Despite Lowry Setback New Look Raptors Aim to Win Now

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NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers

How good are the Toronto Raptors really?

Alongside the Houston Rockets, the Raptors were one of two contending teams to make major additions at the deadline. It signaled something significant from a front office that to this point has seemed content to play out the string on their current roster. Since the proposed Kyle Lowry to the Knicks trade fell through in 2013 and the trade of Rudy Gay, the Raptors have experienced a renaissance, with both team and organizational success of a once unthinkable degree. This was the direct result of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan emerging as a genuine All-Star backcourt, and a series of smart supplemental moves made by former Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri.

But even after the raptors achieved a franchise record setting 56 win season including a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last year. The same question remained, the same question that Masai Ujiri has had to contemplate since the DeRozan/Lowry backcourt found its groove under head coach Dwayne Casey.

How good a team are we really? Can this team really compete for a championship?

Even with winning two playoff games last year against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors are still treated with limited respect. For example in last year’s playoffs, after the Cleveland Cavaliers lost games 3 and 4 in Toronto, and headed towards what most would call a must win situation in game 5 in Cleveland, LeBron had only this to say:

“I’ve been a part of some really adverse situations and I just didn’t believe this was one of them”

LeBron backed it up as the Cavaliers went on to dominate the Raptors in games 5 and 6.

Though the team ended up taking the Cav’s to 6 games, no Raptors observer would credit them with anything more than a B minus for their playoff run last year. Paul George was moments away from knocking off the Raptors more or less by himself in round 1, and it took the full 7 games again to defeat a depleted Miami squad. And throughout the 2016 playoffs, Lowry and DeRozan struggled, both with weariness and with making shots.

And it wasn’t a minor drop off. Last year their shooting percentages in the playoffs was last in the league for active players in the NBA. Their effective field goal percentage, PER, True Shooting, all go in the tank come the post season. Lowry’s PER for the last two playoffs? 8.1 and 16.6. In the regular season the last 2 years? His PER is 22.2 and 23 respectively.

A lot of this comes down to wear and tear, but a lot of that isn’t mere luck. Lowry came into the playoffs last year worn down by playing the highest minutes per game of his career (37) and nursing a nagging injury. This year? Lowry, at 30, had actually increased his minute total to 37.7. And then word came in Monday that Lowry would be out due to surgery on his wrist. Team officials say the aim is to have him back for the playoffs and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical said that Lowry could return in as few as 4-5 weeks, but all of this is guess work for now.

Kyle Lowry participated in the 3 point contest and played in the All Star game despite the fact that his wrist was heavily braced. Regardless if he aggravated the injury or not it was a bad look to come out of the break missing time. Now that he actually has to have surgery, things go from bad to worse. Though they’re 3-0 in his absence to date, it will be no simple thing to replicate his production by committee.

Though Lowry is the engine that makes this team run, they are one of the deeper teams in the league, particularly given the reinforcements gifted to them at the trade deadline.

Masai Ujiri believed enough of what he saw to make win-now moves at the deadline, acquiring Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to fill much needed roles on a Raptors team determined to return to the Eastern Conference Finals. With Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, PJ Tucker, and Patrick Patterson all up for new contracts this offseason, the Raptors playoff success will play a deciding role in who stays on the roster next season. Now it’s widely assumed that the Raptors will sign Lowry to a max and that will be that, but if the Raptors fall in the first round – will ownership be willing to go into the luxury tax to keep a team together that isn’t truly contending?

Interesting though they may be, those are questions for the off season. What there is no question about is that Masai Ujiri has made this team better in the short term, but how much better exactly?

In today’s NBA people talk about small ball, but what they really mean is skill ball. Do you have shooting at every position? Can you switch on defense? Do you have dynamic guard play? And ultimately, do you have a scheme to defend against LeBron James surrounded by shooters?

