Sustainability of early-season minutes load

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The pivotal players on the Toronto Raptors are playing a lot of minutes so far this season, particularly in the backcourt. Is it sustainable going forward?

Defending the Larry O’Brien Trophy was always going to be a tricky endeavor for the Toronto Raptors for several reasons, led by Kawhi Leonard’s departure after one sterling season in Canada.

Depth was not necessarily cited as a reason for concern entering the year.

The team lost Leonard and Danny Green in free agency but added some depth pieces with potential for more in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson. There also wouldn’t be the presence of a prime “load management” candidate (Leonard), meaning there would be less pressing from the end of the bench.

Early on, however, it looks like there might be at least one cause for concern.

So far, there hasn’t been a lot to complain about with Toronto’s 4-2 start. Sure, the Raptors were 6-0 through six games last season, but that’s nitpicky. Meanwhile, Pascal Siakam has been living up to expectations, averaging 26.0 points per game and falling less than two rebounds short of sporting a double-double.

What’s wrong then? Take a look at the minutes being played by the team’s starters. Marc Gasol is averaging 25.8 minutes per game and Siakam is averaging 33.5, which both seem reasonable considering their respective ages and stature. OG Anunoby’s 34.2 minutes per game feel surprising, but shouldn’t be unheard of for a player that young without the playoff exhaustion the rest of his Raptors feel.

Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are averaging a combined 76.6 minutes per game, a staggering number. VanVleet has never been a full-time starter before and is averaging nearly 10 minutes more per game than his previous career-high. Lowry is averaging a career-high 38.8 minutes per game at the age of 33 — talk about load management.

Toronto’s backcourt bench is looking perilously thin. Norman Powell is the only other guard averaging double figures in minutes while playing in every contest. Matt Thomas is averaging 10.0 minutes per game, but he’s only played in three contests, with 20 of his 30 minutes coming in a game against the Chicago Bulls. Lowry is the only true point guard on the roster.

This is okay for now. But this is not sustainable in the long run. If the Raptors want to make noise in the postseason once again, they need to add depth to their backcourt, particularly at the point guard position. Otherwise, Lowry is going to burn out before the calendar even turns to March.

A trade may be one way to add help. Both Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson have been disappointments, though the latter has been dealing with a groin injury. They have combined to play in just three games and averaged 3.5 points per game. With both already in danger of falling out of favor, they could be candidates to be traded once eligible.

Free agency is another avenue. Some intriguing options may be willing to sign for the veteran minimum. Devin Harris and Raymond Felton can be veteran presences that fill in for a few extra minutes each night, a la Jeremy Lin. Jose Calderon, who started his career in Toronto in 2005, is also a free agent.

Next: 3 ripple effects from Steph Curry injury

Toronto’s hot start to the season is a cause for celebration. But the wear and tear on their backcourt are already emerging as a cause for concern as well.