The Toronto Raptors didn’t need to deal with this during what promises to be one of the most transformative periods the franchise has ever known, but they have had little choice.
There is no disputing that Pascal Siakam went off on head coach Nick Nurse on Sunday night in the cramped visitors dressing room at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in the moments after what was then their eighth straight loss, this one to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers.
It was an emotional game during what has been an emotional season. The Raptors watched second-year Cavs guard Colin Sexton get in the face of Toronto’s ring-wearing vets Fred VanVleet and Norm Powell just before halftime of what was a two-point game and then looked helpless as Sexton smoked them for 14 third-quarter points on the way to a game-high 36 leading Cleveland to a 116-105 win.
The Raptors mounted a fourth-quarter comeback from down 22 after Nurse went to a defence-heavy lineup featuring Pat McCaw and Stanley Johnson but Siakam wasn’t part of it.
He remained on the bench for the entire quarter, even when Toronto pulled within six with six minutes left. The Raptors scored just 12 points from there and lost by 11.
Siakam wasn’t happy and — according to multiple sources — let Nurse know about it, loudly and aggressively with words beyond standard cursing. It got personal, lines were crossed and teammates had to intervene, according to multiple sources.
It fits with a theme. Not surprisingly, with the way the season has gone and is going currently, Raptors island “is not a happy place,” as one source put it.
You’d be more worried if it was, to be honest.
Player confrontations with coaches or staff, or each other, are hardly unusual in professional sports. Tensions heighten when teams are struggling as the Raptors have been. Other times things just happen.
Kyle Lowry – no stranger to confrontations with coaches — brought a practice to a halt early in the 2017-18 season because he was so upset about how a scrimmage was being refereed that he took the game ball and sat in the middle of the floor at the historic John Wooden Center on campus at UCLA, where the legendary Bruins coach’s original chalkboard remains preserved under glass.
When then-head coach Dwane Casey — exasperated by Lowry’s defiance — moved the scrimmage to the other court, Lowry picked himself up and sat down in the middle of that one, too. Practice was over.
Later that season, Serge Ibaka got into a nasty argument with a member of the Raptors' staff on the team bus that very nearly escalated to a physical confrontation. The former Raptors big man was suspended and the team moved on.
The Raptors went 59-23 that year and were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, but not before one more blow up. This time it was Raptors president Masai Ujiri calling out Casey for his tactics within earshot of the team in the moments after Toronto lost Game 3 at the horn on LeBron James' famous full-court, one-legged leaner.
In other words: Anyone who thinks that everyone gets along in pro sports all the time is dreaming.
And Nurse has been showing his strain, too. He was fined $50,000 by the NBA for verbally abusing an official and throwing his mask in the direction of the crowd after Toronto’s last-second loss to the Utah Jazz last Friday. He’s routinely among the league leaders in technical fouls and has pledged to cut them down, with limited success.
But the intensity of Siakam’s outburst was noteworthy, the language was miles past PG-13 and the subject matter went beyond playing time.
If there are tolerable parameters for a player venting at his coach, Siakam went beyond them, if momentarily.
It was reported by The Athletic’s Shams Charania that Siakam had been fined $50,000 for the outburst, which is what drew attention to the matter.
The report was flawed technically, but not materially: something did happen and the team is looking into how to respond to it. As of Wednesday morning, Siakam has not been fined, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be, or won’t face some other kind of discipline.
Team discipline doesn’t normally get released publicly, so we may never know how the matter is resolved. For now, with the trade deadline looming, there are other pressing matters.
The $50,000 is telling. It’s the most a team can fine a player without the player having the right to grieve it with the union, and it’s not a number a team would arrive at without consulting with the league office to make sure it’s within generally accepted guidelines. Coming down too heavily or in a manner that’s inconsistent with prior practice can make an awkward situation worse.
Siakam met with Nurse and general manager Bobby Webster and was in the lineup when the Raptors played Houston, dropping 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in 36 minutes in his fourth game back after missing 20 days of action due to health and safety protocols related to COVID-19.
From his point of view, he’s ready to move on and the expectation is he’ll address the matter after Toronto hosts the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night at Amalie Arena.
Siakam’s relationship with Nurse runs deep, which bodes well for them getting on the same page again.
It was Nurse who pushed for the raw second-year "energy guy" to be groomed as a ball-handling, fastbreak-leading point forward when he was Casey’s assistant coach. And it was Nurse who worked tirelessly to help transform the college post player into a face-up scorer and three-point threat that helped Siakam make the leap from late first-round pick to All-NBA player in the space of three seasons, and earn a four-year, $130-million contract along the way.
But Siakam’s frustration wasn’t only due to how things went down in the fourth quarter against Cleveland.
He feels like he’s been unfairly singled out for the Raptors' poor season.
He was benched the fourth quarter of a loss to the Miami Heat on Feb. 24, although given Siakam tested positive for COVID-19 two days after that, which could explain one of his poorest performances — 1-of-6 from the floor in 24 minutes — of the season.
Siakam was also held out of the lineup for a game against the New York Knicks on Dec. 31 when he walked off the floor and to the dressing room after fouling out with seconds left at the end of an 8-of-23 shooting night in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
During a sub-par season, there is plenty of blame to go around – the Raptors' less-than-perfect roster construction most of all – but no one else in the lineup has been held publicly to account to the same degree.
Siakam’s been in the crosshairs since he played so poorly after the NBA restarted the 2019-20 season in the bubble at Walt Disney Resort and being sat out and called out by Nurse as the team was struggling to a 2-8 start has had things on simmer.
In the NBA universe, it's rare for organizations to do anything but back their stars. Behind closed doors, things can be different, but organizations usually take pains to present a united front and protect their most important players from unwanted scrutiny. Just this season, Kyrie Irving went missing from the Brooklyn Nets for nearly two weeks, but their outward support for their mercurial point guard never wavered.
It might seem strange sometimes from the outside looking in, but teams are heavily invested in top talent and having private tensions bubble into the public serves no one.
The Raptors came into the 2020-21 season with their usual high standards, even though they replaced Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka with Alex Len and Aron Baynes, not to mention had to relocate to Tampa Bay on barely two weeks’ notice, and have been barely healthy for most of the season, even before the team was decimated with five players and six coaching staff missing extended time due to health and safety protocols, the driver of Toronto’s nine-game losing skid.
After his slow start and prior to the COVID crisis, Siakam has played some excellent basketball, averaging 21 points, five assists and 7.6 rebounds, and getting the free-throw line nearly six times a game. For a long stretch it appeared the Raptors were righting the ship and headed for their customary position in the top half of the Eastern Conference standings.
A player on a max contract and identified as franchise cornerstone being sat out, called out or not seeing the floor late in games is rare.
That it’s happened with Siakam in the space of a few weeks or months has been a strain, and those close to the situation say that for a mere moment the typically mild-mannered forward snapped. It was over quickly, but it remains to be seen how the effects linger.
Meanwhile, the team has concerns about how reports of internal dressing room issues have surfaced – it was Charania who put the source of the Raptors' COVID outbreak on the coaching staff for not following proper masking guidelines, remember.
And all of this happening during what appears to be a lost season and with the team quite possibly on the cusp of trading their two longest-serving players in Lowry and Powell.
It’s been a lot and the timing is less than perfect.
There’s no expectation that Siakam’s conflict with Nurse will prompt anything drastic between now and the trade deadline at 3:00 p.m. ET on Thursday, but it’s another crack in a team that's trying to patch up more than its share at the moment, and it’s a situation that bears watching.