Blake Q&A

Raptors Mailbag: The kids are fun and people want to talk about them

It’s been a little while since the last one, and I have some time to kill while visiting family out of town, so I figured a smaller #RRMailbag to pass the time was in order. In retrospect, I really should have branded this The Blake Murphy Open Challenge. Anyway. You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here, if, for whatever reason, you wanted to read old mailbags.

Before we go ahead: A reminder that we have a Patreon page at If you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do (and try to do even more). You can also follow me on Twitter for, uhh, tweets, and on Facebook for all of my writing/podcasting/radio stuff. Validate me. You can also ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between.

Alright, let’s get this money.

This is a fun question because in researching context for an answer, I remembered that Tyler Hansbrough dropped a 20-piece for the Raptors not that long ago. Here are the number of players to score 20-plus in recent seasons for the team:

2013-14: 9
2014-15: 8
2015-16: 7
2016-17: 8

So let’s say seven is a reasonable baseline, since last year’s eight and 2013-14’s nine were both made possible in part by mid-season trades that sent out and brought back 20-point scorers. Already this year, though, six Raptors have scored 20 points – Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, C.J. Miles, and Pascal Siakam. Entering the season, you probably would have guessed the first five.

I think on top of those names, Norman Powell is a pretty safe bet to have a 20-point night. He’s had eight over the past two seasons and his usage rate has jumped from 18.1 to 23.1 percent since his move to the bench, and he’s scored between 15 and 19 five times already. I’m also going to give Jakob Poeltl the nod here, even though he doesn’t fit the profile of a 20-point scorer as a low-usage option. He’s shooting 70 percent overall and averaging 13.3 points in his last four games, and while the team’s not going to funnel touches his way just because, I think he could accidentally get 20 on rim-runs and put-backs at some point, particularly if there’s another stretch where Jonas Valanciunas misses time.

And that’s it. I’m keeping the number at eight. No disrespect to OG Anunoby, who’s already had 16 points twice, but that feels like something close to his cap in this offense unless there’s a blowout (he went 3/4 and 4/5 on threes in those two games). Eight out of 14 players on the roster hitting 20 points in a season is pretty impressive, especially since you could probably make a case for Anunoby and Fred VanVleet (if Lowry were to go down, in particular), too.

Somebody not currently on the roster. Five years is just so far out to project, that I think the safe bet is just taking the field. Let’s look at a quick snapshot:

Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas: Probably not here. Ibaka won’t be in a place where it makes sense to re-sign him for a big role when his current deal is up, and I can’t imagine Valanciunas wanting to stick around once his current deal is out.

Kyle Lowry: He hasn’t really slowed down at age 31, but he’ll be 36 then. If he’s leading the team in scoring, he’s either a miracle of science or things have gone awry.

DeMar DeRozan: Probably has the best chance of anyone since age 33 is still at the back end of prime scoring years. Still, he’ll be on his next contract at that point, so not only would DeRozan need to maintain his scoring ability, he’d also have to want to stay to transition the team into the next era, and the team would have to be built such that he’s still an offensive focal point.

OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam: The highest all-around upsides of the young core, each has been much better offensively than even robust expectations would have pegged them to be at this point. There would still need to be a ton of development from either to become a top offensive weapon instead of a complementary one. It’s tough to get against these guys, though.

Norman Powell: The team’s bet on him with his autumn extension suggests they see him as a long-term piece, and Powell’s attacking ability is unquestioned. If the Raptors were in the midst of transitioning to a new, younger core and taking a step back in the interim, Powell could possibly slide into that top-option void. He hasn’t shown a ton of growth yet this year, though, and the fact that he’ll be the team’s best trade chip (when factoring in player value and salary matching) this summer kind of looms over things.

Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl: Really nice pieces with games probably not built to be the top option on a team. Again, if the team is rebuilding five years from now, any veteran holdovers could fill that top-scorer role, and each looks to be a part of the near-term future plans, it would just require the player to take a big step forward and the team construct to shift.

Bruno Caboclo, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie, Lucas Nogueira: All nice pieces, but if any become a consistent 20-point scorer, it’s a heck of a player development story.

The field: Free agency, a trade for a younger core piece, a draft pick that hits…A lot can happen in five years.

