Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey will be the first to tell you that basketball is a make-or-miss sport. There are nights when players compare shooting the ball to throwing it in the ocean because they can’t miss, and others when they can’t hit the side of the barn with a bass fiddle. Another noted Casey-ism.
Needing a win facing elimination in the G League Finals, it was unfortunately the latter for the Raptors 905 this past Tuesday. They shot an abysmal 2-for-27 from beyond the arc at the Hershey Centre to fall 98-76 to the Austin Spurs and lost the G League Finals 2-0.
The 905 failed to repeat, but by no means was this a disappointing result in the grand scheme of things. The team’s roster was gutted of its best players as European teams came calling for their services with more lucrative offers. Jerry Stackhouse and his staff, Bruno Caboclo (more on him later) and Negus Webster-Chan were the only ones left to carry on their winning ways.
“We’re here,” Stackhouse said after falling at the final hurdle. “We’re two of the last teams standing, obviously, we’re not standing on the side that we’d like to be on, but at the end of the day we can take some pride in knowing we at least were back-to-back Eastern Conference champions.”
How they did it
Stackhouse exuded calm and serenity when the 905 started the season 5-10. Coming off a season in which they finished with the best defensive rating, the numbers on that end of the floor were still good. With so many new faces, though, the offence looked out of sync far too often and teams took advantage of their unfamiliarity.
Lorenzo Brown was also being asked to be a different player on the fly, having come in with the reputation of being a scorer first and distributor second after averaging 23.6 points and four assists a season ago with the Grand Rapids Drive.
He struggled mightily with the transition to being more of a facilitator, committing 51 turnovers over his first 10 games while racking up 87 assists. The patience would eventually pay off for Brown, as he averaged nine assists compared to three turnovers per game the rest of the season. His scoring dipped from last year to 18.8 per game, but his transformation was so well respected it even earned him G League MVP honours.
“We had a guy who grew into an MVP,” Stackhouse said after the Finals loss. “I didn’t think he was the MVP at the start of the season, but, he grew and helped his team, helped the big club, too.”
What matters most here is the big picture. The time the 905 and the Raptors organization as a whole invest into developing players into NBA prospects is why Masai Ujiri made it a priority to create this team in the first place. Brown made great strides towards playing at the NBA level, just as some of the more famous names in Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell before him. Dan Tolzman, assistant general manager for the Raptors and general manager of the 905, doesn’t get enough credit.
After the rough start, the team won 26 of its next 35 games, finding a rhythm on the offensive end to match its elite defensive capabilities. The 905 finished the season allowing a league-best 97.3 points per game, almost four better than the Westchester Knicks who were second-best.
Here’s someone who was more of a finished product for the team, and fit the prototype of the type of player the Raptors may need to dial up in case of emergency with his six-foot-seven, 205-pound frame and ability to shoot the three. They just had to wait a while to get him.
Miller underwent ankle arthroscopy on July 18 and was ruled out for at least 12 weeks. He made his debut for the 905 on Nov. 18 against the Lakeland Magic and, after taking some time to get into game shape and get comfortable around his new teammates, hit a groove and never looked back.
He made his debut for the parent club just a month later and even earned a couple of starts in March. His personal highlight was easily the seven straight points he scored for the Raptors in their signature win over the Houston Rockets, highlighting not only his quick release from beyond the arc but the basketball smarts he has to move without the ball and create some easy baskets.
His defence can also go unnoticed because of his sharpshooting abilities, but holding his own when asked to start opposite Victor Oladipo in a game against the Indiana Pacers showed what he’s capable of.
By the end of the Raptors’ season, it was between Brown and Miller in terms of who would have their two-way deal converted to a full contract, and the 27-year-old point guard eventually won out. Still, the fact that Miller got this far without a full Summer League experience or training camp bodes well for the future.
Kaza Keane and Aaron Best both made positive impressions over the course of the season, with Best even becoming a bit of a teacher’s pet by season’s end with his high basketball IQ always leading him to be in the right spot on both ends of the floor.
In an Eastern Conference Final road elimination game, Best came up with his best performance of his season with 23 points on just 11 shots, four rebounds, five assists and two steals against the Erie Bayhawks.
Keane established himself as a floor general on the offensive end and arguably the most annoying pest in the league on the defensive side of the ball. He does a great job of getting in people’s faces and giving them no room to breathe, and his active hands are always ready to poke balls away.
His best stretch came when Brown was called up to the Raptors when Kyle Lowry was forced to miss time, and he came through with 10.8 points, 11 assists and 6.5 rebounds over four games as a starter.
Negus Webster-Chan unfortunately missed most of the season due to an ITB-band issue and will hope to hang on with the team next season.
New York, Orlando and Charlotte all fired their coaches in the span of the last 24 hours and it’s likely Stackhouse gets at least an interview with all three franchises. He has ties to all three clubs as he maintains a good relationship with former Knick Allan Houston, who is now the assistant general manager of the Knicks, while also serving as the general manager of their G League affiliate. In Orlando, he’s well acquainted with former Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman, and finally, there’s the North Carolina connection between him and Michael Jordan in Charlotte.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the 905, it’s easy to wonder why a coach from the G League is so highly sought after. Put simply, Stackhouse has built a reputation as a coach much like the one he had as an 18-year player in the NBA. He takes absolutely no nonsense from anyone, gets his team to play the game the right way by looking to drive and kick constantly, and as mentioned earlier, has taken two completely different rosters and turned them into the best defensive team.
He’s considered a players’ coach, and the respect that he commands is because of the time he takes to connect with them on a personal level. Fuquan Edwin, a small forward who was acquired midway through the season spoke of how they built a bond in such a short span of time.
“He was in the same situation as us — being a kid trying to chase the NBA dream — he knows how it is personally and from a basketball standpoint,” Edwin said. “He gives us a lot of tips for us to take with us and it gets emotional sometimes because he cares so much.”
The plan was never for him to become the mayor of Mississauga, but that’s how Caboclo will be remembered. Caboclo looked the part with the 905 often enough in the 2016-17 season to warrant the Raptors taking a hard look at him in training camp, and after some promising signs, even started him in pre-season. It was ugly. Comical turnovers and constantly out of position, it became just a matter of time before he was assigned back to the 905.
Ultimately, the change of scenery may be what’s most needed for a kid who’s still 22-years-young. The Brazilian may even take kindly to warmer weather, and has already played 100 minutes for the Sacramento Kings after 113 minutes over the course of four seasons with the Raptors. Perhaps, this is what he’s needed all along, a non-playoff team with time to let him make mistakes at the highest level and learn from them.
For Toronto (and Mississauga), there will always be his magical 31-point, 11-rebound performance in the deciding game of the then D-League Finals to win the 905 their first championship.