The Rap-Up: Toronto Raptors Games for March 15-21

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Strap in for a bumpy 10 days!

Writing this weekly column gets really interesting every time the trade deadline approaches. Who’s available via trade? Which teams are buying or selling? How is every good player somehow linked in trade rumours to contenders?

Take this week for example. The Pistons unofficially kicked off the trade season with a minor deal (Hamidou Diallo for Svi Mihailiuk plus a 2nd round pick). Is Troy Weaver done dealing or is there truth behind the Jerami Grant rumours? Is Utah’s recent signing of Ersan Ilyasova a precursor to bigger moves for the NBA’s best team? With Larry Nance Jr. and Kevin Love (remember him?) back in the lineup, will Javale McGee join Andre Drummond on Cleveland’s trading block?

For the Raptors, most of the trade talk has centred around Kyle Lowry (as it should), but there’s not nearly enough discussion about Norm Powell. His $11.6 million player option next season is well below his market value — in fact, it’s almost double that amount! Before you balk at that valuation, take another look at his stats as a starter this season.

22.2 points, 52% FG%, 46% 3pt FG%, 91% FT%, 121 offensive rating, in 33.5 minutes.

Let’s compare those figures with another player with similar stats, also in his 6th season.

23.8 points, 49% FG%, 44% 3pt FG%, 91% FT%, 122 offensive rating, in 32.7 minutes.

The second player is Steph Curry in 2014-15, his first MVP season! This is not to suggest Norm is on his way to some impressive hardware, or worth a max extension, but his value is definitely in the range of others earning $20 million (Terry Rozier, $18.9 million; Aaron Gordon, $20 million; Gary Harris, $21 million).

There is a sense of Ibaka-Gasol deja vu on the horizon, as Toronto may only have enough to offer Lowry or Powell the contracts they’d like. With how gracefully his game has aged, plus his obvious importance to the franchise, Lowry would likely get the first offer. All of this leads to the question of the day: Is Norm Powell the more tradeable asset?

Norm’s value has never been higher. He’s proven himself as one of the best bench scorers in the league and hasn’t missed a beat — improved, actually — in transitioning to a starter role. For all of you including Aron Baynes in all your fake trades, consider Powell only earns $4 million more than him.

If Lowry were traded, Raptor fans would feel devastated, regardless of the return. If Powell were traded, I’d guess that fan reaction would depend on what Toronto received in return. We’ve all witnessed his growth from second round selection to Playoff Norm to Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and now to being a solid starter.

The decisions of Bobby Webster and Masai Ujiri over the next 10 days will provide a clearer direction on where the team is headed this year and beyond. Powell may not fit into Toronto’s future, but he sure is making the most of his present!

Now, on to this week’s picks.

March 17 @ Detroit Pistons

One of the many depressing pandemic-related effects is the loss of a home game at Little Caesars Arena. Oh, what I would give to hear a “Let’s Go Raptors” chant in Toronto’s home away from home (yes, I just slandered Tampa and Detroit in the same sentence).

When these teams met before the All-Star break, the Pistons were without Most Improved Player candidate, Jerami Grant. He’s averaging 23.6 points, which is a nice jump from last season (12.0). He’s also seen his FG% drop (48% to 43%), his 3pt FG% drop (39% to 35%), and none of his other traditional stats have seen significant boosts, despite the increased usage (from 18.0 to 27.4). Wait, why is he an MIP candidate?

In any case, the Celtics are apparently interested in his services. My take? Go ahead and (finally) use those assets to get a good-not-great forward. Grant has a perfectly symmetrical shot chart — 33% in each of the 3 shooting areas: at the rim, mid-range, and beyond the arc. Among Forwards, his accuracy is at or below average in all three areas. With Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby returning (as well as Fred VanVleet), Grant may be in for a tough night on the offensive end.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

The fun fact for this matchup has nothing to do with Detroit, but everything to do with slandering Grant’s MIP candidacy!

Chris Boucher is more award-worthy and here’s why. He has been handed the keys to the bench (minutes jumped from 13.2 to 24.0) and improved his scoring percentages across the board, more than doubled his scoring (6.6 to 14.1), and has more blocked 3-point attempts than 28… teams!

