The Toronto Raptors capped off their pre-season with a 113-108 victory over the Washington Wizards and now they have some decisions to make.
There are five Raptors players on the fringes of the roster battling for three remaining spots before the Oct. 16 cut-down date. Realistically, the race will likely coming down to four players battling for two open spots.
Yuta Watanabe seems like a safe bet for one of those final three spots, meaning Isaac Bonga, Sam Dekker, Freddie Gillespie and Ishmail Wainright are likely all locking horns for the remaining two roster spots.
Not that you’d be able to tell these men were fiercely competing with each other in the last true audition they have before cuts happen.
The Raptors were able to cap off their exhibition schedule with a victory largely thanks to the contributions from these four in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s game, where Dekker, Gillespie and Wainright were all playing team-first, winning basketball.
Entering the final period trailing 89-81, it was unlikely hero Dekker who helped get the Raptors right back into things, scoring 12 straight Raptors points to pull Toronto within three with about eight minutes to play. A few minutes later, Dekker made an unselfish play where he could’ve jacked up a heat-check three while slightly trapped along the right wing, but decided to pass out to Dalano Banton, who then swung the ball to Malachi Flynn – who had a big fourth quarter himself – for an open triple to take the lead.
And as for the others in the fourth quarter, Wainright was seen playing solid positional defence and setting hard screens to free up the likes of Dekker and Flynn, and Gillespie came up with a key block in the quarter and was like Windex cleaning up the defensive glass for the Raptors.
Bonga didn’t see the floor in the fourth quarter and actually had a poor game, in general, but his pre-season was so strong that there’s a thought he has an inside track to one of the remaining roster spots.
With that said, however, the performances of Dekker, Gillespie and Wainright in that fourth certainly gave Raptors head coach Nick Nurse much to deliberate on now.
“We’re going to have to talk it over and think through a little bit and see what we end up with,” said Nurse after the game.
He later added: “Well, I think that there wasn't a whole lot of separation. I think that there are guys there that have all done a pretty good job and worked really hard and you could make a case for any of them, you really could. It's a difficult decision. There's not a whole lot of clear cut. It's gonna be what do we think we're going to do positionally more than anything, but we'll kick it around and we'll figure it out over the next couple of days.”
Before Tuesday’s game started, Nurse seemed far more confident in who he might be going with saying, “we’ll probably make our decisions pretty quick here so we can get the roster ready to go and we can zero in on opening night.”
After the performance from some of the fringe players Tuesday, though, that decision doesn’t appear to be quite as clear cut now.
And even if Nurse has cuts in mind and ready to go, that still doesn’t solve the issues he’ll have piecing together a workable rotation in time for opening night next week.
Most notably, Nurse will have to deal with not having his best player, Pascal Siakam, and probably Chris Boucher in time for opening night. This means that the starting lineup he likely had in mind will need to be re-shuffled and that probably means Goran Dragic will have to step in as a starter next to Fred VanVleet.
Fortunately, Dragic does have plenty of experience playing beside other point guards.
“We still need to work on it, but throughout my career I played with a lot of point guards, especially in Phoenix, I played with [Eric] Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas. Then in Miami it was with Tyler Herro and Jimmy Butler was handling the ball a lot, so it’s nothing new,” said Dragic. “With Freddy we might not have great chemistry yet but I know what he can do, so it just takes time to get adjusted and everything will be fine.”
And though it might not be completely ideal, having Dragic starting and likely playing more minutes than first anticipated to start the season might be a good thing for this young Raptors team, as he’s a proven commodity in the league and can act as a soothing influence in the locker room.
“He was trying to calm them down in the locker room, let them know it was only a pre-season game,” said Nurse of Dragic, who had 16 points and shot 4-for-5 from three. “I just think he’s a good player. He’s a good, experienced player, he’s tough, he can shoot the three, he can run a team, understands what’s going on out there. It’s nice to have guys like that.”
It's also just nice, in general, to have guys on a team who can get the ball to the place it needs to be, and while it looks like the Raptors don’t necessarily have a go-to option without Siakam in the lineup to begin the season, they certainly have no shortage of playmakers on the roster who can help create offence in other ways.
Dragic, of course, is one such player, but another could be rookie Scottie Barnes, who has impressed Dragic over the course of the Raptors’ pre-season.
“He makes the game easier for everybody else and we need this on our team, especially when he gets into the open court and when he gets inside the paint he makes the right read and it makes it much easier for us,” Dragic said of Barnes, who had seven assists and zero turnovers Tuesday.
Similarly, Dragic has liked what he’s seen from Flynn, who scored a team-high 22 points Tuesday.
“He’s really solid. He’s a great pick-and-roll player, he can break guys down, get inside the paint and make those reads, good shooter and he just needs that confidence,” Dragic said.
Confidence is something that Flynn appeared to be lacking during the early portions of pre-season, going 6-of-19 for 19 points combined in the first three exhibition contests. But he turned things around in the last two, particularly exploding in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s game for 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting.
That spark of confidence Flynn found figures to be important for the Raptors as the season opens up, since it looks like he figures to be the de facto backup point guard, in charge of the second unit.
Of course, Banton showed flashes that may have pushed Flynn at times during the pre-season, but the job should be Flynn’s.
Then again, that’s yet another decision Nurse and co. will have to make.
The pre-season is over and regular season is just a week away. A week that will surely be filled with agonizing deliberation for the Raptors’ brass.