No need to mince words here; the Raptors’ performance over the last two weeks is of major concern, not only for the fans, but the franchise itself. This stretch of play saw them lose five straight games at one point, rounded off by a disappointing effort against a struggling Magic team that they defeated handily earlier in the season. The usual stout defensive effort has been waning in recent weeks, and as a whole, their team defence is not what it was from a year ago, falling from 11th in the league (102.7 Def Rtg) to 18th this year (105.8). And despite the record setting offensive efficiency we were treated to in the early months of the season, the short-comings of this offence have been put on full display during the Raptors’ five-game losing streak.
It is no secret that the Raptors rely heavily on their All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan for much of the offensive production. Lowry continues to anchor this Raptor team, and while DeRozan is enjoying his best season as a pro, the tandem boast a combined 59% usage rate and it begs the question, what happens when either of their shots don’t fall? Can the rest of the team pick up the slack?
It isn’t merely the losing streak itself, but more so the caliber of the teams that the Raptors have lost to that has garnered angst among the fans, and commentators alike. The compete level was simply not present during those losses. Questionable shot selection, the lack of defensive intensity, and the loss of mental acuity all attributed to a Raptors squad that seemed defeated from the onset of adversity. A team fresh off of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, with the core of its players intact, should not be losing to the likes of the Sixers, Suns or the Magic. No disrespect to those teams, but the days of mediocrity in Toronto are over and as such the team needs to be held to a higher standard.
The biggest issue the team faces is that essentially, their success lies in the hands of Lowry and DeRozan. If either of the two struggle on any given night, it is a toss up to see how the rest of the team will respond. In the losses to the teams mentioned above, DeMarre Carroll struggled heavily on both ends of the floor, boasting a combined -13, while shooting just 27% from the field over that three game stretch. Cory Joseph, who normally provides quality minutes off the bench fared no better, highlighted by the loss to the Suns in which he shot 1 for 5 and finished with an abysmal -14, as he struggled to contain Eric Bledsoe. While Jonas Valanciunas has been the lone consistent force for the Raptors during this losing spell, his inconsistency on the defensive end has resulted in a hesitant Dwane Casey from giving the Lithuanian meaningful minutes in the 4th quarter (Though his defence is much improved, which is saying a lot).
This is the heart of the issue. When the Raptors struggled last year offensively, they could at least produce a lineup that would get defensive stops while their offense stalled. The departure of Bismack Biyombo in the offseason lead to questions about Toronto’s depth defensively, and as we are witnessing, these concerns are very real. In the loss to the Sixers, the Raptors simply could not stop Joel Embiid, who finished the game with a staggering +20. Head Coach Dwane Casey rolled out a Lowry/DeRozan/Carroll/Siakim/Valanciunas lineup for 10+ minutes that allowed an opposing 55.6 field goal percentage, while shooting a meager 37.5% themselves.
In the loss to the Suns, the Raptors were outscored 33-18 in the 4th as Phoenix shot 55% in the quarter, getting to the line to make 12 of 13 attempts, while the Raptors shot just 26%. The defensive lapses were most notable in the loss to Orlando. The lineup of Joseph/DeRozan/Carroll/Siakim/Valanciunas went -17 in just over a 4 minute span, all part of the 19-0 run the Magic mounted in the 2nd quarter. Quite frankly, the Raptors cannot expect to win games when they are unable to get stops on the defensive end.
Casey has struggled to find his go-to defensive lineup with the vacancy left by Biyombo, who signed with Orlando during the free agency. He has often cycled between Siakim, and predominately Nogueira of late, however neither have produced the same consistency the hulking Biyombo provided in shot-blocking, and most important the pick and roll defence. His unique combination of size, mobility and defensive IQ has been sorely missed in the rookie Siakim, who is still learning the pace of the NBA game, and Nogueira, who has shown glimpses of defensive potential, but has yet to fully grasp defensive schemes and rotations.
Had this been the case last year, there would not be as much distress as there is now. The Raptors would have been able to mitigate such mediocre play against a level of competition in the East that was simply unmatched aside from Cleveland.
However, this season we have seen Isaiah Thomas’ meteoric rise carry the Celtics to the 2nd seed. The once wayward Wizards are now contending for the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference, rising to 4th seed backed by the the self-proclaimed best backcourt in the league of Wall and Beal. The Pacers at the 6th seed remain a threat, speared on by the three-headed monster of Teague, George, and Turner, while the Hornets (albeit in the 8th seed) are lead by the outstanding play of Kemba Walker, and their consistent defensive prowess. Rounding out the remaining playoff spots are the Hawks in the 5th seed, and the Bulls at the 7th seed; and while both teams are currently underachieving, they can and have caused issues for the Raptors this season. Suffice to say, the Raptors cannot be afforded the same margin of error that they had last season.
In recent years, Casey has been made to be the scapegoat for many of the Raptors issues and bad performances, and while I remain a skeptic of Dwane Casey, I believe that the issues the team are faced with currently is a matter of player personnel rather than coaching. Their defensive struggles this season, dependence on Lowry and DeRozan to carry them offensively, and the rising competition in the East are all valid reasons for the Raptors to be actively pursuing a trade opportunity, with the likes Ibaka and Millsap being thrown around in trade discussions of late. The time to win is now, and while I have (and still) trust Masai’s prudent approach towards the franchise, the reality is that this Raptors team is as good as it’s going to get unless they make a play for a third star.
Everyone around the league knows that they are a quality power forward away from contending for the Eastern Conference title. Lowry will most likely resign with the Raptors this offseason for the max, or near-max (deservedly so), which doesn’t make a play for Ibaka or Millsap very favourable since both are UFAs at the end of the season as well. However, if the Raptors can manage a trade where they don’t have to give up Norman Powell, I would be all in. They have trade-able pieces in the Clippers’ 1st rounder this year, which holds some value. Terrance Ross is on a salary cap-friendly contract and his play this season has helped his trade stock. Add another piece to the trade and there potentially could be something substantial enough to garner interest.
I’ll admit that the asking price for Millsap will be steep, and considering that he will be turning 32 in a week and most likely commanding a max contract in the offseason, trading for him does not seem all that appealing. Ibaka on the other hand will be turning 28 next season, and Orlando has made it known they are actively shopping around their crowded front court. A trade for Ibaka would immediately address the Raptors’ defensive issues, while providing the spacing offensively they have so desperately wanted. I understand the fears that either Ibaka or Millsap would walk in free agency, but jumping to that conclusion would be short-sighted. Should they acquire either of the two stars, how the Raptors perform for the remainder of the season, as well as in the playoffs certainly should be taken into account once the season ends. Perhaps the team unites and they realize that together, they will have the greatest opportunity to compete for the championship.
I believe a trade for Ibaka is very much in the realm of possibilities. The Raptors were actively pursuing him just this past offseason, however the Thunder were asking for too much for Masai to warrant a trade, and subsequently Ibaka was dealt to Orlando. Perhaps this time around, dealing with a different front office could bring the trade to fruition. Ibaka has his ties with Masai, going back to their involvement with the NBA Africa game, and it certainly will be a considerable factor should the Raptors have a chance to resign him. But I won’t get carried away talking in hypotheticals; as we approach the midway point of the NBA season, I can only hope that there will be a new dawn on the Raptors’ horizon.