Raptors doing 'an interesting dance' at point guard early in season

Toronto Raptors' Fred VanVleet (23) celebrates after making a three-point basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Four games and only one win into what is shaping up as a Toronto Raptors season that could have more downs than ups and a few things are becoming clear.

The Raptors have a chance to be a pretty good defensive team – they rank fifth in steals, sixth in turnovers forced and seventh in defensive rating.

Their progress offensively has been slow-going – more on that later.

And in terms of personnel, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has one point guard he trusts, one he respects, one he’s got high hopes for and the other is Malachi Flynn, whose status remains undetermined.

Watching how that plays out will be an interesting dance over the next few weeks, because – realistically – something will have to give.

Fred VanVleet is the incumbent and has been shouldering a heavy load, on and off the floor.

The sixth-year pro is in his first full season as the leader of an NBA team, on and off the floor, and after finishing second in the NBA in minutes played a season ago at 36.5, VanVleet is up to 38.5 in the early part of this season – an average pushed up by his 43-minute turn in Monday night’s loss to the Chicago Bulls that dropped the Raptors to 1-3 on the season and 0-3 at home.

VanVleet’s fine with it, even if he ranks third in the NBA in ‘miles per game’ – according to the league’s tracking data he’s putting in three miles per contest, this after leading the league last season at 2.76.

“I think it only feels like more because I feel like the oldest guy on the court, and I never made Kyle do that much running, so I’m trying to figure out why I’m the guy that’s doing all the running,” joked the 27-year-old VanVleet after a practice on Tuesday that he spent more time watching than participating in as he recovered from his heavy workload.

“Other than that, no, I feel good, that’s why you put so much work in during the off-season. I spend every hour that I’m not on the court trying to figure out how I can get my body ready for tomorrow. So just being dedicated to the craft and trying to figure out how I can be the best pro I can be.”

That Nurse felt obligated to play VanVleet 43 minutes on what was the Raptors' third game in four nights is noteworthy, however.

The Raptors are chasing wins already with a team that doesn’t have any margin for error and it’s clear that he doesn’t feel like he has a lot of options when it comes to catching them.

Goran Dragic – the veteran point guard who came from Miami as part of the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade – has yet to find his rhythm in his first weeks in Toronto after seven with the Heat.

He’s shooting just 31.8 per cent from the floor and 22.2 per cent from three – both well below career marks for the 35-year-old in his 15th season. He’s been getting 15 minutes a night, mostly off the bench, which could be an issue given he’s averaged 27.5 minutes a game over the past three seasons as a highly productive second-unit guard who saw plenty of time with the Heat’s closing lineups as well.

But his pedigree will assure him steady opportunities to find a positive way to contribute.

Dalano Banton has gotten Nurse’s attention as well. The second-round pick from Rexdale has seen action in all four games. He was part of the Raptors' second-half surge in their opener, where he got nearly 13 minutes of action. It’s been spotty since but Nurse did find five minutes for him with Toronto down by 15 late in the third quarter and was rewarded with a quick burst that helped the Raptors cut the Bulls' lead to 10.

Which brings up the topic of Flynn, the second-year guard taken 29th overall in the 2020 draft. He struggled for playing time last season but as the Raptors began positioning for the draft and prioritizing development, he had some good outings, averaging 14.9 points and 5.5 assists on 37.4 three-point shooting in 14 late-season starts.

With Lowry having moved on, the expectation was Flynn would find his way into a three-guard rotation with VanVleet and Dragic. Instead, he has averaged just three minutes in four games. He was last seen putting up jumpers on the court at Scotiabank Arena in a late-night workout well after the final horn had sounded.

Why has he been the odd man out?

“Well, there's a Fred VanVleet and there's a Goran and we've given Dalano a run," Nurse said. "And Dalano – he's the one you should probably be asking me about. He's come out and played outstanding every minute he’s been out there and the offence gets really easy when he's out there and he's played like eight minutes a night. You should be all over me for not playing him more. So that's part of the issue.

“And again, I think Malachi is a good player, right? It’s just a matter of timing and numbers and all that kind of stuff right now but he’s not, like, out of the discussion. He almost went in the game last night, he almost went (in) the game (against) Dallas, like, it'll happen one of these days and then it's gonna be up to see what he looks like out there.”

The opportunities in the Raptors' rotation will likely only get tougher to distribute in the coming weeks. Yuta Watanabe has been out for three weeks with a calf strain but practicsd Tuesday and is expected to practice with Raptors 905 on Wednesday with a possible return Friday when Toronto hosts the Orlando Magic.

Pascal Siakam, the Raptors' leading scorer the past two seasons, also practised and will do the same with Raptors 905 on Wednesday, which would indicate his return to action after off-season shoulder surgery could be closer than the mid-to-late November target date.

The Raptors could use the help. They are 24th in offensive rating and 28th in effective field goal percentage. The plan was to play at a high pace to mask what was predicted to be a weak half-court offence, but Toronto is just 25th in pace.

According to NBA.com, the Raptors are last in effective field goal percentage (41.7 per cent) when they have the ball and with 7-14 seconds on the shot clock. They run their best offence early in the shot clock with an EFG of 61.4, which is 15th in the league. They run their worst in late-clock situations, converting with just a 27.6 EFG, which is 25th in the league. That’s a problem because the Raptors have been in late-clock situation on 10.4 per cent of their possessions, which is the third highest rate, league-wide.

This time of year, the sample sizes are small, but the data only confirms pre-season expectations. The Raptors' path forward is going to be with aggressive, opportunistic defence and an offence that doesn’t hold them back too much – at least until reinforcements arrive.

The Raptors are determined to remain optimistic, and perhaps have good reason, given they host Indiana and Orlando on Wednesday and Friday, respectively, with both teams at 1-3 for now.

“We knew what this was going to be going into it,” said VanVleet. “You just got to stay level-headed. It’s a long season and as easy you can lose a couple, you can win even more and get hot and I think that’s all it’s going to take and we are doing this without Pascal, without Yuta who have both been making strides in practice and looking good.

“We get back to full strength at whatever point that comes, then we will have a better feel for where we are at, but I’m seeing a lot of growth from guys on a daily basis. We just have to continue to get better every day from top to bottom.”

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