Jakob Poeltl is a solid NBA centre, but an awkward fit with these Raptors



TORONTO — On Tuesday, The Athletic reported that neither the Chicago Bulls nor Zach LaVine would mind a parting of ways.

Shams Charania and Darnell Mayberry reported that both sides are becoming comfortable with the idea of a breakup, and the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers are expected to have “a level of interest” in acquiring LaVine. You can almost feel the enthusiasm vibrating throughout the league. Another team that makes theoretical sense is the Toronto Raptors.

For now, let’s not talk about whether or not the Raptors should do it. There are a number of long-term decisions that the Raptors need to make, and committing to a core including LaVine, who is in the second year of a five-year, $215-million contract, requires having a firm read on their preferred path, plus the strong feeling that you will be able to walk said trail without rubbing up against the poison ivy that is unrestricted free agency.

Undeniably, LaVine makes a lot of on-court sense: He doesn’t need the ball in his hands as an initiator to the extent that other prolific scorers do, his defensive shortcomings can be covered up reasonably by the Raptors’ many plus defenders and, most crucially, he is a dynamic 3-point shooter.

That is essential because in a league that continues to bend towards spacing, the Raptors cannot create much. That has been extra true with OG Anunoby and Gary Trent missing the last two and three games, respectively, including a wretched 128-112 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday. It was the case before those injuries, too.

Most of the focus has been on the incompatibility of Pascal Siakam, the team’s current best player, and Scottie Barnes, the face of the future. Incompatibility is overselling it, but they certainly have overlapping skill sets and weaknesses. Unquestionably, the Raptors complicated things by adding Jakob Poeltl at last year’s trade deadline, giving up a lightly protected first-round pick to acquire him. They then signed him to a four-year, $78-million deal in the offseason, including a player option for the fourth season.

Neither of those decisions, in isolation, were wrong. The contract is the going rate for a solid, sub-All-Star starting centre, and that is what Poeltl is. The acquisition cost, which also included two future second-round picks, is also the price of getting any starter-level player on the trade market. It is the fit that started off questionable and has only grown more so this year. The Raptors have the worst half-court offence in the league, with the clunkiness up front playing a huge part.

In the blowout loss to the Bucks, coach Darko Rajaković benched Poeltl at the start of the second half, starting Precious Achiuwa instead.

“For me, that’s a normal thing,” Rajaković said. “I’m going to try different things. We’re going to try different coverages. I thought that Precious, his switching in the first half was pretty solid. We just wanted to give it a look, to go to that early in the third quarter.”

It wasn’t the first time the coach has sat Poeltl. In the Dallas game, he largely went away from Poeltl in the second half because the Raptors were having trouble corralling Luka Dončić in pick-and-rolls, and wanted his defence to be more switchable. In the comeback against the Washington Wizards, he was pulled so the Raptors could squeeze more shooting onto the court, given their injuries.

You expect the latter but don’t expect the former to pop up often. Poeltl’s rim protection has been better than last year, with opponents shooting 57.7 percent against him when he is the primary defender within six feet of the rim, according to NBA.com. That’s solid, but not spectacular, with plenty of time for that to go either way. Without being quite elite in that area, the hope is that he would be able to cut down some driving lanes laterally more effectively. Again, he has been fine there, just not great. Against the Bucks, there were moments when he was up to the challenge of walling off Damian Lillard on the perimeter and moments when he was not.

Me personally, I was slow to react to what (Lillard) was trying to do out there,” Poeltl said. “He was coming off pick-and-rolls and he was getting to the rim. He was getting fouled a lot. I feel like that’s really how he caught his rhythm. … I got to do a better job reacting to that and being able to read that and maybe cover some ground.”

Alas, just fine isn’t good enough when his range, which doesn’t extend outside of the paint, is part of what constricts the Raptors’ spacing offensively. Coming into the Bucks game, the Raptors had been outscored by 5.9 points over 100 possessions this year when Siakam, Barnes and Poeltl shared the floor, with the struggles predictably coming on offence. Last year, however, the Raptors outscored opponents by 11.5 points with the same three on the floor in 466 minutes. The presence of a true shooting threat in Fred VanVleet helped, not that VanVleet was shooting the hell out of the ball last year.

That’s what makes the idea of acquiring someone like LaVine appealing. That would cost them either Siakam or even more future picks, with a couple of important unrestricted free agents still on the roster. You can see the problem.

Notes

• Technically, yes, Siakam took two steps before he dribbled, and a travel call was correct. Honestly, though: Come on.

• The Raptors slipped in some zone defence in the second half. We haven’t seen much of that this year.

• Once again, some of the Raptors’ better offensive moments came with Siakam operating out of the post. It isn’t quite what Rajaković wants, but if the Raptors can get into the action quickly, and Siakam makes his decision quickly, he will live with it. The reality is that with so little shooting available to them, the Raptors have to break stylistic form at times if they want to be competitive.

“I don’t want that to become our staple and that (we are) just constantly looking for that,” Rajaković said. “But we have those tools on our team, so we’ve got to be smart about how to use and when to use those tools.”

Speaking of playmaking out of the post, I’m not sure how Barnes completed this pass to Poeltl. Barnes had 29 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, and also had some fun following up his own misses.

• Chris Boucher dribbling up the court in transition is always an enriching experience.

• Rookie Markquis Nowell, on a 2-way contract, made his NBA debut. He made the bold choice of attempting to shoot over Brook Lopez, who has 18 inches on him, his first time with the ball. It did not work. Nowell picked up a pair of assists, including a behind-the-back pass to Jalen McDaniels in transition.

• With Anunoby out, Gradey Dick started, replacing Otto Porter Jr., who started on Monday against Washington. He is one of just three teenagers, along with Chris Bosh and Tracy McGrady, to ever start a game for the Raptors. Dick turns 20 next Monday.

Dick is overmatched defensively in primary actions right now. Even without the injured Giannis Antetokounmpo, it was tough to hide him against Milwaukee’s best lineups.

(Photo of Jakob Poeltl going to the basket against Brook Lopez: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)





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