It was the middle of January last season when the Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonard seemed to hit a fork in the road. After a 117-108 road loss to Boston, he sat out the second half of a back-to-back against Phoenix. That was perfectly reasonable, as missing one half of the dreaded back-to-back was part of the plan from the very beginning and the 10 games he had already missed to that point had outlined the pattern.
But then he missed the next game against Memphis which raised some eyebrows, before full blown concern was reached when Leonard skipped both halves of a back-to-back against Sacramento and Indiana. Was the load management plan falling apart? Was he losing faith in the team? Did he hate the cold that much?
The two-time Finals MVP would later admit that the plan had hit a bit of a wall but the Raptors, led by Alex McKechnie, worked with the player and found a solution. Hindsight is 20-20, of course, and it’s evident now that Toronto’s clear and concise long-game of managing Leonard’s body at all costs so they could reap the rewards in the playoffs was worth it.
But how does that play out this season? Head coach Nick Nurse stated during training camp that with Kyle Lowry coming off thumb surgery and Marc Gasol weary after his longest (and most fruitful) stretch of playing basketball will be eased back into action.
“I’m really in no hurry to see him (Gasol) hit the floor, especially in any of our contact stuff right now,” Nurse said. “But I know him. I already wandered past him one time today and he was like, ‘I wish I was out there,’ so I don’t think it will be much of an issue with him.”
Both skipped the first preseason game in Tokyo, while only Gasol is expected to return for their next game Thursday. Chances are neither feature at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 13 because of the quick turnaround in returning from Tokyo. Much of whatever tension that existed around Leonard’s absences last season was quelled by Toronto’s 17-5 record without him. Now, with him and Danny Green gone, how good can the Raptors be if Lowry or Gasol isn’t around?
Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni is in the minority of those who think the Raptors will be competing among the upper echelon of the league, and the other end of the spectrum has Toronto barely squeezing into the East playoff picture or missing out entirely. Realistically, barring a fire sale (something team president Masai Ujiri made clear on Media Day he has no intention of pursuing), the Raptors figure to compete for home court advantage and should like their chances of beating anyone not named Milwaukee or Philadelphia in a playoff series.
And that’s where you start to think about how important home court is and who they’ll need it. Last season, the Raptors won a franchise record 26 games in America and showcased their road toughness to the world by shutting down Oracle Arena in the NBA Finals. The experience of winning a championship goes a long way, but if winning a first-round battle is considered a par expectation for the season, you’d think home court is a necessity to exceed expectations by winning a conference semifinal.
After a couple of years of falling short to Cleveland in the Dwane Casey years and setting a steeper mountain to climb, the team genuinely believed that home court could be the difference in making a maiden trip to the Finals. They wrapped up the top seed, lost Fred VanVleet to injury for most of the first round when chasing 60 wins on the final day of the regular season, and ultimately fell short once again.
Toronto doesn’t face anywhere near the same pressure this season with the cushion of a championship run last year, but the expectations they have of themselves suggests they’ll need to test that breaking point of health and regular season success to fulfill their playoff goals. If Lowry, and to a lesser extent, Gasol miss a chunk of games, home court in the second round stands to be a fairly difficult goal to attain without the convenience of an upset somewhere else. Getting close to the 80-mark is probably too many and 60 may be too few. Welcome to Goldilocks’ world.
With Lowry, the sweet spot is a little bit easier to gauge. One aspect of his load that will always be kept in mind is the minimum 65-game and 25 minutes per game trigger that is required for him to earn his bonuses. Toronto went 11-6 in the 17 games Lowry missed last season, but the team figures to need him more this season. The aforementioned departures have left the team light on 3-point shooting while the relative lack of depth at the shooting guard position also stands to highlight his importance.
The 33-year-old played 78 games in 2017-18 but was aided by playing 32 minutes a game. Reasonably, he should hover somewhere between the 34 minutes of last season and 37 of the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. Factoring in his age, with that many minutes, and considering how much the team will need him to compete for home court advantage through two rounds of the playoffs, they’ll ideally need him in and around the 70-mark this season.
Gasol’s importance is an interesting one. He remains a fantastic two-way player who can anchor the team on both sides of the ball, but the Raptors also have Serge Ibaka to mitigate any concern over minutes. Gasol averaged just 25 minutes a game with the Raptors over the final 26 games of the season, a significant drop from the near 34 he was playing in Memphis. If his minutes hover in the same region as they did in Toronto last season, you probably just need him sitting out the occasional back-to-back.
“I think you have to trust the medical team,” Gasol said at training camp. “Obviously, as a player, you always want to play, you know, your competitive nature. But you have to protect yourself from yourself a little bit. Let the guys who are professionals make those decisions.”
Approaching 35, Gasol has played in at least 73 games in four of the past five seasons, including 79 last year. The Raptors face five pairs of back-to-backs before the turn of the calendar year, and that’s when the medical staff will want to be most careful about the strain on his body. Still, with the anticipated time share at centre, you’d like to think that as long as he isn’t hurt or traded, there’s another 70-plus game season in him.
The other factor that impacts both Lowry and Gasol’s usage is development. Toronto will want to see what both VanVleet and Chris Boucher can bring to the table this season, and so figuring out those answers will play its role.
While home court, helpful and ideal, may not be absolutely necessary to topple a Boston, Indiana, Miami or Brooklyn, it could help the team compete against the likes of the Bucks or Sixers. This isn’t last season where they had an all-world player that negated location, and so how Toronto tries to strike the right balance between keeping the veterans fresh while ensuring the team has the advantages it needs in the biggest games in April, May or June will be fascinating to follow.
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