As we prepare for the upcoming Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors, I reached out to our friends over at Raptors HQ with a simple idea: let’s rank the 16 best players in this series. Daniel Reynolds (@aka_Reynolds), Managing Editor at Raptors HQ, was kind enough to participate.
We built our lists and exchanged them. There were some discrepancies, but ultimately we got a single list together that we were both happy with. You? Eh, maybe not so much. (Let us know!)
We wanted to keep the post from getting too long, so what we did is this: the entire rankings are posted on both sites, however, only the Toronto players blurbs are posted here on Liberty Ballers and only the Sixers players blurbs are posted on Raptors HQ. The thinking here is that our readers at Liberty Ballers already know many of my thoughts on Sixers players; they would be more interested to hear what Daniel’s thoughts on what Raptors players bring to the series, no?
Below are the full rankings made by both Daniel and I, with Daniel’s write ups on Toronto. If you’d like to see my write ups on the Sixers, head over to Raptors HQ to check them out.
The Optimism Tier
16. James Ennis III
15. Boban Marjanovic
14. Norman Powell
At this point in his career, Powell’s reputation is impossible to classify. For most of this season, he’s been adequate for the Raptors. As their ninth or 10th man, Norm just has to come in with energy, hit open shots, attack in transition when possible, play strong defense, and, most importantly, try not to do too much. In the 2017-18 season, this last thing was what undid Powell’s year; he was constantly trying to do more, and as a result ended up doing far less for the team. This season, however, Powell has found his groove. He’s still the team’s ninth or 10th man, but he provides Toronto with a nice option as a change-of-pace wing who can match-up against positions one through three on Philly.
Powell is also a guy the Sixers can’t just leave alone because of that aforementioned reputation. In fact, there’s an easy argument to make that Powell should rank ahead of Mike Scott. Why? Because Playoff Norm is something else entirely, and if (or when?) Playoff Norm suddenly appears, he can literally change the complexion of a series for the Raptors. Don’t believe me? Check out Game 5 against the Pacers in 2016 and against the Bucks in 2017. A few years ago, yes, but still: the Sixers should be careful.
13. Mike Scott
The Necessary Tier
12. Fred VanVleet
Like Norm, VanVleet is a bit of a two-sided proposition for the Raptors. On the one hand, he is a smart, capable guard confident in his own talents and his ability to run the team. This, despite his smaller stature. VanVleet also shot 38 percent from three (on 4.6 attempts per game) this past season, so there’s that too.
On the other hand though, VanVleet has not been able to replace, even in part, what Kyle Lowry does for the Raptors (especially in this postseason). Their first round series against Orlando (like the Sixers, another relatively big team) made that fact clear; just glance at Toronto’s on/off splits and the relative plus/minuses of each player. What’s more, unlike Lowry, VanVleet isn’t as able to guard anyone on the Sixers other than J.J. Redick. To be fair, FVV absolutely can chase him around screens and in turn make Redick work on defense; but Fred could just as easily get switched onto bigger players and get overwhelmed. In short — no pun intended — it’s something to keep an eye on going both ways.
11. J.J. Redick
10. Serge Ibaka
Not to scare Raptors fans (or delight Philly), but Serge Ibaka may end up having a huge part to play in this series. Toronto’s back-up centre will likely have to spend a few minutes every game wrestling with Joel Embiid (to say nothing of the massive Boban), and if he loses those minutes dramatically, the Raptors could put themselves in a tight spot.
Fortunately for Toronto, Ibaka has embraced his role as the team’s first (and only) big off the bench. In the playoffs so far, he’s averaging 9.4 points (fourth most on the team) and 7.2 rebounds (second most on the team), while posting healthy shooting splits of 51/38/86 percent. Last season around this time, Ibaka turned into a literal shell of himself — a sight so painful I struggle even to recall it — so the fact that the Raptors aren’t living and dying with him in the middle anymore is good. Still, there will be a lot of weight thrown at him over the next couple of weeks. Here’s hoping he can handle it.
