10 NBA storylines to watch: Siakam, VanVleet chasing rare air

NBA insider Blake Murphy joins Tim and Friends to discuss whether the Raptors core 6 players can keep up with other teams in the East that loaded up at the deadline, also why he thinks they should use Pascal Siakam more in a pseudo point guard role.

Shake off your malaise, get the last of your beach pictures up on Instagram, and lock back in. The second half of the NBA season begins Thursday, with the Toronto Raptors back at it Friday in Charlotte (7 p.m., on Sportsnet 590 The Fan).

It’s been a long week-plus of inactivity, so if I may don my oversized William Lou cap for a moment, here are 10 things I’m paying attention to over the final 25 games of the season, here and around the Eastern Conference.

Pascal Siakam chasing the rare no-All-Star, All-NBA feat

Siakam shook any residual rust off quickly when he returned to the Raptors in November. You can chop his season into smaller samples to help illustrate your point about his candidacy as a top-20 player in the NBA this year, if you want. You don’t need to, though, because even his full-season numbers at this point are pretty staggering: 21.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.3 steals per-game, with a 56.4 per cent true-shooting mark on 25.2 per cent usage and career-bests in rebounding and assists on a per-possession basis.

Only 15 players in the league this year can boast that blend of high usage, above-average efficiency and strong playmaking. Factor in his rebounding, and the list shrinks to four: Siakam and three MVP candidates in Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Siakam doesn’t have quite as strong a case for All-NBA inclusion by advanced impact metrics. Still, when factoring in that he’s also performing at an All-Defensive level at the other end, Siakam warrants discussion among the league’s meatier second tier of players over the last three months.

So, does he have a chance at his second All-NBA nod despite not being an All-Star? There have historically been three justifications for a player accomplishing this rare award dissonance: You missed some time before the All-Star break that mattered less by the end of the season (Jimmy Butler, 2020-21), your team was bad early on and made a strong push late (Damian Lillard, 2015-16) or you’re Rudy Gobert (Rudy Gobert, 2016-17 and 2017-18).

Siakam is not Gobert, but missing 13 games due to recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and a bout in health and safety protocols likely kept Siakam from the Cleveland showcase. While the bar for All-NBA is higher — top 15 in the league rather than top 12 in the conference — the recent history suggests All-NBA voters won’t hold an All-Star snub against a player in April.

Fred VanVleet’s climb up the 3-point record books

VanVleet’s 201st triple of the year felt like a personal attack on me. Had he not hit shot it, he would have entered the break a clean 200-of-500 on 3-point attempts, good for a nice round 40 per cent mark. No, he had to go and make it 201-of-501 and 40.1 per cent.

That is a lot of volume. Only Stephen Curry has hit more threes so far this season, and only Curry and Buddy Hield have attempted more. That’s pretty elite company for VanVleet, who is on pace to make his mark in Raptors history as well as NBA history.

If VanVleet were to continue on his current pace (adjusting for expected time missed; he’s missed seven of the team’s 57 games, so we’re giving him 72 total for the season), he’d finish the season with 289 made threes. Not only would that shatter Kyle Lowry’s franchise record of 238 (2017-18), it would be the eighth-highest total in league history (likely ninth after Curry passes it, too). Yes, the expansion of 3-point volume colours league record books a certain way, but VanVleet has emerged as one of the league’s best, deadliest and highest-volume marksmen. If only VanVleet could box-and-one himself.

Scottie Barnes’ place on the rookie ladder

Barnes’ emergence as a scoring threat quickly reshaped the Rookie of the Year race early in the season. Where Jalen Suggs and Jalen Green were initially expected to push Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley for an award that is historically heavily based on counting stats, Barnes showed he’d be able to score enough to stay in the mix.

How that race shakes out in the final third of the year will be very interesting. In addition to the top five picks, Franz Wagner, Chris Duarte, Josh Giddey, Herbert Jones and Ayo Dosunmu all seem like good bets for All-Rookie team inclusion, and each could find their way on to some Rookie of the Year ballots with a strong close to the season.

Barnes, meanwhile, has had a slightly tougher adjustment to NBA defence than players like Mobley, Jones and Dosunmu, and his scoring efficiency has trailed off. The break should do Barnes well — only Wagner has played more minutes this year (in 11 more games), and Barnes has tripled his playing time from his freshman college season. I’d expect a rejuvenated rookie out of the break.

Core five sample size and what it means

Entering the season, one of the biggest questions was how the team’s core four would fit together. It’s been tough to get a consistent sample with injuries and protocol absences, but we’re now looking at 406 minutes of VanVleet, Siakam, Barnes and OG Anunoby on the court together. Gary Trent Jr. has probably played his way into a “core five” of sorts, though he can opt out of his contract after next season and is probably the most precarious long-term fit.

The Raptors have, obviously, been pretty good! They’re 32-25 and slightly above league average on both ends of the floor, with a strong record against similar and better opponents. The performance of those four pieces together, though, has been underwhelming. In those 406 minutes, they hold a -2.1 net rating, and that only nudges up to an even +0.0 in the 299 minutes Trent has been their fifth.

Despite the team’s success, the goal for this year remains developing this group and seeing what the extent of their utility together is. The data suggests they may be better off as a matchup-based or closing look rather than a lock for 12-to-16 minutes per-night, but this season isn’t solely about maximizing the team’s short-term performance. How the different combinations of these five grow together will go a long way toward dictating the team’s plans this summer.

