Nov 25, 2021 • 33M

Minute Basketball LIVE: In defense of Pascal Siakam

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Louis: Last week we did what we called then our most take-y Minute Basketball takes ever when we discussed the State of the Wing. We are getting much, much take-ier this week. This is Minute Basketball LIVE. And we are talking Pascal Siakam.

Samson: That's right. And basically the reasons why we are doing this is because Pascal Siakam lives in an extremely polarized, always-on-trial version of life currently. Or basketball life. And the reason for that is there are multitudes, there's a myriad amount of things that are happening that make Pascal Siakam a guy who, every time he steps on out on the floor, he's generating takes from people like us. Takes from normal fans. People who see every seventh Raptors game in a bar somewhere. All the way to people who watch every game twice. All this kind of stuff. Everybody has a take. And I'm gonna ask you straight up. Why do you think that is?

Louis: I think everyone has a take about Pascal because he is unique. Both as a Raptor and, I think, he is unique as a basketball player. Everyone is unique as a basketball player, and that's something I've learned a lot the more that I learn about this game, the more I realize that player comps are really rough. And no two players provide nearly the same thing on the court. But Pascal's uniqueness is actually more obvious than other players in his offensive game, in his defensive game. In his approach, his mindset. We're gonna get into a lot more specifics. I'm being very broad. But yeah! He is something that you don't see every day, and that causes people to fall in love fast, and when you fall in love fast, you fall out of love fast, and it seems like the whole world has been out of love with Pascal Siakam since 2020. 2019? Which is insane. He's been very good ever since. He's been very good this year, and yet here we are. Before we get into how we feel, let's without naming names -- what is the current status of Pascal Siakam? You described him as Bonfire of the Vanities, everyone is attacking him, he's on trial at all times. What's he on trial for?

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Samson: He's on trial for his contract situation and his perceived underperformance of that contract.

Louis: Perceived.

Samson: To go back to what you said earlier, Pascal Siakam is, as you said, very unique. And he kind of defies conventional comparison. Which actually, in the NBA, is a very bad thing. If people don't have a great player to compare you to, it means they will fundamentally misunderstand your game because they don't understand the nuances of it. Because Pascal aesthetically looks a lot different from his contemporaries, and a lot of great players. People don't know how to quantify or understand what he does on the floor unless he does it in a way that they understand. This is where his court coverage can be a little bit misunderstood from a defensive point of view. This is where a player like Pascal, who is significantly more versatile than most of his frontcourt contemporaries, gets whittled down to just a Beyblade. He can only spin. Even though he is, as far as play types that he operates in, as a playmaker, as a scorer, one of the most versatile players at his position. This is where the misunderstanding drives the misinformation and disinformation about his game. Why, when we look at Raptors defensive rotations, people are very eager to cut lowlight clips of Pascal Siakam, some of which are deserved, but some of those same lackadaisical rotations or, let's say, falling asleep, you could find that in OG Anunoby's game over the past couple weeks. But nobody is cutting clips of him to put on Twitter, to shame him and make him part and parcel of the Raptors' defensive downfall. All this kind of stuff. A misunderstanding completely of Pascal Siakam's game driven by handwringing about contracts, and that creates the environment where we are now. Where people think that he is a one-note player who brings very little and does it all on an exorbitant contract. And that, to me, is a shame. 

Louis: Not a first option, right? That's what everyone says. Not a first option?

Samson: Right.

Louis: Okay, we're gonna get to "not a first option." I have a feeling "not a first option" is where we're gonna end at. So if Pascal Siakam is on trial, we are defense team. Real disaster situation when you end up with Minute Basketball as your defense team. But let's start now. Obviously last season, I mean maybe not obviously -- he was fantastic last season. We're not relitigating last season. Let's litigate this year. How's he been this year?

