Raptors' lack of depth throws load management out the window

TORONTO — Barring some roster management, the Toronto Raptors look as though they will have to bear a significant load for the foreseeable future.

Head coach Nick Nurse confirmed Monday afternoon that backup guard Patrick McCaw will be out indefinitely pending a visit with a specialist for pain he’s experiencing in his left knee.

Through six games (4-2 record), Nurse has primarily employed a seven-man rotation featuring the championship core. The eighth was Terence Davis early, but McCaw — who Nurse is high on — took those minutes away once he returned from injury. Davis, the undrafted rookie, now figures to play more of a role once again.

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Matt Thomas has seen some spot minutes but Stanley Johnson has offered very little in the way of positives with his minuscule playing time. Chris Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Malcolm Miller have also largely been non-factors. The Raptors sacrificed depth in the Marc Gasol trade, and despite the completely worthwhile return of an NBA title last season, are feeling the effects now.

Kyle Lowry has averaged 38.8 minutes per game thus far, and Fred VanVleet is right behind him with 37.8. The latter did a tremendous job of alleviating the load on Lowry when he firmly entered the fray in 2017-18 as co-captain of the Bench Mob, but with Nurse now playing both together to occupy the void left by recent off-season departures, there’s hardly been any respite for either.

“I think it’s very case-specific,” Nurse said at the OVO Athletic Centre Monday went asked about the merits of load management. “Last year, we were finding our way through it with a guy who hadn’t played in a year. That’s kind of where it started, and obviously it ended the way it ended, so the light was shining pretty bright at that particular topic and on that particular player and our team. I don’t really see much point in it right now for anyone we’ve got.

“Kyle will be somebody maybe we do something with down the road, maybe Marc as well. But it’s not really in the forefront of my mind this year like it was last year.”

Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet have been racking up the minutes this season. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet have been racking up the minutes this season. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

With Lowry specifically, there’s a fine line to be walked here. Lowry’s best performances in the post-season have come on the back of 32 minutes a game for 78 games in 2017-18, and then 34 minutes per outing for 65 games in 2018-19. The first of those campaigns saw in-game management in the form of DeMar DeRozan taking on more of the ball-handling responsibilities, and VanVleet allowing Lowry the time off by not having to prop up bench units.

“You know, when I got here, that was a big thing I wanted to do was decrease what he had to do,” VanVleet said Monday. “I think the one year, they said he played the equivalent of 15 less games when we had the bench squad running. So, I mean, it's big, you're shaving games off a guy's career, and extending careers, and extending seasons, and keeping him fresh.”

The 2018-19 season featured Kawhi Leonard in tow, Pascal Siakam’s emergence, and Danny Green’s volume shooting, aiding Lowry in preserving his his peak performances for when Leonard was absent during the season and then, of course, the championship run.

Nurse’s rotation is currently looking eerily similar to the Houston Rockets under Mike D’Antoni, where some have speculated that sprinting through the regular season has seen them, led by perennial MVP candidate James Harden, fizzle out in the post-season. It’s worth remembering that D’Antoni employed an equally short rotation with the Phoenix Suns as well, making ‘Seven seconds or less’ the envy of the league but ‘Seven players or less’ a sticking point.

In the Raptors’ most recent loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Gasol, VanVleet and Siakam were all on the floor late with five fouls each, and the Cameroonian’s sixth may have just been the straw that broke the camel’s back on that night. With a thin rotation, each foul is like a ticking time bomb.

It is also fair to say the management of Leonard’s body last season has brought a new normal. When everything goes to plan, nobody panics, and with that blueprint having worked to perfection, eyebrows are raised over anything that conflicts. Known data management advocate Dave Fizdale threw a spanner in the works when he pointed out the good ol’ days of Latrell Sprewell playing 41 minutes a night in defence of R.J. Barrett’s current 37-minute regimen as a rookie, and VanVleet supported the claim by saying that some players can handle it while others can’t.

“I think it's just one of those things where it's something that's been going on for a long time, and you take a guy like Kawhi, who's such a high-profile athlete, and you throw that catchphrase out there, people run with it,” VanVleet said at practice.

“My field-goal percentage has taken a little bit of a hit the last few games, still shooting it well from three, but I don't attribute that to being tired, I don't attribute that to the minutes,” he continued. “If I can play 48, I'll play 48. So, I'm feeling good. I'm not ignorant to the fact that it probably has an effect but it's my job to be ready to go every night and I feel like I've been doing that.”

After a stretch of one game in six nights, the Raptors are about to play five in eight beginning Wednesday, of which four will come out west. The cold tub, massages, yoga, pilates, weights — Toronto’s backcourt is going to need it all to carry the load.

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