DeRozan’s return takes centre stage in crucial week for Raptors

The San Antonio Spurs' DeMar DeRozan is guarded by the Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard. (Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

The Toronto Raptors officially get back to work on Wednesday following the annual all-star break. Normally an opportunity to recharge the batteries mid-season, this year’s all-star weekend came on the heels of significant change in Raptorland.

And they’re hardly alone.

Following the NBA’s Feb. 7 trade deadline, the top of the East feels quite different. The Raptors, currently in second place at 43-16, made a big splash acquiring Marc Gasol for a package that included former draft picks Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright. On the buyout market, Toronto made more noise by signing one of the top point guards available in Jeremy Lin, who will step into a fairly significant role right away with Fred VanVleet sidelined for roughly a month with a thumb injury.

Elsewhere, the Philadelphia 76ers landed Tobias Harris, an all-star-calibre forward who was putting up a career year with the Los Angeles Clippers. Appearing in a handful of games already with the Sixers, Harris is fitting in nicely and transforms Philadelphia into a legitimate contender in the conference. Meanwhile, the first-place Milwaukee Bucks traded for three-point specialist Nikola Mirotic in a one-sided coup with the New Orleans Pelicans, a move that considerably bolsters their already-lethal offence. Among the contending teams, only Boston didn’t make a move — although theirs could come this summer.

Suddenly there’s a lot more weight to the stretch run toward the playoffs, which begins in earnest this week — starting with the most-anticipated game of the season.

DeRozan returns

The Raptors don’t play until Friday night, but it’s a date that’s been circled on the calendar for a long time. The San Antonio Spurs will be in town then, marking the first NBA game DeMar DeRozan will play in Toronto without wearing a Raptors jersey.

The trade that moved the lifelong Raptor to San Antonio last summer was a legitimate shocker that sent both the player and franchise into drastically different directions. For Toronto, it meant saying goodbye to the only bona fide star who adamantly wanted to spend his entire career with the Raptors. DeRozan was a prior draft pick who joined the team with decent expectations and would end up with several franchise records, including points scored and games played.

In return, the Raptors, of course, acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. While there were questions surrounding Leonard’s health at the time having just missed all but nine games in his final Spurs season, the deal meant that the Raptors’ ceiling had been almost instantly raised higher than it had ever been.

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The 2018-19 season has been a strange trip for the Raptors. With players in and out of the lineup, and, more recently, the trade deadline shakeup, it’s hard to get a gauge on what, exactly, this team is at the moment. But the Raptors have remained a potent group on both ends of the floor — fifth among all teams in net rating at the all-star break. Leonard has been as advertised, Lowry is dishing like never before, Serge Ibaka has been quietly excellent, while Pascal Siakam has been a borderline revelation to this point.

With Gasol on board, the pieces are there for a major playoff run. The same can’t be said of DeRozan’s Spurs.

An especially-motivated DeRozan got off to a killer start to the season, playing some of the best ball of his career and was handed the reigns from Gregg Popovich on Day 1.

But the Spurs haven’t exactly turned heads in the process. They’re currently in seventh place in the West, as DeRozan is putting up career-highs in rebounds and assists (6.1 per game).

Still, a lot can change in a season. Last year at the all-star game, DeRozan was one of the 10 players on the court in crunch time — a solid indication of the NBA’s hierarchy. This past weekend marked the first season in five years in which DeRozan did not make the all-star team.

He managed to get his revenge on the Raptors when these two teams met in San Antonio earlier this season, a blowout win for the home team in which DeRozan registered a triple-double against his old club.

On Friday, DeRozan will almost definitely receive the loudest ovation a player has gotten on Toronto’s home court — and deservedly so. Then, at some point shortly after, the attention will shift back to this year’s Raptors and the previously unthinkable goal to reach the NBA Finals ahead of them.

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Pick up the pieces

After some downtime to hit the drawing board during the break, Nick Nurse and his coaching staff will be fine-tuning plans to integrate Gasol and Lin into their systems during practice this week. Finding a balance between fitting the new players in and maximizing their individual strengths isn’t easy, but both have skills that should translate well onto their new club.

While his teammates will have to continue to get used to playing with a centre who moves the ball with as much intention as Gasol does, the 34 year-old centre has hardly looked out of place at all during his first three games in a Raptors uniform.

He’s only played 20 minutes per game thus far — all coming off of the bench — and is averaging 10 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game in that time, while shooting 52 per cent from the floor (he’s also a perfect 1-of-1 from deep). The team has eased him in to this point, with Ibaka remaining in the starting lineup and seeing crunch-time minutes. It may be only a matter of time until Gasol sees his playing time and carrying load increase as he could return to the starting role he’s known his entire career. That said, Nurse could find value in having Gasol anchor the Raptors’ second-unit, something we saw Valanciunas do in small stretches earlier this season.

If Gasol was delicately roasted, Lin was thrown into the fire. He played 25 minutes in his Raptors debut, despite officially joining the team just two hours before tip-off. Still, the veteran point guard was solid, with eight points, five boards, and five assists in the Raptors’ 129-120 win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday.

With VanVleet out for the next while and no other point guards on the roster aside from Lowry — mid-season pickup Patrick McCaw has seen some spot minutes in the role — Lin, like Gasol, figures to be a big part of the Raptors’ plans going forward.

Yes, a lot can change in only a year.

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