The Schedule Is About To Flip

So the Raptors finally lost to a good Eastern team. They barely lost, mind you, succumbing by five to the two-time defending Champion Miami Heat (in a game that was much closer than even that score would seem to indicate), but after winning five in a row and 10 of 13 since Rudy Gay was shipped to Sacramento, a loss to the Heat is noteworthy.

It is noteworthy, too, because there is a good chance that Toronto could drop Tuesday’s tilt against the other good team in the East, the Indiana Pacers, since it’s hard to envision a team as good as Indiana not executing with revenge on their minds.

If Toronto does drop their game against the Pacers, that’d be their first two-game losing streak since “The Tunaround” and it would dump them back below .500 after all of the attention that they got vaulting ahead of it.

However, the real story is what happens after that Indiana game. If you follow the Raptors (and if you’re reading reading this blog I’ll take the chance that you do) then you’ve probably heard how the Raptors have played the hardest schedule in the East so far this season, which means that at some point the schedule has to turn in their favour… and that point comes after the Raptors face Indiana.

After that game the Raptors schedule goes like this: Detroit, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Boston, Minnesota, Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte, Dallas, Philadelphia, Los Angeles Clippers (sans Chris Paul), Brooklyn, Orlando and Denver. With the possible exception of Minnesota and Dallas, each and every one of those games should see the Raptors favoured heading into tip-off. It’s a stretch of more-than-winnable games that could see a team currently floating around .500 making a huge push in their win-loss record and do a lot to shape the thinking of the Raptors brain trust heading into Masai Ujiri’s first trade deadline as GM of the Raptors.

To keep their winning ways going, though, the Raptors are going to have to realize that teams are only going to get better at preparing for them now that they have a nice sample of data about the way this club plays with all of their new players. One of the hardest parts about game planning for a team that has recently made a trade is that it’s hard to get a sense of how that team is going to want to play. Heck, the team itself may not even know, which means that a lot of scouting goes out the window and players and coaches simply have to play off of what is happening on the court.

However, after a few weeks together certain patterns begin to emerge, and those patterns begin to make their way into opposing teams’ locker rooms. While Toronto will be facing a group of teams this month that hardly look intimidating on paper, what they have that few teams had last month is a pretty thorough account of how these new Raptors play, what they like to do to get going and what other teams have done to try and stop them (both the things that have worked and the things that haven’t).

That’s why this next stretch of games may be even more important than the post-trade schedule that the Raptors mostly sliced-and-diced their way through in December. While it’s always nice to be able to beat teams like Oklahoma City and Indiana, the real mark of good winning teams is being able to consistently beat the teams that are worse than you are. It can be easy, in a way, to get up for a game against the best, but a stretch of games against the league’s cellar-dwellers? That can be a grind. The Raptors won’t beat every team that they “should” beat this month, but if they can win two-thirds of them it will go a long way to proving that this is a club with sustainability, a club that has truly bought in to the totality of Dwane Casey’s preachings and one that Masai Ujiri really should look to keep together right through the upcoming trade deadline.

At this point it would take quite an offer to get Ujiri to bite on a trade that would break up this core. If some team unexpectedly came calling offering a superstar, then yes he pulls the trigger. If some team comes offering a sexy 2014 first round draft pick, then that team will probably get his full attention. Beyond that, though, it would be hard to see Ujiri wheeling-and-dealing if this team keeps rolling through January like they did through December.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the Raptors should be buyers in February, either. This club is nicely tuned right now; good enough to probably get out of the first round and then respectably lose to Indiana or Miami in the second round. They probably don’t need to make any alterations to make scenario a reality (barring a major injury) and it is unlikely that any but the most unlikely of trades could push them to be any better than that theory considers. While a completely boneheaded notion of swapping Terrence Ross for Arron Afflalo was floated last week, as though the Raptors were somehow looking for more veteran help at the expense of young talent, the reality of what the Raptors want and need is exactly the opposite. The Raptors want to stay young and keep growing. There is no reason to go out shopping for help for the Playoffs because this season anything that happens in the Playoffs is gravy.

