Two bad things happened to Toronto Raptor Pascal Siakam this week. First, he was benched for Thursday’s game. Second – and this one is worse – it didn’t matter.
The Raptors have looked a proper mess this season. They can’t defend. They can’t hold leads. They can’t finish off games. If Alec Baldwin were the coach, he’d be screaming at them about coffee being for closers.
The primary culprit here is Siakam. Not because he’s been the worst offender. The list of contenders for that honour is as long as the roster sheet. Siakam’s to blame because he is meant to be the star of this team. When things go badly wrong, it is by definition his fault. That’s how stars operate.
Instead, after fouling out against Philadelphia on Tuesday, Siakam decided to take the rest of the night off. He bypassed the bench and headed straight for the showers.
Your LeBron James or Kevin Durant gets away with that one. Siakam did not.
That’s what the Raptors were telling Siakam when they benched him on Thursday – if you want to be treated like James, you should start playing like him. Because you’re certainly paid like him.
After starting 0-3 and clearly missing departed free agents Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, the Raptors had already dug in on the must-win talk.
Newcomer Alex Len didn’t help things much by referencing “tension” in the locker room. That word can mean a lot of things, but in a pro sport context it is heard only one way – that everyone is turning on each other.
Backroom civil war is very hot in the NBA these days. The Los Angeles Clippers started it, the Houston Rockets did them one better and now everyone wants in on the action.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse amended “tension” to “seriousness,” which means … I don’t know what it means. Presumably the opposite of fun, which is what the Raptors were not so long ago, back when they used to be good.
In order to bleed off this tension, the Raptors put Siakam in the stocks and invited the media and fans to toss tomatoes at him. Nurse talked up Siakam’s starting lineup replacement, Norman Powell.
The Raptors were plus 28, a team high, when Powell was on the floor Thursday night. During his minutes over the previous three games, Siakam was a combined minus 33.
Toronto finally won one. In fairness, it was playing the New York Knicks. But still.
Siakam sat morosely on the bench in his civvies while his teammates picked their collective level of play off the floor. The Raptors have had one good night this season, and they managed it by subtracting the guy who’s supposed to be their best player.
You don’t want to say “Rudy Gay” out loud because this is not the same situation, but admit it. You were thinking it.
As a general rule, publicly humiliating your biggest star is a tricky motivational strategy. It’s also desperate. It means you are losing faith.
It’s a bit like putting a warning letter in someone’s file. You’re not going to fire them today or tomorrow or the day after that. But just in case you ever have to, you want some paperwork in there to back you up.
Siakam was voted to the second All-NBA team last season. Would any of the other four guys accorded that honour – Chris Paul, say, or Kawhi Leonard – get benched by their teams for stomping out in a huff after being ejected? No, they would not. Because both those guys would flip their lids if that happened to them. Every great NBA player would.
They or their agent would be in the general manager’s ear immediately about proper shows of respect and how much damage one want-away NBA star can inflict on a franchise. All he has to do is hop on Instagram and kablooey, the team starts blowing up like the Death Star.
Evidently, the Raptors do not take Siakam for a lid-flipper. That may be part of the problem.
People very badly want Siakam to be an NBA superstar because it’s such a great story. A kid who takes the game up late in life, does his training on the job, and goes from a G-League stint to a max-contract in the space of three years. It’s Cinderella stuff.
In addition, Siakam is a perfect frontman for any team – shy, affable, witty. You don’t draft for charisma, but the great ones have it. Siakam seemed to as well.
But there is also the small matter of playing like a star when it actually matters. Siakam doesn’t have that. You would like to add the word “yet” to the end of that sentence, but if you could, the Raptors wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of benching him.
He was great playing second fiddle to Leonard. He was excellent during the following regular season. But once things tightened up in the playoffs, Siakam folded in on himself. Boston beat him like a rug. Siakam said, “Thank you, sirs, I’ll have another.”
It was of paramount importance that Siakam show up this year looking like someone who wants to correct the record. Instead, regular-season Siakam now looks alarmingly like postseason Siakam. That has panicked his employer.
The Raptors could have given him a good behind-closed-doors talking to. They could’ve sent the coach out to coyly rip him in the media. That’s been the usual way the Raptors have dealt with things in the Masai Ujiri era.
God knows they could’ve benched Kyle Lowry for a half-dozen different behind-the-scenes snits he’s had over the years, but they haven’t. Why? Because the Raptors always understood that however much of a pain in the ass Lowry can be, he shows up to work every single night. He understands that you have to earn the word “star” over and over again. The Raptors believe in Lowry. That belief resulted in a championship.
Evidently, Siakam does not enjoy that same confidence from his bosses. So the Raptors have escalated past ignoring the problem, tough talk and begging – the usual ways you deal with an errant star – and gone to shock treatment.
Depending on the player, that sometimes works. But sometimes it makes things worse.