It is a new (somewhat old now, but anyways) era of positionless basketball, and as Brad Stevens once put it, there’s ball handlers, wings, and big guys. Put a couple of each on the floor at a time, and you’ve got a basketball team. If this is so, why focus on the nitty gritty’s of what each position should entail? Well, the short answer is that we shouldn’t. The long answer is that theoretically for a basketball team to be at its best, there must be varying skillsets on the floor at the same time, in a way that the players’ skills compliment each other. This is why positions were invented in the first place, and though the era of fast-paced, versatile, spaced-out basketball has allowed us to be more lenient with how we view positions, a team would be toast if they scrapped the system altogether and started 5 guards, or 5 bigs. Like Aristotle said, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole… if your lineups are set properly.
For Nick Nurse, that is easier said than done. Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have scoured the globe looking for talent: from the Euroleague to the undrafted pool of players, to sign Matt Thomas and Terence Davis to NBA deals in an attempt to fill the void at the 2 guard, courtesy of Danny Green’s departure. Now rather than just a gaping hole, the vacancy at shooting guard feels like a crowded, yet still gaping hole. With all due respect to Norman Powell, Jordan Loyd, Matt Thomas, and Terence Davis, none of them stack up to the level of talent that Toronto basketball fans have been accustomed to seeing out of that spot over the past decade.
With few viable options left in free agency who would offer much of an improvement at that position, Nick Nurse will have to play with the cards he’s been dealt. After driving a Lamborghini all the way to the finish line, he needs to hop in this Toyota and figure out how to do the same.
It’s a situation in which he’ll have to get creative, and if anyone can handle adversity, it’s Nurse. With Norman Powell as the only true lock to get consistent minutes out of the four aforementioned players, Nurse might look to run 2-point guard lineups at times with both Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry on the floor together, or shift one of his combo forwards to the 2 guard, such as the 6’7 Stanley Johnson. Regardless of how Nurse plays his rotations out later in the game, it’s safe to assume that Powell will be starting.
Though neither Matt Thomas nor Terence Davis have established themselves as of yet, I’d expect at least one of them to play their way into the rotation by the end of the pre-season. They have different skillsets, with Matt Thomas serving as one of the best shooters on the team albeit a weaker defender, while Terence Davis is more of a hustle player who excels on the defensive end. With the lack of options at his disposal, Nurse will likely have to use one of these two guys on most nights. If neither of them are able to set themselves apart from the other as the clear-cut better player, their minutes throughout the season could be matchup driven.
Let’s take a closer look at the one guy who is presumably going to play heavy minutes next to Lowry in the backcourt next season: Norman Powell.
He was a fan favourite as a rookie, after impressing everyone with his hustle, and defense, after slipping all the way to the 46th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. His popularity elevated exponentially after he infamously dropped 25 points in Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1 of the 2017 NBA Playoffs, which ultimately swung the series in our favour.
He showed steady improvement in his second season as the 6th man, increasing his scoring average by 2.8 points per game in only 3.2 additional minutes. As a mature 24-year-old, he was showing that he belonged.
That same 2017 offseason, Masai Ujiri answered the prayers of Raptors fans, and dumped Demarre Carroll’s contract on the Brooklyn Nets after being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He then went on to pay Norman Powell the highest-possible maximum extension that he was eligible for at the time, removing any impediments between him and his opportunity to develop into a star. Prior to the 2017-2018 season, he was pegged as one of the favourites to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
Those hopes were quickly derailed. He started the first 11 games of the season, prior to suffering a shoulder injury, which allowed OG Anunoby to steal his starting spot. From that point on, the starting lineup was set in stone. Anunoby turned heads around the league, showing that he can be an elite 3-and-D wing, who Dwane Casey was not willing to move back into a smaller role. Powell couldn’t even play his way into the rotation off the bench, after the Raptors’ “Bench Mob” formed, which bolstered the Raptors to the 1st seed in the Eastern Conference. Nick Nurse, who was an assistant coach at the time, took responsibility for Powell’s exclusion from the bench unit. Nurse claimed that he had worked with the Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl all summer to build chemistry among them, and once they started dominating together in the season, it was hard to break that unit up.
Fast forward to the next offseason – last offseason. Powell was promised an opportunity from his new head coach after all the misfortune he had gone through. Again, he suffered more injuries, had nights that he started and excelled, and had nights where his butt was glued to the bench. The numbers look good, stating that he scored 8.6 points per contest while shooting a blistering 40% from beyond the arc, but his contributions were overshadowed by the great Kawhi Leonard.
As Raptors fans, we can’t let Norm’s rather good season leave a sour taste in our mouth because he couldn’t play up to the level of Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry, or Pascal Siakam. If you objectively look back at what Norm did this past year, he was a very solid role player, despite the inconsistency.
Once again, it’s a new year for Norman Powell. If he can stay healthy, then we know that he has the tools to be valuable. He has the ability to do a little bit of everything, and he’s still young, at just 26 years of age. Drastic improvement from Norm could be the secret to unlocking the Raptors’ potential next season, which is definitely within the realm of possibility. Bring back that 2017 love, because this is his year.