Before we get to that point, however, the Raptors have to get through the next month without seeing their positive momentum halt against a spate of less-than-intimidating opponents. The Raptors haven’t been this well-positioned to get multiple games above .500 since the 2009-10 club that went strongly into the All-Star break then fall apart shortly thereafter. Still, for the next while the Raptors will remain in ‘prove it’ mode. They’ve been too bad for too long, and too prone to letdowns for too long, to simply get the benefit of the doubt without any qualifiers attached. Yes they are tremendously well-positioned for the next month, but they still have to do it to prove that they can.

Since Ujiri has entrusted this current assemblage enough to keep them together for the immediate future, the club had better hope that floating just above and below .500 is place that they are on the way out of with the softening schedule this month. They’ve earned the guarded optimism of their GM with their play of late, but even they have to know that they have to keep it up if they want to keep their group in tact. Perhaps that reality, as much as any other, will keep them focused and in attack mode now that they have so few power teams to get up for this month. They don’t face another elite team until March 1st against Portland, so regardless of what it is they’d better hope that they have the requisite determination to fend off a string of also-rans so that they don’t invalidate all off the progress that they’ve made and all of the goodwill that has been flowing their way. The post-trade honeymoon is over, now they’ve gotta make the marriage work.

Ujiri Focuses on Assets First, Losing Second

Wait, are we supposed to be surprised that the Raptors are better without Rudy Gay?

Ever since the Raptors blew-out the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night to improve their post-trade record to 3-1 there has been a cavalcade of backlash against the supposedly-tanking squad. At some point, everyone decided that the Raptors were going to be worse after trading away their biggest black hole and adding much-needed depth to their frontcourt and backcourt, and now the Raptors are being raked over the coals for sucking at tanking, just like they suck at everything else.

I’ve always said that the best way to describe Raptors GM Masai Ujiri was ‘opportunistic’. He is not someone who dogmatically adheres to one kind of rebuilding strategy because he is smart enough to know that there are too many moving pieces to make that work. He was never going to toss away assets in the name of collecting vast amounts of losses. Look at what he did in his trade of Gay: he shored up the backup point guard position by acquiring what might now be the best backup point guard in the Eastern Conference, he upgraded his stretch-four with Patrick Patterson, who does a lot more with the position than Steve Novak can, he got three-point shooting point-forward type in John Salmons to add wing depth and he got one of the premier post defenders in the NBA in Chuck Hayes. That is not the kind of haul you prioritize if you are looking to make your team worse, and making the team worse is probably never going to be the endgame for any trade that Ujiri makes this season or any season going forward.

The Raptors wanted out from under Rudy Gay’s contract because his option year was giving Ujiri agita. It wasn’t because Gay was so good and so productive that the Raptors needed him gone in order to start piling up the losses. Ujiri made a quick move with Gay because he knew that in order to get the ball rolling the future he needed out from under Gay’s $19.3-million option in 2013-14. All he needed was a palatable offer to pull the trigger on and it wasn’t until he got one that he put Gay on the next flight out of town.

You can see a similar train of thought at work in the trade scenarios circling Kyle Lowry. There have been several teams linked to Lowry, and several trade scenarios that would quickly make the Raptors demonstrably worse than they are today (hello Ray Felton and Metta World Peace). That isn’t Ujiri’s style, though. If he is going to make the team worse today, he’s only going to do it if he can reap a coveted asset or two in return for that sacrifice (hence demanding Tim Hardaway Jr. and/or a 2018 first round pick from New York). If he can secure a young asset and a draft pick, he’ll probably swallow the fact that his team might have to take a productivity hit in the near-term.

There is an important distinction buried in there, though. He isn’t chasing a trade that will make his team worse and then seeing if there is something of value he can maybe sock away for the future, he is chasing a trade for something of value and if that makes his team worse then he’s willing to swallow that pill (he is smart enough to understand the benefits of losing in the NBA). There must be balance there. The piece he gets has to justify his team getting a little worse, which is why a Lowry trade hasn’t happened yet.

