Let’s hand out some grades to pass the time on a Thursday afternoon.
The Raptors sit at 14-9 through the first quarter of the season. They have the ninth-best Net Rating (a smidge behind the Cavaliers), rank sixth in Offensive Rating, and 13th in Defensive Rating.
Those numbers are roughly in-line with preseason expectations, and save for a few fourth-quarter meltdowns, the Raptors have generally played very well. They’ve only been blown out once (against the Heat), and most impressively, have twice pushed the undefeated Warriors to the brink.
Their early success is made even more impressive by their road-heavy schedule. They’ve already played 13 games on the road – including 11 of their first 15 games – which made for very little time for practices. Nevertheless, the Raptors’ revamped defense looks decent (certainly much-improved) and a brilliant showing from svelte (oh, so, so, svelte) Kyle Lowry has masked any slip-ups from their very familiar perimeter-oriented offense.
Kyle Lowry – A+
It’s all been swept under the rug, but after the way Lowry no-showed in the playoffs against Washington, a substantial portion of the fanbase wanted Lowry to be shipped. Call it reactionary, call it spiteful, but it wasn’t entirely unfounded – Lowry looked pretty awful from January through April.
He’s come back with a renewed vigor. Lowry was always a chippy player, his fierce temperament would often spill onto the court. He would channel his anger on his drives, launching himself into the lane like a pinball and inviting contact as if bruises (himself, or on the defenders) counted for extra points. His temper burned bridges with coaches, he always played mad – at the odds of him making it, at the way management treated him, the way coaches benched him, at the refs, at everything.
Dude was just angry.
His temperament has changed, or rather, it’s constantly changed every since coming to the Raptors. He’s learned to play with a sense of calm, he’s more calculated, and he’s only turning on the aggression when it’s most needed. He’s not gambling as much on defense, he’s throwing less risky passes, he’s not flinging himself into the lane to bounce off bigs for free throws, he’s not taking “Fuck You” pull-ups just to say “Fuck You” (well, not as often), and he’s not nearly showing as much visceral frustration as he was last season.
Lowry’s learned to play within himself, within his new body, within his own team. He leads the team in just about every advanced metric, but you only need to see him play to understand his importance. He’s the smartest, most talented, and most courageous player. He’s found a peace within his game that’s eluded him since Houston, and it’s helped him hit the peak of his powers.
DeMar DeRozan – B+
Aside from his jumpshot, DeRozan has improved every facet of his game. He’s been more effective and reliable on defense now that DeMarre Carroll’s checking the stronger wing, DeRozan’s become a better passer (those drop-offs to Bebe in the lane, or kickouts to the corner 3-point shooter have been sweet), and he’s getting to the line at the highest rate of his career. He’s even forcing it a bit less on offens. Before, he’d spend an entire quarter trying to force his shots in the way he wants them. Now, he’s got enough tools to scrap his jumper in favor of post-ups, or becoming a point-forward, or playing off pin-downs.
But it still circles back to one thing with DeRozan: his jumper.
He’s hit 95 of his 271 jumpshots. That’s not a typo. He’s connected on 35.1 percent of his jumpers this season. And unless you’re elite at every other facet of the game (ie: prime Dwyane Wade), you can’t thrive as a shooting guard without having a jumper – especially when he’s a high-usage guard.
The conclusion here isn’t that DeRozan hurts the offense. He still does a number of functional tasks (ie: driving, pick-and-roll, drawing fouls, sparking transitions) that help the mechanism of how the offense flows, but it’s getting to the point where any jumpshot from DeRozan is an automatic win for the defense. And that just cannot happen.
DeMarre Carroll – C+
Expecting Carroll to be a star is fool-hardy. That’s not his game. He’s the very definition of a role player: he’ll fill any need but he needs to play off others.
But at times, it feels like the Raptors need him to be their third option, which has not proven to be a successful strategy. He looks awkward in the pick-and-roll, his favorite move when driving to the lane is this awkward push-floater (that clanks a lot because it’s very flat), and he’s not an inventive passer.
He’s found success when he sticks to his game: he’ll dutifully move the ball, he’ll flash into the lane for cuts, and he’ll reliably spot-up. But the Raptors have sometimes needed more out of him, especially when the power forward and shooting guard spots are struggling.
On defense, Carroll’s been as advertised. He’s a little too energetic for my liking (he makes the most aggressive closeouts I’ve ever seen, which is both good and bad), but he’s stepped up to the challenge against LeBron James and Paul George. Quicker shooting guards give him problems (ie: J.J. Redick repeatedly lost him around screens simply because he’s quicker), but Carroll’s given the Raptors exactly what they’ve needed.
