Since December 28th, the Raptors have hobbled their way to a meager record of 8-12, with an unpleasant 2-7 in their last 9. Although Demar has been present for all but 5 of these 20 games, he’s certainly been playing hurt - and it shows. What is shown more evidently, however, is how much the Raptors struggle without him on the court, and when he’s not at 100%.
To add to the Raptors struggles, they haven’t been receiving consistent play from their role players. It puts Casey in a difficult position, not knowing who is going to show up on any given night. The most convoluted case of them all is the return of Jared Sullinger. It’s tough to slot a known contributor back into a role when he’s so far from 100%.
These are a plethora of factors that have attributed to the Raptors’ New Years Blues. Hopefully, the team can rally around their leaders. This ship needs to be turned around before it sails even further south, down the Eastern Standings.
The Absence of a Star
Out of Dwane Casey’s top 10 lineups, Demar is featured in 8 of them. The two lineups without him consist of:
Lineup #2: Lowry - Joseph - Ross - Patterson - Nogueira … +14.3 points per 100 possessions
Lineup #10: Lowry - Joseph - Ross - Patterson - Poeltl … -12.3 points per 100 possessions
So without DeRozan, Casey usually flips in Powell or Ross to cover for him. Although Powell has seemed to soak up more of the minutes, neither of them possess the amount of creativity, footwork, and poise to play DeRozan's role on offense. This puts Casey in a bind. So much of the Raptors offense is based upon putting players in the position to score or to create - and let them do the work.
This is quite commonly used to set up Lowry for a properly placed pick and roll or get DeRozan the ball with his back to the basket, on the elbow. We commonly saw this with Lou Williams a couple of years ago. Whenever he’d sub on with the bench unit, it would be a double off the ball screen at each elbow; he’d run horizontally through them, catch the ball on the wing, and attack.
I’m not saying the Raptors offense is bad, but I’m not saying it’s good either. It simply needs creativity from the players to work. Apart from Lowry, the only players who can create their own shot off the dribble are Ross and Powell - and they can be inconsistent, to say the least.
So what happens when Derozan isn’t at 100% or isn’t playing at all? Simply put, the Raptors offense falters. Derozan can suck in so many defenders and finish in traffic. Also, his ability to kick the ball out to open shooters has improved exponentially. Despite being knocked by certain NBA viewers for taking too many shots, Derozan is always the #1 focus for other teams, and this makes everyone else’s job easier.
Without a doubt, Lowry can shoulder the load. But with no Demar, the opposing team's’ best defender, and their focus is immediately zeroed in on Lowry. Kyle is an adept pick and roll user, and you see it every single night. Truly, enough can’t be said about him, but I’ll try to later on in this piece.
So with no Derozan, it’s clear that the Raptors offense falters. This obviously isn’t a shock to anyone; he’s a superstar. He is a such a crucial piece of the Raptors rotations, which when he’s absent, it leaves Casey at a loss of options. It’s apparent that Powell is the lone player that Casey trusts in his place, but it’s tough to go from Derozan to Powell, and expect identical results in the same offense.
The Sullinger Crises
Remove one Demar Derozan, insert one Jared Sullinger. As a matter of fact, this isn’t even one Jared Sullinger; this is a fraction of one Jared Sullinger. Whether it is entirely HIS fault, or not - Jared is completely out of game shape. Despite a pleasant 13 and 6 game in his return to Boston, his on-court performance has been quite lousy. His in-game sense is still there, but his body can’t keep up.
Jared is the kind of guy who relies more on his center of gravity, strength, and intangibles, more than his athleticism - a la Zach Randolph, Boris Diaw, Chuck Hayes, etc. But right now, he doesn’t look like he’s ready to play. The desire is there, for sure; he’s a very hard worker. Going forward, however, a 905 rehab is where he should be.
Jack Armstrong said it well the other night; you want this guy to succeed, and to succeed, he needs to get his confidence back and get in shape. To accomplish all this, he needs minutes. But in his current state, he can’t contribute successfully - and right now, you gotta’ win games.
It may be a shot to his ego, but it would be for the best. Down the line, he may be a crucial piece for the Raptors come playoff time. At his current level of fitness, he’s only good for 10-15 minutes a game, and they aren’t significant minutes.
But what about when he is ready completely 100% and ready to roll? Whose minutes will he be eating up? Without a doubt, he’ll get burn over Siakam and Poeltl - who already barely play, but it’s tough to say if he’ll truly take a bite out of PPat, and Nogueira's minutes. For now, only time can tell.
The Rest of the Bunch
It’s more than Sullinger, though. Despite the stagnation of the offense, the biggest reason for the Raptors’ struggles lies here; role players NEED to step up. As Jack and Matt remind us every game, it’s the little things. It may be a difficult system to work into, but you have to step up and do whatever you can to win these games.