There is a train of thought floating out there in Raptor-ville that the club needs to get Lowry gone as quickly as possible because he is a big part of why the club has been so good since Gay’s departure. Even though his stats are generally down across the board since the trade, Lowry looks far more comfortable and in command on the floor, playing the role of on-court leader with far more poise and control than he did when he was flanking Gay. He keeps the ball moving, puts his teammates in positions to succeed and looks far more engaged with every possession since he’s now a bigger part of each play that’s run.

If Ujiri was concerned with loss totals on the season, he’d have pulled the trigger on that Felton/World Peace deal last week, without any sweeteners like Hardaway Jr., or a first round pick. Ujiri, though, is thinking assets first, losses second. Lowry is a piece that Ujiri knows opposing teams will pay for. This isn’t even like trying to unload Gay, who had been playing sub-par basketball and possessed a massive salary that would be hard for most teams to swallow. Lowry is playing on a cap-friendly expiring contract and he is playing basketball at an increasingly-productive level. Ujiri is not just going to give a player like that away because he knows he can use him to pry something of real value away from the team that ultimately secures him. If that means that Lowry continues to suit up for the Raptors and the Raptors continue to win while Ujiri waits out the best trade possible, so be it. You don’t get very far in the NBA by devaluing your own assets. If there has been one constant in Ujiri’s brief tenure as an NBA general manager, it’s that he will wait to extract maximum value from what he has. He’s opportunistic that way. He’ll wait out the best trade and then pounce when it arrives. That trend has held true since arriving in Toronto and there is no reason to expect it to abate any time soon.

That’s especially true with Lowry because his quality of play has been on an upswing since Gay’s departure, and Ujiri may ride this out just to see how much Lowry can raise his stock over the next few days and weeks. Not only is Lowry reminding everyone about his ability to lead a team, but there also hasn’t been a peep about a clash with his coach, he’s visibly active in mentoring out on the court (especially with Jonas Valanciunas of late) and by playing alongside Greivis Vasquez he’s showing his ability to be productive off of the ball, as well. All of those attributes only make him look more appealing to a greater variety of teams, which plays right in to Ujiri’s hands because the more teams he can get to sniff around Lowry the higher he can drive his price with the clubs that have assets he actually covets.

All of that takes time, though, and that doesn’t seem to bother Ujiri one bit. His Raptors may continue to notch more wins than the tankers want, but if that drives up the price of his existing assets he’ll swallow that as the cost of doing business in the NBA.

East’s Struggles May Affect Ujiri’s Strategies

In recent weeks, as Dwane Casey struggled to find workable rotations, Rudy Gay struggled to find his shot and the Raptors as a whole struggled to find wins, the popular assumption was that it was only a matter of if – not when – Masai Ujiri would hit the self-destruct button and blow this roster up in the name of tanking for the 2014 draft. After all, this roster looked like a mess. There was no flow to the offence, the pieces didn’t mesh, and the rumours were abundant that Ujiri was willing to deal just about anyone on the roster not named Jonas Valanciunas.

Perception has a funny way of distorting reality, however.

First of all, the Raptors have never been all that bad this season. Their ugly-as-sin offence has been floating around the middle-of-the-pack in terms of efficiency all season (currently ranked 14th in the NBA) while their seldom-discussed defence has actually been ranked in the top-ten for weeks (currently their defensive efficiency sits at sixth-best in the league). Plus, with the Eastern Conference floundering as a whole and the Atlantic Division struggling even more so, the Raptors currently possess the East’s seventh-best record and the lead in their division. While that’s hardly an achievement to write home about right now given the competition, life in the NBA is as much about the teams that surround you as you yourself.