Samson: Let's start on the defensive end because that's where most people will start to quibble because there's the most room for interpretation. Particularly in this Raptors hectic, helter-skelter defense. Clips go semi-viral on Raptors' twitter, the bubble that it is, of missed rotations, or x outs, and everything like that. And the problem is that most NBA fans or people who partake in observing basketball don't actually know what an x out is. And they think that somebody's just bailing on their assignment when in reality they're cycling to the next man over and somebody is supposed to take the primary option on the perimeter. This is something that a lot of NBA teams do, and the Raptors really lean on. This means that a lot of people don't really understand what the Raptors are supposed to be doing on a defensive possession. I also saw somebody put up one of the Warriors' scissor actions where Scottie Barnes followed Draymond Green into the paint even though he was supposed to stay high. Pascal Siakam was left to cover for that, and a wide-open player was the result. Pascal Siakam, just because he's the guy who ends up attempting to guard a shot, does not mean that he messed up the rotation. But also, Pascal deserves a couple of lumps for cheating too much, being a little bit lackadaisical. He hasn't been as good defensively as he should be. But also, he represents an almost unparalleled ability to cover the court as a defensive player. You can see that over these games. And I think in the Raptors' bad defense, he's been about average. And average isn't where should be. But it's also not where people can create this collinearity between the Raptors' 30th-ranked defense and Pascal Siakam's return to the lineup. So I think he's been underperforming defensively a little bit, but also the coverage of that end of the floor has been outsized to an exorbitant degree. It hasn't been proper.

Louis: It comes down a lot to our understanding of the Raptors' scheme. Which, I mean, for a few people. Yourself. Blake Murphy. Will Lou. They do understand what's supposed to happen. And they can see a mistake when it takes place. As you mentioned, most people actually can't do that. There's a clip I just sent you maybe an hour ago where people are blaming Chris Boucher for a rotation he did properly! It was his teammate who screwed it up, not Boucher. And yet all over Twitter, everyone is saying he made the mistake. That happens a lot with Pascal to the nth degree. Because he is sort of the embodiment of this Raptors' defense. And as good as Fred is, and as good as OG is, and those two are two of the best defenders in the league, the team defense is not built around their skills. Fred VanVleet is an elite perimeter, shutdown defender. Unbelievable help defender, swiper. He can tag the roller, I was looking at a database, a paid database, let's just say that, and Fred VanVleet, when he tagged the roller, was holding teams to like .5 points per chance. And he did it at a maybe top-20 rate in the NBA. He's the best roll tagger, maybe in the league, and he's six feet tall. And yet that's not what the team defense is based around. OG Anunoby, one of the best lockdown isolation defenders in the world. He forces so many turnovers, he blocks shots. He's such a good lockdown defender, he doesn't just force misses. Guys just don't shoot when they're being guarded by him. And yet that is not what the team defense is built around. What it's built around is Pascal's ridiculous ability to get anywhere from anywhere in almost no amount of time. He can rotate like no one maybe I've ever seen. And I never really watched a lot of, like, Scottie Pippen very closely. But I've never seen a player asked to rotate like Pascal is. And so when he comes back, the team defense really goes into hyperdrive, which is what is asks of him to do. And that's what the team defense does. And it is failing. Not because of him, but because they are trying to turn everything into hyperdrive, and it's just not working. So how much can you really blame a guy for that? 

Samson: That's basically the number one thing. I understand pointing at some plays and kind of saying, "why is Pascal doing this? Why is Pascal doing that?" Especially if you have an understanding that some of the rotations can be lazy or absent-minded. Absolutely. But the biggest problem currently with the Raptors' defense is they're asking other players to emulate Pascal's greatest feats defensively. 

Louis: Scottie can't do that!

Samson: Scottie cannot do that. Perhaps some day he will.

Louis: Scottie doesn't know. How to do that.

