The Toronto Raptors are a team divided by money and experience but whose success depends as much on those with little of either – by NBA standards anyway – as on the group with years in the league and the contracts to show for it.
On one side of the ledger you have the ‘core five’ among the club’s 15 potential roster spots featuring the team’s highest-paid, highest-profile players who combine to absorb roughly $100 million of the club’s $118-million payroll.
The first group – stalwarts Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, along with Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas and newcomer C.J. Miles – also account for 44 years of NBA experience compared with the 12 seasons shared among the other nine or 10 players expected to be on the roster when the curtain raises on the 2017-18 season Thursday against Chicago.
But if the Raptors are going to earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the fifth straight year their young talent is going to have to play above their collective pay grade.
The Raptors not-so-secret weapon over the past four years has been their depth and the success of their second unit in lineups centred around Lowry and bolstered by veterans like Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and P.J. Tucker, all but Lowry since departed.
The goal now is to have a strong second unit while keeping Lowry and DeRozan’s minutes down in the regular season – only Minnesota’s duo of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns averaged more minutes per game – 72.8 – than the Raptors’ pair logged.
One way of doing that is allowing the kids to play unsupervised for longer stretches.
“I’m excited to see what that young group does because … it’s gonna pay off huge dividends for the future,” says Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “It may be ugly a little bit early in the year but I think as the year goes on, this group will obtain a personality, a playing personality, an identity, an air of confidence that will win in the NBA. Again, we’ve gotta see.”
The kids feel like they’re ready for their shine, having developed an identity over the past two or three years toiling away on Summer League rosters, off-season workouts and appearances with Raptors 905.
“It’s kind of a weird set up but we’ve really developed a group dynamic, some kind of chemistry,” says second-year centre Jakob Poeltl who – along with Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam had their contract options picked up by the team on Monday. “And it’s still going to be a work in progress but our role is to come off the bench and just go out there and bring energy. It’s been a similar role as the past couple of years but no we have this super young power coming off the bench and I think it’s going to work out pretty good.”
It’s created a unique set of circumstances on a team that turns on the DeRozan-Lowry axis.
The two all-stars are the engine of the team – Ibaka and Miles were added to compliment them and Valanciunas’ future depends on his ability to adapt accordingly – but they recognize their ambitions rely on teammates who have yet to make their big NBA splash. There have been promising signs – some of the Raptors’ best moments in their pre-season schedule were provided by their young second unit, but pre-season and regular season are miles apart and the playoffs another area code after that.
“I have a lot of confidence in them,” says DeRozan. “Especially going through all the practices with them, training camp, teaching, learning, them listening. Learning with them. Seeing things they’ve gotten better at, so they’ve definitely gained more and more confidence in them so they can have more confidence in themselves.”
It’s also thrust Lowry and DeRozan into leadership roles that are in in their best interests to embrace with the two veterans almost taking a good cop/bad cop approach.
Guess who is the taskmaster?
“I am a pretty tough guy. I am a prick when it comes to some stuff,” says Lowry of his leadership style. “But honestly I do have [his younger teammates] best interests at heart, because I do want them to be successful. I want them to provide for their families, I want all them guys to be all-stars, to be able to witness some of the things I’ve witnessed in this league.”
Says Poeltl: “Kyle is really good to work with in that sense because he’s a good leader. He’ll pull you up and be there when you need it but he’ll let you know for sure if you mess something up. He finds a good balance to let you know when you could have done something better but also let you know if you’ve accomplished something or done something good.”
It helps that the relationships have been built of over time. As the youngsters grow in confidence and gain in seniority the interaction between them and the veterans has slowly become more peer-to-peer than big brother-little brother.
“They understand when to be serious and at the same time you have that relationship where you can play around and give each other a hard time,” says DeRozan. “That’s the cool thing about it. A guy like Norm [Powell] he splashed water on me the other day, little stuff like that. Having fun off and on the court.”
Lowry says his opinion of his teammates will be shaped by how willing they are to make mistakes at full speed, playing all out, without hesitation at both ends of the floor.
“I don’t care if you take a shot, miss a shot, make a turnover. I don’t care,” says Lowry. “I only care that you do it defensively and you do it consistently and you do it hard. You can do whatever you want offensively. If [Poeltl] wants to shoot a three, shoot a three if you’re working on it. If I see Fred [VanVleet] working on left-handed floaters, then shoot it. If I see them working on it then I respect it. As long as they do it on the defensive end, then they have a right to, but that’s where it starts.”
The veterans put time in over the summer, building bonds in workouts in Los Angeles and Las Vegas where the team’s younger players gathered for weeks at a time working on their skills and absorbing the new nuances in the club’s offensive and defensive approach.
“Stuff like that is critical, it goes a long way,” said DeRozan of his connection with his younger teammates. “Every chance I got I tried to be with them in LA, I even went to Vegas for Summer League to be with a lot of them, be with them, play with them, work out with them. Just to have a presence, a feel and try to grow that camaraderie, first of all. Once you grow that, everything else will follow.”
Having a bench made up almost entirely of kids on their rookie contracts was by necessity. With so much salary tied up among their five most experienced players going cheap and young elsewhere in the lineup was the only way Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster could avoid going deep into the luxury tax territory.
Besides, after investing heavily in the development of their youngsters with the establishment of Raptors 905 and building out the BioSteel Centre It makes sense that they be given an opportunity to succeed or fail on their own merits.
“I don’t know if they’re ready,” says Ujiri. “But we have to find out if they are, you know?”