The Heavy Lifting Tier
9. Tobias Harris
8. Danny Green
To put something in perspective here: Green is shooting a rather pedestrian percentage from three so far in these playoffs at... 35.7 percent. For the season, he was up at 45.5 percent as every bit the flamethrower Toronto needed to complement the rest of the roster. That Green is also one of two Raptors to actually have, say, NBA Finals experience also means a lot for a team historically known to get a little queasy in big spots.
In this series, Green will be tasked with doing the same thing he’s done all year for the Raptors: hit threes and play excellent, switch-ready defense. In the Magic series, after D.J. Augustin’s 19-point first half explosion in Game 1, Green was there to hold him to 45 points in total over the next four and a half games. (Yes, Augustin hit the game-winner in Game 1, but that wasn’t Green’s fault.) If that’s small potatoes (or too small a sample size), consider Green’s 9.1 net rating (with a 101.2 defensive rating) against the Sixers across four regular season games, earned while covering everyone from Redick, to Butler, to Simmons. On the other side of the court, it’s also worth mentioning that the Raptors can rely on Green’s underrated post-up game, designed for those inevitable switches onto the Sixers’ weaker defenders in the post (e.g. Redick again).
Overall, there’s no doubt that the Sixers are a load with their size and talent, but Green has proven himself again and again up to the task as both a defensive specialist and a cool, big game player. And if starts shooting from deep at something closer to his season average? Watch out.
7. Marc Gasol
Yes, Gasol’s scoring average has continued to take a dive since his trade to Toronto. Going from being the number one scoring option to number four (at best) is liable to do that to a 34-year-old centre. It’s across each and every margin where Gasol has made his impact for the Raptors. Prior to the Gasol trade, Toronto was a middling team in stats like assists per game, three-point shooting percentage, and defensive rebounding. After adding Gasol: they became a top five team in each. And their defensive rating? Toronto went from a solid eighth to third with the big Spaniard.
But that’s just the opening act. The main event in any discussion of a Raptors vs. Sixers series has to get to the matchup between Embiid vs. Gasol; and in this Toronto might have the edge. Even this season, while Gasol was with a weak Memphis team, the Raptors’ centre held Embiid to 6-of-18 shooting over 108 possessions. It’s a small sample size, yes, but it suggests that Gasol has the skills necessary to at least frustrate the Sixers’ All-Star. Not that they’re the same player, but Gasol just got done completely shutting down another Eastern Conference All-Star in Nikola Vucevic; and he, like Green, represents yet another big game player the Raptors can rely on in tough situations. Covering Embiid for the length of a seven-game series definitely qualifies.
6. Ben Simmons
5. Kyle Lowry
What is left to say about Kyle Lowry? If you’re a Raptors fan, you’ve said it all — and just in the past two weeks. Following his Game 1 donut against Orlando (and the howling of many fans), Lowry led Toronto in plus/minus (21.2), and just happened to swing the team by 53.9 points in net rating when he was on the court versus when he was off it (and that’s including Game 1 vs. the Magic). Those are just a couple metrics, we could no doubt find more.
In the three games Lowry played against the Sixers this past season with Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors went 3-0. Across all four contests, Lowry put up 16.8 points, 6.8 assists, and 3.5 rebounds for good measure. He also average 8.0 three-attempts per game, hitting 34.4 percent of them. And, it should be noted, these games all came before the Raptors traded for Gasol, who now acts as a perfect mind-meld complement to Lowry’s applications of his basketball genius. For the series, it seems likely Toronto will have Lowry switch between Redick, Simmons, and Butler on defense — the latter of whom he covered the most across their four regular season games — but that’s not the question on the mind of a Sixers fan. What you’re probably wondering instead: how could Lowry possibly be better than Ben Simmons, a younger, stronger, bigger, and faster player seemingly designed in a lab (albeit without a jump shot) to lead his team?
The answer is, as always, found in that big on/off number: 53.9 net rating in the playoffs so far, and 12.0 in the regular season. Lowry at his best is hitting shots and finishing drives at the rim, yes, but he’s also making all of his teammates way better. We say “as Lowry goes, so go the Raptors” for a reason. And by comparison, Simmons’ 13.1 on/off net rating in these playoffs so far, plus his -2.2 in the regular season, just don’t inspire such adages.