Samson: That's correct. Scottie, even in a more conservative scheme, will find himself floating way out of position. The shell of the defense will be compromised constantly. And Gary Trent jr. as well. And Gary Trent -- I don't want to harp on it too much because he deserves a lot of love `for his steps taken as a defender this year. But the Raptors cannot emulate Pascal's feats defensively. And that's the idea. The platonic ideal of the Raptors' defense is very clearly pulling off the corner, these hard rotations, lots of x outs, peel switching. All this stuff is leaning heavily on likesized guys with length being this amorphous blob of defense. And that is not being achieved. It is a failing of the organization. It's a failing of the players on the floor. But the conversation is being centered as a failing of Pascal Siakam. That's where it is. I don't want to quibble too much about where Pascal is defensively because he's not where he should be, yes. But the fact is the conversation is being framed 1-6 with Pascal. Maybe it's 2-6 by the time you hear this podcast, or maybe it's 2-7. But the conversation is being framed by some analysts, by some commentators, as if the moment the Raptors get Pascal back in the lineup, that he is the person who causes all this downfall, where they go from the sixth-ranked defense to the 30th-ranked defense. All this kind of stuff. That's unhealthy. Pascal Siakam has played at a near All-NBA level defensively for a couple years now. The Raptors have won 219 games with him in the lineup. They've lost 120. He scored the winning basket of the 2019 NBA Finals in isolation on Draymond Green. He had one of the highest PIPM, which is a metric that a lot of people loved, which was purchased by the Washington Wizards, because they hired the creator of it. He had one of the highest PIPMs in the playoffs for the 2020 bubble even when he was bad offensively. He was unbelievably good defensively. Pascal Siakam is a good to great defender. We don't need to relitigate or try and search for missed rotations. I think that's really misguided. I think it's not a witch-hunt. It's just very, very misguided. That's my whole problem.

Louis: No, it kind of is a witch-hunt. I would actually go further than you. Because there's two ways to look at it. One is how is a fan supposed to understand this. We talked about fandom in the last LIVE episode we did. I love these LIVE episodes, by the way. And I think a lot of what it came down to is there's a lot of different types of fans. Too long to read: That's what we said. Go back though, listen to it. It was fun. We talked about the magic of names and numbers. And how's a fan supposed to understand Pascal Siakam? It's very difficult. When you go from sixth to 30th on defense, it's very easy to blame Siakam for coming back. That's the thing that changed. Occam's Razor. But it just so happens this is not a thing that's explained by Occam's Razor.

Samson: Siakam's Razor. I'm pretty sure Dan Devine actually did that once upon a time, so don't give me too much credit. Of course it was Dan Devine because, you know. 

Louis: That was a real rollercoaster of joy and tragedy. But I'm gonna blow past that. So that's one of the ways to understand it is part of it is a simple witch-hunt where you're not in a sense of blaming people for doing it, but something went wrong, and you're looking for the simplest explanation. Blame the witch. The other way of understanding it is this new type of fandom that I think informs a lot of media analysis, which is thinking you are a coach, or a general manager. Looking at a guy's salary, looking at their cap impact, and this is where the "not a first option" comes into play. And people say, "oh, he's a max player. And he's not playing like a max player." Or "oh, this is the scheme that he failed," except he didn't screw up the scheme, somebody else did, and people don't understand it. I think a lot of this comes down to, if you want to be Daryl Morey, as a fan. If you want to pretend to be Daryl Morey, as a writer, you gotta know what the hell you're talking about. And almost nobody who's talking about Pascal Siakam has any idea of what they're criticizing. And that really bothers me. 