Bruno Caboclo is off to an up-and-down start to his fourth G League season. He came out of the gate really hot, and his shooting has dropped off significantly over the last six games or so. What’s encouraging is that his offensive inconsistency hasn’t really bled into his defense, and he’s doing a much better job of mentally fighting through bumps without letting it sink his game entirely. For the season, his scoring volume is way up and he’s posting the best true-shooting percentage of his career on his highest usage since Fort Wayne, his rebound- and steal-percentages are way up and his turnovers down, and he has the second-best net rating on a team that really shouldn’t be the No. 3 defense in the league, on paper. He’s still not there, but there are signs he’s at least nudging toward G League All-Star level.

The best performance outside of Caboclo so far probably belongs to Jerry Stackhouse. There was some curiosity as to whether Stackhouse’s team would be able to repeat last year’s success with a much less experienced roster (last year’s team was loaded, to be frank), and while they’re off to a shaky start in terms of record, he’s really getting a lot out of these guys defensively. They lost Edy Tavares after one game, have had two players gone for FIBA qualifying, rolled with an injury-shortened roster most of the season, and haven’t had as much of their two-way players as hoped, and they’re still No. 3 in defensive efficiency. That’s really encouraging, both for Stackhouse’s coaching resume and for what this team could look like once they get some roster continuity with everyone back healthy (they’ve yet to play a single #FullSquad game).

Outside of those two, I think everyone knows Lorenzo Brown and Alfonzo McKinnie are beyond the G League at this point, and are just waiting for their NBA opportunity. Malcolm Miller is still ramping things up after offseason ankle surgery, and while he hasn’t shot the ball well in limited action, his game pops as much as promised when he’s on the floor. Shevon Thompson, Davion Berry, Kennedy Meeks, and Kaza Keane have all looked good, as well, and are worth keeping an eye on as the sample grows and their roles stabilize, though none are on the call-up radar as things currently stand.

Not crazy, no. I think we all have biases like this. #JVHive, or however Jonas Valanciunas fans identify, are surely guilty of overlooking some of his limitations or the externalities of forcing additional touches into the post, just like his detractors undervalue defensive rebounding and the value of screens and roll-threats. Valanciunas is still a good player – an elite rebounder, a strong finisher, a great screen-setter, and a decent post defender – he’s just also a very poor pick-and-roll defender and hasn’t quite fit as well in the new offense as it looked prior to his injury. At this point, he’s very much a known commodity and someone who will clearly do better in some matchups than others.

It happens with a lot of players – the Jakob Poeltl hype might need to come down to earth a bit, for example, and as a fanbase we probably need to do a better job of recognizing that OG Anunoby is a very good defender in only some situations right now. Both are young and exciting players beating expectations early, so it’s easy to get carried away (this happened with Norman Powell as a rookie, too, when there were frequent Russell Westbrook comparisons in the comments. I think psychologically, we’re probably wired to focus on the positives more than the negatives when faced with noisy information we can’t efficiently summarize. Positives are much more gratifying than negatives.

So no, you’re not crazy. Valanciunas is a useful piece, but a limited one. And if it’s not Valanciunas, there are probably some flaws somebody else is overlooking with their favorite player.

This is an old question I never got around to asking that I still think is pretty interesting. Last year, the Raptors toyed with super-sized lineups out of necessity, starting Lucas Nogueira at power forward for a handful of games and occasionally using Jakob Poeltl with another center. It made sense given the team’s thinned out forward rotation, and it actually worked pretty well in a matchup-dependent sample (plus-7 net rating in 273 minutes with two of the three centers on). It’s something I don’t think Dwane Casey would hesitate to go back to if the opponent allowed for it, as Nogueira and Poeltl can both do enough at each end to, on paper, play with another center so long as an opponent can’t go five-out. It’s not quite as big as Nathan is asking about (he mentioned Serge Ibaka at the three in a follow-up tweet, which shouldn’t ever happen), but the team’s played Pascal Siakam at small forward for brief stretches, too.

It’s definitely there as an option. With the team’s young forwards doing better than expected right out of the gate, the necessity probably isn’t there to try it too much, and the team would have to be careful when and against whom they use it. I’m in favor of small minutes of twin-tower looks and the return of Bebe-Poeltl at some point, though.