For me, it starts with Demarre Carroll. He hasn’t looked right this season. His basket drives tend to be weak and forced, and his three ball may or may not show up - most often not. His defense has been decent, as expected, but he has been downright awful down this losing stretch. Over the past 9 games, he’s put up 37 threes, hitting a total of 6. On top of that, it’s safe to say that a majority of these are open catch and shoot threes.
“Why doesn’t he just take it inside more?”
Well, those poor, woeful drives have been dropping at a rate of 37% over the past 9 games. He is in a funk, sure. But with DeRozan out, this is not the time to lose your confidence in the three-ball. Without DeRozan, his usage rate has gone up, and he’s scored less. A truly complicated case.
If he’s open, he’s got to shoot it. When he’s in rhythm, he usually has a great stroke. On top of that, he brings it every night and works his butt off. His struggles aren’t from a lack of effort. He’s a dynamic player that can fit into nearly any lineup, but it’s tough to play him when his shot has been so off. Going forward, he’s going to be slotted back to his usual role with Derozan coming back, which should result in more open shots.
Another point of emphasis is Jonas Valanciunas. Any given night, he’s good for a 10 and 10. He’s currently 21st in the NBA in post touches, but 13th in points per post touch. Simply put, JV doesn’t get the ball a lot in the post. I’m not saying that’s an issue; some nights, his finishing isn’t there. But you would think that his usage rate would increase with Derozan out, right? Wrong.
JV averages 11.8 and 10. In the past 6 games, DeRozan has only been present for 1. In the 5 that he missed, JV is putting up 9.2 and 10.2. To make matters worse (and weirder, perhaps), Jonas is taking one less shot in those 5 games.
Again, I’m not blaming Jonas, as I’m not entirely blaming Demarre. But without Derozan, it’s clear that it makes the game harder for these guys. JV gets so many easy looks simply from defenses being sucked into a Demar drive or a Lowry attack. Regarding the system, it’s never, ever, been oriented to feed it to JV - apart from the first possession of the quarter or the game.
JV will grind it out, though, as will Demarre. It’s a tough part of the schedule - right before the all-star break - and everyone is surely exhausted. But the lack of role-player support has truly been difficult to live with, and win games with. Going down the line, the disappearing act of T-Ross, CoJo’s meager production, the struggle between Pascal/Poeltl, Nogueira trying to fill Biyombo’s shoes, and the sporadic Normal Powell - everyone needs to be held accountable in this stretch.
Great teams don’t collapse in trying times. They don’t lose stretches of games without an individual player, and they don’t wilter on back-to-backs and road stretches.
For T-Ross, it’s a mystery to us all if he’s going to show up or not. He’ll snap for 20 or so points; then you won’t hear from him for 3 or 4 games. To pile on to it, his shot selection can be increasingly awful. He can get hot for sure, but occasionally he’ll hit a 3, then follow it up with a wild heat check that misses terribly. Shots like that can wipe out any offensive rhythm you think you had.
Since Cory Joseph’s career-high 33 points against the Nets on January 17th, he’s averaged 6 points on 53% shooting, 2.4 assists and just under 1 turnover a game. More often than not, Cojo either leads the second unit, or is played alongside Lowry.
When Joseph and Lowry share the court, they give the team a +6.6 boost to their points per 100 possessions, as opposed to the regular 5.4 points per 100 possessions that the Raptors share as a team.
CoJo plays with a chip on his shoulder, like Lowry, and he plays like a player much beyond his years. He’s a strong court leader and has a savvy basketball IQ. He doesn’t take bad shots, and he works entirely with the offense. But what if an offense is based upon creating your own shot from good angles? That’s where Cory may struggle, especially without Demar to feed it to.
Needless to say, the Raptors could use a little more production from him. He does all the little things, the correct way, but sometimes you honestly just need a guy to step up hit some shots. Again, this is where Derozan is missed. The blame doesn’t fall on anyone’s shoulders in particular, but the Raptors will need a little more than 6 and 2 from their 6th man.
At the beginning of the season, there was much speculation as to what rookie will win out for the most minutes. At this point in the season, it’s clear that Siakam is the more NBA-ready player. He soaked up Patterson’s minutes while he was out, but with his return, both of their game logs are littered with DNP’s. Pascal has a year on Jakob, but it’s clear that Casey is hesitant to give either of these guys any significant minutes.
Pascal will either get a DNP, or 10 minutes - depending on matchups. Poeltl will most likely get a DNP, but may be subjected to 3-8 minutes. These aren’t the guys to point fingers at to account for the Raptors struggles, but it would be nice if one or the other emerged as a significant contributor.
