We’re 12 games into the strangest NBA season of our lifetime (hopefully). The Toronto Raptors are 4-8. They have wins over the New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings and the Charlotte Hornets (twice!). Not exactly a resume you would endorse on LinkedIn. It feels like the Raptors don’t have five capable players on some nights. The schedule is getting tougher the next two weeks (isn’t it strange how the schedule looks so daunting when you’re not winning), and two uninspiring wins over Charlotte to start the homestand hasn’t inspired any more confidence in this group.
Nick Nurse is still searching for an eight-man rotation. I really miss the days when the Raptors had a formidable lineup and three capable guys off the bench, and the only haggling was over some Jodie Meeks end-of-third-quarter minutes. This Raptors team can’t find a starting centre who can play more than five minutes at a time, haven’t been able to rely on Norman Powell at all this season, and has a bunch of flawed bench pieces, none of whom Nurse seems satisfied with, at least for more than a game or two.
Here’s a look at how the rotation pieces are shaking out at the moment:
In: Stanley Johnson
After playing in just 25 games all of last season (shoutout to his game-winner in the bubble against Philadelphia, which is in conversation for top-100 moments in Raptors franchise history), Johnson has appeared in 10 of the 12 games already this season. The 24-year-old (Raptors development prospect alert!) has played well enough on defence to stick in the rotation, coming up with multiple huge possessions down the stretch in Saturday’s win over Charlotte. The offence is lacking, but if you want some promising small sample sizing, Johnson did shoot 4-for-5 from 3 in two wins over the Hornets. I’m not sure what it says about the Raptors, but Johnson has been a bright spot so far.
Out: Matt Thomas
Matt Thomas has gone missing. After starting the season as one of the first guys off the bench, he has played in just two minutes of garbage time against Sacramento in the entire month of January. What happened? There are plenty of theories floating around (mostly started by me). Did Thomas make one too many G-League jokes at a film session? Did he put an autographed copy of Nurse’s book on eBay for $5? Did he give the book a negative review as Mr99Percent on Amazon? Did he “accidentally” break Nurse’s guitar on the West Coast trip? There’s a more straight-forward option: Nurse hasn’t been happy with Thomas’s defence, and so he’s out of the rotation, replaced by Johnson. The argument for Thomas to get more minutes? The Raptors don’t have any two-way players off the bench, and Thomas’s 3-point shooting (47.5 percent last season on 99 attempts, 53.8 percent this season on 13 attempts) is an elite skill no other bench player has. We (me) will keep monitoring the situation.
In: Yuta Watanabe
You can pretty much just copy-and-paste the Stanley Johnson section here. Watanabe has been a burst of energy for the Raptors, and that’s enough right now to earn him minutes, especially since the team looks like it needs a boost on most nights. Watanabe isn’t a game changer, and he certainly doesn’t stuff the stat sheet, but the Raptors just need guys to compete really hard right now, and he fits the role. A semi-radical idea: if Nurse doesn’t want to start Chris Boucher (the bench would be too thin, Boucher could get into foul trouble with the starters), what about starting Watanabe at the five? It can’t be worse than what they’re getting at the starting centre position right now.
TBD: Alex Len and Aron Baynes
This week’s centre update: Baynes returned to the starting lineup against the Hornets, but played 12 minutes total over two games. Len was out for Saturday’s game due to health and safety protocols. Cut to me crying while watching Marc Gasol thread the perfect pass to LeBron James and Patrick Beverley hand the ball off to Serge Ibaka for a fast break dunk (this last example is honestly way too specific. I need to get over the Raptors not bringing him back). Starting Baynes or Len doesn’t feel sustainable. The logical move would be to start Boucher, and just go with your best five players to start games. Solidify the starters, and figure out the bench later. We’ll see if Nurse makes the change this week.
In: Malachi Flynn
After the insistence of the entire Raptors fanbase, Flynn is finally seeing some consistent minutes. He’s been solid, but not a game changer. It is about what you would expect from a rookie. Keep in mind, Fred VanVleet averaged 2.9 points in 37 games in his first year. Pascal Siakam averaged 4.2 points in 55 games in his first season. First year players rarely make an immediate impact. Flynn will get his reps this year, and be better for it next season.
Out: DeAndre’ Bembry
Bembry looked like a potential eighth man on the bench in the preseason, with his bursts of energy and ability to guard multiple positions. He’s only appeared in five games so far, playing a total of 18 minutes. The rotation is in flux right now, so it would not be surprising to see Bembry get some extended run at some point.
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