With all that said, you have to wonder not only about the likelihood of Ujiri choosing to tank, but the advisability of it. After all, the Raptors have exceed their preseason expectations (at least as it pertains to their place in the standings) because so many teams have failed to live up to theirs. Washington looks as bad as ever and Cleveland, somehow, looks worse. Milwaukee is nowhere near where they hoped they’d be after some ill-advised summer spending and the less said about New York and Brooklyn the better.

Now, not all of these teams will continue to struggle, but you have to imagine that at least a couple of their front office staffs have to be considering refocusing after seeing their squads actually play together these last few weeks. If they are going to lose more than they anticipated anyway, they may as well go for broke and throw their hat into the tanking pool and try their luck in next June’s draft. The problem is that the more teams that choose to go the tanking route, the more it dilutes the chances for everyone else when it comes to actually securing a top-tier pick. As strong and deep as this draft is believed to be, not every player is worth tanking for. If you get to a point where seven or eight organizations are either actively tanking or allowing for a cavalcade of losses (and you could argue that point pretty strongly for Philadelphia, Boston, Utah and Phoenix, already, with Milwaukee, Sacramento and Denver healthy bets to join them) then how much sense does it make to become the ninth or tenth club to play for draft picks? At what point are you letting a trendy – and unproven – strategy dictate policy at the expense of a less destructive mode of operation?

More specifically, if you’re Masai Ujiri, how badly do you want to work to pull apart this club (a club that has some workable pieces mixed in with some less desirable ones) when you may never be able to make yourself worse than the fifth- or sixth-worst team? Think about it: the teams that are going all-in on taking have gone in in a way that is nearly unprecedented in terms of it’s transparency. Does Ujiri really want to give away everything he has for pennies on the dollar in order to compete with the Philly’s and Phoenix’s of the NBA basement?

For instance, after four years invested in his development, DeMar DeRozan finally looks like he’s turned a corner in his career, and he’s done so at a position of increasing shallowness in the league, but if you wanna tank he’d have to go. Here you have a shooting guard posting the best scoring numbers of his career after finally implementing a three-point shot into his game, and he’s getting to the free throw line (ranking 16th in the league in FTA per game) at a career-best rate. Is he perfect? No. He’s still lacking on defense, he has zero court vision when it comes to playmaking and he’s generally not as versatile as some of the guys in his price range, but what he can do as a scorer nowadays is a legit skill, and one that shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.

Remember, this isn’t a question of just trading DeRozan. One can make a great case for trading him now while he’s on an upswing to protect against the possibility that his recent effectiveness is just a mirage (we’ve seen bouts of effectiveness before). However, if the Raptors want to tank, they have to trade DeRozan for someone who is simply not as good. He’s not talented – or cheap – enough to return great picks or young gems; trading DeRozan in the name of tanking simply means giving away a guy of a certain talent level for someone at a lesser talent level. I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: that’s not a good team-building strategy.

The Raptors aren’t likely to make any deals until December 15th at the earliest, since that’s when players signed to new deals this summer are allowed to be traded, and a lot can happen between now and then. Over the next twenty-three days they’ll play ten more games, six at home, and several of those contests could be considered winnable. If in that time the Raptors begin to bottom-out then this becomes a different conversation. However, if they maintain the kind of pace that they’re on while several other teams continue to flounder, that will have to have an impact on what Ujiri looks to do when the time finally comes to start juggling pieces on this roster.

None of this should be interpreted as advocation either way. While in principle I’m not a fan of tanking, I certainly understand the merits behind the strategy given the way the NBA system is designed. What I am saying, though, is that regardless of what strategy Ujiri came into the season with as it pertains to his roster and trading strategy, the realities of how the season has played out thus far, both for the Raptors and for the teams that sit below them, now has play a part in whatever direction Ujiri chooses to take this team. The fact of the matter is, it might be easier now for the Raptors to secure at top-six seed in the East than to secure a top-six slot in the draft. If Ujiri could shuffle the deck a bit, unload Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry for pieces that will better compliment Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and DeRozan, he may see that as the smarter play over stripping the team bare and rolling the dice in the draft lottery. This whole thing could still play out a number of different ways, so all I’m saying is at this point don’t assume that Ujiri has his mind made up to throw the season into the toilet.