Samson: That's the whole point, right, is that if you look at cap and cap impact, you could look at -- I can't remember who it was that talked about, maybe it was Danny Leroux who was kind of saying that Gary Trent jr.'s contract at $18 M, his current impact metrics are saying he should be making $7 or 8 M, that's his impact. And that's not very helpful to basketball discourse. And it's not really my bag. But at least Danny Leroux and Nate Duncan are familiar with cap minutiae, and they provide that analysis if you want it. But that is not something that anybody can just stumble into and start doing projections of impact, and how that relays into their actual salary, and stuff like that. And Pascal Siakam, the max tag, and why I tweeted this out next to a bunch of his contractual contemporaries -- I would say: the Blake Griffins, the Tobias Harrises, the Jrue Holidays. CJ McCollum. D'Angelo Russell. All these guys who are not first options and have not for a second of their lives been asked to be the first option. They are well understood to be complimentary players -- are making the same amount as Pascal. And Pascal is the first option because of a lack of another type of player on the Raptors' roster. It's not his fault that the Raptors for a time ask him to be a guy who isolates at a top-five frequency in the NBA. That's not his fault. But that's what was asked of him. And he actually got an All-NBA Second Team level when that was asked of him. Last year, despite having a dip from 3-point efficiency, a significant one, and a slightly smaller one at the rim, his passing and playmaking, it was fantastic last year. And that was awesome to see. He's growing as a player in a bunch of different ways. And he's already shown that he can succeed as a complementary option. Don't lose the forest for the trees with Pascal Siakam because nothing dictates that he be a first option except for the optics. And the reality is that the Raptors have to build a much better team to win a championship. Pascal doesn't need to be a first option. Pascal has to be the player that he is, and lean on his talents and strengths, and it's up to the players on the roster who are complementary to him, and the people who are building out that roster, to fully realize what that should look like. Because Pascal, if he's on the floor, is good and plays winning basketball. So he'll do his job.

Louis: And to preempt the counter of "oh, well, his contract handicaps the Raptors in getting a first option," that's just not true! The Raptors could have signed a max player this past offseason if they had so chosen to go that route, if there had been one that they wanted to have opened up the space for. Pascal being paid what he's paid does not limit them from getting another guy. 

Samson: Can I also ask you a question. Have the Raptors ever signed a max free agent? 

Louis: DeMarre Carroll. No, of course not. 

Samson: So you pay the guys on the roster when you're good. And you don't turn your nose up at good players, and that's the thing, too. I thought Gary Trent jr. was really, really bad last year. His offense I think has been around where I thought it would be this year.

Louis: A little bit better.

Samson: A little bit better, but as far as the process, it looks the same to me. And he's coming off of a nice run. So we'll see where it's sitting a month from now. But the defense has been really good. And this is the thing about impact and how much a player's worth. You just have to approximate something good in the NBA, and your contract is fine. That's the whole thing. The Lakers just took on Russell Westbrook and said if he's just good, then $44 M a year is fine. Everybody understands what they're getting. Everybody knows that. And you have to make your bones with what a player's getting paid because that's what they make. You can't change it.

Louis: There's like 10 bad contracts in the league at any one time. There's very few. And Pascal is not one of them!

Samson: No.

Louis: 30 teams would kill to have this guy on this contract. Okay, so the other thing, "not a first option." You know when he has shown he can be a first option? Is this season. He's been so good on offense. The time to kill a guy on offense is, ahh, not now! he has been unbelievable. Am I overstating this? By saying that he's been the best he's ever been offensively.

Samson: The pull-up three isn't there. And the pull-up three really helped fuel his rise to All-NBA Second Team, I think. And he had two bad games this year as far as offensive process. The game against Boston, and the game against the Jazz. The Raptors as currently constructed put him in a very difficult spot as a first option guy because teams are packing the paint on him, and sometimes his teammates can be a little bit dry from outside. That's what happened against the Warriors. But Pascal was so brilliant that he continued to work himself into advantageous spots and still put up 21 on efficient numbers. The year before, the Raptors were dead in the water in the halfcourt, and Pascal couldn't save them. This year, he's actually been lifting that half-court offense into respectable numbers. That is probably the most immaculate thing that I'm noticing this year. As far as "first option" stuff. He is lifting the halfcourt offense. And that's what star players do. Star players lift halfcourt offenses. They do not fix defenses. Damian Lillard has lifted the Portland Trail Blazers into a respectable halfcourt offense for years, but their defense has always been terrible because defense is really, really a team game. But evidenced by the Trae Young and John Collins pick and roll that's 1.52 points per possession, sometimes the halfcourt can be a one man or two man game. And that's where stars really shine. And Pascal has been far and away the best halfcourt player for the Raptors since arriving. You have to understand how players impact the game. You cannot dominate the defense as one guy unless you're running a certain scheme that funnels people towards the rim, and it's Rudy Gobert. And even that Jazz team struggles defensively in some contexts. But Pascal is doing what's asked of him offensively, and he's catching up defensively and certainly isn't the problem on that end. That's the first option case. As far as his ideal situation, obviously he's not Paul George or Jokic or the guys who are dominating the early start to this season. Pascal isn't that. And that's okay. But he's doing as good as I think he could be currently. He's shooting 40 plus percent from downtown. He's finishing well at the rim with a couple of rollouts that just touch every part of the rim, not once but three times. He's working in the short roll more than ever. He's mixing in isolations and post-ups. The offensive process in most games, five out of the seven, has been borderline brilliant. And that's me watching the game, and maybe it's rose-coloured glasses, but this is the way I observe his game.

