Off-Day Mailbag: Looking Forward, Looking Back

Title: Off-Day Mailbag: Looking Forward, Looking Back
Date: April 23, 2015
Original Source: Raptors Republic
Synopsis: With a day off between Games 2 and 3 of the Raptors playoff series against the Wizards, this open Q&A found that Raptors fans were just about done with the playoffs already.

With multiple days off between playoff games, we’re once again left to sit and stew in disappointment. We, like the Toronto Raptors themselves, appear to be devoid of solutions for how to turn this series around.

Effort? This is the playoffs. Effort can’t possibly be an issue at this juncture, and if it is, there are far deeper problems with the individuals on the team than just the fit or a fading of their once-inexplicable and intangible chemistry. Toughness? Is that even measurable, and how does it impact a game in which the team’s killed on the defensive end for long stretches at a time? Tactical adjustments? What, beyond “play better,” is a good first step?

Nobody wanted to discuss any of these questions. I opened it up for mailbag questions on Twitter yesterday, and few of the responses had anything to do with Friday’s Game 3, what amounts to essentially a must-win in Washington. Instead, it was all about looking backward and, sadly, looking forward already.

This is a good place to start. The best answer I have is that it beats reality TV, and we’re all sick, sad, depraved idiots.

Probably not, and the pick still rubs me wrong. I know the team was already going to employ Bruno Caboclo and Bebe Nogueira, and so carrying a third rookie would have been tough, but there were a handful of solid options available at No. 37 that could have contributed on a more expedited timeline. Daniels wasn’t even really on the draft radar for most, and while he looked decent enough at Summer League, his Australian stats don’t exactly jump off the page – an unspectacular 14.8 points and 7.7 rebounds on 39.6-percent shooting and, most disappointing, a 34.1-percent mark from outside. I didn’t see any of that action, but the Australian league isn’t a top international league and Daniels didn’t dominate. It’s hard to pencil him in for 2015-16 plans.

Zarar or Will. I’m sure you can tell which day by day.

Valanciunas certainly limits what they can do defensively, at least in his current form, but he’s slowly improved over his three years, and defense is about more than just the back-end protector. It’s tough to evaluate Valanciunas as an individual when he’s constantly left to defend a steady stream of penetrating guards. This isn’t to paper over his weaknesses – he’s not exactly quick, his reads are slow and his movements methodical, and he leaves his feet far too easily – but with better perimeter defense, he may not stick out as much. I think they’ll explore all options for improving the team but I don’t think Valanciunas and a top-10 defense are mutually exclusive.

I mean…I guess? I like Boss Davis and he looked good with the Lakers this year, but he doesn’t figure to be more than a third or fourth rotation big. If he were backing up both spots as a pick-and-roll dive threat and being kept from man-defending on the block, sure, he’d be a nice piece. But if he’s the marquee add to the frontcourt or the Amir Johnson replacement, I don’t think things have gone very well.

Get better personnel?

In seriousness, lost in the disaster of a second quarter on Tuesday was that the Raptors actually defended a few of the Wall-Pierce pick-and-rolls well. In the one-five, the key is going to be to let John Wall take long jumpers. If Valanciunas is the big, he’s not going to do much hedging out on Wall anyway, so dropping back to keep Nene or Marcin Gortat close and to prevent an easy dive or drive, while daring Wall to shoot, is the best option. (This is admittedly hard to explain with text and not pictures, and it’s far easier if Amir Johnson is the center instead of Valanciunas, as he’s quicker to recover on to the dive man after showing onto Wall. It’s also easier if Wall dribbles to Otto Porter’s side of the floor, as the corner wing can then help disrupt the play with lesser threat of a kick-out for three.)

For what it’s worth, Wall shot 37.3 percent on jump shots this season and 35.8 percent from 16 feet and out. That’s preferable to the 100 percent it feels like the Wizards are shooting once Wall and his screener can both get beneath the foul line.

There wasn’t a major piece available that would have moved the needle a great deal without sacrificing future pieces (one of their three first round picks in the next two drafts, Terrence Ross at the low point of his value). Obviously they could have used another wing defender that Dwane Casey trusted and maybe a rim protector off the bench, but those are needs that existed in the offseason, too. Without the benefit of access to what offers the team had available, the best I can say is that doubling down on chemistry correcting itself as the team was floundering was a poor gamble.

Not white. Those giveaway shirts have been awful.

Weird as it is to say, hopefully “very.” If this is just what Lowry is and this is a sustained period of poor performance, that’s a scary thought. If his play late in the season is due to fatigue and a few minor injuries, then we can rest a little easier moving forward. Cross your fingers it’s correctable quickly – Lowry is shooting 37.2 percent since Dec. 30.

I know this is a joke, but if the Raptors were at home for Game 3, I’d totally dress Bruno at the end of the bench instead of Greg Stiemsma. Stiemsma is never going to see the floor, anyway, and if the game got out of hand again, at least Bruno would get the experience and bring the crowd back into the game. There’s no point on the road (or at all, if I’m being honest), though.

