Miles, Powell neck-and-neck in Raptors starting small forward battle

Michael Grange and Nikki Reyes breakdown OG Anunoby’s impressive game against the Detroit Pistons and what CJ Miles brings to the team.

TORONTO — Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey doesn’t have a long list of decisions to make prior to the regular season. But one thing he must decide between now and next Thursday is who starts at small forward: C.J. Miles or Norman Powell?

Casey used his team’s second-last pre-season game Tuesday night to take a look at one side of that equation, inserting Powell into the starting lineup ahead of Toronto’s 116-94 victory over the Detroit Pistons.

So, how’d the kid with the new contract look?

“I thought he was a little tentative,” Casey said. “I was mainly looking at his defence, a couple defensive situations. But he came in and fit. He fits with that group a little bit. And so does C.J. That’s the thing that we’ve got to look at and see — whether C.J. fits better with the second unit and Norm with the first, or vice versa.”

Which gets at what makes this such a tricky decision. It could be more about who plays best with Toronto’s young, run-and-gun bench unit rather than who looks better with the veteran starters.

Effective second units have been a strength of Casey’s teams for years, but that group will be particularly young this season as the Raptors introduce many of the players they’ve spent recent campaigns developing. Plus, for the first time in three-and-a-half seasons, that unit will be without Patrick Patterson, a key rotation lynchpin.

Is a veteran like Miles better suited to provide a steady hand to the young guns? Or does an explosive, energetic player like Powell better fit the style of play the group will feature?

And then what about the starters? While Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will dictate the offence with that unit, they need complementary players to help space the floor, move the ball, and score buckets of their own.

“That’s the way our offence is set up now. It’s a lot of spacing,” Powell said. “We’re doing a lot of four-out one-in, ball reversal, step-ups, playing out of drag and pin-down. So, the offence is a lot more spaced on the floor for guys like Serge and Kyle, DeMar to operate in the post and find the open man when teams go and double-team him.”

Miles can certainly make that work, providing the best three-point shot on the team and a keen sense for spacing the floor. His outside threat should create room for DeRozan and Lowry to work. And when he can sneak to a corner unguarded he’s lethal, shooting a ridiculous 50.8 per cent from those spots in 2016-17, sinking the second-most corner threes in the NBA.

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But while Powell’s still working on his shooting range, what he does do that Miles doesn’t is attack the hell out of the rim. And while Powell won’t pull defenders out to the line like Miles, he will provide a considerable defensive upgrade over the veteran.

So, it’s not the most straightforward decision. Fortunately for Casey, both Powell and Miles say they’re happy to play wherever they’re asked.

“That’s above my pay grade. Doesn’t matter. I’m too old to be worried about that,” Miles said. “I’m just playing basketball. I’m worried about winning. Wherever they see fit is where I’m going to go and I’m going to make the best of it. I’m still going to be vocal, I’m still going to be the same, I’m still going to play within my ability, within my game, and just find space and help guys as much as I can.”

Powell’s played a lot this pre-season with both units. He says that despite the different personnel, the tactics remain consistent, which makes it easy for him to fit into both groups.

“It’s still the same thing, just playing off them and trying to find ways that I can be productive in that unit,” Powell said. “Especially with the way we’re running the offence, it gives up a lot of space, a lot of drives for me to be able to drive, attack, kick, swing, be able to dump off guys for JV and Serge and kickouts for Kyle and DeMar. So, I like the way the offence is but it’s still the same thing when I’m out there. It’s all about doing the little things to help that unit: Pushing the tempo, picking up the pace, playing defence, doing all the hustle things.”

As Casey alluded to, Powell didn’t have his best showing with the starters Tuesday night. His shot simply wasn’t falling as he struggled to a 1-for-6 night from the field. But Powell didn’t let that stop him from creating as he set up several of his teammates with quality looks and deserved to come away with more than the three assists that he did.

Meanwhile, Miles had his best night as a Raptor while playing with the second unit. He went 5-of-8 from three and finished a game-high plus-20. And when he wasn’t shooting he was moving the ball quickly, providing a fluidity the Raptors will need to have if they’re going to truly reform their offence this season.

“I think that’s the best way for that group to play — just being athletic and interchangeable,” Miles said of the second unit. “Those guys do a great job pushing the ball, pushing the tempo, attacking the basket, and making decisions. I just tried to make reads off of them. We just played with a lot of energy.”

Let there be no doubt, the Raptors are going to win and lose on the backs of their best players, Lowry and DeRozan, but complementary pieces like Powell and Miles will play a crucial part in letting those best players do what they do best. Casey just has to figure out the optimal way to make that happen.

“No, no, no, no” Casey said when asked if he’d made a decision on a starter between Miles and Powell. “And if I did, I couldn’t tell you right now anyway.”