Louis: No, I'm with you. So far, these seven games, it's been the first time since Toronto was like, "oh, Kawhi's gone, you be Kawhi," where he's like, "okay. No problem." Right? 

Samson: 2019-20, that's also a problem in the way that people observe and see players is that more of that season, Siakam was given so much credit for that season to the point that people started forgetting that Lowry was still doing a lot. And people were like, "Siakam can just carry a team," when that was really a two-headed hydra at the top, there. And now it's kind of one guy. Although, Fred.

Louis: And he's doing it! I mean, Fred, we can do five hours on Fred no problem. And Siakam's doing it. So, look, I think we've litigated our way into "Siakam is playing very well." And yet the reception of him is unbelievably critical. What's the answer? Two guys like us who are just gonna yell into the void aren't gonna convince people. They're gonna start winning with Siakam in the lineup, that should do something. There's no way they go 1-7, 1-10, they're gonna win with him playing. But where does the tension melt? What happens going forward?

Samson: There's something about Pascal's last couple years that have just framed him as the hard-luck player in the NBA. After his rise, his ascension, there was a little bit of luck involved in it. The team context was perfect for him, and he was put in such a winning position. And then he rode that wave to All-NBA Second Team. And then All-NBA Second Team kind of rates you, or labels you. And an All-Star Starter, as one of the 10, 12 best players in the NBA. You and I are on wax back then saying this is not real. He's great, and appreciate him, but do not elevate him to this status or say "he's going to dominate everything. He's gonna be top five," or whatever. You have to be measured about his game. So the hard-luck thing about it is that Pascal comes back to a Raptors team that was clearly starting their nosedive. They were on the right side of basically every luck-adjusted metric to an absurd degree, and this team, they were ready to take the plunge. And Pascal happened to join them as well. That's tough to see. And as far as "will he help them get out of it," yes! Absolutely! I don't want to belabor this point too much, because I did on the Raptors Reaction podcast, I'm happy knowing thousands of people listened to me say that. But Alvin Williams and the home broadcast, and it was Alvin particularly, but the home broadcast, when they say stuff, that is Teflon to most fans because they appeal to authority. If the broadcast says it, and it's friendly to the Raptors or to the current narrative at the time, then it's Teflon. It won't be questioned. It's how I had fans telling me that Andre Drummond fouled Precious for however many days after he blocked the hell out of Precious. But since the broadcast for days after brought up that non-foul as a foul, people say "the broadcast knows what's up." And when the broadcast peddles such unbelievably lazy stuff about Pascal Siakam, calling him selfish, calling him inconsistent, on a team like the Raptors, by the way! Have you watched the Raptors? The team that would build 18-point leads and would lose them, what, like 22 times last season? And Pascal Siakam was the guy trying to lift the halfcourt offense for so many of those games. You're going to say this is inconsistent. It's a little bit disingenuous. And so that would help, obviously. Media members have to understand -- that's the thing, right? We know where people get their info from. We know who informs where the conversation goes. Why Jonas Valanciunas and the JV Hive was such a pseudo-political thing way back in the day. Because certain people talk about things in a certain light, and that's basically where it is. I think you and I are trying to offer the counter to the current conversation. And are we swinging too much in the "Pascal's so good" way? For some people, absolutely we will be. You saying he's been very good since his return is going to turn some people off, and they're going to say, "he has no idea what he's talking about. Pascal has the worst eFG percentage rate of players defended." Just, one of those stats or something like that. But the thing is, this is where the conversation is. Somebody has to come out and say, "we're looking a little bit harder at what's happening with Pascal. And we're not just digging for the bad stuff. We're gonna dig for the good stuff." 

