho Hernangomez, Denver, 5; Taurean Prince, Atlanta, 5; Isaiah Whitehead, Brooklyn, 5; Alex Abrines, Oklahoma City, 4; Davis Bertans, San Antonio, 3; Dejounte Murray, San Antonio, 3; Thon Maker, Milwaukee, 3; Andrew Harrison, Memphis, 2; Fred VanVleet, Toronto, 1; Dragan Bender, Phoenix, 1; DeAndre’ Bembry, Atlanta, 1; Jakob Poeltl, Toronto, 1; Malcolm Delaney, Atlanta, 1