Championship experience is something that’s often talked about as the key ingredient to going deep in the playoffs. Of the 19 Raptors set to attend training camp in September, 10 of them are reigning champions. Unfortunately, due to the new parity in the league and such talented players hungry to win their first ring this year (which feels like the first time since LeBron James left to Miami in 2010), experience is being overlooked. And so are the role player additions which would normally be talked about as potential gamechangers, however during a summer in which All-Stars and MVP’s are changing hands like berries in a farmers market, nobody’s focused on the peanuts.
Except Masai Ujiri. The rose who grew from concrete himself understands the importance of believing in prospects, and doing every little thing to get better. Though he wasn’t able to assemble a star-studded roster like last season, he’s given an excellent coach all the pieces he needs to reach the pinnacle of the basketball world again. Just as the NBA has become more balanced these past couple months, the Raptors’ roster has too. Everybody will have the opportunity to fight for their minutes and shots, with the roster free of any superstars, and the room free of any elephants. Nick Nurse’s first job will be to build his rotations as soon as he is done with the Canadian national team, which will be easier said than done beknown a lack of shooting on the roster.
The first inter-team competition for Nurse to referee is likely between Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry. At first, it seems absurd to think a reigning 5x All-Star – likely the greatest Raptor of all time – who scored the first 11 points of a championship clinching game and ended it with a stat line of 26-7-10, could play his next contest coming off the bench, however there is certainly a case for it.
In those first couple minutes in Game 6 of The Finals, we saw just how capable Lowry is of taking over a game offensively. Though he’s on the wrong side of 30, and Freddy is on the right, implying decline for Lowry and improvement for VanVleet, he should still be the superior offensive player. Both have a similar defensive identity, and both are great leaders on and off the court, so there’s not much of a pros and cons list to develop on that front.
Likely, the decision comes down to playmaking ability, and particularly, where that playmaking ability is needed. Without spoiling the remainder of this piece, my predicted starters outside of the point guard spot were good for 9.2 assists per game last season, while my predicted bench players minus Freddy or Kyle dished 5.2 dimes per contest.
Given the fact that last season, Lowry was good for 3.9 more assists per game than Fred, it might make more sense to play Kyle with the bench lineup in order to avoid a stagnant offense at any point. That would also allow VanVleet to play alongside his best bud, Pascal Siakam, who are better running mates than Lowry and Siakam, posting a plus-minus of +14.3 compared to +12.9.
Logically, the shift makes complete sense, however basketball goes way beyond logic. There are factors that can’t be mathematically predicted (the energy that a team plays with, the chemistry between different sets of players, etc.), and there are tough decisions for Nick Nurse to make. Ultimately, I can’t see Lowry moving into a bench role just yet, however that could change as the season moves forward.
Let’s keep it short and sweet: in a pool that consists of Matt Thomas, Terence Davis, Norman Powell, and Patrick McCaw, there’s simply no chance Norman Powell doesn’t start. Thomas and Davis are both undrafted rookies who will have to earn every second on the court that they see, and while there were a couple of games last season where McCaw came off the bench before Norm, the guy who has played an instrumental role in leading us past the Bucks not once, but twice, is poised to finally capture his consistent minutes. Norm is a more mature player, a better shooter, a more dynamic scorer, and a more versatile defender.
This season, there will be a couple players slotted into positions which they are not particularly comfortable with, and it will be Nurse’s job to get them to buy in. The first of whom is likely Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. With Siakam’s stardom looming, Spicy P is a lock to start at power forward where he seems most comfortable, leaving a cornucopia of competition between OG Anunoby, Stanley Johnson, and RHJ for the other starting forward spot.
Each of the above have started for their respective teams for the majority of their careers. None of them are dynamic enough offensively to play in the backcourt, so at least two of them will be moved into a bench role. Each of them possesses a similar skillset with small differences: OG is the best shooter of the three, Rondae is the best shot-blocker, and Stanley is probably the best at creating his own shot. They’re all capable of guarding anyone on the floor from the 1 to the 4 spot, are all strong finishers, and are all uber-athletic.
Ultimately, I believe the battle will be won based on tenure: OG has been with the team two years longer than the latter, he knows how to play alongside Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, and he’ll seamlessly integrate himself with the team again after missing the entire playoffs due to an emergency appendectomy.
Assuming that Norman Powell wins the spot at the 2 guard, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will be coming off the bench, likely with Stanley playing at the 3, and with Rondae at the 4. I also wouldn’t count out the possibility of either of them winning the starting spot over OG as the season goes on, as they’re all young, and it’ll be a race to see who can break out first.
The only two words truly necessary here are Pascal, and Siakam. While he’s going to start, become the first scoring option, and transition from star to superstar, there’s more to the 4 spot than just who starts. As aforementioned, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should be penned as the power forward off the bench, however against bigger teams, Nurse could experiment with bringing Siakam off the floor early, and running with two bigs in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, as we began to see more of last year during the playoffs. This would leave Siakam returning off the bench early in the second quarter as the 5 man. Such a gameplan would give Dewan Hernandez or Chris Boucher the opportunity to get involved, if the matchups dictate a ‘pound it in the paint’ type of game, in which it would be hard to use Siakam and one of Rondae, Stanley, or OG as your frontcourt pair. Rather, Siakam and Hernandez/Boucher offers more size, length, and shot blocking ability, which is also intriguing because that would leave you with a lineup in which everyone is capable of handling and pushing the ball, which could lead to an abundance of fastbreak opportunities.
Obviously this is all speculation, however such a scenario seems likely to occur at least a few times throughout the course of the season. Nurse’s uncanny willingness to experiment mid-game could lead to some exciting basketball for Raptors fans.
Internal and competition are the words of the day. When Marc Gasol first arrived in Toronto, he came off the bench for his first few games, leaving Serge Ibaka in the starting lineup during the midst of what some say was the best all-around season of his career. Eventually, what was expected all along came to fruition, as Gasol started his first game for the Raptors on February 24th in a loss to the Orlando Magic, and he wouldn’t give up his role from that point on.
Gasol still seems like the superior player on both ends of the floor, acting as a better playmaker, better shooter (except from Ibaka’s Stephen curry-esque three-pointer over Ben Simmons), and an absolute conductor on the defensive end. He rendered Nikola Vucevic useless in the First-Round series against Orlando, helped slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Conference Finals, won the battle against Demarcus Cousins at the apex, and literally sent Joel Embiid home crying.
Unlike the competition between Kyle and VanVleet, there doesn’t seem to be too many reasons favouring Ibaka to start. While Ibaka may still see the floor first against smaller lineups, it’s most likely that Marc Gasol is the Raptors’ starting centre next season.
PG – Kyle Lowry (26 mins)
SG- Norman Powell (24 mins)
SF – OG Anunoby (28 mins)
PF – Pascal Siakam (33 mins)
C – Marc Gasol (26 mins)
PG – Fred VanVleet (25 mins)
C/PF – Serge Ibaka (24 mins)
SF/PF – Stanley Johnson (20 mins)
PF/SF – Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (20 mins)
SG/SF – Patrick McCaw (14 mins)
SG – Matt Thomas
SG – Terence Davis
PF/C – Dewan Hernandez
PG – Cameron Payne
PF/C – Chris Boucher