A closing lineup of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, PJ Tucker, and Patrick Patterson has real versatility. And if there are injuries or preferable matchups, sliding quality players like Carroll, Joseph, Valanciunas, or Powell into one of those spots can work too.

On paper at least, the Raptors can now check every box. The major reason for that is the addition of Serge Ibaka, normally a power forward, who will see crunch time minutes at the 5 in the playoffs.

The price that Orlando paid OKC for Serge Ibaka was absolutely too high, and I think that has unjustly damaged Ibaka’s reputation.  The Cousins trade was also so lopsided that it looks even worse now. While his athleticism and block numbers have steadily declined from his peak 5 years ago, Serge Ibaka is still an extremely skilled player and has developed into a very good outside shooter. He is the best power forward that the Raptors have had in this incarnation of the team, and it’s not a close contest.

Though Ross has a reputation as a marksman, Serge is a better shooter than Terrance Ross both from behind the arc as well as closer to the basket. Given that the development of Norman Powell made Ross somewhat expendable, the move makes perfect sense.

People are quick to forget that the original blowing a 3-1 lead jokes were about the OKC Thunder verses the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 western conference finals. But before OKC collapsed, they had the Warriors on the ropes, and Serge Ibaka’s defense and versatile offensive game were a big part of that. His effective field goal %  (.548) is second only to Lowry on the entire team (.570). Not only that, but Ibaka actually plays better in the playoffs. His effective field goal % for the last two playoffs of .609 and .617 eclipse Lowry’s best regular season performance and that is without considering Kyle’s significantly depressing playoff numbers. Serge has already closed games for the Raptors since the trade and the spacing he creates is glorious.

PJ Tucker excels at one on one defense, and if all goes according to plan, he will be tasked with guarding LeBron James the majority of his minutes on the court. Perhaps a more under the radar move, PJ Tucker, who began his NBA journey with a brief stint as a Raptor, could be just as critical to their playoff success. Tucker is a physical and savvy defender, capable of both wearing down offensive stars like George as well as stripping an Isaiah Thomas (as he did in Fridays game against Boston). With DeMarre Carroll having struggled due to injury since his Raptors debut, Tucker provides yet another defensive option on the wing to match up with Lebron James, Paul George, or Jimmy Butler.

Critically nothing the Raptors did cost them Patrick Patterson, who himself if returning from a nagging knee injury. Patterson, whose name was mentioned in the media during the frequent Paul Milsap trade speculation, is a key cog in Raptors closing lineups against Cleveland. Patterson doesn’t flash any elite skill, but rather does a little bit of everything. He can switch on defense, shoot 3’s, and generally is in the right places at the right moments. Losing Patterson would have really hurt the Raptors chances against Cleveland’s crunch time line ups, and his retention is further proof that Masai’s eye is on the ultimate goal: beating Cleveland.

Cleveland killed the Raptors whenever they played traditional bigs like Jonas Valanciunas, particularly ones that struggled to switch out to the arc and defend the likes of Channing Frye or Kevin Love when they were slotted at the 5. JV just isn’t a big that can survive a series with the Cavaliers, and Masai knows this. If the Raptors experience success comparable or better than last year with some combination of Ibaka and Patterson, don’t be surprised if Jonas is subsequently moved during the summer.

The Lowry injury is a real setback and with 22 games left, every game that he misses will count for something. They are not only important due to the need to integrate new important pieces lbaka and Tucker, but due to a rough stretch the Raptors now find themselves in a dogfight for seeding in the East. They’re neck and neck with the Wizards for the 3 seed right now, but with Atlanta Hawks only 2.5 games behind in 5th, the Raptors are no longer a lock for home court advantage.

How the Raptors play in this closing stretch will be a strong factor that determines if they will be successful in their coming playoff hopes, if the team rallies in Kyle’s absence and Ibaka and Tucker slot in seamlessly, this is a team that could make a deep playoff run yet again.

Masai has made his play, now it’s for the Raptors to make theirs.

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