Ugh. No one ever said life in the NBA was supposed to be fair, but what has Norm Powell done to deserve this?
What have the Raptors?
On Thursday night, Toronto provided updates on the wave of injuries that swept over them in the win against the Detroit Pistons the night before.
• Marc Gasol, who strained his hamstring in the first quarter against the Pistons, was revaluated today in Toronto and was deemed to be out “indefinitely.”
• To the surprise of all, it was revealed Pascal Siakam strained his groin midway through the fourth quarter and will be out “indefinitely.”
• And Powell, rocked by a Blake Griffin screen late in the fourth quarter, suffered a partially dislocated shoulder and will be out – you guessed it – “indefinitely.”
Given the Raptors have already lost rotation pieces Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Pat McCaw and Matt Thomas for double-digit games in a season that’s only one-third gone and Fred VanVleet has missed five, someone needs to get video of the Raptors peeing up the legs of the “Basketball Gods” (Dwane Casey voice).
As for the impact? Well, losing your leading scorer (Siakam) and best all-around player, your most important defender (Gasol) and your second-leading scorer (Powell) in one game seems to be … significant.
Gasol’s loss leaves the Raptors even more thin up front with rookie Dewan Hernandez the only other centre on the roster, so it’s not impossible that if Gasol is out for an extended period a depth piece may need to be found and acquired.
There is no replacement for Siakam who leads the Raptors in scoring (25.1 per game), rebounding, is third in assists and second in blocks while posting a team-high usage rate of 29.4 per cent.
Normally a good chunk of that load would shift to Powell, but not now.
The only hope is that Siakam isn’t out very long – it’s believed they are exercising caution for what is a fairly mild strain – and the silver lining might be that it will serve a bit of a break for a young player carrying a new and heavier load of responsibilities while ranking seventh in the NBA in minutes played to this stage.
The same can be said for Gasol, who could likely benefit from a breather after playing 12 straight months of basketball, ending with the World Cup in China in early September.
On paper, the Raptors can likely backfill Powell’s minutes more easily, but there is otherwise no way to polish what must be a heartbreaking turn of events for a player who seems to snake-bitten at times.
Watching Powell rolling on the floor, clutching his left shoulder in agony?
If you’re the type who likes to see good things happen to good people, it was not the moment for you.
Perhaps the best you can take away from it is that he didn’t require surgery.
Otherwise, the timing couldn’t be worse for Powell or – given Siakam’s injury – the Raptors.
The six-foot-four slasher was playing the best basketball of his career, and whether that would have resulted in him being the kind of fixture as a microwave sixth man and occasional starter good teams need or a juicy trade chip down the line, an extended Powell absence complicates matters for Toronto in the short- and medium-term.
How the injuries ultimately affect the Raptors’ seeding in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race – a half-game separated second through sixth before play Wednesday night – or their ability to get what should be a solid nine-man rotation firing on all cylinders when they don’t have Kawhi Leonard as a safety net is another matter.
In a season where the margin for error is slim, it’s less than ideal.
Fortunately, it appears that Serge Ibaka – averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds on 57 per cent shooting over his past three games – is back to the form he was flashing before he missed 10 games with a sprained ankle and ready to take up the slack.
He’ll likely appreciate a return to the starting lineup and a steady diet of 30-plus minute nights Gasol’s absence will afford. The Raptors and the rest of the league will get a more extended look at the viability of Chris Boucher as a regular rotation piece, a second chance for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and perhaps more small-ball lineups featuring OG Anunoby at the four spot will become the norm.
Missed will be Gasol’s long-range shooting, paint defence and ability to run the offence 25 feet from the basket – all of which help explain why the Raptors are 11.2 points better per 100 possessions with Gasol on the floor than they are when he sits, even while he’s averaging a career-low 6.6 points a game on a career-low 36.4 per cent from the floor.
But Powell’s loss could be different if only because a similar injury to the same shoulder cost him six weeks and 21 games last year and represents another roadblock between him and his ultimate potential.
Raptors fans understandably love to celebrate the team’s plucky underdog stories – Siakam’s rapid rise to All-Star status as a late first-round pick; VanVleet’s emergence one of the league’s most respected players after being undrafted – but Powell often gets overlooked.
It could be that his role has been perpetually in flux since being pressed into starting as a rookie, or because he got paid relatively early in what is still only a five-year career and struggled in the first two years after he got the extension or because of his penchant for some forehead-slapping plays along the way.
It could be that we forget that the Powell we’ve seen this year could have been on display last year, had he not been pushed out of a starting spot by the acquisition of Danny Green.
But Powell deserves credit for turning himself into an important rotation player after being taken 46th the 2015 draft, and for finding a way to do it on deep teams that have averaged nearly 56 wins a year since he broke into the league.
And he deserves credit for taking the opportunity to start presented to him earlier this season, when Lowry and then VanVleet got hurt, and sprinting with it.
Not only have the past 21 games been the best six-week run of his career, he’s been one of the most efficient guards in the NBA.
Yes, that Norm Powell.
Since becoming a starter after Lowry fractured his thumb on Nov. 8, Powell has averaged 16.7 points a game on 51.1 per cent shooting, including 42 per cent from three on a robust 5.3 attempts. It translates into a True Shooting percentage of 63.5 per cent, among the league’s best for wing players. He’s averaged 1.2 steals a game, too.
He’s the only guard in the NBA to score at least 16 points a game while shooting better than 50 per cent from the field and 40 per cent from three (with five attempts or more) and while averaging at least one steal per game.
And he’s done while treading lightly too, with a usage rate of just 20.5 per cent.
He’s still prone to some frustrating turnovers and odd defensive lapses, but he’s flat out won games for the Raptors too.
What does it all mean?
Hopefully not too much, for the Raptors at least.
If anything it solves a looming potential lineup crunch that had Nurse musing about starting Powell over VanVleet. That issue has disappeared for now.
VanVleet could be ready to return Friday after a four-game absence with a sore knee and will slide into the starting spot Powell was keeping warm for him.
McCaw will presumably keep getting every chance to show that he can contribute at a level that far exceeds his meagre offensive output (6.3 points per 36 minutes on 40 per cent shooting over the past two seasons).
Rookie Terence Davis II should also benefit. In the 11 games Lowry was out and before McCaw returned, he delivered 10.8 points a game on 54.2 shooting (46.7 per cent from three) while averaging 21.1 minutes a game.
With Lowry and now McCaw back, Davis is averaging just 14.7 minutes over the past eight games while scoring just 4.6 points a game on 34.2 per cent shooting. That should change.
Matt Thomas, due to return in a week or so from a broken finger, should be able to carve out some minutes also.
Things will sort themselves out, but it’s a lot to take in at once. It’s not often that a team loses three of its top seven players in the space of a single game, but stranger things have happened.
But as it relates to Powell’s injury and the timing, it’s not too often they feel that unfair.