The Toronto Raptors are off to their worst start in the Kyle Lowry era. Two games into the season, they were treading unknown waters. Five games later having only picked up one win against the lowly (although off to a hot start) New York Knicks, panic has begun to ensue. Are the 2019 NBA Champions, who are still holding onto two All-NBA level players and the reigning Coach of The Year really heading back to the lottery? Thus far, it appears so.
“It’s a fine line between being good and bad,” Lowry said to the media after Monday’s horrendous loss to the Boston Celtics. “I’ve learned that there are things that have to be adjusted in the way we play and how we think. It’s about playing basketball harder and wanting to win.”
While Lowry certainly isn’t wrong that playing the game with more passion would lead to a more fluid offense, a more communicative defense, and a better record, the win-at-all-costs point guard failed to acknowledge the greatest shortcoming of his team: the fact that they are getting nothing out of the centre position.
Coming into this year’s campaign, it was obvious that the Raptors were taking a step back in the frontcourt, presumably in favour of keeping the books clear to chase Giannis Antetokounmpo in the summer if he were to hit free agency. Unfortunately, the opportunity to meet with the Greek Freak never even came to fruition. After Masai Ujiri and company let Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka walk to the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers respectively for longer term deals, Toronto’s front office attempted to cushion the blow by bringing in Aron Baynes, Alex Len, and re-signing Chris Boucher on a team-friendly deal. Understandably when you go from paying two centres $50M per year, to three centres $15M per year, there will be a drop-off in play. Until now, it has been noticeable and costly.
While Boucher has provided the team with a couple of career nights already, his productivity is matchup driven. Weighing only 210 pounds, he’s approximately 45 pounds lighter than the average NBA centre, and therefore he struggles to compete with opposing bigs in the paint – unless of course – they are undersized as well. Jakob Poeltl of the San Antonio Spurs presented a favourable matchup for Boucher, which allowed the Canadian to see 28 minutes of floor time, and finish the game with 22 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 blocks. the following game against the Philadelphia 76ers however, he was virtually unplayable, and only earned himself five minutes on the court.
Baynes on the other hand hasn’t been able to provide much for the Raptors on either side of the ball. His inability to finish inside has cost the Raptors several points each game, while those negative contributions offensively have only been compounded by his fumbling of passes, and his 18.8% shooting percentage from beyond the arc which is crowding the paint for his teammates. Len didn’t have any expectations coming into the season, and wasn’t slated to earn meaningful minutes, although if the poor play from Baynes continues, he could find his place in the rotation sooner rather than later.
Ultimately, it was the centre position’s lack of production that handed the Raptors their sixth loss of the season. After a heartbreaking loss to the Celtics which uncharacteristically saw Lowry lay over, the team bounced back in honourable fashion last night. Pascal Siakam finally broke out of his ten-month long slump. Fred VanVleet continued along his quest to become an All-Star this season. OG Anunoby looked as involved offensively as he’s been all season, and Lowry was back to bulldogging his way to the rim. Sadly, any potency ended there.
The Raptors appear to be a four-man squad this season, and even when all four of those guys show up, it’s not enough to beat good teams like the Phoenix Suns. The missing piece from the puzzle is a contributing centre.
Of course, it’s easy to shift the blame on a veteran like Norman Powell. He’s a guy who is capable of playing much better than he has been. He’s even had stretches good enough to earn Eastern Conference Player of the Week honours, but the reality is that Powell is not a consistent player, and he cannot be relied upon as a top-five player on a team that wants to compete.
Relying on Powell to that extent also necessitates closing out games with a small ball lineup featuring OG Anunoby as the centre. While the lineup of Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Siakam, and Anunoby has outscored opponents by nearly a point per minute this season, asking Anunoby to play heavy minutes at the five would put him at greater risk of injury, and cause a lot of wear and tear on his body.
Ultimately, the Raptors 1-6 record ranking 29th is not truly indicative of how good they are. This team is by no means competitive to the standard that Raptors fans have become accustomed to, but they are certainly better than the story that the box scores would tell. If Siakam, Lowry, VanVleet, and Anunoby can continue to play like they did last night, a .500 record could be in the Raptors near future. Ultimately if this team is serious about competing, they’ll need to get active on the trade market and find a centre who can help them out. Right now, online betting odds state that a Raptors trade is looming.