The New York Knickerbockers look to wash the bad taste of Christmas out of their mouth with a home-and-home against the Toronto Raptors this Friday and Saturday. The Raptors don’t seem particularly interested in winning games this year, but the joke’s on them because they’re winning games anyway – they’re 5-3 since trading Rudy Gay at the beginning of December.
To prepare for two games in such short proximity, I enlisted the help of Blake Murphy – resident Canadian, Editor at TheScore, and a contributor to Raptors Republic, our TrueHoop sister site. The two of us exchanged a few emails Monday and Thursday, discussing all things Raptors and Knicks.
Jeremy Conlin (jeremy_conlin): Well, let’s start off by wishing all of our fine readers a Merry Christmas – they have Christmas in Canada, right?
The Schedule Gods have given the Knicks and Raptors a rather interesting slate this year – a back-to-back home-and-home Friday and Saturday, and then the two teams won’t meet again until April, where they play twice in five days, including the last day of the season.
But for now, let’s focus on the two games this weekend, and this new-look Toronto team. Blake, is there anything drastically different about the team over the last eight games since Rudy Gay got shipped out?
Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC): We do have Christmas in Canada. Presently, Toronto is a giant sheet of ice, and rumor has it that Santa’s reindeer don’t have Blizzak hoofs, so it is in some peril.
In any case, we’ll all be treated to a late Christmas present in the form of Raptors/Knicks and Knicks/Raptors, #knickstape against #tanktape.
But the “tank” is failing spectacularly since the Rudy Gay trade, because the Raptors offense suddenly no longer looks like me playing NBA Live 2004 as the Cavaliers and just going ISO after ISO with Ricky Davis and Darius Miles. Here’s basically what you need to know: the Raptors team assist rate with Gay on the floor this year was 46.7%, with him on the bench or traded, it’s been 55.3%. The pieces just fit way better, even if the talent level is lower.
Now, let me ask you a Knicks question…LOL?
Conlin: That’s a strong question that I really have no answer to. All non-Knicks fans seem to be taking unbridled joy out of their failures, Knicks fans seem to be ready to jump of the Triborough Bridge, and I’m just sitting in the middle of my two groups of internet friends trying to get along with everyone. I’m telling you, it’s been weird.
The frustrating thing about this matchup from the Knicks end is that the Raptors aren’t even trying to win and yet here they are, less than a week removed from wins over Dallas and Oklahoma City, both on the road. The Raptors are an NBA team, and as such should be favored heavily over these Knicks, but I ask, what exactly have the Raptors figured out that the Knicks haven’t yet? How do teams just stumble into wins like this?
Murphy: The Raptors are really hard to figure out, man. Probably as hard as the Knicks, but in different ways. They don’t have great defenders (Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry are probably the only guys you’d classify as above-average) but are roughly average on that end because they work hard (usually). They move the ball now but can’t hit threes, and as such they’re roughly average on offense, too. And that might be it…they are a very average team (even their point differential is essentially zero), average teams tend to play more close games, and close games leave a bit more up to randomness.
The reason the Raptors don’t get blown out, I would guess, is an incentive issue (“Issue” if you’re pro-tank). There are six players on this team with guaranteed contracts for next season and the coach is a lame duck; every single one of these guys wants to win, wants to get numbers, wants to show something. There’s also probably somewhat of a “house money” looseness and/or “we’ll show them” attitude given where expectations are and the constant questions about tanking.
That is all really rambly and all over the place. So I’ve basically become the Raptors.
Conlin: And what about going forward? On some level, yes, it seems like right now the team is “accidentally” winning, but at what point do you think the team shifts focus and decides they want to win on purpose?
Basically, I’m curious about the fate of two Raptors who might be following Rudy Gay with a one-way ticket back to the U.S. – DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (the latter of which has been rumored to have drawn interest from these New York Knicks). Do you think the front office is totally committed to a full-scale tear-down and re-build? What are the odds that either of those guys finish the season still wearing Purple and Black?
