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Assembling a logical Raptors playoff rotation

With the regular season's days dwindling and DeMarre Carroll's return on the horizon, it's time to construct a playoff rotation for the Raptors.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Every March, the NBA descends into a malaise. Most team's questions have been answered, the NCAA's annual crescendo is in full swing, and it's still too far off to get deeply invested in playoff races and potential first-round match-ups. Mercifully, the fog is beginning to lift.

Now just 22 days away from the start of the playoffs, it's about that time where it's becoming almost justifiable to over-analyze every aspect of Toronto's upcoming playoff run. Who will the Raptors play? Which teams do they match up with best? Worst? Should shooting for the first seed be a priority?

Normally, these exercises are useless. It's much more logical to wait and see what playoff scenarios materialize in a couple weeks time than it is to dwell on the hypothetical. It's also a lot less fun, which is why we're here right now.

One of the most nagging stories surrounding the Raptors this year has been the questioning of Luis Scola: starter. We've beaten it to death. Advanced metrics suggest Scola is totally out of place playing alongside Jonas Valanciunas; as do common sense and the textbook of Court Geometry 101. Yet even with such an exploitable and flawed starting unit leading the way for the Raptors in minutes among five-man groups, Toronto is on track to be a 55+ win team. Casey's belief in stasis has clearly worked as a regular season strategy.

The fear is that the starting front court of Scola and Valanciunas, which has rung up a -5.1 NET Rating over the course of 794 minutes, will be a more costly liability in the tightly-wound playoff environment. Early struggles in Game 1's have hampered the Raptors playoff efforts against Brooklyn and Washington over the last two years. Toronto won't be able to afford early deficits in late April once again this year.

Much like it is for the broader NBA world, it's time for Casey to start looking ahead to the playoffs. For the Raptors to maximize their playoff potential, the head coach is probably going to have to rejig the rotation. I've got some ideas.

(Disclaimer: I'm not as smart as Dwane Casey, and never will be when it comes to basketball. When he inevitably doesn't use the mock rotation I'm going to present here, it's probably for good reason. These are merely suggestions.)

Splitting up the Minutes

You know in NBA 2K games, when you're setting your rotation, and the game supplies you with those handy sliders to help you assign minutes to guys up and down the roster? There should be an app for that. Putting together this hypothetical layout was infinitely more difficult without it. Damn you, rudimentary math skills. Anyway...

We're going to break this down a few different ways. Firstly, here's the strictly 2K-style minutes breakdown for the guys in this brand new playoff rotation:

Player Mins/Game
PG - Kyle Lowry 39
SG - DeMar DeRozan 39
SF - DeMarre Carroll 26
PF - Patrick Patterson 30
C - Jonas Valanciunas 27
6 - Cory Joseph 24
7 - Terrence Ross 24
8 - Bismack Biyombo 19
9 - Luis Scola 10
10 - Jason Thompson 2

A few notes on the minute allocations:

  • You'll see that Carroll is penciled in as the starting small forward, but with a lower minutes total than any of his fellow starters. It's going to be a balancing act with Carroll once he comes back. While he's going to be crucial to the Raptors' playoff hopes, there are a couple issues at play. Firstly, we don't know when exactly he's going to return, or how long it's going to take him to get back into game shape. As Josh Lewenberg mentioned on this week's episode of The HeadQuarters, the concern may not necessarily be the health of Carroll's knee, but rather the lack of practice time the Raptors have had of late to incorporate Carroll back into the team and get him up to speed. On top of that, we have to keep in mind that Carroll is a four-year investment. While the path to the Eastern Conference Finals seems clearer than it may ever be, the Raptors can't risk placing an unhealthy load on Carroll if he's not ready. Putting his long-term health in jeopardy isn't worth it. The best course of action will be to deploy Carroll strategically in lineups where he can be maximized - as we'll get to a little later on.
  • Patterson makes his long awaited debut in the starting five in this new rotation as well. He's simply been too effective this year to not have him in there to open games in the playoffs. Toronto's three best high-usage lineups all feature Patterson and he remains one of the most prolific overall plus-minus players in the league; he currently ranks 15th in the NBA at a +393 on the season. Ahead of him: five Spurs, four Warriors, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Serge Ibaka and Chris Paul.
  • Scola predictably suffers the biggest hemorrhage of minutes in the playoffs. We've already been over it - he's the weakest link in the rotation by a good margin, and is the clear-cut choice to see a shrunken role as the rotation tightens. Jason Thompson gets a couple of minutes thrown in here to illustrate that he and Scola could share a pool of those 12 left over front court minutes, depending on match-ups and who's playing well.

Positional Breakdown

Before we get into a minute-by-minute breakdown of the substitution tactics the Raptors would use in this model, here's a look of how the minutes will be divvied out at each of the five positions. A couple slots, like centre and point guard, are pretty straightforward. But thanks to the versatility of the roster, there are more pieces of pie to be had - particularly at the three and four.

Position Player (Mins) Player (Mins) Player (Mins) Total Mins
Point Guard LOWRY (39) JOSEPH (9) 48
Shooting Guard DEROZAN (33) JOSEPH (15) 48
Small Forward CARROLL (18) ROSS (24) DEROZAN (6) 48
Power Forward PATTERSON (30) CARROLL (8) SCOLA (10) 48

This is probably a slightly more rigid model than Casey has used to divide minutes at the five positions this year, but for the sake of digestibility, I've simplified some things - most notably when it comes to Terrence Ross.