Nick Nurse’s starting lineup decisions

So, if that group doesn’t start and play big minutes full time, what does the change look like? Nurse recently conceded they may need to start differently against larger centres like Jokic and Jonas Valanciunas, and Khem Birch seems to be his preference in those scenarios. What’s less clear is who goes to the bench; among the core five, only Trent has come off the bench this year, and he did so for exactly one game.

I’ve always felt that who closes and who plays how much are more important factors than who starts, which is more about maximizing the rotation for the whole 48 minutes. The team’s roster construction is never going to allow for seamlessly balanced rotations, but giving Birch a few starts and letting Barnes or Trent run more of the second unit — without sacrificing many total minutes — could be a different look for Nurse to try on occasion.

Thaddeus Young’s fit

Young said all the right things upon arrival in Toronto. It then took him all of two games to start delivering, with his dot-connecting ability shining in the team’s final game before the break. Young is versatile, efficient and, most noticeably, smart — traits that should allow him to fit anywhere (even if his highest utility will always be as a low-usage option between high-end players).

Where and when Young gets his opportunities remains an unknown. If Nurse continues to roll with the same starters, that means Birch, Young, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher and maybe Dalano Banton are all coming off the bench. None of those players space the floor, and while they all offer very useful skills offensively, you’re almost always going to want one of VanVleet or Trent (for spacing) and one of VanVleet or Siakam (for creation) anchoring those groups.

A straight staggering pattern of VanVleet and Siakam solves some of this. It doesn’t, however, solve that on some nights, there just won’t be minutes for all five of those bench players (plus Malachi Flynn or Yuta Watanabe).

Veteran forward Thaddeus Young (right) talks to OG Anunoby on the Toronto Raptors bench during a game. (Chris Young/CP)

Second-half step-ups down the depth chart

About those last few names: The deadline is in the rear-view. Reinforcements aren’t coming, and if they are, it will be via the buyout or 10-day market, neither of which historically pack outlook-changing punch.

Flynn is probably the most interesting depth piece, as he’s provided an occasional spark and has two years (one plus a team option) left on his deal after this season. Banton, Isaac Bonga and both two-way players are with Raptors 905 on Wednesday, and the hope for the second half is that those depth pieces can spend more time there. In Banton’s case, that requires a certain level of faith in Flynn.

Playoffs vs. Play-In

It’s easy to see how each of these items matters long-term, in terms of evaluating players and fit and long-term roster construction. In the shorter-term, it can be easy to, well, just focus on that long-term.

What are the goals of this season, beyond development? The Raptors have drastically outperformed expectations — their win total over-under jumped from 36.5 before the season to 44.5 at the break, one of the largest jumps in the league — just not enough to materially change their postseason outlook.

That didn’t appear to be the case a few weeks ago, when multiple would-be contenders were struggling, dealing with injuries, or both. Now, Boston is the hottest team in the league, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Brooklyn have all added reinforcements, and Miami is back to health. Chicago, meanwhile, has managed to withstand a barrage of injuries to stay atop the East.

Would the Raptors be happy with making the play-in game, winning, and turning in a competitive performance in the first round of the playoffs? Probably. They’d probably also tell you they think they can beat any of the East’s top teams if they were healthy and clicking. Avoiding the play-in altogether would be a boon, it’s just going to be tough from seventh place with Brooklyn sitting eighth.

In any case, the Raptors did their non-tank tank year, and they’re not going to pull the plug now. They’ll fight for whatever spot they can get, and if it breaks poorly in April, at least they retain their own draft pick if they lose the play-in. It sure would be nice to have playoff basketball back in Toronto.

The Eastern Conference hierarchy

Outside of Toronto, the East is fascinating.

Miami and Chicago have been the best teams in the conference by record, but neither has as strong a case by more advanced metrics, and neither kept up in the trade deadline arms race. Philadelphia and Brooklyn are each hoping their star-swap gets them back on the path to title contention. Milwaukee are the defending champs and have looked the part more recently, with Serge Ibaka standing as a solid addition. Boston fancies itself a contender after a nine-game winning streak. Cleveland doesn’t appear happy to be the up-and-comer who has a good year and bows out gracefully in the postseason. Even Atlanta would tell you they were just in the conference finals.

Underneath all of that standings posturing are a number of candidates for MVP, All-NBA, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year and so on. Seeding could matter more this year than other seasons, too, with uncertainty around pandemic restrictions, a desire to recoup additional playoff revenue after the last few years and many teams being close enough that an extra home game could be the difference. With only three teams really out of it entirely, this should be one of the best stretch runs in terms of game quality that we’ve seen in a while, and a truly awesome playoff bracket on paper.

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Pressure index

One thing the Raptors aren’t facing between now and the end of the season is a lot of pressure. The front office should feel that in the offseason, to be sure, but the Raptors are above where they were expected to be and can focus on the dual win-and-develop goals from here. Other teams aren’t as lucky.

Daryl Morey might have more on the line than anyone these next few months. James Harden and Ben Simmons, too, and both of those players will directly affect Kevin Durant’s legacy. Antetokounmpo has the chance to further solidify himself with a second deep run in a row. The Celtics might need to reconsider their core if they’re a quick out again. There is no shortage of ancillary storylines with massive reputational and franchise-direction leverage.

And with that weight comes one additional opportunity for the Raptors come playoff time: Play the role of disruptor.

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