The Raptors are 4-1 and tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference. If you told me a month ago that they’d start this well, I’d have given you a smile and a handshake.
The problem is, the play that’s got them to 4-1 is far from sustainable. Toronto’s first-half defence has been horrific, giving up 55.2(!!) points per game. This has left Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to come to the rescue late in games. While they’ve been up to the task and plays like this say otherwise, Kyle and DD are only human. Asking them to bring you back from 10+ points down every night is a lot.
The defensive struggles can be partially attributed to three games without Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. Amir is a long-standing defensive foot soldier - without him, the frontcourt of Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough have looked hapless against opposing bigs like Jared Sullinger, Serge Ibaka and Chris Bosh.
The bigs will be back, but Amir’s gimpy ankles are nothing to bet on, and Toronto still needs help on defence.
James Johnson has been great off the bench. Given the team’s struggles early in games, there’s a strong case to be made that he should be starting in place of Terrence Ross.
In a small sample size, Johnson has been a ball-stopper at the three and four positions. He leads the bench in blocks (1.2) and steals (0.8). He also leads the Raptors in defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) at 2.1.
For example, watch this play late in the game against the Thunder in which he crowds Ibaka, forcing a turnover leading to a quick basket for the Raptors.
Like Lou Williams here, the Raptors guards - Lowry, DeRozan, Greivis Vasquez - are all opportunistic on defence. Ball pressure from Johnson helps them cause the mayhem that made Toronto’s defence successful last season.
Aside from the ball pressure, Johnson offsets Toronto’s lack of size that Joe Johnson exposed last spring. Johnson's defence, though, can’t benefit the team when the Raptors are giving up leads in the opening minutes. If Dwane Casey wants his team to play defence to start the game, the guy setting the tone should be on the floor. Minutes don’t have to be a factor either - Ross is averaging 24.6 minutes per game to Johnson’s 19.2. If he and Ross meet in the middle, Terrence could be a 22-minute scorer off the bench.
This role change could spark Ross, who has averaged just eight points per game so far. While the starters have poured it on when needed, Casey is still working out his bench rotation.
Fans have begged for more of the Lowry/Vasquez backcourt that worked so well down the stretch last season. Ross, a great off-ball shooter who struggles to improvise when isolated, would fit beautifully with those two.
The move would also act as a referendum for Casey, who hangs his (awkwardly-high) hat on defence. If the Raps get the message that spots are earned on play and not potential, Ross may take that message to heart and turn his young season around.
In the short-term, the Raptors need to get right on defence. An increased role for Johnson would help make that happen.