After last week’s column on the difficult schedule and injury situation the Raptors faced, how that was a big part of why the team was struggling, and how that was about to ease up in a big way, along came the past three games. After a statement comeback win against Boston and two blowout wins against less impressive Atlantic division teams, the Raptors are back.
There are also a couple of players turning their seasons around at the same time. Let’s take a look.
Carroll had a rough start to the season, with him still working his way back into shape after his injury recovery. He couldn’t play in back to back games and he struggled visibly at both ends at times.
It wasn’t all bad — over the first 34 games of the season Carroll had a decent 36 percent 3-point percentage, taking almost five per game, and was generating a steal per game. But DeMarre’s FG% was still quite low compared to his years in ATL (42% versus 46-49%), what with him not getting inside nearly as often, and his rebounding was well down from years past (his 3.4 RPG average would be the lowest by far of his recent career since he averaged only 17 MPG in Utah — and even then averaged 2.8 per game). His overall scoring production was down at 9.4 PPG (similarly far below any average since that season in Utah).
In the meantime, Carroll had the second worst on-court defensive rating (DRTG - points allowed per 100 possessions) on the team (108.4), and the second worst on-court offensive rating (ORTG - points scored per 100 possessions) among regulars at 110.7, as well.
But over the past six games, Carroll has turned most of that around in a hurry.
Over that stretch, Carroll has averaged 15 points per game on 48 percent shooting and 40 percent from distance. He’s averaged over five rebounds per game. And his on-court ratings are much improved — Carroll is tied for first on the team in on-court ORTG and stands alone at first in on-court DRTG.
One explanation is that Carroll is finally healthy again. And that very well may be a factor. The schedule has eased up, but mostly over the past couple of games — over the past six the Raptors have faced the Celtics, Rockets and Jazz, with the middling Bulls thrown in as well.
Here’s another guy who has struggled relative to expectations this season, and especially over that stretch of poor games on the long road trip during the holiday break.
Over the first 34 games of the season, Valanciunas was posting decent individual numbers — he was averaging 9.5 rebounds per game, a career high, and 11.8 points per game, a slight step down from his scoring average the past two seasons (although with a lower usage rate than either of those two seasons). Of course, that last bit is the concern — Valanciunas wasn’t showing signs of being able to handle a higher usage, wasn’t getting it, and he wasn’t getting any more minutes than he’d averaged over the past couple seasons either. His raw FG% had dropped from his typical 57% to 53% due to him taking more jumpers (and missing a bit more at the rim than usual). His block numbers also dropped almost in half, to 0.7 BPG (from 1.2 and 1.3 the past two seasons).
Most concerning, Valanciunas had a team worst on-court DRTG (to answer the implied question from Carroll’s section of who Carroll was better than), and was a big question mark for the team regarding the overall defensive struggles. His effect on the offense was solid as ever, ranking sixth in on-court ORTG in spite of the decrease in individual efficiency.
Then this six game stretch happened. Some will point to a quote coach Dwane Casey gave to ESPN’s Zach Lowe for this piece about NBA offenses. Casey pointed out that the only way for JV to stay on the court against mismatches is to dominate them — a “calling out” of Valanciunas which may have woken him up. I’m not sure I buy that, considering the quote is buried in the middle of a thousands-of-words-long article and seems to be addressing a more general point. Wouldn’t a calling out have been done in a scrum or something like that? In any case, the timing is right, as the article came out six games ago. It could also just be matchup or schedule related. But here is what his past six games have looked like.
Over this stretch, he’s averaged 14 points and 12 rebounds (almost five offensive per game) in 28 minutes per game, plus a block per game. Valanciunas is tied with Carroll for the best on-court ORTG on the team in that time frame, and far more impressively, has the third best on-court DRTG as well.
With Patrick Patterson continuing to miss games to rest up his knee, the team is doing well to win so many games without a guy who has been such a key contributor the past few seasons, even against this easier schedule of late.
One might wonder how they are doing that, with the starting lineup being a significant weakness throughout the year, and no Patterson to power bench units to success. And that concern would be warranted — the main bench unit contributors (Joseph, Ross, Powell) have had a rough go of it the past six games, with on-court net ratings of -2.0, 0, and +3 respectively.
The reason the Raptors have been winning is they aren’t digging themselves holes with their starting lineup anymore. The Raptors started Patterson in one of the six games, Powell in another (with Carroll at PF), and Nogueira at the 4 in a big ball lineup in the other four. No Pascal Siakam in sight, and the new most-used starting lineup with Nogueira in it has performed far better than the Siakam version.
KL-DD-DC-LN-JV: 78 MP, 113.6 ORTG, 100.2 DRTG, +13.4 RTG
KL-DD-DC-PS-JV: 321 MP, 107.7 ORTG, 113.6 DRTG, -5.9 RTG
Obviously the one lineup has a far larger sample than the other, but 78 minutes is nothing to sneeze at — already that’s the Raptors’ fifth most played lineup for the entire season, with 71 of the 78 minutes coming in the past six games.
This has really opened up the game on both ends for Carroll and Valanciunas in particular. One could assume the past six games representing such a turnaround for both players is coincidence, or better health, or just more effort, but even if those things are factors it is likely their recent success has at least as much to do with who they are playing with.
With Siakam finding his way to the bench, and possibly an upcoming D-League stint as minutes will become even more scarce with the pending return of Jared Sullinger, the rest of the team is not having to make up for the presence of a rookie (even an energetic and fun rookie), a difficult thing to do. In the meantime, it is good to know the Raptors have the option of going big and finding success there.
If the rotation stays as it is for now, or if Patterson returns soon, expect the Raptors to keep on winning like they have been of late.
All stats from NBA.com and basketball-reference.com.