The Toronto Raptors travelled to Washington from New York on Tuesday, forgoing practice coming off their impressive win over the Knicks and prior to their rematch against the Wizards on Wednesday.
The win Monday came against a Knicks team that was in first place in the Eastern Conference. Now, Toronto has a chance to avenge its opening night loss to a Wizards team that is 5-2 so far and representative of an Eastern Conference that is shaping up to be deeper and more balanced — 11 teams are at .500 or better — than it has been for some time.
The Raptors will be without Scottie Barnes, who is nursing a sprained thumb along with Yuta Watanabe (calf) and Pascal Siakam (shoulder).
Some off-day items from the notebook:
What to do about Dragic?
There aren’t many areas of concern when a team with modest expectations has won four straight games, especially after shaking off a 1-3 start.
But it’s hard not to notice that Goran Dragic has been DNP-CD for all four games, something he hasn’t experienced since he was breaking into the NBA as a rookie playing behind Steve Nash on a veteran Phoenix Suns team in 2008-09.
In his 14th season, the 35-year-old Dragic’s fit with a young Raptors team always seemed shaky. That was the gist of his comments he made in Slovenia when he learned of the trade this past summer: the team is young, he’s not, hopefully he can find his way to a situation more suited for his skills at this stage.
But there was some hope that the fit might be a little cozier than first thought. Dragic is one of the NBA’s good guys, with lots of veteran wisdom he’s happy to share. He’s struck up an early connection with Barnes and the two can be seen breaking down clips with the coaching staff before games.
But after starting the first games of the season and playing about 13 minutes off the bench in three, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has turned to rookie Dalano Banton and — the last two games — second-year guard Malachi Flynn, while leaving Dragic in his warm-ups.
Things can change — especially with Nurse, who is anything but rigid with his rotations. And injuries are inevitable.
But it’s hard not to read into the situation that Dragic was correct all along — his timeline and the Raptors’ aren’t in sync.
The problem is what to do about it? When I broached the subject with parties on various sides of the issue, the response was the same: The trade market for a second-unit guard making $19.4 million is a tough one to make in November.
It might be tough to make by the Feb. 10 trade deadline. So, what we have is an impasse, of sorts, although by all accounts, an amicable one.
A buyout is possible, but it’s unlikely Dragic is going to take a steep haircut on what could be his last significant earning year. Similarly, the Raptors aren’t in the business of giving money away.
The most likely scenario is the status quo, with what I’m led to believe is a mutual understanding: Dragic will remain in Toronto where he will be available as a depth piece and a well-liked and respected veteran and the issue will be revisited closer to the trade deadline, with the possibility of a buyout following that. Dragic gets to keep most of his money and the Raptors get a good person and good player who might yet have a role to play in a long season.
Avoiding luxury tax?
Moving or buying out Dragic would have been a simple way for Toronto get under the luxury tax this season, but since that’s not happening for now, it will likely mean the Raptors won’t pick up the guarantee of one of Sam Dekker or Isaac Bonga’s contracts when decision time comes on Saturday.
For example, per No Trade Clause, Dekker’s cap charge is $1.67 million, less what the Raptors have already paid him. Toronto is about $1.05 million over the luxury tax threshold and the easiest way to get under it — and secure the roughly $12 million payout non-tax teams could be in position for this year — is to carry 14 players and keep just one of Dekker or Bonga.
It will also open a roster spot if they reach the point where they want to convert promising two-way player Justin Champagnie to a full NBA deal or otherwise add talent if the opportunity presents itself. Dekker or Bonga have not played meaningful minutes and Watanabe and Siakam will be back sooner than later. Something will have to give.
Anunoby breaking out?
OG Anunoby was quick to correct me when I prefaced my question after his career-high 36-point game Monday by saying his offence been a struggle for the first “two or three games” of the season.
“Two,” Anunoby said.
He was correct. The big wing was a combined 7-of-34 from the floor and just 2-of-14 from three before he looked more himself with 23 points on 13 shots in the third game against Dallas, as he went 5-of-9 from deep.
After his slow start, Anunoby is averaging 22.8 points while shooting 40.7 per cent from three on nine attempts a game over his past six starts.
But Anunoby’s performance is more than him finding his shooting legs. With the Raptors’ encouragement, he’s taken over a bigger share of shot creation duties than ever. His usage rate is 24.2 so far — miles past his career average of 15.5 and a significant uptick from the 19.3 he recorded last season.
Take away a muted 15.9 against Indiana on Saturday and it’s even higher. The percentage of his field goals that are assisted are also well below his career marks.
It’s taken some adjusting. “I was rushing things (early on),” said Anunoby. “I wasn’t reading the defence. I was predetermining some stuff. So, I’ve just been trying to adjust and learn. I think I’m going to keep learning as the year goes on and get better and better. “
Even after his big night, he said he would be looking over the clips to find mistakes and areas for improvement rather than savouring a breakout game on the NBA’s biggest stage.
“Just seeing how you’re being guarded. Seeing what’s there and not forcing it,” said Anunoby of his film study. “Or if you do force the issue, knowing what the next play is. Knowing where the kickout will be. Just watching film. As the year goes on, getting more comfortable. Knowing where your teammates will be and knowing where you are on the floor.
The goal is to take the nuances he picks up on to the floor.
“I’m trying to see where the help is coming from, see who’s in the lane, seeing if it’s the big man or where the big man’s at ’cause I know he’s gonna come help initially,” said Anunoby. “But it’s seeing like which shooter’s on the weak side, just knowing who’s gonna be where, who’s gonna cut, just trying to do that.”
Birch getting comfortable
Sometimes we take for granted the low-level anxiety — or maybe even high-level anxiety — that more NBA players than we probably realize have to navigate at work. Consider Khem Birch’s answer when I asked him the other night about his ability to impact the game even without putting up significant scoring numbers.
“I feel like the perception just because of last year I averaged a lot of points, people think I’m having a down year or whatever,” said Birch. “But I feel stress free, I’ve always been a guy who just wants to make winning plays, I don’t care about the box score. Now that I’m here, I got my contract, I can show that I can just make winning plays and some nights I might have four points, some nights I might have 10 so I’m just happy I’ve been able to be stress-free this year and contribute to wins.”
It’s interesting to dissect that comment a little bit. Birch is 29 and turned pro in 2014. He’s bounced from the G-League to Europe and back and played on NBA minimums before signing a two-year deal for $6 million in the summer of 2019. He was then waived at the end of the 2020-21 season.
The Montreal native never has enjoyed significant job security or — by NBA standards — taken a big whack at the money tree. He impressed in his 19-game stint with Toronto after he was bought out in Orlando.
He revealed more offensive feel than he’d shown in a crowded centre rotation with the Magic as he put up 11.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists while playing 30 minutes a game. The Raptors rewarded him by investing $20 million over three years – more money than he’d earned in his career to that point.
With his financial future assured, Birch says he’s more comfortable to play the way he feels he plays best — as a low-usage front court facilitator who sets timely screens, makes the next smart pass and can chip in with the odd basket, maybe even a corner three, while minding the store defensively.
It’s not glamourous work, but it contributes to the whole. His +20 net rating is the best among Raptors players with at least 150 minutes of court time so far this season.