Louis: And this is probably where we're gonna want to end off. How does he have fans again? He came into the league this beloved guy. And you were right when you brought up how perfect the situation was. And I mean, he's been struggling, like, mentally. He's been in a hard place the last few years because it's hard to be adored and then to be vilified. And that's just not fair and not deserved. How do you become beloved again?

Samson: This is the really tough thing is that when a fan base decides something, only big things can turn it the other way. Because when a fanbase is decided that Pascal is inconsistent when he isn't, how do you turn them back the other way? He's just going to go on being consistent the same way he was prior, and yet he's been labeled as otherwise. How do you combat that kind of stuff? And this stuff, as we've talked about, is informed by other things. Why is OG Anunoby Teflon? Why can he -- and I love OG, I'm not one to critique OG, I think there are very few holes in his game in what he attempts to do, he's a fantastic player -- but because of his contract situation, he is Teflon. He is seen as a champion, he is beloved by the Raptors organization, by the fanbase, and this is a guy who wasn't even available for the championship run. He didn't play a single minute. And I don't say that to take anything away, but to create this comparison. Pascal Siakam was one of the biggest players on that roster. Hit the game-winning shot. The championship-winning shot. And the empathy, and the goodwill for him, appears to have evaporated in just a couple years. That, to me, creates an environment where I don't know what the way back is for the fanbase. I don't know what he can do because as far as achievements on a team within an organization, Pascal Siakam at All-NBA Second Team, championship-winning shot, champion, homegrown All Star, drafted 27th, what are the expectations of him? And how could he possibly reach them? That, to me, is very intriguing. And saddening, honestly. 

Louis: So I guess going forward, you and I, and a fair number of other people, will continue loving the guy. Everyone else will continue seeing him as a disappointment. And Siakam will continue unplugging -- he doesn't look at social media anymore. Everyone's destroyed his relationship with fandom. He'll just keep doing what he does. Playing at an All-Star level. And I guess that's where we're at. That's the future. 

Samson: Yup. And people can appreciate when he's on the sideline to start the year, and he's the most supportive and loving and exuberant player on the sideline. And he's apparently, for people who talk to him in the media, exceptionally warm in a person-to-person basis.

Louis: Oh yeah, he's been wonderful this year. He's given great stuff. He's spoken very kindly to me this year and given great answers. He's been personable. I mean, better than he ever has been as a media guy. 

Samson: So basically, the fix isn't coming from the fandom's end. It comes from Pascal and this indomitable will that he'll have to take on, that he's taken on in other facets of his life. He's been through intense hardship. He's been through so many difficult things that this, the burgeoning batch of xenophobia and racism that he faced on and had to look at and kind of absorb and then dispel, that came with the bubble, and now that's kind of tempered, that particularly toxic part of it, but this disillusioned basketball brain type of, "oh, we know exactly what Pascal is doing right now, and it's not good," he just has to be able to ignore that and dispel that as well. It comes from him. That's not fair, but he's just going to have to be a maligned figure in some groups because they've made the decision on his game despite all the evidence saying otherwise. And when people are doing that, it's the definition of polarization. It leaves everybody in a position where there will be no middle ground or nuance. And I hope that this podcast was nuanced for the people who are looking for that conversation. 

Louis: Ships passing in the night. Never the twain shall meet.