It's funny that one of the main reasons for optimism surrounding Ross coming into the season was the belief that he'd have to play fewer minutes at the three, and therefore wouldn't be physically overpowered by his checks the way he was as a starting small forward last year. Bizarrely enough, Ross' best minutes this season have actually come when he's been classified as the small forward. Per Nylon Calculus, 34.2 percent of Ross minutes (449) have been logged at the three. During that time he has put up a +15.7 NET Rating per 48 minutes as opposed to his ho hum +1.8 NET Rating in 860 minutes as a shooting guard.

Gauging the accuracy of those splits, in Ross' case, is tricky. When DeRozan and Ross share the floor, the two and three slots are mostly ambiguous. Nylon Calculus chooses to consider Ross as the shooting guard when he and DeRozan share for the floor - but for the sake of simplicity, and because his best stretches of time have come at the three, let's consider Ross as purely a three in this fictional rotation.

Substitution Patterns: First Halves

Now that we have that cleared up, let's dive into how Casey might want to go about structuring his in-game substitution patterns come playoff time. Once again, I'm not an intelligent basketball coach, so you'll likely find flaws in how I've laid this out. That's okay. This is mostly just a means of singling out some lineup combinations that the Raptors should consider utilizing once the games really matter. Flow of games is entirely unpredictable, and it would be impossible to adhere to these guidelines exactly, but this seems like a reasonable foundation to start from. Here's a look at a possible first-half substitution order for the Raptors in the playoffs.

Game Time Lineup

Time to dive into the strategy for the first 24 minutes.

Yes, the dreaded Scola-Valanciunas pairing makes an appearance in the middle of the first quarter. That's not ideal, obviously. However, Casey tends to shake up the three and four with his initial subs, and there are only so many bodies to consume the 96 available front court minutes. In the flow of the half, a small spurt where Scola and Valanciunas share the floor makes the most sense at the six minute mark, where opposing teams may also put in a reserve or two. And spoiler alert: it's the only instance in the game during which that pairing shares floor time in this model. Three minutes together is a lot better than the 17 they've averaged together per game this season.

We also see a hefty dose of the lauded Lowry and four reserves unit that has posted a +22.2 NET Rating and a Spursian 92.1 Defense Rating as the team's second-most used lineup. Whether or not that fivesome is able to sustain it's dominance against more starter-heavy opposing lineups in the playoffs remains to be seen, but it's a must-use unit for Casey based on its wire-to-wire success.

While Lowry takes a slightly extended breather before half time, we have our first instance of small ball with Carroll at the four closing out the final minutes of the half. Thompson's presence there is mainly symbolic - it's to illustrate that he could carve out some minutes here and there; it doesn't mean he should be the go-to centre in four-out configurations.

Substitution Patterns: Second Halves

Here's how the second half rotation could look:

Game Time Lineup

Of note here, we have a relatively early hook for Carroll in the third quarter. This goes back to trying to temper the playing time expectations of Carroll once he returns. Saving him for crunch time should be the ultimate priority for Casey.

We avoid the Scola-Valanciunas plus-minus bomb, and have a full scale swap of front court bodies at the four-minute mark of the third quarter. Biyombo is a far more natural fit for Scola; he covers up for Scola's immobility and on the season the pairing has been right around neutral (-0.2 NET Rating). At junctures where the opponent will probably have more bench-heavy units on the court, the Raptors can definitely get away with a Biyombo-Scola tandem up front.

There have been too many scorching fourth quarter starts from Lowry and the Bench Mob to not have that group open final frames in the playoffs. By giving that lineup some run to start the quarter, the Raptors have the ability to close games out with three lineups that, in theory, should be deadly.

Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Patterson and Biyombo have played just 38 minutes together this year, churning out a 112.7 / 99.8 / +12.8 efficiency line. That success, even in a small sample, isn't exactly shocking. Even with Carroll and Patterson hitting a lower three point percentage than they did last season, that's a troublesome amount of shooting on the floor for defenses to account for. Biyombo's rock solid screening and rebounding acumen, Lowry and DeRozan's drive-and-kick wizardry, the ridiculous amount of switch-ability two through five - it all adds up to a lineup that should absolutely destroy opponents in the modern NBA. Seeing if Casey gives it some more time to congeal once Carroll returns is one of the biggest stories to keep an eye on as the Raptors close out the regular season.

To wrap things up, we have the lineup the Raptors used as the hammer early in the season before injuries broke up the band too early. That small look's roll got stopped at just 36 total minutes played, but the results were beyond promising in that tiny span: 124.9 / 104.5 / +20.4. Carroll's been missing so long that it's easy to forget how excellent that unit was out of the gate. If the magic can be rekindled once the Raptors reach full strength, it could give the Raptors a multitude of uniquely effective lineups to use when things get hairy late in playoff games.

We have no idea how Casey will actually implement all his chess pieces in 22 days time. The odds are highly against him following the exact rubric I've laid out above. Whatever he changes - or doesn't change - from the regular season formula, there's serious reason for optimism about how the Raptors might fare in this year's dance. Masai Ujiri has assembled a collection of players who complement each other and fit together in all sorts of intriguing forms.

That's a hell of a lot more than can be said about the 2014-15 team that depended on the likes of Lou Williams, Greivis Vasquez and Tyler Hansbrough for critical playoff minutes.

What do you think of this hypothetical playoff rotation? Is there anything you'd change? Do you have a team you'd like to me coach?