Dowtin Jr. situation appears to expose gulf between Raptors’ Nurse, management

David Thorpe joined the Raptors Show to discuss some people he thinks that Masai Ujiri and the Raptors should consider for their next head coach if they were to part ways with Nick Nurse this offseason.

BOSTON — The easiest way to figure out what an NBA coach thinks about his roster — or at least the options available to him — is by seeing who he plays.

If he puts a certain player on the floor consistently, it’s because he likes him, and to some degree has won his trust. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule and there are always exceptions due to injuries, roster needs, and occasionally some other factors might come in to play, but for the most part?

If a coach is playing someone, it’s because he thinks they can help him win.

Take Jeff Dowtin Jr., for example. The Raptors guard has appeared in Toronto’s last seven games, with his shortest stint being just over six minutes, his longest being 29, with an overall average of 14 minutes a game. It’s a pretty standard number for a back-up point guard, especially with Nurse’s tendency to lean so heavily on his starters.

Clearly, Dowtin Jr. has gained Nurse’s trust, increasingly so as the season has gone on. The seven consecutive appearances represent the longest stretch of steady minutes the third-year pro has had with Toronto, or in the NBA, for that matter.

So the fact that Dowtin Jr. won’t be in the lineup Wednesday night when the Raptors play the first of two games against the Boston Celtics likely has nothing to do with Nurse.

After all, it was just a few days ago that Nurse said of the 25-year-old point guard: “He knows how to play.”

So what is exactly is going on here?

For some background, Dowtin Jr. was with the Raptors this season on a two-way contract, which means he would earn a scaled amount of the NBA’s minimum salary and be eligible to play 50 games with the big club while splitting time with a G-League affiliate.

Dowtin Jr.’s 50th game was Tuesday in Charlotte, which means he’s reached his limit. The only way the Raptors can continue to play him in what remains of the regular season (Wednesday and Friday against Boston and at home against Milwaukee on Sunday) as well as the play-in tournament and the playoffs, is by converting him to a full-time NBA deal. However, because the Raptors don’t have any available roster spots, they would need to waive one of their players.

By all indications they really don’t want to do that, which is admirable, in a way. Waiving players is a harsh bit of business.

Toronto has four players they would be most likely to waive, if they go down that road, and there are reasons for not cutting each of them. In the case of Joe Wieskamp, whom the Raptors recently signed for the season and who may have turned down other opportunities based on promises made by the team, it might simply be viewed as bad faith. The same could be said for Will Barton, the veteran whom the Raptors picked up on the buyout market and who is a favourite of Nurse’s in any case. Waiving Thad Young means you don’t have his contract to use in any potential trades Toronto could be considering in the off-season, while Dalano Banton is a project that management doesn’t seem to be willing to move on from yet.

So add it up and the impression I’m getting is that they aren’t going to waive anyone. Things can change fast and all it takes is some paperwork to change that, but if I were a betting man, I’d say it’s more likely than not that Dowtin Jr. won’t have his contract converted and he’s played his last game of the season for the Raptors.

Oh, and money isn’t a factor: the Raptors do have room to add Dowtin Jr. without dipping into luxury-tax territory.

In normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be all that big a deal, although Dowtin Jr. has  shown himself to be a useful player who can hold his own at a position of need for the Raptors. The reality is he’s likely the ninth or 10th man in a playoff rotation that would run seven or eight deep, at best.

But when laid out against the backdrop of what has spilled into the public sphere in the past week — namely Nurse seemingly acknowledging the possibility he may be headed elsewhere next year and will take time after this season to “reflect” and “to see how the relationship with the organization is and everything” — the status of a back-up point guard takes on added meaning.

The meaning? That maybe Raptors management and their head coach aren’t on the same page, exactly. Again, follow the playing time.

Finding someone to be able to hold the fort when VanVleet sits has been an issue for two seasons now.

The organization has drafted two point guards in the past three seasons. The first was Malachi Flynn, who was taken 29th overall in 2020.

He’s in the third year of his rookie deal and being paid $2.14 million and is under contract next season for $3.87 million.

Hmmm, I wonder how much playing time Flynn has got in the past seven games?

Well, he only played in five of them and averaged 10 minutes in those. In the past two games he played less than eight minutes total, and almost all of that after the Raptors’ two wins against the Hornets were largely decided. Dowtin Jr. was Nurse’s first choice off the bench.

[brightcove videoID=6323979221112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

How about Banton, the 6-foot-9 guard from Rexdale (west-end Toronto) whom the Raptors took 46th overall in 2021 and has some strong backers within the organization given his rare combination of size and position, but who has struggled both in the NBA and at the G-League level in a season disrupted by injuries?

Banton, who has been recovering from a thumb injury, was only active for Toronto’s last two games and played just five minutes total.

So with the Raptors’ season coming down to the wire and every game having a potential impact on seeding, it’s clear that Dowtin Jr. is the guard Nurse trusted most in a role that’s limited, but vital: games can be lost in minutes when the wrong lineup gets overwhelmed.

Dowtin Jr. seems to, at the very least, minimize the chances of that happening. He hasn’t made a turnover in seven games and has made just two in the 10 games he’s appeared in since the all-star break, while providing 19 assists. The Raptors are 7-3 in those games and Dowtin Jr. is a net +3 during his minutes.

At the very least, he’s doing his job. And he’s got the confidence of his teammates. “Jeff is a baller, bro,” said VanVleet on the Raptors Over Everything podcast recently. “Jeff can hoop.”

So why hasn’t it happened already?

Why is a useful player who has already earned his coach’s trust through the most critical stage of the season not — as of this writing — going to be in the lineup Wednesday night against Boston?

Why won’t the Raptors waive players who aren’t in the rotation at all — Wieskamp for example?

That’s where things get interesting and it becomes tempting to read between the lines and conclude that the head coach and management aren’t in agreement.

That’s not unusual in and of itself. It’s more common than not that coaches and management see players differently. How players are seen can even vary between layers of management and throughout a coaching staff.

But given the seeming disconnect that has surfaced between Nurse and the front office in the past week, that Jeff Dowtin Jr. has not had his contract converted is an interesting looking glass into the situation, because it’s pretty clear where the coach stands on the issue. Just look at who he’s playing.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.