4. Pascal Siakam
If nothing else, the opening round of the 2019 Playoffs revealed that Pascal Siakam was indeed the real deal. Through five post-season games, Spicy P is averaging 22.6 points (second on the team), 8.4 rebounds (first on the team), and 3.0 assists. And despite a usage rate percentage that has jumped from 14.4 percent in last year’s playoffs to 24.5 this postseason, Siakam is still shooting 53 percent from the field, an eye-opening 36.4 percent from three (on 4.4 attempts per game!), and 90 percent from the line. Overall, that’s good for a true shooting percentage of 60 percent, which makes Siakam one of the more efficient players going right now.
What’s most striking about Siakam in the playoffs goes beyond numbers, though. It’s in how he seems to be learning, growing, and adapting throughout each game of his postseason career (to say nothing of the massive leap he took this past regular season). The series against the Magic serves as a useful microcosm. In the regular season against Orlando, Siakam struggled and looked unsure in spots as to how to leverage his skills against the Magic’s forwards’ athleticism and length. Then came Game 1’s 24 points on 24 shots, then a modestly efficient and complementary Game 2, and then a 30-point, 11-rebound, zero turnover eruption in Game 3. The rest was gravy, and our concerns over Siakam’s future proved to be laughably unfounded.
Against the Sixers, Siakam will have to bring the same sort of scoring intensity, while also dealing with a bevy of more skilled players on defense. It’s not nothing to go from covering the likes of Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac to dealing with Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler. The good news for Raptors fans: Siakam has the speed, length, and energy to keep up both his scoring and intensity in the second round. The bad news for Sixers fans: uh, ditto.
3. Jimmy Butler
The Game Changing Tier
The Case for Kawhi Leonard
All year in Toronto there’s been this pervasive feeling that Kawhi Leonard could be better. Let me be clear: to Raptors fans, Kawhi has been nothing short of awesome. He’s averaged 26.6 points, a career-high 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 steals in a career-high 34 minutes per game, while shooting 50 percent from the field, 37 percent from three, and 85 percent from the free throw line. Yes, all this has come in just 60 load managed regular season games, but after missing most of the 2017-18 season, it felt like the world needed a reminder as to how good Kawhi can be.
Still, could he be better? Games 2 and 4 against the Magic stand out here. In those two contests, Kawhi shot a combined 27-for-42 (64 percent) for 71 points. His other counting stats (a combined ten rebounds, six assists, four steals, two turnovers) aren’t quite as impressive — but that’s because they didn’t need to be! After Game 1’s bizarre letdown, and his flu-like symptoms in Game 3, Kawhi bounced back both times to so thoroughly throttle the Magic it didn’t matter what else he did with the ball. There was nothing anyone on that team could do to Leonard as he bounced through the lane, got to his spots, drew fouls, hit open shots, and refused to disappear. (More than one Magic player will likely be seeing Kawhi in his nightmares.)
In total, Leonard was second only to Lowry in plus/minus for the Orlando series at 18.8, and in on/off net rating at 42.1. Across those fives games, we got to see what Kawhi Leonard can be for the Raptors in the playoffs. He’s the key to their defense, and the failsafe for their offense. And while Leonard may not have the same ineffable value to Toronto that Lowry has, he acts as a backstop against the team’s worst tendencies; there is just no way Kawhi will shrink from a big moment.
Against the Sixers, Leonard’s mission is clear: just keep it going. In his three games against Philly during the regular season, Leonard found different ways to help the Raptors win. In the first game, it was by scoring 31 points and grabbing four steals while rushing Simmons into 11 turnovers; in the second, 36 points and five steals and more frustration delivered to Simmons; and finally, with his shot not falling, Kawhi muscled his way into hitting 16-of-17 free throws for 24 points (plus, sure, three more steals). The two-way mastery on display here is clear. Clearer still is how necessary it will be against a Sixers team with three powerful wing-sized players in Harris, Simmons, and Butler.
Like Embiid, Kawhi is just one man. He too will need the rest of his team to perform in order to come out on top. From this (admittedly biased) vantage point, it just feels like Leonard knows how best to apply his prodigious talents to take the Raptors to the next round. And that’s why he’s the best player in this series.
Who is the best player in this series?
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