The fundamental core issue is that the team doesn’t have good defenders. Lowry has been worse than his usual standard, Williams and Vasquez are bad-to-brutal, DeRozan is in the neighborhood of average, Ross is maddeningly inconsistent, and Valanciunas is a poor fit as the rock behind a shaky frontline. Some of this is on Casey for being inflexible in a hyper-aggressive scheme that doesn’t fit the personnel, and at this point it’s difficult to tell whether he’s actually a good defensive coach who’s been dealt poor hands or if he’s living off reputation and the inconsistent results paint an accurate picture. So…a little of Column A, a little of Column B (hot take, I know).

My guess would be that they don’t trust the passing instincts of Valanciunas at the elbows and because they want the ball in the hands of their guards. You occasionally see nice dishes from Johnson or Patterson out of pick-and-roll action, as each, especially Johnson, is a decent enough facilitator for a big. It’s just not how the Raptors’ offense operates, and you could replace “high low big to big” with any numbers of fun actions and ask why the Raptors don’t run them.

I’m not sure it’s a forgone conclusion they go power forward there. Were Williams to talk, there are a number of quality point guards that should be available in that range, too. If they go power forward, I love Lyles – he’s Canadian, he might be able to play a little wing at the next level, I think his stroke is pure enough to venture out to the 3-point line defensively, and I think he’ll be a better defender in the post than he was on the wing in college. Unfortunately, I don’t think he gets to No. 20, nor do I really think Kevon Looney makes it that far (I’m a UCLA guy, so I’d be all on board with that), nor does Bobby Portis (who I think is going to be a really solid, if somewhat unspectacular, rotation big).

I like Harrell enough but his lack of a jump shot makes him a poor fit with the current core. Wood will be around, and I like him a lot, even if he doesn’t necessarily fit the Raptors timeline as someone a year or two away from reaching his potential. He can hit from the mid-range, he’s a terrific shot-blocker, and if used properly on defense, his lack of strength can be masked. Of the names you listed, I’d go: Lyles, Portis, Looney, Wood, Harrell, but I don’t think the Raptors will be choosing from that entire group.

All of the offseason questions to come require a lot more space than I’m going to commit here, but the short answer is that I have no idea. My gut tells me that MLSE, seeing the All-Star Game on its way and the Leafs in for another bad year, will want to add to the core to ensure a quality team is out there, while Masai Ujiri likely sees this team for what it is and would like to begin shaping it in his own, non-Colangelo image.

As to your specific questions, I think Ross will be back (without an extension, heading to RFA) because it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to deal him at the very low point of his value. Let him play out a fourth year at a reasonable price, and make a call on his future with the team closer to next year’s deadline, when there’s a little more certainty as to his true talent. Johnson is a tougher one, because the team could use a power forward upgrade, but everyone would surely be sad to see Johnson go. If Johnson is willing to play along, I could see the Raptors feeling out the market for a power forward and then, if it bears no fruit, doubling back to Johnson on a shorter deal with a higher annual salary than he could get elsewhere. He may not be amenable to that, but I wouldn’t be comfortable opening the offseason with a new deal for Johnson in the ballpark of what he makes right now, much as I love him and he may be worth that dollar amount in a vacuum.

One thing about the offseason I want to be clear on: I would not trade this year’s pick or either of the two 2016 picks unless it can land a serious impact player. With the cap set to explode in 2016 without a resultant increase in the rookie wage scale, hitting on any draft pick could be such a huge financial competitive advantage that it would take a lot for me to part with a pick. A quick illustration, using stated cap estimates and 120% of scale for incoming rookies (also a loose assumption that Raptors will pick #20 in 2016 and the lesser of Knicks/Nuggets pick will be #10; again, just for illustration):

% of Cap 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17
Cap 58000000 58679000 63065000 66500000 89000000
Ross (#8 pick 2012) 4.42% 4.56% 4.43% 5.34%
Valanciunas (#5 pick 2011) 6.08% 6.18% 5.83% 7.01%
Bruno (#20 pick 2014) 2.31% 2.29% 1.79%
Bebe (#16 pick 201 2.80% 2.77% 2.16%
#20 pick 2015 2.27% 1.77%
#20 pick 2016 1.76%
#10 pick 2016 2.89%

The relative value of a productive player on a rookie contract is going to be extreme for at least the 2016-17 season and likely beyond (even if there’s a lockout in 2017 and rookie scales are adjusted, it seems unlikely the existing rookie contracts will be adjusted). Get even a capable player with the No. 20 pick this year and you’ve filled out a piece of your nine-man rotation for 2017-18 for less than two percent of your cap space. Those picks are still movable and they represent some nice trade currency, but they’re also valuable roster-building tools if Ujiri believes in his ability to work the middle of the first round.

Probably not much. Ideally, the Raptors will get an exclusive D-League affiliate in place by then so that they can have full control over the playing time and development of both when on assignment. Bruno’s trips to the D-League this year were a joke – that’s OK, because at his level, simply practicing and watching NBA basketball for a season probably developed him a great deal – and there’s little sense in using the feeder system if you’re sharing it with a dozen other teams. The D-League has said it won’t expand for 2015-16 but I’m hoping they budge or an exclusive affiliate becomes available, because regular playing time at a level close to NBA competition is the next step in the development of each. They combined to play 46 NBA minutes and 142 D-League minutes. They need to play, but it won’t be much at the NBA level yet.

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