The Toronto Raptors wrap up their four-game road trip tonight in Portland. They’re 1-2 on the trip. They’re now 2-7 on the season. Their two wins have come against the New York Knicks (who shot 3-for-36 from 3) and the Sacramento Kings (who are the Sacramento Kings). You can’t take a lot of positives from looking at the standings, but the Raptors are starting to find their identity again.
One of the recurring problems this season has been the contributions from the centre position. In Raptors regular season lore, Marc Gasol holding Joel Embiid to zero points ranks among the most memorable centre performances in franchise history. On the opposite end would be Aron Baynes and Alex Len combining for one point over two losses to Boston and Phoenix last week.
Granted, the early season struggles shouldn’t fall entirely on the shoulders of the new centre duo. Baynes has underperformed, struggling to finish at the basket and shooting below 20 percent from 3 after being a near 35 percent 3-point shooter the past two seasons, but he was never going to be a core part of this team’s offence. Len is a former lottery pick who is on his fourth NBA team. The Raptors—who reportedly started their offer to Serge Ibaka at $12 million for this season—are getting what they paid for (or aren’t paying for) at the centre position.
Even though he went through painful struggles on offence, Gasol helped raise the Raptors’ ceiling on both ends of the floor, with his passing and defensive presence. If Gasol raised the ceiling, then Ibaka raised the floor of this team, especially on the offensive end, where the Raptors have gone through droughts expected from a team who is shooting a lot of 3s, and not making many of them. Len and Baynes have neither raised the floor or the ceiling on either end of the floor.
Losing Gasol and Ibaka also removed two more pieces from the championship core, and without standout performances from the new centres so far, Nick Nurse has spent the first three weeks of the season searching for any semblance of a functional five-man lineup. The Raptors were the classic “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” team last year. At their best, they were connected, especially on the defensive end. The connectivity was nowhere to be found in this team’s first (and hopefully only) go as the Tampa Bay Raptors until Nurse finally excised Baynes and Len from the rotation in the second half against Sacramento on Friday, and again on Sunday against Golden State.
After weeks of searching, Nurse started the core group he could trust against the Warriors: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam. Chris Boucher and Yuta Watanabe were the first bigs off the bench. The Raptors struggled for stretches on offence, which is just a function of the roster’s limitations at this point, but they look much better overall, especially on the defensive end.
The Raptors haven’t made any excuses about their circumstances (playing away from home, playing at all during a pandemic) so we won’t make any for them, but you could argue it took Nurse about the length of a regular training camp and preseason to sift through his rotation in order to find the right mix. He will tinker again, and certain matchups will call on Baynes and Len, but at this point, you would imagine they are now situational players.
This new look will probably be the starting lineup for the foreseeable future (with the possibility of Boucher becoming the starter and Powell moving back into a sixth man role) if the Raptors want to avoid slipping further in the standings. Nothing has really changed from the start of the season in terms of the factors that will determine how far this team will go. Siakam—who has looked much more like himself on this road trip—has to play up to the All-Star level he showed in the regular season last year. Lowry and VanVleet have to be one of the best backcourts in the league. Anunoby has to raise his ceiling on offence and continue to be an elite perimeter defender. But the Raptors have at least figured out one problem and taken care of it, for now.
The issue with a slow start is that you don’t really have time to count moral victories, so even an encouraging performance against Phoenix and a spirited comeback against Golden State feel like losses the Raptors might regret in a few months. The positive, for now, is that the Raptors seem to have landed on a lineup and are rediscovering the identity that made them so good last season. Now, they’ll have to string together a couple of wins to turn this disappointing start into an afterthought.
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