Having downed the Warriors in dramatic fashion on Christmas, LeBron and the Cavaliers sit on top of the East. Behind them there is only one threat to their supremacy: The Raptors, who come of a franchise year after their first ever trip to the Conference finals. As they continue to roll with a core around Lowry and DeRozan, Masai Ujiri still tries to tweak his roster to finally snatch away the East’s crown from Cleveland. The weak link of the Raptors has been the four, especially with glue guy Amir Johnson departed to the Pistons as a free agent in 2015. This year they happen to find themselves in a delicate situation whose solution looms large over the team in 2017.
Rebuilding the 4
When the Raptors decided to let Luis Scola walk after last season, they knew they would have to address the Power Forward position as their off-season’s main target. As of July they were left with only six-year veteran Patrick Patterson, who can shoot from range, but has been comfortable coming from the bench. So Ujiri went to work and selected Pascal Siakam on draft night with the 27th pick out of New Mexico State. Then, in free agency, they inked Jared Sullinger to a one-year, $6-Million deal. Considering that the team had been rumored to be in trade talks with the Hawks to acquire All-Star Paul Millsap around last year’s trading deadline, the off-season’s crop seems rather meager. But this is a decent outcome as the summer’s biggest fishat the four Al Horford went to Boston and the Raptors were already spending near the cap without the signing of Sullinger. So going into the Preseason the field at PF was set: Sullinger and Patterson would compete for the starting job, Siakam would back up the duo and likely see playing time in the D-League. Then things started to go awry.
Next man up
Sullinger had just been named the starter at PF over Patterson when he broke his foot in a Preseason game against Golden State, resulting in a surgery that side-lined him until at least January. Enter Pascal Siakam: Instead of starting the experienced Patterson, Casey chose to go with the rookie in his starting line-up so that his bench would remain intact. After this major setback, the Raptors were poised for a slow start to the season with few viable options to play alongside Jonas Valanciunas at the five. But both, Toronto and Siakam have silenced their doubters with fantastic starts to the season. His relentless motor paired with an admirably mature presence on the court has made him one of the pleasant surprises of this year’s rookie class. While most of his points are off lobs and rebounds, he has shown flashes of a jumper and a hook shot. But the rookie’s strong play puts his team in a tough spot.
The tragedy of choice
In mid-December Sullinger was first seen without a walking boot, shooting in warm-up drills. He may not return until the end of January or after the All-Star break, but to figure out his spot in the team’s rotation will be all but complicated: The Raptors are on a roll, their bench has played well and Siakam has fit in nicely with the starting unit. So what will be the role of Toronto’s only significant summer signing? The key question here is whether to start Sullinger right away or to let him come from the bench. Making him the starter would mean a hefty decrease in playing time for Siakam and would tear apart a starting unit that has been clicking for weeks now. If Casey chooses to bring him with the second unit, Patterson, who is vital to the Raptor’s strong reserves, will see his minutes shrinking. Adding to this problem, Sullinger needs to be eased in for the playoffs where Siakam will hardly be able to make splashes.
There can only be one
For the first time in years the Raptors have the choice of three capable Power Forwards, due to a surprising showing by their rookie. Sullinger, who possesses a much more developed offensive arsenal has complicated an already satisfying situation. Whatever choice they make, either Siakam or Sullinger will lose out, with the more drastic implications on the horizon for Sullinger: If he fails to play a significant role after the All-Star break, his chances of scoring a major long time deal in the summer will be seriously hampered. An extension with Toronto, however, is uncertain, as they will be looking to save cap space for an extension of Lowry’s contract that also runs out after the season. The 22-year old has begun his career impressively and regardless of what happens with Sullinger, Toronto seems to have accidentally found a viable solution for the future of their four spot.