What If This Works?

What if this works?

That’s a question you don’t hear asked too often these days about the Toronto Raptors, a team that is about to tip-off its nineteenth NBA season. The conventional wisdom assumes that the Raptors are going through a transitionary period, a sort-of fake season where a new management team can evaluate the pieces it has and really plot a course for the future next spring. What that conventional wisdom doesn’t take into account, however, is the possibility that this current unit actually works out.

Two things stuck out to me in preseason that had me at least curious about this possibility. The first was the play of DeMar DeRozan. Now, I’ve been about as big of a DeRozan critic as there is in Toronto, but even I couldn’t help but get the sense that something ‘clicked’ for him this offseason.

This isn’t like last year’s preseason, where DeRozan came in with an improved post game that was quickly neutralized by aggressive double-teaming. This autumn DeRozan looked more comfortable with the ball in his hands than he’s looked at any time in his career. No, his three-point percentage didn’t impress anyone (21.4%) but his 54.3% field goal shooting sure did. His handle allowed him to knife through defensive pressure and finally make use of his stellar around-the-basket finishing game that he’s had in his arsenal for the last couple of years. He almost never settled for long two-point shots, preferring to either drive or post-up, and when he did take jumpers they were open and in the flow of the offence. His aggressiveness also got him to the line nearly five times per game, and that’s in only 23.4 minutes of action, and all of that has DeRozan firing at a much high level of efficiency than he’s ever had in his career.

Now, all of this comes with the big ol’ preseason qualifier, but the range of skills DeRozan put on display this month should have people at least curious about his ability to carry this efficiency into the regular season. For the first time he looks like he’s taken a package of disparate skills and married them into an effective NBA attack. It isn’t really about adding this skill or that skill, it’s about the harmony of those skills working together. If DeRozan has in fact turned that corner in his career then it will have major trickle-down effects for the Raptors.

The biggest being that he and Rudy Gay would no longer represent a terribly inefficient duo. While the ideal would be to have Gay take his surprisingly efficient preseason stats into the regular season, too (he shot 48.3% from the floor and 40% from three), given Gay’s still-questionable shot selection he is unlikely to maintain those percentages over a longer period of time. However, if DeRozan can stay efficient, that would make everyone in the starting five around Gay quite efficient, which would allow for a little grace for Gay to play his way if he was still able to have his occasional “no one can guard me” scoring bursts. This would be doubly true if Gay can get his three-point percentage to stay in the 38%-40% range this season, but since that’s only ever happened once in his career we’ll call that an unlikely scenario.

The other factor that caught my eye in preseason was the play of Kyle Lowry. Now, statistically he was entirely ‘meh’, but Lowry has spent three years as a fairly stellar statistical point guard so let’s be generous and assume that continues again this year, which is a contract year for Lowry.

What stood out for Lowry was how much more disciplined his play was. Defensively he was every bit the head of the snake that the Raptors thought that they were getting a year ago. He was feisty, aggressive and quick, but without all of the lapses that plagued his game last season. He still went for steals, but didn’t let the whole defence collapse as a result. He was more selective in his attempts, and in being more selective he has earned more trust from his coach to go for those kinds of steals, which is important because he’s both good at getting them and it allows him to play a style that feels more natural to him, which can be stellar when he’s locked-in.

So, for the sake of argument let’s say that DeRozan stays efficient (and highly effective) during the season and Kyle Lowry becomes Dwane Casey’s ideal point guard, that would represent two major pieces falling into place for the Raptors and could make this year a lot more interesting. If Jonas Valanciunas can take the next step and the team can stay relatively healthy, all of a sudden things start to get compelling. All of a sudden the Raptors aren’t fighting off Detroit and Milwaukee for the eighth seed, they’re jockeying with Atlanta and Washington for the sixth seed, which would put this season (and its implications for the future) into a far more fascinating place.