The injuries hurt. Plantar fascitis is annoyingly hard to shake, and this recent mysterious knee bruise is troublesome. With Terrence Ross struggling, and James Johnson having been moved to the frontcourt, the Raptors have a big hole on the wing when Carroll’s out.
For the most part he’s been the role player Toronto needed, but they’ve also needed a little more, and he’s come up short on the extras.
Luis Scola – B-
This is the great benefit Scola gets: He’s a 35-year-old white dude who no one expects anything from, and so he’s never a disappointment.
But conflating a lack of disappointment with success is a mistake. Scola has been fine – he’s been remarkable in some games, he’s been a no-show in others. And in the games where he hasn’t been effective, it’s put a further strain on DeRozan and Lowry to produce.
Aside from points, Scola does bring consistency in other areas. He’s done a good job of playing off the guards, and providing an outlet when they activate traps. He’s not been good enough to attack off those doubles (just a tad to slow for the pump fake blow-bys, not accurate enough with the midrange jumper), but he’s been a fine option in the post, and a surprisingly decent defender against actual bigs (but NEVER match him with a wing).
What takes the cake for me is the 3-point shooting. He’s getting close enough to the point where players would actually need to guard him out there, and if that happens, he’ll become a tremendous boon to the offense.
Ultimately, I still think he’s a better fit with the second unit, especially once Jonas Valanciunas returns.
Jonas Valanciunas – B
The new defensive system fits him well because it requires him to do less of what he can’t, which is moving his feet and quick decision-making. The numbers bear it out too. Toronto’s defense is top-10 when Valanciunas is on the court.
Except is he any different of a player? I say no.
Valanciunas is a platoon player, or match-up player, or however you want to describe it. He’s situational. If he’s going up against a slow, traditional lineup without too many shooters, Valanciunas can play. And if you give him the ball in those scenarios, he can thrive.
But ultimately, his skills don’t compliment, well, they don’t compliment anybody. He’s not an above-the-rim dive man who sucks in help defenders, he’s a one-dimensional defender, he’s a bad passer, he can’t handle, and he’s not confident enough on his jumper for anyone to respect it. His best complimentary move might be setting screens, which is not saying much for a big.
That’s why whenever he’s given extra responsibilities, he tends to exhibit diminishing returns to scale. His numbers look good because most of his minutes are coming against favorable competition.
That being said, the numbers are undeniable, in the sense that the Raptors have succeeded (tremendously) when he’s on the court. And ultimately, that’s what’s most important. He can finally be a part of lineups that work, and even though it’s not necessarily because of him, he’s doing enough right to stay on the floor with those units.
Cory Joseph – A+
I’m going to be honest: I don’t know how much longer this will last. He’s been so good all year – much better than he’s ever been in his career – and I shudder at the thought of what will become of the bench if Joseph slipped up.
But at the same time, when I look at his performance, none of it feels unsustainable. It’s not like he’s sticking an insane percentage of jumpers (he’s not), or feasting off unearned free throws (he’s not). His production has come out of being a relentless attacker, being able to consistently take bigs off the bounce, being a smart decision-maker, and pestering the shit out of opposing guards. He’s just playing his game, and he’s absolutely killing it. He’s been the Raptors’ third best player! Who saw that coming?
The big worry with Joseph was that he wouldn’t be able to translate his success from playing second violin on the Spurs to cranking solos for the grungy Raptors. But maybe playing a meticulously narrow role on the Spurs actually held him back? That sounds insane, but he’s been just as good despite having far less help and far more responsibilities.
Regardless, the takeaway with Joseph is that his performance has been overwhelmingly positive, and his signing (which was roundly questioned when he signed) is proving to be yet another feather in Masai Ujiri’s cap. (Actually, I’ve never seen Ujiri wear a hat before and the thought of a feather-brimmed, foul-mouthed, Blackberry enthusiast running the Raptors is greatly amusing.)
Patrick Patterson – C
The big difference between peak Patterson (which I somewhat regrettably serenaded with a feature-length post last season), and what we’ve seen this year is consistency.
I miss reliable 2Pat, the knockdown 3-point shooter who made up for his lack of size on defense with smarts and hustle. I miss the certainty of his skillset, which has, at best, come and gone this season (it’s been gone more than it’s come). I miss the confidence he used to have in his game, especially in his shot.
This year, Patterson has been a nervous, second-guessing, scrambled mess. There’s a palpable anxiety that cuts every time he catches the ball on the perimeter. Will he shoot? Will he nervously shuffle his feet and wait for the closeout? Will he put it on the floor for one of his patented jump passes to the corner that only Draymond Green, Boris Diaw, and Blake Griffin should try as a point forward because Patterson always throws that shit away? Or will he go for the awkward push shot that draws more iron than an Iberian mine?
