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The Toronto Raptors are still trying to find their way

Coming into the 2020-2021 season, the Toronto Raptors were a lot like me in grade five.

Uh, let me explain.

No, they aren’t obsessed with their PlayStation 2 and Pop Tarts but grade five was the first time I went to a new school.

I switched midway through the year (a poor decision in hindsight) and I was so nervous.

I’ve become a more outgoing person but I was so much more shy back then. It took me a while to get used to my new surroundings and find which people made me comfortable.

I think anyone who has switched schools or went to a new school can relate to how the Raptors felt heading into the year.

Coming out of what was already a strange end to last season in the Disney World bubble, the Raptors were forced into new surroundings in Tampa Bay; which is weird enough without adding the league’s ever-changing health and safety protocols. They were also without two of their stalwarts from their championship run and in came a new group of role players that would need to find their way fitting with the existing core.

Despite it all, there wasn’t a team that I thought was more built to handle that adversity than the Raptors.

Well, they started 2-8 and fans were stressed out. The team even told Pascal Siakam to take a seat for a whole game and that was their first win!

The takes were as spicy as Pascal’s nickname.

But there were signs of a good team underneath that less-than-ideal record.

They shared the same record with the Detroit Pistons but had a better net rating (minus-1.4) than the 6-5 Orlando Magic (minus-4.2).

Like I had to in grade five, Nick Nurse needed to figure things out.

The Big Six™

Aron Baynes, the man brought in as a replacement for the outgoing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, went from starting the first seven games to playing a combined 11 minutes and 53 seconds in the next five games, including three straight DNP-CD’s.

In their seventh and eighth losses, Nurse essentially played six guys. It was hard to trust anyone off the bench not named Chris Boucher, who has become the actual replacement for Gasol and Ibaka.

But in those games, they found something that would help turn their season around: small ball.

That’s what you need to navigate your new surroundings; find a group you can trust and stick with it. Whether that was me finding a small group of friends in my new school and bonding over Pokemon or the Raptors small ball group bonding over playing fast and getting offence in transition.

The Big Six™ rotation of Boucher, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam has provided the foundation for the Raptors best lineups.

The numbers in the far right column is each lineups net rating (plus-44.1 is, uh, very good).

Since that start, the Raptors are 15-11 and have a net rating of plus-2.5, good for the 11th-best in that span.

But if those lineups are crushing opponents, why did the Raptors enter the All-Star Break two games under 0.500?

In what seems like a recurring theme in recent years for the Raptors, their best players haven’t played together as much as they’d like.

Injuries (and more recently, health and safety protocols) have taken away 13 games from Anunoby, seven from Lowry, six from Siakam, and two each from VanVleet and Powell.

When forced to go away from the group that you trust and what makes you comfortable, things don’t always go smoothly.

The Raptors no longer have a vaunted Bench Mob that can carry the load when the starters need a rest. While they’ve gotten surprisingly not-terrible contributions from Stanley Johnson, DeAndre’ Bembry, and Yuta Watanabe, those aren’t players who can take the pressure off offensively. No one outside of the Raptors Big Six™ has a positive box plus/minus or RAPTOR wins above replacement.

But those guys play hard and make the opponent work on offence so you live with it for limited minutes.

Let’s talk big picture

Another key I found when switching schools was to find a teacher who really wants to make an impact, make the transition easier for you, and make you better. Same with a coach.

Enter Chris Finch.

A cause for concern last year was that the Raptors league-average offence couldn’t score in the half court, ranking 16th in offensive rating and 15th in half court offence.

Finch helped the Raptors jump to 10th in offensive rating and 13th in half court offence. It should also be mentioned he made them an even better transition offence, going from eighth in points per play to sixth.

They aren’t getting shots at the rim as often as last year (third highest frequency to 13th) and they still aren’t great finishing around the rim (right around 61 percent) but their corner three-point shooting has risen to a top ten rate.

But that teacher coach left for another job and that will be one of the big questions going into the second half of the season; can the Raptors remain a top ten offence without Finch?

The new cause for concern is the defence, which has regressed from second in defensive rating last year (105.3) to 14th (112.4). They still allow an egregious number of threes, but the most concerning trend is that their defence at the rim has plummeted to a bottom ten level.

Although this is a natural byproduct of playing small with no traditional centre on the floor, it is something that could be a concern in the second half as even some lineups with a traditional centre like Boucher or Baynes are getting whooped at the rim.

But as you saw earlier, the Raptors best lineups have been very good at the defensive end, even if they’re getting killed at the rim. They force a ton of turnovers which allows them to get to their strengths in transition.

Looking ahead

There are always going to be bumps in the road when you transition to a new place for the first time. It’s only human natural.

The Raptors have had their bumps in the road and then some.

But there’s also been a lot to be positive about.

The best version of this team was the one we saw from January 31st to February 21st where they went 9-3 including wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks (twice, on the road), and Philadelphia 76ers. They had a plus-6.6 net rating (fourth best in that stretch) and aside from a weird loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves (which, uh, had this happen) the other losses were on the second night of a back-to-back.

VanVleet was a very worthy All-Star candidate and an All-Defence Team selection is well within his reach this season, and I’m sure everyone remembers what he can do at the offensive end.

Boucher has emerged as a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player by becoming a flamethrower from beyond the arc. Seriously, his numbers are pretty much the same across the board but he has become an elite shooter.

Powell is a legit 50/40/90 guy as a starter this year and one of the main beneficiaries of the Raptors going small. In 20 games since becoming a starter full-time on January 22nd against the Miami Heat, Powell has averaged over 23 points a night on 67 percent true shooting.

We haven’t seen the full “OG Breakout SZN” that fans expected but he missed a chunk of games and has progressed in some areas. His finishing at the rim has gotten better again and so has his three-point shooting. In isolation — an area where fans wanted to see the most improvement — he is scoring an even 1.00 points per possession, which is nearly double his mark from last season (0.56) and his frequency of iso possession has also nearly doubled.

The two biggest questions facing this team going into the second half are:

  • Is this team as constructed good enough to compete for a championship?
  • If not, do you look at the possibility of trading Lowry?

It’s not going to be an easy decision to make, but it’s one that could be staring the Raptors in the face if management decides the first question is “no.”

The Raptors are beginning to find their way in their new environment. It hasn’t been easy, but it was never going to be.

Heading into the second half of the season, things could get even harder if Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster decide to take this team in another direction but if my grade five experience has taught me anything, it’s that when times get tough, turn on your GameBoy, play Pokemon Fire Red, and enjoy what comes next.

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