Murphy: The odds of them wearing purple-and-black this year are roughly zero. Finishing as Raptors, however, is different. I’d say Lowry is gone no matter what if they can get any sort of future first for him. DeRozan is a tougher question because he has value beyond this year – he’s young, he’s become an almost-efficient scorer, he likes the city and works his ass off, and you can afford to have one overpaid wing now that you’ve gotten rid of the other. They “need” to trade him to totally bottom out but they don’t “need” to trade him in a macro rebuilding sense.
Basically, I think nobody is nailed down, but Masai Ujiri’s plan is fluid based on the market and he won’t deal just for the sake of dealing. I do believe that the plan is a tear-down (and this is what comes out from “sources” whenever anyone cites them), but I’m not of the belief that it’s “finish dead last or bust.” In fact, I have a theory that Ujiri is asset collecting (future firsts) to potentially make a Ricky Williams offer for a top pick, realizing it’s unlikely the team will get it on their own “merit.”
Conlin: Do the Raptors not have Purple alternates anymore? Shoot, I’m too far out of the jersey loop, I guess.
I like your idea about the Ricky Williams offer (what would be the NBA equivalent, Chris Webber?), but maybe we’re getting too far ahead of ourselves. What about THIS weekend? These teams have two games over the span of maybe 28 hours, what should we expect to see? Is there anything specifically the Raptors do that will give New York fits (other than, you know, play NBA-caliber basketball – the Knicks can’t seem to figure that one out)?
Murphy: No, not particularly. There’s nothing tough to scout about the offense or the defense. Dwane Casey has flat out told me “we don’t run a lot of plays” and it looks as such. They’re moving the ball more and doing a better job spreading the floor horizontally, and they’ll definitely take threes, but they run a pretty vanilla offense.
Defensively, it will be interesting to see what they do against Carmelo Anthony, and that will really be the key. The Raptors have the guard advantage, and Tyson Chandler’s defense is somewhat less important against a team that shoots a below-average numbers of shots in the restricted area (with lower-usage bigs, though that’s changing), so a lot of the ‘edge’ could come down to how much damage Anthony can do. Terrence Ross and DeRozan are both far too weak if Anthony goes on the block, and while he’s a good defender, I’d be hesitant having Johnson try to hang.
I’ll ask you the same tactical question, but I’m also curious if you trust the Knicks on a back-to-back and whether that’s been something they’ve struggled with this year?
Conlin: Well, the Toronto matchup presents a bit of a problem for the Knicks in that the Raptors will spend most of their time with two traditional bigs on the floor. This isn’t to say that the Knicks aren’t equipped to defend (or score against) such a lineup, but it presents a problem in as much as it will bait Mike Woodson into playing his traditional “big” lineups, which have been an absolute train wreck this season. If Rudy Gay were still in town and playing as a small-ball four occasionally, that might actually be to the Knicks’ advantage (even though that’s where Rudy is most effective) because New York’s small lineups are much more effective than Toronto’s. But as long as Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas are on the floor, and the Knicks are mirroring with Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani/Amar’e Stoudemire, the Raptors should have the upper hand.
The back-to-back doesn’t seem much of an issue for the Knicks. They’re 3-3 on the second end of back-to-backs this year (3-3 on the front ends, too), which might actually be an upgrade over their 2-12 record on games not part of a back-to-back, but the sample size is obviously too small to say anything for sure. Luckily the team is traveling Friday night, which means there won’t be any issue with the team partying too late the night before (which has cropped up twice this season and became such an issue that Woodson kept the team in a hotel last Friday night before their game against Memphis Saturday afternoon).
One last question before we sign off – because it’s a home-and-home, on back-to-back nights, do we think the coaching staffs are invested and committed enough to making large-scale changes from one game to the next based on what happens Friday night? Or do we think because it’s the regular season with a short turnaround, the coaches will be content to put one gameplan in place and hope it works two days in a row?
Murphy: I would guess that they’ll roll with similar game plans, but that’s partly a function of Casey not being a coach that rolls out vastly different coverages game to game. On a similar note, contrary to your thought about the Raptors rolling two bigs – while they’re not less well-equipped to go with a small-ball four (they can run two point-guards), Casey has been far more reactive than proactive with his lineups. That is, if Woodson goes small, Casey will likely match rather than exploit the size advantage. This actually has the making of a hilarious coaching battle where two otherwise-decent coaches just wait for the other to make a move.