I may not be ready to say that I expect the Raptors to exceed expectations this year, but for the first time I am seeing how that narrative would play out. If it were to happen, it would put a very different spin on the job Masai Ujiri would have in front him. Many assume that he’s just biding his time, waiting to strip the team for parts. If the team is good, though, then it’s far more interesting to see if he’d be able to pivot and augment this team with the pieces it would need to take the next step forward (and the next step after that) without totally throwing this team into the garbage for a season or two. Maybe that’s not possible. Maybe even a good version of this current assemblage cannot and should not be salvaged. Even that, though, is a more interesting conversation than the stale ‘they’re bad so you gotta blow it up and rebuild’ line of thinking that currently dominates the Raptors and their place on the NBA landscape.

Look, in a few weeks we’ll have a pretty good idea of what this Raptors team is and where they are going. We’re at that last point where unbridled speculation can exist before wins and losses begin to dictate the future of the Raptors and every other team this season. Maybe a little dose of optimism is unwarranted. Maybe it’s unwanted. For me, though, the idea that there is a glimmer of hope that this team might actually be good and fun to cover is the one I’m choosing to run with until the team has made it impossible to carry that line of thinking any further.

Raptors Wings Not A Longterm Solution

The Raptors have a wing problem, and his name is Jonas Valanciunas.

Look, like it or not, just about everything to do with the Toronto Raptors this season has to be seen through the lens of Valanciunas. For a team with no immediate ambitions beyond internal evaluation and developing Valanciunas, that’s the way things are going to play out for the foreseeable future.

So why does the wing position affect the post-bound Valanciunas? Field goal attempts, that’s why. Last year in an appearance on Prime Time Sports, Dwane Casey laid the basement for Valanciunas’s development at Chicago’s All-Star centre Joakim Noah. The implication being that while Toronto would be happy with a stellar defensive and rebounding force like Noah, they have higher hopes for Valanciunas and his future. The only real area where there is even room for Valanciunas to improve upon Noah’s output is on offense, but in order to goose Valanciunas’s offense he is going to need touches. Standing in the way are two high-usage wings, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay.

This isn’t a conversation about the much publicized lack of efficiency that this wing tandem offers – you can do a quick Google search for about 10, 000 of those articles. This is purely a numbers game between what the Raptors have, what they need and what they want. What the Raptors have are two wing players that, last year, took a combined 32.2 of the team’s 80.4 shots per game after Gay was traded to Toronto (good for 40% of the team’s total field goal attempts per game). These guys are big money players who are paid to be offensive forces (paid, coincidentally, 40% of the team’s payroll). If you are going to pay players that much money you had better get them to do what they are paid to do or else your simply throwing money away in a league where money allocation is key due to the salary cap and luxury tax implications.

Now, during that same post-trade stretch, Valanciunas shot just 5.9 shots per game. For a rookie still getting his feet wet at the NBA level, that’s fine. However, the Raptors want more from him this season, and that means they are going to have to find shots for him, which is something they’ve had a terrible time doing so far in preseason. Despite playing nearly the same number of minutes per game as he played post-trade last season, Valanciunas is averaging fewer shots per game (5.2), and that’s with DeRozan and Gay playing a fraction of their typical playing time in the run-up to the regular season.

Basically, when the starting five is in the game the primary offensive focus is getting DeRozan and Gay their shots, with Kyle Lowry staying aggressive and choosing his opportunities based on the defensive schemes they’re facing. When the bench comes in  – and Valanciunas has logged lots of minutes with the bench crew – Valanciunas has to deal with the fact that basically no one in that unit knows how to throw an entry pass or find him in pick-and-roll situations. In theory it would make sense to have Valanciunas log minutes with the reserve crew and let him ply his offensive trade against second-string centres, but if he doesn’t have the support system around him with the bench unit to get him the ball in his spots then such an arrangement isn’t going to do much for him during the regular season.

