With just one game remaining before the All-Star break, there's little to gripe with in Toronto Raptors-land. The team has won 14 of its last 15 games despite long-term injuries to DeMarre Carroll and missed time for James Johnson, his small forward replacement. Continued success for the Raptors has come in the form of a reliable rotation, with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry able to carry the starters before a bench unit with Lowry runs roughshod over opponents.
Ask anyone about the major grievance for this team, though, and the answer is surely the minutes load for Lowry and DeRozan. Our own Daniel Hackett took an excellent deep dive into the numbers, while Daniel Reynolds discussed the concerns at length with Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic. These two pieces get to the core of the issue: with Lowry's health standing as such a stigma following his drop-off in 2014-15, how can Dwane Casey avoid a Groundhog Day scenario and keep his two core players at maximum output for the playoffs?
If you look closely at the minutes rotation over the last 15 games, when the Raptors have been most comfortable in their post-Carroll mode, there have been opportunities for Casey to give Lowry and DeRozan spot rest. It's a given that these two want to be out there as long as possible, and your best players should play the most minutes. In my ideal world, though, DeRozan and Lowry should be somewhere in the 33 to 35 minute per game range. At present, this is the reality, with the two both in the top seven in minutes played. Lowry's minutes have even gone up since the Carroll injury, as his success with the bench unit has become more apparent.
So, where have the opportunities been to bring minutes down? The NBA stats site Popcorn Machine offers an interesting perspective with their game flow charts. Looking at a player's time on court and their numbers in that stretch, gives insight to key runs, along with a line chart showing the team's lead.
With these, we can see with which lineups the Raptors are having success, and where Lowry and DeRozan fit into those equations. From there, we can deduce what rest opportunities there are and which parts of the game they come from. I've chosen four games from the last month to focus on, games I think have been the best examples of where Lowry and DeRozan are playing too much.
Click the game heading for an interactive version of each chart.
The Situation: In this matchup against one of the league's worst teams, the Raptors turned the game around after a short rest for DeRozan to start the second quarter. With him Lowry, Joseph, Scola and Valanciunas, the Raptors went on 12-3 and 11-0 runs to close the half. The Sixers threatened with a 9-0 run late in the third as Lowry sat, but Toronto remained in firm control.
The Opportunity: After a 7-0 run early in the fourth pushed the lead to double digits, the time was right for Casey to get an all-bench unit out there to try and close the game against a lowly opponent. However, Lowry played 10 of a possible 12 minutes in the fourth and DeRozan played five. Cut both those in half and you have an appropriate workload against Philadelphia.
The Situation: In the ultimate weird game, Brooklyn and Toronto shared leads like a see-saw. The Raptors got big runs to start the second (17-4) and two in the fourth (13-6, 12-0) to win this one. Brooklyn mostly hung in with great early play by Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson, both of whom faded down the stretch.
The Opportunity: Here's where we see the double-edged sword of demand come in. In the third and fourth, Lowry had to hold up both the bench unit and the starters, playing nearly 22 of a possible 24 minutes. DeRozan played alongside him for most of the third quarter, where Brooklyn took their biggest lead of the second half. The Lowry/bench combination was ultimately the killer down the stretch. Why not stagger DeRozan and Lowry in the third, keeping DeRozan with the starters and Lowry with the bench? This would've brought Kyle down to about 34 on the night.
Also, as with the Philadelphia game, Lowry and DeRozan were both on the floor with a double-digit lead late in the fourth quarter. Two minutes added for each.
The Situation: Against a quality opponent, the Raptors held an average lead of 11.9 points in a wire-to-wire win. Key runs came before (10-2) and after (10-3) halftime.
The Opportunity: After his regular stint in the first quarter, Lowry plays 9 minutes in the second quarter with the bench unit and the starters, having more success with the latter. Again here we see that need for the bench to perform without Lowry's presence. With Lowry, they went -1 in six minutes, essentially eating into Lowry's minutes total. If DeRozan and Lowry split that six-minute stretch (or, less likely, if a Delon Wright or Norman Powell steps in), then DeMar sits with a double-digit lead late in the third, both players' minutes are into the ideal range.
The Situation: Another slow start burns the Raptors, another third quarter run with the bench unit spurs them to victory over the Melo/Porzingis-less Knicks (the Patrick Patterson into the starting lineup crowd should be sensing a theme). A massive 15-3 run in the third gives the Raptors a ten-point lead and they hold on.
The Opportunity: 41 minutes for Lowry against the Knicks? It happened, as he propped up the bench late in the first (+11) after a miserable stretch with the starters. He remained out there with the bench in the second, played most of the third with both units, then the entire fourth. Holy man, where to begin? This is one of the games where you simply have to find success with Lowry on the bench. DeRozan needs to spend a little time with the bench, then another player has to step up so these two can get some rest. Their presence was entirely a mixed bag, but the common thread is the two-man combination of Patterson and Lowry. I have no doubt in my mind that the Raptors could have won this game with both players at the 35-minute mark.
Obviously all of this is couch coaching. Saying that the Raptors would have still won these games is fool's gold, I recognize that. The overarching question here is, how many games would you be willing to sacrifice in order to keep Lowry and DeRozan healthy come the playoffs? With a healthy rotation of nine players (on Johnson's eventual return and Powell's demotion), asking Lowry to play 40 minutes a night from now until Carroll's return seems a lot to ask and could be very risky considering his all-out style of play.
Even if these opportunities don't work out, even if the Raptors lose a couple games like the examples above, they only need to go 16-16 from here on out to have a franchise-best 50 wins. That's remarkable. Staggering the minutes of your two stars, taking the opportunities for them to sit, and making that your benchmark seems like a solid play with two and a half months left in the season.
Stats courtesy basketball-reference and Popcorn Machine.