New-look Raptors must learn on the fly with more changes looming

NBA analyst Michael Grange joins Tim and Sid to talk about the Toronto Raptors trading for Marc Gasol.

Nick Nurse was late for his post-game press conference Thursday night.

Nothing intentional, just logistical.

League rules dictate he couldn’t comment on the one thing that everyone wanted to hear about – the Raptors trade deadline deal for the Memphis Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol – until the details of the deal were given the twice over by the league office in New York.

That didn’t happen until after 10 p.m. ET, well after the short-handed Toronto Raptors had closed out the Atlanta Hawks. And so for about 20 minutes, there was nothing to say.

What was interesting is there wasn’t much to say once the deal was approved either. The only thing that was certain was three rotation players – Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles – had left for Memphis and Grizzlies all-star centre Gasol was on his way north, expected to join the Raptors in New York Saturday for their game against the Knicks after a quick stop in Toronto for his mandatory physical.

But beyond that? After the biggest trade deadline acquisition in franchise history, it was hard to know how everything was going to shake out.

Even now, there’s not much to say because there is still much unknown.

With 26 games left in the regular season, the head coach of the team tied for the most wins so far doesn’t even know who his starting centre is going to be. There’s the one he’s had virtually all season – Serge Ibaka, who is having one of the best years of his career – and the one his team just acquired, who has been a starter for all of his 11 NBA seasons.

"I think it’s a ‘let it play out a little bit.’ I don’t think I’m gonna do anything drastic here right away," said Nurse when he finally spoke. "It’ll take [Gasol] some time to get him acclimated to our stuff … I really don’t know what I’m gonna do until I see him play and see what it looks like and see what some combinations look like and make a decision. He’s used to starting, Serge is used to starting, I think Serge has earned it and played his butt off this year. I can’t call it at this point at all. I think it’ll take some time to figure it out."

Time to figure it out – if only the Raptors had some.

Toronto is in the midst of one of their most successful seasons, just a hair behind their team-record 59-win pace from a season ago, and yet there is still more to learn about what their ceiling could be than is known for sure.

“Figure it out” might as well be the Raptors’ mantra. Incredibly, the group that started training camp played a single game together with everyone healthy, on Nov. 2 in Phoenix. At the end of that game, a Raptors win, Kawhi Leonard tweaked his foot and missed the next two games; in the second of those Norm Powell dislocated his shoulder against the Utah Jazz and through injuries minor and majors, absences and rest days, the Raptors have never been whole since.

The second game with a full lineup was supposed to Thursday night as Valanciunas was set to play for the first time after missing 31 games with a dislocated thumb against Atlanta, but that all changed at about 2 p.m. ET when the trade winds blew.

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Now more uncertainty. Integrating Gasol, most feel, won’t be too difficult. Kyle Lowry, who played with Gasol for part of the big Spaniard’s rookie season in Memphis, believes it can happen fast and on the fly.

"The one thing about it is we have some really high-IQ basketball players, which makes it a lot easier to play off each other and learn," said Lowry. "You’ve got some good professional veterans and some high-IQ basketball players. It’s a smooth transition."

But that’s just for the players on the roster. Between the trade with the Grizzlies and two smaller transactions that sent out Malachi Richardson and Greg Monroe, Toronto has four open roster spots to fill.

At the moment, they have nine plausible NBA rotation players – including Gasol and Patrick McCaw, who has been with the team for six weeks and has been a fringe rotation player at best in his truncated three-year NBA career. Lowry, their starting point guard, has a wonky back that is prone to flaring up. Fred VanVleet, Lowry’s lone back-up at the moment, has been nicked up all season. Nurse tried to suggest that his career-high 30-point night against Atlanta was because he was finally approaching full health.

VanVleet raised an eyebrow at that. "No, not even close, but let’s run with that story," he said. "Maybe we can speak it into existence."

Leonard seems to require careful handling. He’s on pace to play just 59 games this season, which means he’ll likely miss at least six or seven more as the Raptors come down the stretch.

So while it’s unlikely Nurse or the Raptors need splashy upgrades to grind their way through the playoffs – a healthy eight or nine-man rotation can work just fine – it’s foolish to think Toronto can get to where it wants to go without a worthy back-up point guard and a reliable third-string centre. If the Raptors can find someone who can heat up off the bench from deep for a game or two, that could change the tenor of a series.

Which means that even as the Raptors reshaped their rotation in still-as-yet-to-be determined ways over the past two days, more changes are coming.

Indications are there won’t be a rush to add peripheral pieces in the next day or two or three, but even if they trickle in between now and March 1 – the day by which new players must be signed to be eligible for the playoffs – it means the Raptors’ season of uncertainty and change is still in progress.

On that front at least, everything stays the same: the changes will keep coming, there’s nothing much else to say.

The job of Nurse and the veterans on his ever-changing roster will be to figure it out on the fly.

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