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Numbers Game: Considering the Raptors’ weak spots

The Raptors have been great lately, but...

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

This stretch of Raptors basketball is amazing. Quality of opponent notwithstanding, the Raptors being 12-5 without Kyle Lowry is incredible. But we’ve been gushing over this team’s overachieving for two weeks now. Let’s take a look at a few of the weak spots the team is showing, and how that could impact the rotation for the playoffs and maybe the decisions to be made in the summer.

New Starters

The vaunted new starting lineup with Serge Ibaka as the starting power forward (admittedly without Kyle Lowry as the starting PG) has not been as amazing as one might have hoped. The most common starting lineup (and most played lineup on the team, period) since the break has been the following.

Cory Joseph - DeMar DeRozan - DeMarre Carroll - Serge Ibaka - Jonas Valanciunas

Minutes played (MP): 164
Offensive rating (ORTG): 105.5 points scored per 100 possessions
Defensive rating (DRTG): 112.2 points allowed per 100 possessions
Net rating (RTG): -6.7 point differential per 100 possessions

So, that’s not great. Especially considering the team is rolling right now.

It’s worth noting that this lines up with how poorly the starting lineup performed for the first half of the year, when Pascal Siakam was the starting PF. That lineup had a -8.8 net rating, and that was with Lowry.

So, baby steps?

New New Starters?

But another lineup has been used quite a bit since the break, especially as of late with Carroll hurt. This group did play together quite a bit before he went down as well. That’s the same starting lineup from above, but with P.J. Tucker inserted in Carroll’s place — which is the second most used lineup for the team since the break.

Cory Joseph - DeMar DeRozan - P.J. Tucker - Serge Ibaka - Jonas Valanciunas

MP: 74
ORTG: 113.8
DRTG: 101.3
RTG: +12.6

Well, that looks better! Now, these are still fairly small samples, but they are not ridiculously small. Over the entire season only seven of Toronto’s lineups (including the two high usage lineups since the break) have played 74 minutes or more together, and only 12 have even broken the 50 minute played mark.

Given that, who is the weak link in that not-great starting lineup? There were plenty of candidates, with Joseph being a huge step down from Lowry, Valanciunas struggling big time since the break, and Ibaka being new to the team. But Carroll seems to stand out like a sore thumb looking at the swing in performance between the two most heavily used lineups since the break.

Even the broadcasters started talking about the possibility that Tucker might start when Carroll is healthy, as the team can’t afford slow starts in the playoffs. Ideally, Lowry is back and the problem might go away on its own, but there’s not going to be much time to experiment to find out.

If Carroll gets his starting spot usurped by Tucker going into the playoffs, can there be much doubt the team will look to move his contract to free up some money to allocate to their free agents, Tucker included?

Story of Struggle

Speaking of potential salary shedding deals, Valanciunas’ name has been bandied about a lot of late with a similar suggested fate. The Raptors could conceivably move him and his contract off the team to retain free agents, and have his minutes replaced by some combination of Ibaka, Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira.

And his play, or at least his results, since the All-Star break has certainly supported that theory. Valanciunas boasts the team’s worst on-court DRTG since the break, an impressive 110.5. At the same time, he’s not boosting the offense in any meaningful way, sitting about middle of the pack in ORTG. He’s the only regular with a negative net rating since the break. Not good.

Individually, Jonas has been playing fine, as far as easily measurable performance goes at least. His defensive rebounding is still elite, his elite offensive rebounding has further increased since the break, his shooting percentage is well up (from 53% to 59%). But individual results only go so far, and if the team is going to struggle with him on the floor, why play him?

And if you aren’t going to play him, why pay him? So the suggestion to move on from Valanciunas can look pretty reasonable in that light.

As noted above, the starting lineup has been modestly terrible. And those 164 bad minutes can really skew a guy’s on-court rating — especially when he doesn’t get other chances to play. The other three starters (excluding Carroll due to his injury) have played a total of between 500 and 600 total minutes — meaning those 164 minutes can get washed out by other, better minutes. Valanciunas has played a total of 380 minutes — meaning almost half of his minutes have come in that sub-par lineup. In his time outside that lineup, he has posted a roughly break even on-court net rating. That’s still not great, but it’s not terrible either.

And as shown above, there have been combinations where he has found success, and the most recent couple of games have seen him turn his performance around (second on the team to Ibaka with a +21 net rating in the past two games). If that keeps up, he could be a key component to a playoff run.

Nonetheless, if it doesn’t, and he reverts to the poor play his lineups have suffered through since the break, add him to the list of weak links that could see a reduced role in the playoffs and ultimately end up with another team next year.

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