Raptors facing familiar outcome despite season spent investing in change

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) walks off the court at the end of the first half in Game 2 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks in Milwaukee on Friday, May 17, 2019. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – There are all kinds of ways to make change for a dollar. The combinations are nearly unlimited.

But in the end, all you have is a dollar.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri has been making change furiously all season long. He cashed in former head coach Dwane Casey for Nick Nurse. Exchanged DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl (and a draft pick) for at least one season of Kawhi Leonard and at the trade deadline turned Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles into Marc Gasol.

And yet the Raptors are – give or take a nickel here or a dime there – where they’ve always been for several years: A good regular-season team that ends up a day late or a dollar short in the post-season.

It’s almost like the NBA is a highly analyzed economic eco-system where it’s difficult to buy low and sell high.

You wonder if that might be in the back of Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s mind as he tries to figure out what levers he can pull to change the course of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Raptors host the Milwaukee Bucks for Game 3 on Sunday night at Scotiabank Arena and will be trying to avoid going down 0-3 to the surging Bucks and their dominating star, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The mountain is already tall enough. Of the 72 Conference Finals that have started with one team going 2-0, the early leader has gone on to win 67 times, according to WhoWins.com.

Fall down 3-0? Of the 132 teams who have been in that hole, not one has ever come back from the NBA’s version of post-season death.

Nurse doesn’t want to hear about history. It’s of no benefit when you’re trying to make some.

"That can’t be right," said Nurse, laughing. "That can’t be right. Check the figures …. [but] I don’t know. I don’t really give a crap about that. I just want our team to come play their ass off tomorrow night and get one game and it changes the series."

Part of the plan could include a change in the lineup. Nurse was transparent about the possibility on a conference call Saturday afternoon. "I think there could be more than one lineup change coming at us," he said when I asked him about the possibility of flipping out Gasol at centre for Serge Ibaka.

If there was more than one it seems obvious that Norman Powell — who has shot the ball well in the post-season (52 per cent over his past 11 starts) and showed some legitimate spark with 14 points off the bench in Game 2 — could get the nod over Danny Green, who is shooting just 36.6 per cent from deep in the playoffs and 27.3 per cent in his past four games and doesn’t have the ability to attack a rotating defence off the dribble in the same way Powell does at his best.

Loyalties aside, Nurse would be silly to not try something at this stage. But will it only be a different way of arranging a collection of assets that doesn’t add up to enough? Is it possible to actually create more value by simply moving pieces around? Can Nurse rearrange four quarters and come up with more than a dollar?

That’s the hope, but the reality could simply be the Bucks are in a richer tax bracket. Team building in the NBA takes many forms and mountains of investment capital but it always works best when you start with found money.

In the Bucks’ case they drafted emerging superstar Antetokounmpo 15th overall in 2013 and have been lifted to ever-greater heights as he’s taken his place in the NBA’s upper-echelon. Getting another starter – Malcolm Brogdon – with a second-round pick in 2016 helped too. But with Antetokounmpo as a foundational piece every subsequent move seems to yield increasing returns in a never-ending virtuous cycle that could easily end up in multiple cracks at winning an NBA title — especially given that the position-less Greek star is just 24 years old.

With Antetokounmpo in place the Bucks could add without subtracting as they positioned themselves to contend this season. It was the power of compounding interest. This off-season alone the Bucks were able to add rotation players like Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and Pat Connaughton as low-cost free agents. In-season trades to acquire George Hill and Nikola Mirotic could be made without sacrificing any significant assets.

Raptors president Ujiri has always been confident that he could build a championship team if he could get his hands on one of the NBA’s top-5 or top-10 talents; the kinds of players who change the math for everyone else on the floor. The Bucks have one – and maybe THE one – in Antetokounmpo but Ujiri got one in Leonard, whose price came down because he was coming off a season lost to injury and was only under contract for the 2018-19 season before hitting free agency this coming summer, as you may have heard.

The difference is that Leonard still came at a price. Leonard is an upgrade on DeRozan, but losing the useful Poeltl weakened the Raptors’ depth, if even incrementally.

Was Gasol an upgrade over Valanciunas? The educated view is that he is given his defensive acumen and play-making ability, even if the Raptors could use the big Lithuanian’s raw production right about now. Gasol’s offence has fallen off a cliff of late — he’s averaging 5.5 points on 25 per cent shooting while averaging 35 minutes a game his past four starts — which is one reason starting Ibaka over him in Game 3 seems possible, if not probable. But losing Wright as a backcourt option was another small cut.

Factor in OG Anunoby’s emergency appendectomy on the eve of the playoffs and the Raptors’ depth is minimal, which is why Nurse has resorted to playing a six and seven-man rotation for much of the post-season.

Good on him for trying something different for Game 3, and with the energy of the home crowd and a more energized performance over all — "we were outworked, out-hustled and outplayed. That’s three outs; end of inning" was his assessment of his club’s blowout loss in Game 2 – the Raptors may well give themselves a chance to pull back into the series.

But a more likely scenario is Nurse shuffles the pieces around and the results don’t change very much, not over the course of a series anyway. Four quarters is a dollar the same way three quarters, two dimes and a nickel are a dollar.

The Raptors may simply not have enough ‘money’ to beat the Bucks.

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