If it's true that it takes until the quarter-mark of a season to discover a team's true personality, we're at the point where we can start drawing conclusions on what the Raptors team is all about.
Most of this team's traits through 20 games are attractive. Kyle Lowry has clearly defined himself as the franchise's top dog, DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph have exemplified the team's plucky nature and the defense has once again become the Raptors' calling card after tumbling down the rankings last season.
Yes, there are imperfections. DeMar DeRozan's possession-swallowing fourth quarters, Terrence Ross' invisibility, the shooting struggles of Patrick Patterson - they're concerns, but they aren't fatal. Patterson and Ross have always been streaky shooters and DeRozan, even with his hero-ball, has been highly effective for the most part this year.
One blemish is significantly more troubling, though. Throughout the season the Raptors have developed a habit of churning out laughably poor first halves. It's a trend that has led to some tremendously entertaining Raptors finishes as the team has routinely stormed back in the last 24 minutes of games. But it's also not something the Raptors want to have embroidered on their ID badge for the remainder of the season.
The stark difference in the teams half-to-half showings is startling:
Startling, and probably something that will come around to bite the Raptors if things don't change soon.
After the Raptors Thursday night loss to Denver, DeRozan spoke to the grueling process of coming back from first-half deficits on a nightly basis.
"We've got to come out with a sense of urgency and not wait until we get down to exert extra energy to get back in the game," said DeRozan, acknowledging that the players can feel the extra effort they're forced to expend to claw back into games.
One of the great bonuses throughout an NBA season is when a team racks up a breezy win that facilitates the resting of its star players in the fourth quarter. But that hasn't happened much for the Raptors this year. Toronto has only blown three teams out this year - Milwaukee, Philadelphia and New Orleans - and ranks 8th in clutch minutes played per NBA.com.
Dwane Casey was equally distressed by the Raptors putrid opening 24 minutes against Denver, was was noted in Thursday's post-game notes:
We've got to get on a level of play that we decide we're going to play at from the start of the game to the end of the game. We can't wait until we get out teeth kicked in before we start to play ... Whether we change the starting unit, or change whatever the rotation is just to get that jump start, we've got to do it because it's just too many games in a row now that we get out and dig ourselves a hole.
The interesting part of that excerpt is obviously Casey implying that the starting line-up might be in need of a change.
He's probably right. The current starting unit of Lowry, DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo has been truly bad. In 105 minutes together, the fivesome has been outscored by five-and-a-half points per 100 possessions. That's no longer a small sample, and it's bad enough that a shake-up is needed.
But what options does Casey really have? With Jonas Valanciunas sidelined, the Raptors front court depth is lacking. Fortunately for Casey, his roster has some malleability, and he has the ability to get creative if he's truly looking to alter the look of his first five.
Option 1 - Replace Scola with Patterson
This is simplest option, and should probably be the one Casey tests out first. Scola has been a pleasant surprise this season as he has inexplicably shot 43.8 percent on his new-found three-point shot and has been a crucial pillar of the offense in some games where his teammates have been stymied. But on defense, Scola is heavy-booted and has issues defending out to the perimeter. He's been the weak link in both renditions of the Raptors starting five this season.
Patterson isn't exactly Draymond Green, but he's a far more mobile defender than his Argentinian teammate, and might help the Raptors slow down three-point shooting fours like Darrell Arthur (that's a weird thing to say) who torched the Raptors on Thursday.
So far this year, the line-up featuring the starters with Patterson in place of Scola has been excellent in 35 minutes, posting a +12.4 NET Rating and holding opponents to a stingy 0.958 points per possession.
A secondary benefit from a Patterson-for-Scola swap would be the potential offensive boost Scola could add to the deprived second unit. Patterson as a reserve is relied upon for scoring punch. With his shot not falling like it did last year, the bench as struggled to produce. With Scola being a more reliable option at the moment, he and Joseph could pair together to buoy the Raptors' second-unit stats.
This Saturday against Golden State, don't be surprised to see Patterson get his first start since the last time Golden State visited Toronto in February.
Option 2 - Start Joseph, Play Small From the Start
A big part of the Raptors' excellence in the second half of games has been due to their ability to crush teams with small-ball. Before Valanciunas went down, the five-man combo of Lowry, Joseph, DeRozan, Carroll and the injured big man dazzled in 34 minutes together (+27.2 NET Rating). And while that quintet with Biyombo instead of JV hasn't been quite as awesome, it's still chugging along at a 105.3 / 98.2 / +7.1 clip.
What better way to ensure a strong start than by using the grouping that repeatedly has strong finishes?
The drawbacks of starting small are two-fold. First off, forcing Carroll to endure excess punishment when bruising power forwards roll through town probably isn't ideal given his early-season foot problems. Limiting the amount of grueling minutes he has to be play should be a top priority right now.
Secondly, the bench pieces just aren't there to make this a realistic change. Staggering Joseph and Lowry's minutes throughout the game becomes a lot trickier when they're sharing so many minutes up front. It could even keep the Raptors from using their smaller look late in games out of fear of over-exerting the team's only two viable ball-handlers. Last season Toronto had the luxury of three guys who could run the point in spurts. That's not so this year - at least not until Delon Wright proves worthy of substantial NBA minutes.
Option 3 - Replace Biyombo with Patterson
A third side-effect of the small starting five would be a Patterson-Scola pairing on the second unit that probably would have enhanced the offense off the pine. Seeing as the offense has been the biggest concern in the Raptors' horrendous starts, it could stand to reason that Scola and Patterson could help to quell the team's early offensive issues. Or, maybe not:
Was thinking a Biyombo for Patterson swap could spark offence but Pat/Scola tandem has a net rating of -17.3 in 46 minutes together.
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) December 4, 2015
Rolling out Patterson and Scola will undoubtedly come with negative defensive consequences. Not to mention, a bench front court duo of Biyombo and James Johnson would be thoroughly challenged on offense. Hard pass on this one.
The solution to the Raptors starting line-up problem is probably a simple Patterson-for-Scola swap, but the team possesses the versatility to get funky if they so choose. Casey could even tinker and test out a Johnson-Patterson pairing or make the fan base explode with happiness by thrusting Bebe's rebounding and rim-running into a starting role. There's no shortage of ways for Casey to address the consistently awful starts, but something needs to be done soon before the habit becomes an ingrained element of this year's team.
Do you have any starting five ideas of your own?