After a quiet off-season for the Raptors, only two rotation-impacting things actually happened. Bismack Biyombo walked to the Magic (Luis Scola and James Johnson are also gone, but that was set in stone a while ago), and Jared Sullinger signed on for the mid-level exception on a one year deal.
Biyombo will be quite the loss, but can Sullinger make up for it? Can he help the team get even better than last season?
Replacing Biyombo and Scola
As one of three functional and proven big men in the Raptors' rotation, Sullinger will be relied on to provide minutes at both the 4 and the 5 spot.
.@Jared_Sully0 tells us that Dwane Casey told him that "there's a good chance that he will start at four & bounce back at the five"— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) July 26, 2016
As a starting power forward, he represents an obvious upgrade on Luis Scola. (I could go into detail here but instead refer you to the entirety of last season). There are the same fit questions beside Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan in terms of clogging the paint, which we'll get into in a minute, but overall Sullinger is a far superior player to Scola -- over Scola's past 7 seasons, he only once posted a WS/48 above .115, a number Sullinger has only dipped below once in his 4 year career (his sophomore season). Their numbers last year paint an even clearer picture - Sullinger's .121 WS/48, 16.7 PER and +1.1 BPM far outshine Scola's .098 WS/48, 13.6 PER and -1.2 BPM (per basketball-reference.com).
But as noted, with that question of fit with the starters, it's a safe bet he'll see about half his minutes at the C spot with bench units.
According to Nylon Calculus' positional estimates, Sullinger played about one third of his time at C last season with Boston. His personal impact numbers (estimated with Nylon Calculus' DRE stat) were very similar at C and at PF. However, the Celtics were more effective with him playing C than PF (with a net rating of +6.7 at C and +3.0 at PF), though they did well in both cases. This may speak to the lineups he was played in more than anything, but shows that he was effective at either position last season, and would probably be best used as a "big" rather than as a pure PF.
The minutes split for Sullinger makes sense, as the Raptors already have a very effective power forward in Patrick Patterson who will play close to 30 MPG if last season is any indicator, and find lots of success in those minutes, again if last season is any indicator. So pushing some of Sullinger's minutes to C clears room for Patterson (plus any minutes needed for small ball lineups with Carroll at the 4), as well as taking some weight off the shoulders of the less proven backup C's behind him. Nogueira (or Poeltl, if he wins some minutes) would then only be relied on for roughly 8 to 10 minutes per game at most (or none at all depending on how aggressive increases in minutes for Valanciunas, Patterson and Sullinger will be).
He's an incredible rebounder (he and JV ranked 17th and 6th in the entire league in REB% and should be impossible to handle for most frontcourts) and stout post defender from either spot, with some ability to handle switches and rotate to help. Even without much in way of rim protection, he's a definite upgrade over Scola and should help replace a lot of what left with Biyombo.
But the Fit Questions!
And back to this. Kyle Lowry is great no matter what, but the other two key cogs for the team, DeRozan and Valanciunas, need space inside to operate. This was witnessed last season, with the impact Patrick Patterson and his stretchy play at the 4 had on each of their games. Take a look (per NBA.com).
DeRozan with Patterson: 57 TS%, 48 eFG%, 6.7% TOV%
DeRozan without Patterson: 54 TS%, 45 eFG%, 9.2 TOV%
Valanciunas with Patterson: 67 TS%, 63 eFG%, 9.3% TOV%
Valanciunas without Patterson: 58 TS%, 54 eFG%, 12.0% TOV%
Both players hit more from the field, were more efficient overall, and turned the ball over less. Spacing does wonders for an offence. But can Sullinger provide it?
At first glance, no.
Sullinger has shot 28% for his career from 3 point range, on a pretty large sample of 500 attempts. That's... not great.
Let's take a closer look at those three pointers, though. Sullinger took effectively no three pointers in his rookie season, so looking at only the past three seasons:
2013-14: 6/21 (29%) from the corner, 50/184 (27%) above the break
2014-15: 4/11 (36%) from the corner, 48/172 (28%) above the break
2015-16: 1/2 (50%) from the corner, 28/99 (28%) above the break
Two things there. First, we can say with some confidence that Sullinger will shoot 27-28% from above the break. Incredible consistency there. Second, we can't say for sure at all if he can shoot from the corners. 34 shots spread over 3 seasons doesn't exactly scream large sample size.
But the distribution is what I want to call attention to. Sullinger in Boston played almost exclusively near the top of the arc and not in the corners. Looking at the Raptors' PF shot selection from last season, we should see very different usage for him this coming season.
Patterson: 44/118 (37%) from the corner, 62/174 (36%) above the break
Scola: 39/84 (46%) from the corner, 26/76 (34%) above the break
Notice that each took about half of their shots from the corner. That's a significant difference from what Sullinger has done in the past.
But how do we judge how well he'll shoot from the corner? If he's going to shoot 28% from there anyway it won't help the team much to put him into a different system.
Well, the corner three is a shot distance of 22 feet, while an above the break three is about 24 feet. On two pointers taken between 20-24 feet from the hoop (so long two's from just inside the arc), Sullinger shot 50/101 last season, a 49.5% success rate. In all likelihood he doesn't carry a 50% conversion rate from the corners, but anything above 33% makes that a viable shot in the offence. And if he does carry close to a 50% conversion rate, then even if he takes just as many above the break threes as corner threes, he'll end up around 39% from three for the year.
For a nice comparison, Luis Scola never really took threes (including corner threes) before last season. But he made the corner three at an incredible rate last season: 46%. Looking at the season before last, his FG% from 20-24 feet was 41%. The year before it was 36%. There were signs that Scola had an effective shot from that range. Those signs are there for Sullinger as well, which is promising, and could point to him fitting in well enough with the starters to make him splitting time at the 4 and 5 a viable option for the year.
Those are the main points I think deserve a close eye as Sullinger starts the season. Is there anything else I missed? What are your thoughts on how Sullinger may fit in this year, and what issues there may be?