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TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Kyle Lowry said it best, and without wasting any words.
Following Sunday’s 118-95 loss to Chicago, the Raptors’ fifth straight defeat, the veteran point guard was asked if anything can be gleaned from his team’s recent skid – all of it coming without almost a third of its roster, including three key starters.
“No,” Lowry responded, matter-of-factly.
It’s hard to argue with him under the circumstances. Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby – as well as Patrick McCaw, Malachi Flynn and several members of the coaching staff – have all been in the league’s health and safety protocols and away from the club for more than two weeks.
In that time, Toronto has missed the chance to steal a win or two – Thursday’s heartbreaking loss to Atlanta at the buzzer comes to mind – but subtract three of any team’s four- or five-best players and the results would undoubtedly be similar. If there’s a sport in which that amount of talent can easily be replaced, basketball isn’t it.
They may not have learned much about themselves over this stretch, but they were reminded of a few things they should have already known. Even with Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby – arguably the Raptors’ three most important defenders, as well as some of their most reliable playmakers – the margin for error has been small this season, given the team’s lack of depth and size. Without them, it’s practically zero.
They hope to have those guys back at some point this week, if not in Detroit on Wednesday then perhaps against Utah or Cleveland over the weekend. Then, once they’re at full strength again, their hope is to go on a run and make up some of the ground they lost in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race.
But with at least a few of their underlying issues magnified recently, and with the March 25th NBA trade deadline less than two weeks away, they also have some big decisions to make.
The five-game losing streak won’t change their approach to the deadline, one way or the other. If team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster believed in this group three weeks ago – when they clawed back to .500 with impressive wins over Milwaukee and Philadelphia – they probably still do now. If they didn’t then, they don’t now. And, more likely, if they felt that they were a big man and maybe another depth piece away from really being able to compete in the East, then watching these past few games should have reinforced it.
After a pair of hard-fought losses to Boston and Atlanta – with the all-star break sandwiched in between – this weekend’s back-to-back in Charlotte and Chicago showed how shaky their depth is once you look past their top-six guys.
With the three regular rotation players out of the lineup, the two remaining starters – Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell – have had to carry a tremendous workload, and outside of sixth-man Chris Boucher, nobody has stepped up to take advantage of this opportunity.
“It's a little frustrating tonight,” Nick Nurse said after the loss to Chicago, a game in which Powell, Lowry and Boucher combined to score 69 of Toronto’s 95 points. “I mean you're giving a lot of guys shots and [they] miss a few and you try somebody else and they get the same looks and they don't do any better. So it was a tough night for us on that front, and it’s too bad.”
Over the past five games, Powell, Lowry and Boucher were responsible for 62 per cent of the team’s total offence. Nine other players saw the court in those contests but none of them averaged double figures in scoring or shot better than 42 per cent from the field.
Nurse often challenges his younger players to string together productive performances. That doesn’t necessarily mean scoring a bunch of points every night, it could just be a matter of playing hard in their respective roles or finding a way to make a positive impact on the game. He’ll break the schedule down into five-game increments and say, if a player is performing well in one or two games out of five, how can they increase that to three or four out of five?
Looking at these last five games, with each player filling an expanded role, sophomore Terence Davis had one really good one (a 22-point outing against Boston before the break), Stanley Johnson played well in a couple (the Boston and Atlanta contests), and DeAndre’ Bembry was also solid in two (Atlanta and Charlotte). Veteran centre Aron Baynes was good in three of them (Detroit, Boston, Charlotte) – a marked improvement in an otherwise disappointing first season with the Raptors.
On one hand, it can’t be easy. Those guys have all seen their roles fluctuate throughout the campaign and are currently being asked to do more than they’re used to, and perhaps qualified for. However, this is the opportunity most of them have been clamouring for, a chance to prove themselves and show they deserve more minutes. That they haven’t taken advantage of it is cause for some concern.
Those guys have all shown flashes of being capable rotation pieces at various points throughout the year, as have Yuta Watanabe and Paul Watson, but most of them are young and inexperienced – and, with that, inconsistent and hard to rely on, especially as Nurse looks ahead to a playoff race. It won’t be as glaring once the team is fully healthy and those guys go back to more natural roles, but it’s still something worth addressing.
Four games separate eight teams between fourth and 11th place in the East, and after dropping five straight contests the Raptors are now at the bottom of that logjam. Still, if there was ever a year to face that kind of mid-season adversity and come out of it, it’s this one. With so much parity, it shouldn’t take much to shoot your way up the standings, the suddenly red-hot Miami Heat are proof of that. And, even if they can’t lock down fourth, fifth or sixth, finishing with a top-10 record would ensure that, at minimum, they’ll have a chance to fight their way into the playoffs through the play-in tournament.
“When we get guys back we can play to a level that we know we can play to,” Lowry said on Sunday. “If we’re eighth, seventh, we have to play a play-in game but we still get an opportunity to do something. But we’re not looking at that, we’re looking at making a run so we can get to that sixth spot or get to that fifth spot. We’re not too far back. We’re just in a tough spot with missing our guys, really.”
The other side of all this parity is there aren’t many teams that have fallen out of it, which likely means fewer teams looking to unload talent at the deadline. Most executives around the league are anticipating a seller’s market – fewer impact players available, and the asking price for the ones who are out there could be steep.
What the Raptors could do, or what they’re even looking to do – whether they intend to buy, sell or hold – remains to be seen. However, assuming the goal is to make the most of this season, it’s more apparent than ever – they need to add some depth to the roster over the next 10 days.