Raptors need Norman Powell to come in from the cold

Toronto Raptors - Norman Powell (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Norman Powell (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images) /

One of the few Raptors to have taken a step back this season, Norman Powell is out of the rotation. What are his chances of returning to relevance?

At the beginning of the 2017-18 season, Norman Powell was the starting small forward. Since then, his progression has looked a lot like regression. Norman was eased out of the starting job after a rocky start. While he enjoyed a few decent games off the bench, his turnovers and poor shooting became too much for coach Dwane Casey to bear. Norman has been bumped from the rotation entirely, and is seeing limited minutes, or none. What’s happened here, and are the Raptors going to regret his big-money contract?

Norman has been a victim of both his disappointing play, and the eye-popping success of the Raptors’ second unit. Toronto’s first five guys off the bench these days are Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. The second unit is carving up its opposite numbers, and has become an essential weapon in the Toronto arsenal.


Masai Ujiri and his staff usually don’t miss when it comes to finding diamonds in the rough. Norman’s leap from unknown second-round pick to major minutes in the playoffs was rewarded in early October last year with a huge raise wrapped around a multi-year contract. Yet he’s been outplayed by guys on rookie-scale deals.

I’m fussing about his money because it’s a problem. An NBA team’s most expensive players have to be their most productive, or you’ve got trouble. Getting flippant and saying “just trade Powell in the off-season” doesn’t get it done either. If Norman is going to disappoint us, Masai will need to find another GM willing to swallow Powell’s contract without any proof that he’s going to improve. Neither Rob Babcock nor David Kahn have top-level jobs anymore – where are the suckers when you need them? This topic will bear re-examination in the summer.

Now what?

Back to the present. Norman has placed himself in a tough spot. He has to convince Casey he’s worthy of more minutes, but at whose expense? Miles has made 8 of 12 3-ball attempts his past 2 games. Wright, whom I think of as a combo guard, has been in double digits in the past three outings. Fred VanVleet has been wonderful.

Norm is not going to push OG Anunoby out of his position. While our rookie hasn’t been blowing the doors off, the team’s record with him as a starter is 31-11. If OG continues to defend well, and chips in on the boards and with the occasional long ball, there’s no reason to switch. No, not even for the playoffs. Who would you rather have defending LeBron James in the second round? For me, it’s OG, not Norm. Anunoby is longer, and just as physical and “handsy”. And if OG has to sit down early with foul trouble, there’s little impact on the team’s offense.

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For the time being, I don’t foresee the situation changing in Norman’s favour. The Raptors have been extraordinarily lucky in avoiding major injuries, but luck is also the residue of design. With the second unit playing better than many teams’ firsts, Casey hasn’t had to overwork our starters. The All-Star break is just around the corner, which will allow the usual aches and pains extra time for healing.

I had hoped to convince myself, and you, my readers, that Norman is on the cusp of a return to importance on the Raptors. But the evidence isn’t there. Barring injury, or a sudden deterioration in another’s play, he must be patient.