The seasons have slowly begun to turn and excitement is approaching an all-time high in Toronto, as we anticipate a brand new NBA campaign. The 2015-16 Toronto Raptors were that alluring and inspiring team that Raptor Nation had been waiting for since, honestly, forever.
After last season’s historical run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors will return to the hardwood on October 1st to take on the Golden State Warriors in pre-season action. This summer saw the Raptors undergo a few significant changes and add a few new faces. These pre-season games will provide the coaching staff with a chance to experiment with some lineups and see what they have going into the 2016-17 season.
So, what do the Raptors have going into 2016-17? Well, it’s tough to say right now, as rookies Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam have yet to scratch the surface of the NBA. Jared Sullinger is a gritty, undersized big-man who will look to bring a page out of Boston’s 2015-16 top-notch defense to the Raptors this season.
To help stimulate the imagination of Raptor fans everywhere, I have attempted to answer these questions by assembling some potential lineup combinations for the upcoming season. Keep in mind that again, it’s impossible to tell what the Raptors have before the first tip-off of the season and thus, this is simply meant to spur the minds of anxious and impatient Raptor fans everywhere — including myself.
The Starting / Crunch Time Unit
Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Sullinger/Patrick Patterson, Jonas Valanciunas
As a team in any sport, you want to start and end the contest with your top performers on the battle field. When this is the case, you deploy your all-star back court, a top-ten 3&D guy in the NBA (DeMarre) and a fierce and aggressive front court in the combination of Valanciunas and either Patterson or Sullinger.
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are coming off of career seasons respectively and as we know, often come up with big shots when the Raptors need them most. Having a defensive presence on the court such as Carroll, is critical in containing an opponents primary scorer and making it tough for them to find their rhythm early on in the contest, as well as come up with big shots in the closing minutes. Carroll’s ability to also provide a spark on offense, makes him that type of two-way player that every team wishes they could get their hands on.
It is essential to deploy an effective rim protector when trying to close out a game. Having the physically imposing Valanciunas guard the rim at one end and provide a low post threat at the other is essential. JV’s presence inside the paint will beg for defensive attention and this allows the Raptors to slash across the paint and kick out effectively to the perimeter, or simply dump the ball to JV for an easy two points down low. Last season, Valanciunas started a boat load of games along side power forward Luis Scola — a reality that nearly molded my face permanently into a cringed up raisin. Scola’s defensive rating of 106.7 (Yikes), will now be replaced with Sullingers NBA-wide 11th ranked D-rating of 99.3 — a significant improvement for the Raps.
The 3 & D Unit
Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Jared Sullinger/Jonas Valanciunas
The 3&D player has become a premium in the NBA over the last decade or so, and the Raptors have one of the best in DeMarre Carroll. In last years playoffs, we saw Norman Powell step up, providing relentless defensive pressure on Paul George and knocking down clutch three balls on the other side of the floor. Powell’s growth as a player this season could take the Raptors to even new heights, as he has the skill-set and athleticism to be an everyday impact player.
Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll provide proficient defensive intensity and can guard players of any size. Patterson kept opposing shooters to 42% (3% less than this crop of shooters 45% FG rate) last season when he was the primary defender and posted a defensive rating of 100.6. When DeMarre Carroll is healthy, he is widely regarded as one of the best defenders in the NBA. Both men are also a threat from three point range, as Patterson shot 36% last season from three and Carroll 39%.
Kyle Lowry’s role in this lineup is self-explanatory as he can do it all when need be. In asserting this lineup, the Raptors may decide based on their opposition whether to keep Valanciunas on the floor as the primary rim protector, or insert Sullinger for more of a small-ball approach. Sullinger did post the aforementioned defensive rating of 99.3, but it is tough to tell if this was a result of Brad Stevens Jedi mind tricks, or Sullinger himself, as Sully also ranked last among rim-protectors with a minimum of 400 shots against, allowing the highest percentage of made field goals against him at 54.3%. This will be something that the Raptors will have to gauge in deciding if he can be the primary rim protector in a given lineup.
On the flip side, Sullinger may be able to knock down threes at the other end. His 28% efficiency from three in 2015-16 isn’t a sexy number, but it does provide the Raptors with another potential shooting option if need be. Sullinger’s versatility will also keep opposing big men on their toes, as they will have to worry about Sullinger spreading out to the perimeter, while still protecting their basket.
The Small Ball Unit
Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph/Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson
The Raptors can go big if need be, but the versatility of their roster allows them to adapt to an efficient small-ball style as well. Similar to the 3&D lineup, the Raptors in this formation would rely on pesky defense, scoring in transition, and a lot of speed at both ends of the floor. In this lineup, the team exercises DeMarre Carroll’s ability to be a hybrid forward and guard players who may be slightly larger than he. Lowry and Joseph provide an effective back court and either one can act as the primary ball handler. Having Joseph handle the ball may allow for Lowry to run off of screens and create top-quality looks for the all-star point guard.
A large reason that the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to push the Warriors to seven games last May was quickness and length. Inserting Terrence Ross into this lineup instead of Joseph or Lowry gives the Raptors more length on defense and athleticism on offense. With Ross’s 6’8’’ wingspan, Carroll’s 6’10’’ wingspan and Patterson’s 7’1’’ wingspan, this small ball lineup can use its length to clog passing lanes, close out shooters on the perimeter, and allow them to guard players who may be slightly larger than they are.
Having a smaller and more versatile lineup on the floor will always keep defenses on their toes. A big part of successful small ball is making the opposing big man become obsolete. If Patterson is playing the five (sounds crazy), his ability to stretch out to the perimeter and be a threat from three point range will force their big man out of the paint, clearing the lane for the likes of Lowry and DeRozan. The Raptors will force the opposing coach to decide whether it is worth being torched on defense every possession for the sake of a slight height advantage on offense.
Those are the primary lineups the Raptors should probably employ for the 2016-17, with some variations. You think we’ll see these combinations? What other ones are there?