TORONTO — For such a stylistically innovative coach, Nick Nurse can be decidedly old school in other ways. His players know that well.
The NBA is widely considered to be a player’s league, but Nurse won’t hesitate to put some of his underperforming charges on blast for the world to see, or at least hear. A lot of players over the last few years have caught the brunt of that, from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to Pascal Siakam to Precious Achiuwa. On Tuesday, a reporter asked Nurse about the team’s still long two-reliant shot spectrum, and the coach was pointed.
“The … multiple-dribble ones when you don’t go anywhere and shoot a contested 17-foot (jumper), that’s not very good basketball,” Nurse said Tuesday, a day before the massively undermanned Raptors lost 112-98 to Brooklyn.
“I think it’s a (case of) asking certain guys to be aggressive, and that turned into their idea of being aggressive. But we’ll fix it. Not a big deal.”
Lots of players on the Raptors aren’t exactly peak James Harden with their shot selection, but that was aimed specifically at Scottie Barnes. The second-year player wasn’t even the target for Nurse’s sharpest, most damning critique of the day. That was saved for the defensive effort of Gary Trent Jr.
“It’s disappointing. (We would) like to get him a lot more aggressive on defence this year,” Nurse said, adding that Trent’s lack of health, which has included a hip injury and a non-COVID illness, have impacted him on both ends. “I would say that’s been … a little bit of a negative because he’s capable of really getting after the ball and getting his hands on the ball a lot and that’s what we want him to do. We’re going to get him his shots and get him his points, but we want him to be a disruptor. He kinda fits us if he does that, and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t fit us. We need to get him back.”
The comment about fit wasn’t lost on anybody. Like Fred VanVleet, Trent has a player option after this season which he could decline in order to become a free agent this coming summer. In 2024, Siakam will become a free agent, and O.G. Anunoby will be eligible. That same offseason, Scottie Barnes will be eligible for a rookie extension. Barring another global force majeure, the NBA’s basketball-related income, and relatedly, the salary cap, is going to skyrocket. Even still, assuming Siakam and Barnes will get the version of the maximum-value contract that they are eligible for, and assuming VanVleet and Anunoby are paid very handsomely as above-average starters, another player with a salary in the $25-million neighbourhood could be untenable.
Trent doesn’t need to worry about that right now. With the way he started the year before injury forced him to the bench, picking up that option seems more in play now than it did in the preseason. (To be clear, this stuff can change with every five-game stretch.) Trent entered the game shooting 31 percent from deep, which is not good enough. However, a 103-shot sample size should change the idea that Trent is a very good shooter. It’s the lack of growth that is concerning. Trent averaged 2.1 assists per 36 minutes last year, not high last year, and is back down to 1.6 this year. He has spent most of his career in that range.
It’s his defence that will earn him more rope from the coach, though. There is some question about how effective he was as a defender last year, but he was, at the very least, disruptive. He’s down to 2.4 deflections per game, from 3.4 last year. Before 2021-22, Nurse emphasized they were going to need that type of aggressive approach on defence in addition to the freedom given to him on offence. This year, it simply hasn’t been there.
The rub — and the thing about every Raptor who isn’t about 6-foot-9, somewhere between 210 and 240 pounds — is he brings some things to the table the Raptors don’t have elsewhere. The Raptors remain a frustratingly isolation-heavy team in the half court. Well, Trent scored in the 75th percentile in isolation last year, per Synergy Sports. He had used only 18 total possessions in isolation before Wednesday. He hadn’t been very good on that front, but he can create, and hit, shots for himself that no other Raptor really can. However, you have to really get at those things that separate you from the Raptors’ model to be able to stick in Toronto.
Before trades are explored, getting a chance to see Trent in a new context would be nice. The idea of Trent coming off the bench to prop up a second unit remains philosophically interesting. Trent with the other four core Raptors was a so-so lineup last year, and they were not good to start the year before Siakam went down. Whether it’s Thad Young or Otto Porter Jr., or Christian Koloko, putting a low-usage player in that role, freeing up Trent to let loose, is something worth trying.
That necessitates that the Raptors get healthy. In the meantime, Trent can refocus on Nurse’s non-negotiables, if only to give himself more of a chance to provide the Raptors an element that only he can provide.
• The Raptors played without — deep breath — Siakam, VanVleet, Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, Dalano Banton, Porter and Justin Champagnie. VanVleet was the big surprise, missing the game with a non-COVID illness. He missed two other games with the same cause but played in the last two. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the lack of time these lineups have played together, the Raptors’ double teams looked dreadful. A lot of these lineups were new ones, by necessity.
• All of that made it a big night for Malachi Flynn, and he was not up to the challenge. After hitting a pair of 3s early on, Flynn struggled to do much offensively. He wasn’t setting up others, as Anunoby, Young and Trent took the playmaking burden. He struggled to get into the paint, and when he did, his finishing was off. This wasn’t the performance he needed.
• Young played in his 1100th regular season game on Wednesday. Only LeBron James, Andre Iguodala and Chris Paul are active and have played more. Anyway, you would think that would be enough time to figure out that he’s really going to try to get to his left hand in the post.
• As far as memorable sequences go, Chris Boucher blocking a Kevin Durant 3, dunking in transition and then getting crossed over by Kyrie Irving before a 3 will live on for a while. Boucher is never boring.
dime & dunk @yungsmoove21 ➡️ @chrisboucher pic.twitter.com/Hwaq72cLbg
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 24, 2022
• There were notable, if not deafening boos for Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, who was playing in his third-game after serving an eight-game team-issued suspension for posting a link to an antisemitic movie and then refusing to apologize for it. The booing mostly petered out as the game progressed. Irving went on a scoring bonanza in the fourth quarter, finishing with a game-high 29 points.
• A large number of the Grey Cup-winning Toronto Argonauts were in attendance for the game, and came out to a nice ovation during a timeout in the first quarter. Someone brought the trophy over to Drake at his courtside spot, so no fear.
• Jeff Dowtin Jr. is going to be a good pro. How do I know this? After an objectionable offensive call on one end, he went down rather easily on a screen, getting the ball back for the Raptors on the same call. He also got an and-1 for his highlight reel.
yeahhh you can count that ? @JeffD_11 pic.twitter.com/Tavs6y1k0A
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 24, 2022