As of right now, it’s safe to say that Pascal is an NBA ready player. He still has much to learn, of course, but he has a positive defensive impact and plays with confidence. On the offensive side, however, he won’t do much besides crash the glass and hurt your spacing. Poeltl is quite similar. While Sully is rehabbed back to 100%, I assumed that these two would be taking a majority of his minutes, but Casey has opted to play Bebe at the 4 and keep these two on the bench.
Now Bebe is another story. When the Raptors didn’t match Orlando’s hefty offer for Biyombo, Lucas Bebe Nogueira knew he had big shoes to fill. Whether he’s done that or not, is up to speculation. It’s tough to formulate an opinion on whether or not he’s done his job correctly. Bebe can protect the rim and has shown some solid timing on his blocks. His timing and strength are far from Biyombo’s however, but that’s a lot to expect. But is it odd not to expect more? I mean, after all, Bebe and Bismack are both 24.
Lucas puts up 5 and 5.3 in 21 minutes a game. Last year, Biyombo put up 5.5 and 8 in 22 minutes a game. You can also argue that Biyombo is a much more capable rim protector. Although Bismack averaged 0.3 fewer blocks a game last season than Bebe does now, when Bismack contested shot, it went in 45.2% of the time, as opposed to Bebe’s 47.9%.
To simplify things:
Noguera 2016-2017: 5 PPG / 5.3 RPG / 1.9 BPG / 47.9% Opponents Contested FG% / 21 MPG
Biyombo 2015-2016: 5.5 PPG / 8.0 RPG / 1.6 BPG / 45.2% Opponents Contested FG% / 22MPG
Obviously, Bebe is doing similar work at a fraction of the cost. But it can’t be ignored that Bismack’s court presence is seriously missed. Lucas has the flexibility to be used at the 4 alongside Jonas, but losing Biyombo truly has hurt the Raptors depth. A player like him is tough to replace without having to splurge.
On the bright side, Nogueira is a plus/minus star. He’s third in total plus/minus despite being eighth in total minutes. Casey uses him in seven of the top twenty lineups for the Raps. In five of those seven, the lineup is in the positive for +/- per 100 possessions, and usually by a fair amount. (Lowry/Derozan/Powell/Patterson/Nogueira = +63.4 per 100 possessions).
Lastly, I’ll discuss Norman Powell. Enough can’t be said about him, and I truly don’t understand why Casey is so sporadic with his minutes. Norm will guard the other team’s best wing player, he’ll knock down threes, he can create in Casey’s offense, and his hustle will inevitably be there every night. The only defensive knock on him is that he may be too small to match up with other wings like Lebron, Kawhi, Durant, Melo etc. Essentially, he’ll guard positions one through three, unless the three is a stretch four.
Norm is a gamer - much like Lowry. He is a lot more stone-faced in his expression, but his intensity on both sides of the floor can rival Kyles. Athletically, he flat out jump through the roof. He gave the Raptors some great minutes in the playoffs, and he has been a complete diamond in the rough for us.
In my opinion, the only thing holding Norm back is his minutes. Casey has him on a pretty short leash, and whenever he gets off to a cold start, you won’t be seeing him again for any considerable amount of time. Like the rest of the bunch, Norm can also be inconsistent - on offense, at least. Defensively, he shows up every night.
Whether his shot is dropping or not, Norm is a high-motor defender who runs the floor like a maniac. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands, and he can create in Casey’s offense. Norm’s stats have skyrocketed without Derozan, as he’s done his best to fill the void.
2016-2017 Season: 7.9 PPG / 1.9 RPG / 1.0 APG / 45% FG% / 16.9 MPG
5 Games Without Demar: 17.2 PPG / 4.8 RPG / 2.0 APG / 52% FG% / 35.0 MPG
It’s clear that Casey has chosen Norm to fill Demar’s shoes and not T-Ross. It speaks volumes to who Casey trusts in the rotation.
The Home Stretch
With the Cavs dealing with their own issues, and the Celtics usurping Toronto for that coveted second spot, the Raptors have sadly sunk into the middle tier of teams with the Hawks and Wizards. Hopefully, the Raps’ can pull themselves out of this hole and get back to their usual ways of winning.
There is a lot of speculation in the Raptors camp, and it’s tough to say who’s to blame, or who to pinpoint for these struggles. With or without Derozan, everyone must be held accountable in a situation like this - even Dwane Casey.
The Raptors only have seven games left before the All-Star break:
Feb 3rd - @ Orlando
Feb 5th - @ Brooklyn
Feb 6th - vs. LA Clippers
Feb 8th - @ Minnesota
Feb 12th - vs. Detroit
Feb 14th - @ Chicago
Feb 15th - vs. Charlotte
These are going to be seven statement games. All but two of these squads are under .500 (Clippers .620, Bulls .500). The Raptors have a legitimate shot at going 7-0 in this final run. It’s going to be the home stretch, and I believe it will dictate if the front office is going to make any moves or not, before the fateful trade deadline on the 23rd.