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Numbers Game: Finding a Way Without Kyle Lowry

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With Lowry now out until at least close to the playoffs, the team will have to find ways to tread water without him.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

I was writing a nice happy piece on P.J. Tucker and his awesome defense when this little nugget drops.

So. More pressing matters.

Instead of looking specifically at Tucker (we’ll still do this, maybe next week), let’s try to tackle the issue of building a rotation without Kyle Lowry, hopefully just to keep the team treading water until his return (in potentially just 4 to 5 weeks), but possibly for use in the playoffs as well if his return is delayed.

The good news is, we have the past three games with the new guys to draw some conclusions from, as well as the work we did with WOWY data in a previous post.

What’s Worked Recently

First off, let’s take a look at the most used lineups over the past few games. It’s a small sample, against varying opposition, but hey, we work with what we have.

Joseph - DeRozan - Carroll - Ibaka - Valanciunas | 45 MP | +7.9 net rating (RTG)
Joseph - DeRozan - Carroll - Tucker - Ibaka | 17 MP | +57.3 RTG

And... those are the only two over 10 minutes played over the three games. So we’ll stop there, and look more at two-man combinations. Still, we’ve got ourselves a closing lineup, and the starters are solid at least. That’s a great start.

As for the player pairings, the following are the 5 best and worst ones for the team over the past few games (restricted to pairs that have played at least 10 minutes together over that stretch). Also, I’ve excluded Nogueira pairings in the “bad” section — we’ll cover him more below.

Carroll - Tucker | 21 MP | +63.0 RTG
Joseph - Patterson | 17 MP | +33.9 RTG
Joseph - Tucker | 45 MP | +23.6 RTG
Joseph - Carroll | 79 MP | +20.7 RTG
Ibaka - Patterson | 18 MP | +20.0 RTG

Tucker - Wright | 30 MP | -9.6 RTG
Powell - Wright | 27 MP | -10.1 RTG
Powell - Valanciunas | 12 MP | -13.9 RTG
Patterson - Wright | 36 MP | -14.5 RTG
Patterson - Powell | 23 MP | -18.9 RTG

First off, Tucker looks to work great with Carroll and Joseph — put three switchable defenders on the same line and their strengths compound and make for a very tough lineup to crack. Having the team’s most experienced PG out there with Tucker helps minimize how much he has to handle the ball.

Meanwhile, he’s less effective with the new bench unit, as is Patterson. As much as Valanciunas has struggled in a tiny sample with Powell in the past few games, this trend does seem to point to having Valanciunas sub out after his stint with the starters, to allow Patterson and/or Tucker to sub in and spend time with Carroll, Ibaka and Joseph, similar to when closing the game; then try to introduce JV into the bench units to bring another look — one that hasn’t been tried very much so far. DeRozan and Valanciunas both don’t show up much on the lists, being fairly neutral presences - crucial for scoring, but not the wild cards that unlock potent lineups, nor the problematic presences that crater others.

What Worked Before

Let’s also take a look at other lineups and pairings we might be able to use to fill out a rotation. Prior to the all star break, the following were the team’s most played lineups without Lowry.

Joseph - DeRozan - Ross - Patterson - Nogueira | 90 MP | +1.4 RTG
Joseph - DeRozan - Carroll - Siakam - Valanciunas | 47 MP | -8.7 RTG
Joseph - DeRozan - Ross - Carroll - Nogueira | 24 MP | -28.6 RTG
Joseph - DeRozan - Ross - Patterson - Valanciunas | 22 MP | -44.4 RTG
Van Vleet - Powell - Caboclo - Siakam - Poeltl | 21 MP | +21.0 RTG

I included that last one to show you just how small a sample we are dealing with here. The fifth most used lineup without Lowry in the game over the course of 57 games was the garbage time lineup featuring Bruno. On top of that, of the four non-garbage time lineups, three have tiny samples (and terrible ratings) and the other was a bench unit that featured Terrence Ross, noted Orlando Magic player, and Lucas Nogueira, who has not really been the same Nogueira over the past couple months.

Nogueira over the first half of the year was a solid contributor off the bench, posting incredible on-court ratings as the bench units he was in continually ran roughshod over the opposition. His +19.3 net rating on December 31st was by far the best on the team, well above Patterson’s +14.8. Of course, he was piling those numbers up in bench lineups, predominantly the Lowry and bench unit, playing with the best player on the team and almost exclusively with the team’s best power forward (at the time) in Patterson. Still, whatever the reason, he was having success.

But it seems he’s been scouted, or Patterson missing some time has hurt him, or he simply ran out of gas, because he is not seeing the same success of late. Since January 1st, he’s posted only a +1.2 net rating, dropping him to 5th on the team. In February, a -6.2 net rating, 2nd worst among regulars. In the teeny tiny three game sample since the All-Star break, with no Lowry around to boost that bench lineup (but with Patterson back)? A horrendous -48.4 net rating (obviously the worst on the team) in 21 minutes, with both the worst offensive rating and the worst defensive rating on the team by a wide margin.

Long story short, the team is playing on a razor’s edge now every night, with little room for error, and Nogueira sitting is the safest option with the way the team has struggled with him on the court of late.

In any case, outside of that, the lesson from the above is that the team really doesn’t have a combination from before the trades that was particularly strong when Lowry sat. So, given that, the team will have to rely on Ibaka and Tucker to boost most lineups while Lowry is out.

All stats per NBA.com.