Raptors Cage

How the return of Siakam and Watanabe could affect the Raptors rotation

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75 years ago, the NBA hosted its first game in Toronto, Canada, between two teams named the New York Knickerbockers and the Toronto Huskies. On November 1st 2021, when the NBA celebrated its 75th anniversary, the New York Knicks hosted the Toronto Raptors at the Madison Square Garden, where the Raptors emerged victorious, clinching their fourth win in a row, and their third consecutive road victory. The Knicks came into the game was sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings with a 5-1 record.

Without their rookie star Scottie Barnes the Raptors got off to a bit of a slower start. Characteristically, an incredible display of defense in the second quarter led some cleaner looks on the other end, and the Raptors were able to close off the game with a comprehensive effort in the second half. It was a game that required Nick Nurse to rely heavily on his top five guys, however even with three of his top players sidelined, the Raptors ran a rotation of ten men deep.

Pascal Siakam, the Raptors All-Star forward, is closing in on his return to action, and could see the floor again as soon as mid-November. The team is also operating without Yuta Wantanabe, who has yet to return from a calf injury sustained during the preseason, however due to his size, length, defensive instinct, and ability to create offense, he will surely earn minutes off the bench once he’s healthy as well. The biggest question – in addition to how this change will affect the Toronto Raptors betting odds – is: who will give space in the rotation to accommodate them?

The Raptors have improved to a 5-3 record, and they seem to have found a well-balanced rotation that fits their identity. After the first couple games, Nurse has established a pecking order in his rotation that he has used consistently. As of right now, the starting lineup includes the likes of Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, and Precious Achiuwa. Siakam, the Raptors best player once he’s back will surely need to slot into the starting lineup as well, necessitating one of Achiuwa, Barnes, or Trent moving over to the bench. Last season, due to the lack of a big who could adequately rebound, protect the paint, and finish possessions inside, we saw Siakam play a considerable amount of fourth quarter minutes at the 5.

While using Siakam as a center was successful, it is unsustainable to match smaller players up with burly bigs for an entire season. With Khem Birch and Achiuwa on the team now, the Raptors enlist two starting-caliber centers, and so I believe they will refrain from forcing Pascal to slot in as a center again. Not only will this save Pascal’s body from being banged and bruised over the course of a long season, but benching Birch, Achiuwa, Watanabe, and Chris Boucher would make it nearly impossible to find minutes for all of them. There’s also no way in the world that Fred VanVleet or OG Anunoby will be moved out of the starting lineup.

That leaves us with the sensational Scottie and glorifying Gary as the two candidates to move back to the bench. Despite being a complicated question, this is the type of headache that you want to have as a coach.

How have Barnes and Trent Jr. fared as starters?

Gary is the type of player who thrives off his own confidence. Much like the player he was traded for, Norman Powell, he plays much better when he starts than when he comes off the bench. In his lone game off the bench this season, Gary scored six points and shot 2-9 from the field. In seven starts since, he’s posting 16.4 points per game on 40.1% shooting.

NBA: Preseason-Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers
(Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports)

What has improved the most about Gary’s game is not exactly his offense, but his defense. He came to the Raptors last season with a reputation for being a capable defender who just did not give a lot of effort on that side of the ball. This season, he has been one of the Raptors’ most trustworthy perimeter defenders. In last Friday’s game against the Orlando Magic, he even saved the Raptors from falling foe to a last-minute comeback, by poking the ball loose from Cole Anthony’s grips on the last play of the game. Trent currently leads the entire NBA in steals with 22 of them after eight games, and he ranks the second in the league in deflections per game, trailing only Fred VanVleet.

On the other hand, Scottie Barnes is the entire package, period. At the time of the draft, the narratives said he can’t shoot, they said his offense needs a lot of improvement, and he was supposed to be a zero-level scorer. But guess what? He has proved all of them wrong. Barnes ranked 2nd in the NBA’s first edition of the Kia Rookie Ladder. In seven games, Barnes is averaging 18.1 points, 8.9 rebound, and 2.0 assists per game.

He is also the first Raptors rookie to ever score more than ten points in each of his first seven regular season appearances. Despite only shooting 22% clip from deep, his long-shot was expected to be the greatest weakness of his game. As long as he keeps shooting the ball with confidence, the development will follow shortly thereafter. Overall, Scottie can do everything on both ends of the floor. Coming into the league he was known for his defense, but now he has made a great impact on the game offensively, which even Jason Kidd has taken notice of, stating that “he’s going to be a star.”

Who would be relegated to the bench if I was coaching

My take is that Barnes should come off the bench, because he is still a rookie. Yes, he is showcasing some excellent skills, but he came into the league expecting to come off the bench behind one of Siakam or Anunoby. Also, Barnes seems like the type of player who can inject the same energy into a game no matter where and when he plays. He was asked when he was interviewed after the win over the Pacers in Indiana if he was nervous when we got to the free throw line to shoot a pair of clutch free throws, and he responded saying that he heard the crowd getting louder and he loved it. Things like this show just how mature Barnes is for a twenty-year-old, and that is the type of young and energetic leader who could give the Raptors a boost off the bench.

Why should Gary start? I feel like Trent will play better next to Fred, OG and Pascal, as with them garnering the bulk of the defense’s attention, he will be able to get more open looks within the Raptors offense.

And why I think Nurse will disagree

Coming into the season, this Raptors team was built to be long, versatile, and switchable. There is an overwhelming number of wings on this roster and using them in the way which they were intended to be used simply would not make any sense. Ultimately, I think that Nurse will disagree with my aforementioned opinion, and go with a starting lineup of Barnes, VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, and Birch, relegating Trent and Achiuwa to bench roles.

What about the other bench rotations, and Yuta?

Yuta brings more hustle, rebounding, defense and some floor spacing to the Raptors bench. Nick Nurse has shown his trust in Yuta as well in the past to play meaningful minutes. With a deeper rotation this year, and with the likes of Svi Mykhailiuk and Dalano Banton playing well, Yuta might not play as many minutes as he got accustomed to last season. Once Chris Boucher and Goran Dragic are (likely) flipped for assets at the trade deadline, more minutes should open up for Yuta.

This post was written by Sanuk Michael


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