Defending champion Raptors experimenting after departures
TORONTO— Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse expects he’ll be experimenting with lineups a lot in the early part of the season.
That’s the challenge when you lose two starters from any team, let alone an NBA champion.
Nurse’s tinkering became a necessity after free agent forward Kawhi Leonard left the Raptors to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. Toronto also lost guard Danny Green, who joined LeBron James and the Lakers.
“With the two guys missing, that kind of throws us into experimenting mode,” Nurse said.
The plus side? Nurse has plenty of talented players eager to pick up the offensive slack created by the two high-profile departures.
“There’s plenty of shots to spread around,” he said.
Five-time All-Star Kyle Lowry, whose contract extension was made official Tuesday, will see some time at shooting guard this season, Nurse said, playing alongside point guard Fred VanVleet.
“I’ve got to be a lot more of a scorer,” Lowry said of his new responsibilities. “It’s going to be interesting how we play.”
Center Marc Gasol, the defensive standout acquired from Memphis in a deadline move last season, will also figure more prominently, Nurse said. So will Pascal Siakam, whose huge leap forward last year earned him the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing Pascal, Serge (Ibaka) and Marc as soon as possible, because I think that’s something we could end up using a lot,” Nurse said. “I’m always trying to get my best players on the floor and those guys are three of our best players.”
Still, it’s the loss of Leonard, Toronto’s best player last season, that’s likely to have the biggest impact on how the Raptors fare in their quest for repeat title after beating the Golden State Warriors in six games.
Toronto’s longest-tenured player, Lowry is beginning his eighth season with the Raptors and 14th in the NBA. He had one year remaining on a three-year, $100 million contract. His new deal is for one year and $31 million.
“It’s a place I wanted to be and it’s the place I’ve been the most successful in my career,” Lowry said Tuesday in his first public comment on the extension.
Lowry had left thumb surgery this offseason and missed the first two weeks of training camp and preseason. Even so, Toronto’s front office wasn’t worried about any decline in their star guard’s abilities.
“He has a chance to go down as best Raptor ever,” general manager Bobby Webster said. “Obviously he’s playing at a high level, he’s continued to play at a high level. We have no reason to expect him not to.”
Nurse certainly appreciates Lowry’s trademark tenacity.
“He’s an influential guy from a lot of standpoints,” Nurse said. “Nobody plays harder. To me, he just keeps getting better and better.”
CIRCLE THE CALENDAR
The Raptors don’t have to wait long for their first look at Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clipper: the teams meet in California on Nov. 11. It’s the second game of a back-to-back at Staples Center for the Raptors, who face the Lakers one night prior. Leonard and the Clippers come north of the border to face the Raptors in Toronto on Dec. 11
NEW IN TOWN
After losing out on Leonard and Green, the Raptors beefed up their wing options by signing forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson. Both are first-round picks from 2015 who bring defense-first reputations but not big scoring totals.
Toronto also added an outside-shooting threat by signing guard Matt Thomas to a three-year contract. Thomas made 254 3-pointers in four seasons with the Iowa State Cyclones, the third-highest total in school history, but went undrafted in 2017 and ended up playing in Spain. Last season, Thomas shot .481 (116 for 241) from 3-point range to help Valencia Basket win the EuroCup.
The Raptors will receive their championship rings before they tip off the regular season at home to rookie star Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans on Oct. 22.
“It’s going to be cool,” Nurse said. “Obviously it’s kind of a last moment to celebrate and it’s a big one.”
The only thing bigger might Toronto’s new rings.
“Those things, they’re like pieces of furniture,” Nurse said. “They’re not really rings they’re so big these days.”
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