Boucher has 16 on the season (The third-highest team total is Denver with 15) and the Raptors have 28 as a team. Matisse Thybulle is second with 10, while his Sixers have a total of 23. The third-highest individual total, ironically, is Jerami Grant with eight.

Prediction

The Raptors are not losing by 24 points to Detroit (ever) again. Mason Plumlee and Dennis Smith Jr. are not compiling triple-doubles (that’s before recognizing the returns of Grant and Delon Wright, who both missed the last meeting). With 3 days of rest and, presumably, the return of 3 starters, Toronto will waste no time exacting revenge. The Raptors defeat the Pistons, 120-107, in front of a crowd with no Pistons fans.. as is usually the case with Toronto in town.

March 19 vs Utah Jazz

The Raptors get their first crack at the NBA’s best team. Utah is hitting threes at a historic pace.

The Raptors’ defensive philosophy of converging on any drives in the paint and running out to 3-point shooters was successful last season (33.7% opponents 3-point FG%, #1 in the NBA), but not so much this season (37.8%, #25). Utah having a historically good 3-point offense is.. not great news for Toronto.

In an odd reversal of roles, the Raptors will have to worry about Utah’s transition offense. The Jazz have the #1 transition offense, in terms of points per play, while the Raptors have the #27 defense in that area. Yeah, also not great news for Toronto.

Thanks in large part to Rudy Gobert, the Jazz rank 5th in offensive rebound percentage. The Raptors are 28th in defending that particular stat. Say it with me folks: not great news for Toronto.

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

If the Utah Jazz continues their strong play and finishes as the top seed in the West, that actually bodes well for the Raptors in this matchup.

Last season, the Lakers ended the season as the West’s #1 seed. Toronto swept the season series.

Two seasons ago, the Warriors ended the season as the West’s #1 seed. Does anyone remember how that season series went?

Three seasons ago, the Rockets finished with the best record in the West. You guessed it, the Raptors swept that season series too.

Toronto enters this daunting matchup with a six-game win streak against the West’s best team.

Prediction

If you’re one for patterns, check out the recent history of this rivalry. In the 2013-14 season, the Raptors won the first of an eventual 4-game win streak against Utah, which was a team-best for Toronto. The Jazz prevented Toronto’s first 5-game win streak in November 2015. Later that season, the Raptors won the first of another 4-game win streak. In January 2018, the Jazz would again prevent the streak from hitting 5. The following matchup was the start of yet another 4-game win streak against Utah — which is where we stand today. If you ignored that pattern and ignored that the Raptors may still be short-handed (or at least still working their starters back into game shape), and ignored the large gap in their respective team records, Utah is the better team, period. The Jazz blow out the Raptors, 128-115.

March 21 @ Cleveland Cavaliers

After Cleveland missed out on the Bubble, Kevin Love was eager to get back on the court in December. Unfortunately, he suffered a calf strain in the second game of the season. He’d spend the next seven weeks recovering, again eager to return, this time after the All-Star break. In a cruel twist of fate, Love took himself out of the second game of his return after feeling discomfort with the injured calf. With 13 seasons and almost 25,000 minutes of mileage, it’s tough to see the former All-Star struggle with injuries.

On the bright side, Cleveland also welcomed back Larry Nance Jr., who had missed the previous 12 games after having surgery on his left hand. Before getting injured, Nance was among the league leaders in steals and deflections. Pairing him in the frontcourt with Jarrett Allen is a positive sign for Cleveland’s future (and a large dose of wishful thinking for Raptors fans).

Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me

Andre Drummond is in his 9th NBA season and has played in 624 career games.

Chris Boucher is in his 4th NBA season and has played in 129 career games.

Drummond is younger than Boucher!

Prediction

If there was a cure-all remedy for the Raptors’ losing ways, it’s a date with Cleveland. The Cavs have the worst 3-point defense, give up transition opportunities at a frequency that ranks 29th, turn the ball over at a league-worst rate, and are also the worst 3-point shooting team. Toronto excel in all four of those areas. So even if (when), the Cavs are unconscious from downtown — because we know Cedi Osman is going to hit 4 threes in the first half — the Raptors should still expose Cleveland’s other weaknesses. The Raptors end the week on a high note, beating the Cavs, 125-110.

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Last Week: 2-1

Season Record for Predictions: 18-21