The Raptors are off to a great start (7-2 in their first 9 games), very similar to last season when they started 7-3. Most everything is going very, very well. Still, just like last season, the Raptors have had a few injury issues. And just like last season, there are some early concerns with the rotation (although what seems like even better depth than last year is smoothing those over pretty well early on). Small sample warning still applies to everything that follows — we’ll stop with that after 20 games or so.
Speaking of Last Year
This was a point of contention all season long last year: the starting PF situation. Ultimately it proved untenable when it mattered most and a change was made midway through a playoff round. Of course, then the bench was so disorganized (having never played without Patrick Patterson all year) that there was little gain in it.
In any case, let’s look at the numbers so far this year — minutes played, points scored per 100 possessions (ORTG), points allowed per 100 possessions (DRTG), and net point differential per 100 possessions (RTG).
Starting Lineup with Pascal Siakam: 82 MP, 99 ORTG, 109 DRTG, -10 RTG
Starting Lineup with Patterson: 38 MP, 117 ORTG, 98 DRTG, +18 RTG
It’s not really a question of level of competition, as Patterson is usually the first sub off the bench (so most of the other team’s starters are still playing including any stars) and the rest of that lineup’s minutes come at the close of games, against the opposition’s best lineups.
Siakam seems to cause many of the same issues as Scola did last year, though for slightly different reasons. Instead of being too slow defensively (he’s quite energetic, you may have noticed) he simply suffers from the reality of being an NBA rookie. He’s often a step behind in defensive coverage and never gets the benefit of the doubt on foul calls. Offensively, it’s the same idea. Siakam’s lack of spacing hurts the Raptors’ guard oriented offence, and even though he has actually been hitting his jumpers, teams are willing to let him have them, just like they were with Scola and his three pointers. The problem seems to be exacerbated with Siakam, as his usage is even lower than Scola’s was, so defences ignoring him are not being punished very often at all.
To his credit, coach Dwane Casey seems to recognize that Patterson needs to be playing a lot — he is averaging 31 MPG. Unfortunately, with him not playing the first 6-7 minutes of each half (since Siakam is starting), that means those 15 minutes per half are being spread out over the last 18 minutes of each half. That’s not a lot of rest. In fact, Patterson has played literally every 4th quarter minute in every game played this season: nine games, 12 minutes per game, 108 minutes of 4th quarter time for Patterson. That’s a tough assignment, especially for a guy well above his career high in minutes (by more than 4 MPG), considering the end of the game is when legs are dead.
It gets worse though. He also closes out the 3rd Q, usually playing all the PF minutes after Siakam checks out. He’s played 49 third quarter minutes over nine games, meaning 5.5 MPG to finish the third. So an average game for Patterson involves playing 17.5 minutes straight to finish the game. An average game.
Just swap Patterson and Siakam for the first and third quarters by starting Patterson, and he would not have to carry such incredibly long stretches with limited to no rest.
This requires finding a bench rotation that would work with Siakam playing PF, but better to experiment with finding that now than to wait until it is too late, like last season.
So Kyle Lowry is Playing All the Minutes Again
Pretty close, actually. Lowry is averaging 38.7 MPG. That leads the league. It gives him 9.3 minutes of rest time each game. That means Cory Joseph has played fewer minutes per game as the lone PG on the floor than a 32 year old CJ Watson (who is averaging 2.7 points per 36 minutes on a 14 percent FG% this year, and a full 10 MPG) has played for the Magic.
But why is he playing so many minutes? The common refrain is that the Raptors struggle when he sits. But with DeMar DeRozan’s great start to the year and Lowry’s early struggles, that really hasn’t been true this season. The team is worse without him, that’s unavoidable with a player that good, but so far this season, Lowry’s off-court net rating (point differential per 100 possessions with Lowry off the court) is +2.3. So the team is still winning those minutes, if only just.
Once again, the problematic starting lineup comes into play, as those first 6-7 minutes of each half are wasted minutes for Lowry. If the team wants to be outscored by 10 PPC (points per 100 possessions), they could do so with him resting on the bench.
That Nogueira Kid is Kind of Good, Huh?
We’ve reached that point in the season where the centre rotation is firming up in the way it was expected to. With Jonas Valanciunas and Lucas Nogueira both healthy, Jakob Poeltl has started being phased out, and if they can both keep up their play, he’ll likely get a chance to log some minutes in the D-League after the upcoming road trip. His start was promising if the team suffers another injury, but for now they are looking set.
Nogueira in particular has been great since his return from injury, backing up first Poeltl and then JV. He has played over 100 minutes now (still a small sample but not ridiculously so), and is second on the team in PER (Player Efficiency Rating), behind DeRozan, and first on the team in WS/48 (win shares per 48 minutes). It is way too early in the season for impact stats to have normalized, so try not to overreact to this, but a testament to how good Nogueira has been is his current rank of 4th in the league in BPM (box-plus-minus, an advanced impact stat from basketball-reference.com) among players with at least 100 MP, behind only Westbrook, Harden and Chris Paul.
I said earlier that the rotation is firming up the way it was expected to, though some may disagree with me and think that Nogueira playing so well in his minutes is a sign the team could move on from Valanciunas (via a trade for a PF upgrade). The argument being that a defence first centre with quickness and shot-blocking is a better fit than Valanciunas’ strong rebounding and scoring game.
I would offer this warning against leaping to any conclusions on this front: Bismack Biyombo had a tremendous year off the bench last season, and played some time with the starters, either in replacement of Valanciunas or to close out some games in his place. His defensive presence powered the bench to a ~100 DRTG last season, and his overall on-court net rating of +3.8 was better than JV’s +3.0. There was discussion of whether maybe he was a better fit for the Raptors’ guard-centric offence with his defence and screening with no expectation of getting the ball. But whenever he was tried in a lineup in JV’s place for any significant sample, it simply didn’t work as well. Looking at JV’s most used lineups last season:
KL-DD-JJ-LS-JV: -5.7 net rating
KL-DD-JJ-LS-BB: -13.2 net rating
KL-DD-DC-LS-JV: -2.8 net rating
KL-DD-DC-LS-BB: -7.8 net rating
And at Biyombo’s most used lineups last season:
KL-CJ-TR-PP-BB: +16.4 net rating
KL-CJ-TR-PP-JV: +21.3 net rating
CJ-DD-TR-PP-BB: +13.7 net rating
CJ-DD-TR-PP-JV: +9.2 net rating
Better in most cases, similar in others. Throw in the team’s performance in clutch minutes (final five minutes of 4th fourth or OT, game within five points) with one or the other on the floor and the pattern continues.
JV Clutch: +14.8 RTG (85 MP)
BB Clutch: +8.3 RTG (63 MP)
And Biyombo’s fit is very questionable in Orlando, but it is still hard not to look at his production there (23 MPG, 4.3 PPG on 42% shooting, 8 RPG, a 10.2 PER, a .018 WS/48 and a -13 on-court net rating) and breathe a sign of relief it wasn’t the Raptors who gave him that contract.
We don’t have a large sample to draw on this year, and there’s not much point in looking at the small sample lineups involved here (even the lineups posted at the top of the article are the two most-used lineups on the team and the second one hasn’t even hit 50 minutes played). Just keep in mind how the impact of teammates and opposition can influence the perception of how well a player is playing, and how well they fit with their teammates.