Things had been going along a little too smoothly in the Toronto Raptors world. So head coach Nick Nurse decided to put his best player in a paint shaker on Monday morning.
Asked a softball question about Kawhi Leonard’s recent play, Nurse said, “I think he’s got to get a little bit more engaged and look for some more motivation to go out there and do his thing.”
Though no one had laughed, Nurse added, “I’m kinda being serious about it. He needs to find a bit of fire.” This is slump talk. The Raptors aren’t slumping. Given that Leonard takes every fourth workday off – with the club’s happy consent – it seems a bit on the nose. Things were bumping along nicely. And then this.
It was especially notable because, to this point, everyone up and down the Raptors org chart has treated Leonard with something more than deference. Knowing the smallest thing might set him to thinking about his next destination (and has before), Toronto’s approach has been very close to obsequiousness.
“We’re obviously focused on his experience here with the team, things that he has concerns about, things that he likes,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster told TSN Radio the other day. “We’re very in tune and very open and always trying to make sure that we’re listening.”
“Things that he likes”? Webster sounded more like a butler than a boss.
Now, after a small dip in form, the organizational marching order has gone from tickling to slapping? That was quick.
One suddenly gets the feeling that there are a lot of adults in the room – some more adult than others – and someone needs to be father. We’re figuring out who that is.
The newest grown-up made his Toronto debut shortly after Nurse’s brushback.
On first impression, Marc Gasol is very like Jonas Valanciunas, if Valanciunas spent his evenings reading Goethe in a silk bathrobe while enjoying a nice Rioja. With his Barcelona lisp and near-perfect English syntax, Gasol gives off a whole bunch of worldly.
Gasol said the expected things about being excited to be here, what a change it was and focusing on the team first. But you could feel a little bite in there. He hasn’t come to Toronto to roll over for anyone.
Asked about his “role” – media code for “how much of a demotion are you willing to take?” – Gasol pivoted to his near-term to-do list.
“The plays, the spacing, the pace they’re trying to play at, players’ tendencies, terminology,” he said. “It’s not so much about my role.”
Someone tried again – was he bothered about not starting (as he hadn’t, for the first time in a decade, in his debut on Saturday)?
The “right” answer here is, “I’ll play wherever the team needs me.”
Gasol’s answer: “I’m used to obviously starting for the last 10 years. But we’ll see how it goes.”
Yes, I’m sure we will.
Raptors rookie centre Chris Boucher has watched Gasol for a whole three days now and already has his measure: “There’s a lot of stuff he does that nobody else can do, and he knows that.”
Boucher was speaking specifically about Gasol’s on-court skill set, but the observation applies more generally. Veteran NBA stars call their own shots.
The Raptors’ problem in recent years has been that no one wanted to take control. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan deferred to each other like two men standing in a doorway insisting the other go first. Former coach Dwane Casey was a believer in gentle suasion as opposed to the hairdryer treatment. All this mutual respect was lovely to behold during the regular season and a disaster in the playoffs.
Now the Raptors are overflowing with potential alphas.
Leonard is the most obvious candidate, but his personality is so receding he isn’t moving backward into the hedge. Leonard is the hedge. All he wants to do is play basketball and be left alone.
Lowry is the longest-serving star, but is so mercurial that it is easy to imagine him taking control, then getting sick of being in control at precisely the wrong moment. He may be a quality court general, but he has never given off the aura of a leader of men.
Lowry is Leonard in a circus mirror – he likes being left alone, but occasionally expresses that loudly.
Nurse is the only one with his name stencilled on an office door, but no rookie coach in the NBA gets to be in charge. Not really. Call back after 10 years and a championship. You design the plays. You don’t get to push anyone important around. If you do, you quickly find out who exactly is important (hint: It’s not the coach).
It’s possible that calling out Leonard – however gently – is Nurse’s bid to enforce some discipline into a group that has seemed a little loosey-goosey at times. If so, I’d tread very carefully. Gregg Popovich, a man with enough bonafides to decorate a Christmas tree, tried that on Leonard in San Antonio. It didn’t go so well.
That makes Gasol an interesting new X factor. He has the résumé to lead and, at least based on a quick early viewing, the inclination.
He’s a loud presence on the floor, directing traffic. Even in his first shift for Toronto on Saturday night, he could be heard yelling out instructions.
He seems to enjoy people. He’s cordial, but not deferential. Thirty seconds in his presence lets you know he is a person used to being listened to.
Maybe this is what the Raptors traded for? Maybe what this team needs is someone willing to be in charge, without feeling the need to show they are in charge.
The thing that can’t happen is what sometimes does when several control freaks get stuck together – everyone decides to do things their way, so the really important stuff never gets done.