As the Toronto Raptors approach the end of the 2017-2018 National Basketball Association regular season some facts are clear.
The Raps consistently produce high-level regular season results. For the 3rd straight season the pros from “the Association” handling the pill north of the 49th parallel have won at least 50 games (It’s their fifth consecutive season with at least 48 wins).
A reason many observers have decided the current team is the best Raptors squad ever is the young talent and performance depth on the bench. Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright and others manifest the best of effective role definition and on-the-job player development.
Still, a closing basketball season prompts open questions.
Christopher Heron, gospel music impresario and basketball aficionado raised four questions the other day:
- Is Fred VanVleet “gunning for Kyle Lowry’s job”?;
- Is Demar DeRozan “an offensive-flow killer”?;
- Will Coach Dwayne Casey stay with a ten-man rotation in the playoffs?; and
- Can the Raptors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs?
Arguably, the MVP of the Raptor’s bench, the 2nd year point guard’s excellent play and increasingly common, timely shot-making has probably motivated an increasing number of questions about Fred’s talent ceiling and aspirations.
VanVleet likely needs the security his next contract will bring in an NBA awash with cash. Recall former Raptor and current Orlando Magician Bismack Biyombo – $17,000,000.00 a season after one good regular season and a single very good playoff run of rebounding, defence and a little bonus offence. Surely, VanVleet, an undrafted free agent who first signed with the Raptos for a few summer league games, would want his version of that on a tangibly long contract more than he’d want Lowry’s job per se. However, he may need to leave “The North” to get it if there are salary cap implications.
VanVleet is another in a line of shorter, lower selection / undrafted point guards who can score, whose robust metropolitan high school and college pedigree was given insufficient weight in his assessment as an NBA prospect. Think Jameer Nelson and, to a lesser extent, Kemba Walker, out of the Philadelphia and New York City areas, respectively.
VanVleet was an excellent Chicagoland high school performer from Rockford, Illinois. He was a battle-tested, multi-year conference all-star at Wichita State, then an emerging mid-major power that went deep into the NCAA Tournament, repeatedly relying on Fred’s ability and toughness right from his freshman year.
He is a player who has modelled himself after Kobe Bryant within the MJ tradition. He is a self-made All-Star and USA Dream Teamer whose philosophy and expectations have been that he must bear the offensive burden and beat his man.
With that perspective, DeRozan and the Raps have gone to the sixth game of the Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron, despite any flaws in that approach.
But DeRozan is not functionally fixed. He is a skilled, multi-faceted instrument of high performance basketball who is a humble man with personal pride. He has the flexibility to go with the change in the team’s offensive approach this season – materially more assists and three-pointers. In the last couple of weeks he’s had a quarter with seven assists.
No, he’s not a flow stopper, he’s an evolving all-star whose tendency to take responsibility on offence has historically led to fewer passes during some offensive sets.
It’s reasonable to believe Coach Casey will start with it. However, Casey is fully indoctrinated in this article of belief: those who perform get the minutes.
Playoff series are short. If you are really not performing, don’t expect minutes in the playoffs just because you were part of the regular season rotation.
Beat the Cavs?
The biggest problem the Raps have with the Cavs is the question called LeBron Raymone James. To that question they have no answer.
But yes, the Raps can beat them because a lesser version of the team, without the depth, playing a more limited style of ball, without DeRozan 2.0, and with an exhausted Lowry, took Cleveland, whose roster then included a playoff assassin named Kyrie, to six games in the Eastern Conference final.
However, if the series requires ONE player to score 40 a game and/or average a near triple-double to take the series, the Raptors may be watching the NBA finals on television.