The best quality that a bench player can provide is consistency, and part of consistency is having confidence. Patterson doesn’t trust his shot, and his whole game has come undone.
But at the same time, he’s still an important piece, and even when he’s struggling, he still helps the team win. He can still play the scramble-heavy defense because he’s laterally quick. He can still stretch the floor with the slingshot that he fashions a gun. He still finds way to contribute.
I just miss the certainty he once brought.
Terrence/Terry/T.J. Ross – D
I’ve defended the Ross extension. I’ll freely admit that. I had to crawl through some imaginary game theory hoops to get there, but essentially, I defended the gamble.
But if you want to knock the deal, I certainly understand that too, and the biggest critique is this: signing him meant relying on him, and you never rely on T(whatever) Ross.
We’ve seen Terry. We saw the flashes of near-brilliance in Boston and again against the Lakers. We’ve seen him be a good defender and a deadly knockdown shooter.
But we’ve also seen Terrence. We’ve seen the aloof listlessness, the oblivious dreamer that drifts so far out of games that he posts zeros across the board, leaving no evidence that he even played beyond the minutes column. We’ve seen defensive gaffs and a stubborn unwillingness to attack the basket.
The story is still the same with T(whatever) Ross. He’s always going to struggle with consistency until he can refine his focus to the level that DeRozan, Lowry or Carroll possess. And until he does that, he’ll forever waffle between Terrence and Terry, the always longing and always promising like the cheap dalliance that he is.
But with Ross, there’s always hope. So here’s hoping that T.J. – his newest rebranding – will work. Because in this American life, all that matters is two things: your brand, and the future. Dream on, T.J., and we’ll be right there with you in the subconscious you inhibit during the middle of real fucking basketball games.
Bismack Biyombo – B+
A coach’s dream, that Biyombo. The polar opposite of T.J. in that he’ll never promise anything he can’t do, and he’ll always play the same game night after night. And while there’s never going to be an upside with Biyombo, he’ll never disappoint. So if you find yourself dissatisfied with his play, well, odds are that you used him in the wrong situation to begin with.
He’s been exactly as advertised: he’s equally dominant defensively for both teams. He works hard, he stays in his lane, and he brings that dose of athleticism necessary on the defensive end. He’s the textbook definition of blue collar.
Here’s to you, the ebullient proletariat thats too devoted to his labor to mind the nasty business of enlightenment and the higher order. Grab the hard hat and go to work. You bring no hope but you promised none. You’re not appreciated enough.
James Johnson – B-
He’s a swiss army knife. He’s got all these tools – a mini Philips screwdriver, a can opener, mini scissors – he’s got that shit. He’d be great to take if you’re going into the woods. He’ll come in handy.
Except, the Raptors aren’t camping in the fucking woods like some senseless mosquito blood donors. They’re in a house (like regular, rational people) and there’s already a fully functional toolset, a real can opener, and a real pair of scissors. They don’t ever really need to bust out the James Johnson.
That’s not to knock him – he’s very valuable in the aggregate. You add up the utility of all his tools, and damn, he’s every scout’s dream. But save for the few moments where the Raptors get off course and find themselves on the beaten path, there’s no actual sense in using him. And so he goes unused.
But is he nice to have? Definitely. And when something breaks, Johnson’s there, at all times, to do the damn job.
Bebe Nogueira – A+
Our ray of sunshine. The one-year away version of Bruno. The Long Weeknd. He’s the first born that’s out there making all the mistakes so the youngest (Bruno) doesn’t have to. And although he doesn’t carry the same sheen of pyrrhic promise, there’s still something very commendable about Bebe working his way into being an actual NBA player.
However, once Valanciunas returns, Bebe will be back on the bench as the third center, which isn’t entirely fair. But his time is soon, and the moon is sleepy. His time in the sun is almost here (Biyombo’s got a player option).
Bruno Caboclo, Norman Powell, Delon Wright – ???
Read Blake Murphy’s D-League chronicles. It reads like Homage to Catalonia, in that I’m afraid Blake might sustain the equivalent of a bullet through the neck in this Sisyphean endeavor to bring the truth from a land where no one sees or cares.
Nobody works harder than that man. Shouts to him.
Anthony Bennett – F
Maple Daddy is a nickname that’s out there begging for Bennett to claim. He just needs to not suck horribly.
Dwane Casey – A-
Shit on him for the late-game stuff. I dare you. What’s that? He’s giving DeRozan too many shots down the stretch (he is). Well take a look at this:
That’s right. And then you throw in their success this season, the injuries, the new pieces, the revamped defense (that’s actually working really well), the road-heavy schedule, the most wins and the best win percentage in franchise history – ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
Being a head coach is a thankless job.