That’s the quagmire. Valanciunas needs the skill of the starters to get him touches and keep the offense humming (because most of the bench is borderline awful). However, when the starters are in the game the priority is to feed DeRozan and Gay, which limits the opportunities for Valanciunas to feature himself on offense.

That’s why it stands to reason that Masai Ujiri will probably ship out one of his high-priced starting wings this season. At some point he simply needs to free up shots for Valanciunas so that he can develop into the kind of two-way force that the team expects him to be rather than just the Lithuanian version of Noah that Casey so snidely dismissed a year ago. Yes, the team’s offensive efficiency would probably improve by allocating more shots to Valanciunas (and Lowry), and there is no doubt that the financial savings that could come from redistributing DeRozan’s or Gay’s salary would the cap situation, but given what this team’s priorities are right now, pushing Valanciunas to expand his game at the offensive end would be the primary motivation behind re-imagining Toronto’s wing situation.

Of course, Toronto has more than just those two wings on their roster. They also have two diametrically-opposed bench wings that are vying for the limited minutes available behind DeRozan and Gay in Landry Fields and Terrence Ross. Fields has been steadily improving throughout the preseason and is the more dependable option between the two. Ross is erratic and more often than not simply bad, but, as he showed in Monday night’s game against the Knicks, he can have spurts of production that hint at the kind of talent he has waiting to be tapped. Since Dwane Casey should almost always keep one of DeRozan or Gay on the court at all times, he’ll have to make some hard decisions about who should be flaking them when their partner goes to the bench.

In Fields’s favour is the fact that he is far more of a facilitator than a scorer. He shifts defenses with his passing, his off-ball cuts and his ability to take his man off of the dribble. If he is playing alongside DeRozan or Gay he won’t need shots to have an impact on the game, and his defense is fairly fundamentally sound (although not at the level expected when he arrived in Toronto last year).

Technically, Fields should have the primary backup spot sewn up. Right now Ross is trading on his potential to impact games rather than his ability to consistently do it. He is billed as a three-point shooter but it took an absurd 6-13 shooting night from behind the arc Monday to get Ross’s three-point percentage over 30% in the preseason, and that’s after a rookie season that saw him shoot just 33% from distance. Ross is terrifically athletic, but he rarely utilizes that athleticism is areas other than dunking and his ball-handling and passing skills are virtually non-existent.

Still, Ross has tons of room to grow whereas Fields is seen more or less as a finished product. If the Raptors could get Ross to start playing with more consistency then he’d be a stellar addition to their rotation and would probably hasten a trade of either DeRozan or Gay. However, the league is littered with former lottery pick swingmen who are barely hanging on to their NBA lives because they never found the consistency needed to stick with an NBA club. At this point one has to wonder if Ross is definitely better than Wes Johnson, Xavier Henry, Terrence Williams or Gerald Green, because if he’s not then not only is he not worth gifting consistent minutes to it might be worth exploring his trade market now before the league sours on him like they did the aforementioned also-rans.

Then there is the question of who is better for Valanciunas. If Casey decides to run Valanciunas out with the reserve crew, then Fields is a much better option to maximize Valanciunas than Ross is. If the second-unit crew featured Valanciunas, Tyler Hansbrough, a pick-your-poison backup point guard and one of DeRozan or Gay, you’d probably much rather have the consistency of Fields over the potential of Ross in order to maximize a scoring tandem of Valanciunas and DeRozan/Gay. Yes, the team would like to develop Ross, too, but not at the expense of developing Valanciunas. Everything this season revolves around their marquee seven-footer and that means that roster and rotation decisions will be dictated by his play. If that means one of DeRozan or Gay has to go, so be it. If that means that another promising youngster has to get marginalized, so be it. If Valanciunas is going to be the team’s future then it has to set him up for success in the present, and that means changes are in store if they’ll get Valanciunas even one step closer to the stardom the team so dearly hopes he reaches.