The Raptors, after bouncing back with four straight wins following a rough road trip, are losing again. They’ve now suffered three losses in a row to three inferior teams, including a blowout loss to the only (barely) over-500 team of the three. And to top it all off, DeMar DeRozan tweaked his ankle and will miss at least the next two games.
Let’s take a quick look at what’s gone wrong, and look forward to a few games without DeRozan to see what that might look like.
Walking Wounded, Especially Up Front
First off, even before DeRozan got hurt, this team has been struggling in the health department. Patrick Patterson still has yet to return (though signs are he might be back as soon as tonight’s game), and that has hurt the team a lot. Throw in Lucas Nogueira missing all but the most recent game and your viable rotation of big men is in trouble, with Jared Sullinger still working his way into shape and Pascal Siakam seemingly less playable by the game.
With Patterson missing time, the hole at PF was largely filled by Nogueira, playing in a two-C lineup with Jonas Valanciunas to start most games. Once he went down with a concussion, even that option was taken away and the team was stuck playing small for much of the game — and it showed. The Raptors have played three lineups with only one big more than five minutes over the past three games. Those lineups combine for a minutes-weighted average DREB% (defensive rebound rate, percent of available defensive rebounds that are corralled) of 55%. The league average rate is roughly 76%. Even a good defence will be destroyed by a failure to rebound of that magnitude.
With Nogueira back, the team got back into a better groove with the starters in the last game at least, with the lineup posting a +10 net rating and elite rebounding numbers (31% OREB%, 93% DREB%) in 16 minutes against Phoenix. But the smaller lineups again struggled and the game was lost anyway.
Kyle Lowry, Wake Up
Never are a team’s struggles just because of one guy. But when your best player is playing much worse than he usually does, that makes for a big problem.
Lowry, on the season, has averaged 22 points, 4.8 rebounds and 7 assists, on shooting rates of 47% from the floor and 43% from three, and with only 3 turnovers per game.
Over the past three games? His rebounding has dropped to 3 per game, his assists are down to 4.3 per game without any real drop in turnovers, and his shooting percentages have been abysmal, at 35% from the floor and 26% from three. In last year’s playoffs, his shooting abandoned him, but he provided everything else he usually does, and it showed in his impressive on-off court splits. Lowry still has some positive impact (the team has been awful without him, and only really bad with him on the court), he’s just not bringing that all around game and intensity this team needs from him.
Here’s hoping he snaps out of it soon, as without DeRozan there to carry the scoring load, the team will need him even more.
One Big Guy, At Least
Over those three games, rebounding and scoring have been at a premium, and Jonas Valanciunas has stepped up to provide both. He’s averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds, on 55% shooting with more assists than turnovers (a rarity for the big man). As a result, his on-court net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) is the best on the team over that stretch (it being -8 is a commentary on how bad the team has been of late — though his off-court net rating, the worst on the team, is a tragic -29 points per 100 possessions).
Valanciunas may face another test shortly, as with DeRozan out of the lineup, the team will need someone to absorb additional usage, and with Lowry struggling of late, and the obvious replacements for DeRozan also having a hard time scoring (Powell and Ross have FG%’s of 29% and 25% respectively over the past 3 games), JV might have to be the answer.
Evidence suggests that getting Valanciunas more involved in the offense is better for the team anyway. He hasn’t exactly struggled with higher usage — in his top 10 games played by usage rate (percent of team’s plays finished by the player) he has an average TS% (true shooting percentage) of 59%. His season average is... 59 percent.
As for the team, sorting Valanciunas’ games by his usage rate in those games, the Raptors won his six highest used games, 13 of his top 15 most used games, and 20 of his top 25 most used games. That’s a 20-5 record in games where Valanciunas is awarded a usage above 17%, and a record of 7-10 in games where he uses fewer than 17% of his team’s possessions (the missing two games are two he didn’t play in). Of note, over the past three games, he did not break 20% usage once (20% usage is average — an average player would expect to use 1/5th of his team’s possessions while on the court).
Some will suggest that is simply a symptom of Valanciunas getting much of his offense from offensive rebounds, meaning that in high usage games he is simply winning the rebounding battle, so of course the team would do well in those games. But in those 25 games with a usage above 17%, Valanciunas had an OREB% below his season average in 12 of them (as close to exactly half of them as you can get). The reality is, the team is finding Valanciunas as an offensive option in those games, on the pop/roll, on cuts, or in the post.
And he’ll probably be seeing lots of opportunity to prove he should be getting those looks more over the next few games. Here’s hoping he does so — there aren’t a lot of places for the Raptors to look for offense.
One good sign in the short term, at least, is the success Valanciunas has had without DeRozan beside him on the court. The sample is small, as they play a lot together — roughly 1000 minutes together, and about 100 minutes for Valanciunas without DeRozan; the ratio is large but 100 minutes is not a miniscule sample either. Valanciunas in his time on the court with DeRozan, has averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds per 36 minutes, with a TS% of 58% and on-court ratings of 112.5 ORTG (points scored per 100 possessions) and 109.7 DRTG (points allowed per 100 possessions) — good for a net rating of +2.8.
Without DeRozan (again, in a small-ish sample size — so this is more a hopeful tidbit than any sort of evidence of anything): 26 points and 18 rebounds per 36 minutes, with a TS% of 67% (on a usage of 24%) and on-court ratings of 115 ORTG and 100 DRTG, good for a +15 net rating.
Obviously I doubt he’ll find any such success simply by removing DeRozan from the equation, but if the team puts some shooters around him as a secondary option to Lowry, there are some signs that he might find enough success to help the team through DeRozan’s absence.