Crunch Time for the Young Raptors
Friday’s 102-92 win was a statement of intent by the Toronto Raptors. As the Pacers ground the Cavaliers to dust in game six of their series, the Raptors ensured there would be no game seven drama in their own.
It sounds ridiculous, but the Raptors are the most interesting team in the NBA. They have one of the most shrewd and bombastic GMs in the league. They have one of the favorites for the coach of the year who just redesigned his offense in the offseason. On the court, they have DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Those two all-stars have carried the Raptors to five straight playoff berths. However, the most interesting part of this roster is the interplay between a few overpaid veteran starters and their younger bench counterparts. The story of the Raptors’ season was as much the play of their young bench as the newly democratic offense.
A Young Bench
This year’s bench starts with Fred VanVleet who has been a revelation for Toronto. He shows veteran savvy beyond his 24 years. In Friday’s win over the Wizards, he moved around a pick to an open spot on the floor for an open mid-range shot as both defenders dropped to protect the rim. His size and athleticism will never wow anyone but his ability to get to his spots has kept him as an effective playmaker and scorer. Toronto’s bench was a major reason for the team’s regular season success and Van Vleet’s return was a major spark for their game six victory in Washington. The box score fails to capture his calming presence on the second unit. Van Vleet always gets the Raptors into their sets and rarely makes mistakes on either end.
Beyond Van Vleet, there are other second unit stars like Jakob Poetl, Pascal Siakam, and O.G. Anunoby. The Raptors plucked Siakam and Poetl from the 2016 draft while Anunoby came over from last year’s draft. All three project as solid starters for the Raptors and have displayed nascent two-way and playmaking potential.
Siakam might be the star of the bunch. His length and athleticism give him defensive versatility but this year he showed the passing ability out of 4-on-3 situations. When he functions as the roll man and other teams trap the ball-handler, Siakam can make them pay. He is probably the most likely of the three to make an all-star team.
Anunoby is the team’s most versatile and best defender. He has shown the ability to guard any non-center. If the Raptors play the Cavaliers, expect to see Anunoby shadowing LeBron James for long stretches. Likewise, we will guard the much quicker Victor Oladipo if the Pacers prevail. If they win and play the 76ers, Anunoby might be the first to get the Ben Simmons assignment. Dwane Casey has put a great deal of faith in his young rookie and Anunoby could be the key to their championship aspirations this year.
Poetl has been solid and perhaps even better than starter Jonas Valanciunas. Poetl is near the top of the league in field goal percentage and he does it by taking most of his shots around the rim. He is not a classic rim protector but has managed to be an impactful defensive player. His defensive rating puts him in the same category as Anthony Davis, Derrick Favors, Larry Nance Jr., and Al-Farouq Aminu. However, the Raptors might be kicking themselves for choosing him over Domantas Sabonis who has been killing the Cavaliers with his more multi-faceted offensive game.
The Cap Crunch
The Raptors have drafted well and made many shrewd moves to assemble this team. The Poetl pick represents the one issue for GM Masai Ujiri. The picks and the signings have been good but the Raptors lack a true superstar and have a bloated cap sheet. The extension for Norman Powell looked good when signed but Powell regressed badly this season. He had his worst season as a pro just after getting a $42 million dollar extension. Unfortunately, that has also been characteristic of Ujiri and the Raptors. They had to toss in a first round pick to get rid of Demarre Carroll’s big deal and have enormous cap figures that will see Toronto in the luxury tax for the next two seasons even before they mull any extensions or signings. Serge Ibaka, Powell, Valanciunas, and CJ Miles account for nearly $56 million on next year’s cap. For the 2019-2020 season, that number jumps to nearly $60 million if Valanciunas and Miles opt-in, which they most certainly will.
The final situation complicates this Raptors team. Making moves on the margins might not move the needle for the average NBA fan but those moves nudge up regular season win totals and help get a team closer to the promised land. Ujiri already had to give up one asset to clear his books. Will he have to give up more to get Valanciunas, Ibaka, or even newly signed Powell off as well?
Ujiri has always believed in signing players rather than letting them walk, particularly from a small market perspective. He believes his coaches can turn those players into flippable assets. That did not happen with Carroll and it seems unlikely to change with Valanciunas with a shrinking market for traditional big men. Perhaps he can trade Powell or Miles to a team wanting to take a swing? Unless the Raptors make it to the NBA finals, those realities are likely to pop up. Owners rarely want to pay the luxury tax at all, let alone for a non-contender. The Raptors’ rise could forestall that eventuality and after next year, those deals become more valuable as expiring contracts for Valanciunas, Miles, and Ibaka. Maybe Miles opts out and saves them some money. Those decisions will rest on how far the Raptors go this postseason.
The Raptors might not even need Ibaka or Valanciunas at this point. Their bench carried them in the regular season and against the Wizards in game six, the bench severely outplayed its Washington counterpart. Siakam probably deserves a look in the starting lineup if the Raptors play the Cavaliers. Then again, Casey might choose to stick with rotations that have worked all year. He has continued to keep a bigger postseason rotation thus far. Part of that has been that it worked all season but the other piece is that the starters outside of Lowry and DeRozan routinely get outplayed by their backups. Casey keeps Siakam and Poetl in longer minutes because both play their butts off and can hang against other team’s starters. That is huge for this team’s future and its present. It also will need to continue.
The Raptors sit in a precarious position. An early playoff exit could make them Portland north and no team wants to be stuck without a path to championship contention. A weak Cavaliers team and an injured Boston one have opened a window for the Raptors who could capitalize on the youth the 76ers. The Raptors might be the favorites to make the NBA finals out of the east and their young players are the reason for it. They have an intelligent front office, one of the best benches in the NBA, and a top coach. Many teams wish they could have what the Raptors do. However, with a tight cap and future financial obligations to a lot of players on this roster, the Raptors need to win now or this iteration might go extinct.