Raptors count on depth options to emerge as Lowry, VanVleet shoulder load


TORONTO — Starting Wednesday, the Toronto Raptors will play eight games over a 15-day span, including a five-game west-coast road trip that will see the team take the court four times in six nights. And it’ll just keep going from there. Currently, the Raptors are enjoying a three-day break between games. They won’t have that much time between contests again until January.

That’s the NBA regular season for you. It’s long, relentless, punishing. And, yes, so far playing essentially a seven-man rotation with dual point guards near the top of the league in minutes per game has been fine for Raptors head coach Nick Nurse and his team. But is it sustainable over such a tough stretch? Over such a tough season? That seems unlikely. So, for someone at the other end of Toronto’s roster, opportunity is probably on the way.

Just who receives it remains to be seen. But the competition is intense, as evidenced by the collection of Raptors rookies and end-of-roster players who waged a physical, game-paced scrimmage on a half-court at the Raptors’ training facility Monday long after official practice had ended. Nurse watched closely for a while and kept a stray eye on it from the other end of the gym when he made his way over to meet with the media and talk about just how feasible it is for him to continue leaning so heavily on so few players.

Currently, Kyle Lowry (38.9 minutes) and Fred VanVleet (37.8) lead the NBA in minutes per game, logging even more miles per night than New York Knicks rookie RJ Barrett (37.1) whose heavy workload was a topic of discussion this past weekend in the media-saturated Mecca. Every case is different, of course. But for the Raptors, a team that doesn’t currently roster a trusted third point guard to play behind the two physically aggressive individuals it’s using to both start and finish games, the lopsided nature of the minutes distribution across the roster appears to be real cause for measured concern.

“With certain guys that are playing heavy minutes, you’re not doing too much on the days in between. You’re really trying to get all that back, or as much as you can back, on the days in between,” Nurse said. “Even today, with a game a couple days away, you’re not into contact with most of those frontline guys that are playing heavy minutes. So, that’s where you’re trying to recoup it all.”

That makes sense. Lessen the load on off days so players can be at their best when it matters most. One assumes that comes with some sacrifice in the quality of practice and preparation that can be accomplished in between games. But it’s Nurse’s job to worry about things like that and he doesn’t sound particularly worried about it. And VanVleet, for his part, says that the most important thing for him between games is being given the runway to optimize his recovery.

“That’s the important part,” VanVleet said. “If I come in here the next day and run up and down, run sprints for two hours, I probably will be tired pretty fast. But you get treatment, you rest, you cold tub, you ice, you massage, you stretch, you yoga, pilates, lift weights — whatever it is for that person. For me, it’s a combination of many different things to get back as close as you can for the next game. Then you try to get back to your ceiling and go out there and lace it back up again.”

VanVleet doesn’t even want to discuss his minutes — a desire as easy to appreciate as it is unlikely to be realized. He’s suffered tough nights from the field in two of his last three, shooting 3-of-14 last Monday against the Orlando Magic and 2-of-10 on the weekend against the Milwaukee Bucks, sandwiching a strong 5-of-9 night against the Detroit Pistons. He’s also 4-of-15 from distance over that three-game span, which is an absurdly small sample but still not indicative of VanVleet at his best.

And that’s going to happen with willing, volume shooters such as himself. He could even it all out with only one strong night. It’s easy to chalk his misses up to fatigue, but the toll of a heavy workload is more likely to manifest in mental errors or on the defensive end. And VanVleet’s play in those regards has been consistent.

“I mean, my field-goal percentage has taken a little bit of a hit the last few games — still shooting it well from three. But I don’t attribute that to being tired. I don’t attribute that to the minutes,” he said. “I don’t really want to talk about the minutes because people read the news, coaches included, and I’m happy. If I can play 48, I’ll play 48. I’m feeling good. I’m not ignorant to the fact that it probably has an effect. But it’s my job to be ready to go every night and I feel like I’ve been doing that.”

Still, with a demanding schedule ahead, and Lowry and VanVleet needing at least a marginal reduction in their workloads, someone from the bottom half of Toronto’s roster is about to receive an opportunity. Especially as it sounds like the Raptors will be without 24-year-old wing Patrick McCaw for some time.

After developing a left knee issue during training camp, McCaw missed the first three games of the season and even went for an MRI in mid-October. That imaging evidently didn’t turn up anything too alarming, as McCaw played twice last week. But he returned to inactive status this past weekend in Milwaukee and spent his Monday being examined by a specialist.

“He’s doing OK. He’s got another look today to see what’s troubling him. We should have some information here by the end of the afternoon,” Nurse said Monday. “So, right now he’s out indefinitely.”

An undefined period of time can be short or long, of course, but if McCaw’s absence was expected to be brief the Raptors would have said so. Putting the indefinite tag on McCaw likely portends a lengthy absence. And what’s best for the athletic, still-developing McCaw is best for the Raptors long-term.

But in the short-term his absence will only hurt a short Raptors rotation already lacking reliable depth. McCaw was being counted on to absorb some ball-handling duties from Lowry and VanVleet, and had settled in as Nurse’s nominal eighth-man behind Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka. Beyond that, the awarding of playing time has been anyone’s guess, with Terrence Davis, Matt Thomas, Stanley Johnson and Chris Boucher all drawing in at one time or another.

Naturally, it makes sense for Nurse to play matchups and ride hot hands, deploying whichever weapons work best on any given night. But considering the substantial minute shares currently being carried by the top end of the roster, the Raptors would benefit from the emergence of a regular depth option beyond Powell and Ibaka to play more significant supplementary minutes than any of Toronto’s depth pieces have been seeing so far.

Playing without McCaw on the weekend in Milwaukee, that simply didn’t happen. Boucher got some late first-quarter run and then was not seen again. Thomas logged a nine-minute, first-half stint, but spent the entire second half on the bench. And Davis played a handful of minutes in the second half, but not enough to make much of an impact. Ultimately, Lowry (38 minutes) and VanVleet (41) ended up carrying considerable loads once again, while the rest of the starters all played over 31.

Eventually, someone from the bottom-half of the roster has to emerge as a more consistently used, trusted option. The Raptors weren’t going to be able to go very long with only an eight-man rotation, and now it’s down to seven.

Will the training camp surprise Davis assume a larger role, taking some ball-handling responsibility away from Lowry and VanVleet? Will Nurse go to more ultra-big lineups with Boucher playing beside two of Siakam, Gasol and Ibaka? Will Thomas see extended minutes to try to get his potentially lethal shot-making going? Will we get a rare glimpse at wing projects Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson?

It’s impossible to say now who will get their opportunity. But over the grueling stretch of the season the Raptors are about to play, someone has to.