The Sixers take on the Toronto Raptors this evening. To preview the matchup, Joshua Kern of Raptors HQ was kind enough to lend me his time and insight in the form of the following Q&A. I’m a big fan of Raptors HQ, and I recommend checking it out for all your Raptors inquires. You can follow Joshua on Twitter @joshuakern and don’t forget to check out his Five Thoughts on Last Night — a terrific running series in which Joshua offers his takeaways each day following Raptors’ games.
Kevin F. Love: What has been the driving force behind the Raptors incredible start? Is there any area at all that you see as vulnerable at this point?
Joshua Kern: This might be a boring answer, but I think it’s just talent. The Raptors have a well-balanced roster with talented guys at every position, including a superstar wing in Kawhi Leonard, and they roll two-deep at each position.
That does lead me into the vulnerability — the second unit, which was such a strength last year, just has not found its groove yet this season; they look shaky on offense and have been responsible for letting opposing teams back into games.
Some of that is injuries; Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and C.J. Miles all missed time early on. Some of it is shifting roles; Pascal Siakam and Anunoby have swapped spots in the rotation from last year. But again — the talent level is there, they’re still 20-5 despite the subpar bench play, and I expect it’ll even out as the season goes along.
KFL: The Sixers traded Dario Saric and Robert Covington, two players with intensely passionate followings, for a star in Jimmy Butler — so Philly fans and Toronto fans have something in common when it comes to trading favorites for undeniably top-notch talent. What’s it been like parting with a franchise icon and is the gamble worth it regardless of what Kawhi does this summer?
JK: 100% yes, absolutely, no doubt about it — the gamble was and is worth it. I love DeMar DeRozan, and part of me is still bummed that he won’t win a title and finish his career here... but Leonard is a better all-around player, and gives the team a legitimate chance at a title this season. The team wouldn’t have had that chance, this year or probably ever, with DeRozan as the #1 guy.
Philly may have been in a slightly different position — the Raptors core of DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and head coach Dwane Casey had been failing out of the playoffs for five years now, and Philly only had one crack at the can with their core. But still — if you have a chance to get a superstar who can transform your team from good to great, that gives you a chance to win it all, I think you have to do it.
KFL: How would you grade Nick Nurse’s performance so far?
JK: It’s a B+ from me; he’s been gifted a very talented roster so it’s a bit hard to judge, but two smart things he’s done — platooning Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas depending on matchups, and moving Siakam into the starting lineup — have paid off nicely. And the defense overall has been solid. He gets a slight downgrade though, for the bench play; there’s a sense, in particular, that he’s placed too much trust in VanVleet and that Wright should be assuming more ball-handling duties, freeing VanVleet up to be more of an off-ball shooter.
KFL: Who is an under the radar player the Sixers need to watch out for? I’m going to rule out Pascal Siakam if you don’t mind, lots of Sixers fans already fawn over Pascal.
JK: The fawning is well-deserved! I’ll go back to Wright here, though; Wright’s game is perfect for today’s NBA, he’s long, can guard multiple positions, can handle the ball and get into the lane, where he’s an excellent finisher (not Siakam-level, but his Eurostep is solid). And his shooting has picked up after a slow start (54% over the past seven games), so I look for the trend to continue tonight.
KFL: How would you rank the following teams according to who poses the biggest threat to a Raptors finals appearance: Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers?
JK: I rank the threat-level as follows...
Along with Toronto, I’m assuming these four teams will be the top four East playoff seeds come April; I think Boston will sort their issues out and their depth, defense and general toughness will make them the toughest out in the postseason. Philly has a proven playoff performer now in Butler, and I expect they also have another move or two to make before the season’s over. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an unstoppable wrecking ball, but I’m not sure the Bucks have the overall talent level to oust the other three (and I’m not super-confident in Mike Budenholzer as a playoff coach).
KFL: Do the Raptors need to make any transactions in preparation for the playoffs? Any weak positions/roles?
One area of concern for Toronto is rebounding (which may well bite them against the Sixers tonight) but I’m not sure there’s a move to make to improve it. They play a bit small; Siakam, for all his incredible play, is still slim for a four, and Ibaka, though he’s mostly looked like a natural at the five, is not a great rebounder. Their best rebounder, Valanciunas, is unplayable against smaller lineups. If there were an opportunity to swap out Ibaka (who is, uh, handsomely compensated) for a player with a similar offensive skill set but more rebounding chops, maybe... but I don’t think that player/trade is out there. I wouldn’t be surprised at all — or disappointed — if today’s Raptors team is the one taking the floor in April.