The Toronto Raptors have been scoring the ball at an unprecedented rate for this franchise, an NBA East leading 111.2 points per game and that’s with their “big” free agent acquisition sitting on the sidelines rehabbing a broken foot. The Celtics young veteran free agent Jared Sullinger was signed to fill a gaping experience hole in the Raptors big man rotation caused by the loss of Bismack Biyombo to the Magic and if he doesn’t have any setbacks to his recovery, he could be the answer to the Raptors only glaring need.
There isn’t a lot to complain about in Toronto this season. After the toughest schedule of any team in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors are in second place and on track to exceed last year’s win total for the fifth year in a row.
However, there are a couple of areas of concern.
The obvious issue is on defense where the Raptors are giving up 104.6 points per game, although that’s almost exactly the league average in a season that has gone offense crazy with no team in the East holding opponent scoring under 100 points.
Slightly more subtle, but perhaps more easily corrected with Sullinger’s return, is a significant decline in the Raptors ability to rebound the basketball. Last year Toronto was 7th in the NBA with a rebounding differential of +2.6 boards. This year they are -0.4 and it has cost them games.
Hereto the league seems to be undergoing change as teams are more focused than ever on shooting the three-ball and dragging big man away from the basket. The “best” rebounding team currently in the Eastern Conference playoff picture is Cleveland with a rebounding differential of only +0.8 boards. Last year the Cavs were third best in the NBA at +3.5, but how’s a team supposed to rebound effectively firing up 33 three-pointers a game (over 10 percent more than last year) and playing the lite-weight glass-allergic “big man” Channing Frye almost 20 minutes a game?
Toronto, led by mid-range scorer DeMar DeRozan, is bucking the league-wide three-point trend, but Sullinger’s injury forced head coach Dwane Casey to play the rookies Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl a lot more than was planned and third-year forward/center Lucas Nogueira has been pressed into the rotation for the first time in his brief NBA career.
The impression of all three players has been positive, but for all they’ve been able to do, they haven’t been that good on the boards.
Siakam has started 34 games at power forward and while the effort is appreciated and the experience invaluable to his development, that five-man unit has been putting the Raptors in a hole at the start of games almost every time. Casey has recently been giving Nogueira a real shot at starting power forward and the change looks very promising. This has also opened up more minutes for Poeltl, again at Siakam’s expense. However, the moves have only further confirmed the need for rebounding help.
Siakam: 17.9 minutes, 3.6 rebounds, grabbing 11.1 percent of the available boards.
Nogueira: 20.5 minutes, 4.8 rebounds, grabbing 13.1 percent of the available boards.
Poeltl: 10.6 minutes, 2.9 rebounds, grabbing 15.1 percent of the available boards (in 21 games).
Biyombo (8 rebounds per game in 2015-16), like Jonas Valanciunas still does, grabbed over 20 percent of the available boards last year. What the Raptors need now is what Sullinger gave the Celtics last season.
Sullinger: 23.6 minutes, 8.3 rebounds, grabbing 18.7 percent of the available boards.
“A big time rebounder, a high level rebounder especially defensively,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri described Sullinger during training camp.
It is completely fair to believe that Sullinger, in his fifth NBA season, could replace the minutes played by the rookies Siakam and Poeltl and grab an additional 3 or 4 rebounds a game for the Raptors. That should lead to fewer opponent possessions plus his experience on defense should help reduce the rather gaudy opponent’s scoring numbers.
Nothing happens in a straight line, but it isn’t hard to believe playing Sullinger 18-24 minutes a night instead of the rookies will help. A three rebound swing would bring the Raptors rebounding differential back in line with last season. As an added bonus, Sullinger, averaging 10.3 points per game last year, also brings a lot bigger offensive threat to the table than either Siakam or Poeltl.
Is Sullinger enough to get the Raptors past the first place Cavs? That’s hard to tell as it seems LeBron James has owned the East for the past six seasons and keeps finding another gear as needed. But the games between Toronto and James have been close going back to last season. The Raptors typically aren’t losing by much and when looking for a specific Cavaliers advantage, the Cavs have outrebounded Toronto by an average of 3.4 boards in three games this year.
For Ujiri to know if any trade is warranted this season, his team’s second best rebounder Jared Sullinger can’t get back in action soon enough.