I don’t really have many qualms about it. I didn’t like the full five-man bench units at first, because you can stagger starters minutes to avoid it, and you won’t play that way in the playoffs, but it’s worked well enough and has really done wonders for keeping the minutes of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan down. That’s kind of the only area I’m focused on in terms of a breakdown, and the fact that neither is in the top 40 for minutes has shut me up about it this year. So if nothing else, they’ve accomplished that. I’d be okay with Serge Ibaka’s minutes coming down even further, too.

Elsewhere in the rotation, I’d probably be getting C.J. Miles more minutes alongside starters, because that’s going to be a potent look they need in the playoffs. Miles could probably see his minutes go up, anyway, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping a 30-year-old at 20 minutes when things are going well. The much tougher question is what happens when the team is healthy again, because Delon Wright was playing well enough that he’ll probably get a chance to earn minutes again, and I doubt the team wants to go back to an 11- or 12-man rotation. (Lucas Nogueira, by the way, is probably on the outside looking in unless Jakob Poeltl stumbles while Nogueira’s out. Sigh.)

If there are minutes complaints, they’re probably nit-picky. Which is fine, people are allowed to do that, and everyone has their favorites when 12 players have legitimate cases for playing time.

This question would require me to do a pretty deep data dive that’s beyond the scope of this mailbag. It’s a study all it’s own, and a pretty in-depth one to control for the number of starters on the floor for each team. (Nylon Calculus used to track this, which was very helpful, but I don’t have the programming chops to scrape the necessary play-by-play data.) Anecdotally, they’ve done the bulk of their damage against opposing benches, sometimes with one or two starters still out. That’s kind of what they’ve been – a great bench that beats up on bad benches. They shouldn’t be expected to outperform opposing starting units, and Dwane Casey’s managed the rotations well to put the bench in good positions to succeed.

I recently wrote about how good the bench has been for The Athletic, as well as about how much that will even matter in the playoffs, when rotations shorten and there aren’t opposing all-bench groups to beat up on. Hopefully what you’re looking for with this question is answered in there.

Apparently, Nikola Mirotic is going to be this year’s Kenneth Faried as the trade target I get asked about a ton that just isn’t going to happen. Yes, Mirotic probably wants out of Chicago, doesn’t come with long-term salary (there’s a team option on his deal for next year), and he’s a big who can shoot moderately well (35 percent from three for his career). He’s also an underrated defender when not guarding quicker wings. He’s a nice piece.

But he makes $12.5 million and would be joining a team that already doesn’t have room for all their frontcourt players in the rotation. He’d have to approve the trade, and to make the money work, the Raptors would either have to send out Jonas Valanciunas (which Chicago isn’t doing, given the presence of other centers and their desire to keep the cap sheet clean) or send out four of the younger players (Norman Powell can’t be traded until the summer). Plus, the Raptors are perilously close to the luxury tax, so adding salary would cost them exponentially more than the salary alone, and they have to be careful about flirting with the tax apron (they’d have to sign multiple players to get to the roster minimum if they deal three- or four-for-one).

There would just be so many moving pieces – and surely the need for a third team – to make anything start to work. The Raptors really aren’t in a great position to make anything but a fringe trade between now and the deadline, unless a team is excited to take Valanciunas in a deal (which is probably only true for a handful of teams). (Or Serge Ibaka. Ha.)

Now, in a vacuum where you’re just asking how I’d rank those three players in terms of my willingness to trade them, I probably go Poeltl, Siakam, and then Anunoby. Obviously, parting with any of them would be difficult, but Anunoby is the crown jewel of the young group, and Siakam is a little cheaper with a bit more versatility and upside than Poeltl (who is a great piece, too).

I’m 94-percent sure Justin only asked this question so I’d ask it back to him, since he has the best hair among any Canadian sportswriters not named Alex Wong. Personally, I’m not a big hair guy. I have very thick, coarse, and straight hair, so I can do, like, one thing with it. I get out of the shower and just run a tiny bit of wax through it, and however it ends up, it ends up. (An aside: The first thing my mom said to me when I came home to visit yesterday was, ‘Wow, you need a haircut.’ I’m 31.)

Now if you want to talk beard grooming for those Winnipeg winters, I can help you out.

As a reminder, if you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, we’ve started a Patreon page at Any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do, and try to do even more.

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