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Numbers Game: Making the Raptors Playoff Rotation

Kyle Lowry’s back, the Raptors clinched third, and it’s time to figure out what the playoff rotation will look like.

NBA: Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

With Kyle Lowry back and healthy heading into the playoffs, and the Raptors hitting 50 wins and clinching the third seed, the regular season can be declared a resounding success.

Now, let's turn our attention to the playoffs. Earlier in the year, we took a look at some player combinations and lineups to try to determine the best case rotation for the Raptors. Then, of course, the deadline trades happened, which made that mostly moot. And then Lowry went down, so it all got tossed out the window.

The good news is, with Lowry down, we got to see if we could find lineup combinations that would work without him, and we have had the past few games to get a glimpse of Lowry playing with the new guys.

So, let's take a look, and see if we can come up with a playoff rotation.


Let's start off with the recent game against the Miami Heat. Dwane Casey ran out a very different rotation compared to what we are used to, and it sure looked like a playoff rotation. Here's what we saw.

Lowry, DeMar DeRozan: 36-38 minutes
Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas: 30 minutes
P.J. Tucker, Cory Joseph: 27 minutes
DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson: 22 minutes
Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl: 4 minutes

It was a game that saw the shrinking to near elimination of minutes for young players like Wright, Poeltl and Norman Powell. I’d expect in the playoffs themselves, barring foul trouble or a very bad night for one of the regulars, we won’t see them at all.

What did the rotation look like? Well, we saw the standard starters to open each half. We saw bench units with one of Lowry or DeRozan. Both players got to play with bench units with Ibaka at C and Valanciunas at C at various times. And we saw that closing lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Tucker, Patterson and Ibaka we expected (as well as a smaller version with Joseph in instead of Patterson).

But enough of that single game, let’s look at some other ideas to pull from.

Without Lowry

Before the trades and Lowry’s injury, the biggest issue the Raptors faced from earlier in the year (besides the nonsensical starting lineup they trotted out) was how to get useful minutes out of non-Lowry lineups. The following lineups were the most used non-Lowry units before the All-Star break. These are all the lineups with over 20 minutes played, total, which is a very low cut-off.

Joseph-DeRozan-Terrence Ross-Patterson-Nogueira: +1.2 net rating, 90 minutes
Joseph-DeRozan-Carroll-Siakam-Valanciunas: -8.7 net rating, 47 minutes
Joseph-DeRozan-Ross-Carroll-Nogueira: -28.6 net rating, 24 minutes
Joseph-DeRozan-Ross-Patterson-Valanciunas: -44.4 net rating, 22 minutes
Van Vleet-Powell-Caboclo-Siakam-Poeltl: +21.0 net rating, 21 minutes
Joseph-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Valanciunas: -67.0 net rating, 21 minutes

Those are all pretty bad, so even if Ross was still around or Nogueira was still sniffing rotation minutes, there are no answers there. Unless there’s some way to convince opposing teams to run out their garbage time lineups more often so that Bruno lineup can do some damage.

The good news, of course, is that we’ve had the past couple of months without Lowry to find combinations that should reliably work. Here are the lineups with the best net rating since the All-Star break that feature DeRozan (as having one of Lowry or DeRozan on the floor at all times is basically a given), and have as few other starters in them as possible.

Joseph-DeRozan-Powell-Tucker-Ibaka: +24.2 net rating, 34 minutes
Joseph-DeRozan-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka: +18.4 net rating, 30 minutes
Joseph-DeRozan-Carroll-Tucker-Ibaka: +20.0 net rating, 27 minutes

The details here are unimportant it seems (like, who the other wing is), but the key is to run Ibaka at centre and Tucker on the wing in DeRozan-led bench units.

With Lowry

This is the easy part. Lowry has basically been fantastic with whoever he plays with (Siakam excepted — for now), so you can roll pretty much whatever you want out there. The data since his return is minuscule, so there’s not much point in parsing it. But we can say, for the most part, that any lineup that has success with Joseph at PG can probably achieve the same or better success with Lowry there, given time.

We’ll consider the same starting lineups that have developed over the post-all-star stretch.

Joseph-DeRozan-Carroll-Ibaka-Valanciunas: +2.1 net rating, 233 minutes
Joseph-DeRozan-Tucker-Ibaka-Valanciunas: +4.8 net rating, 87 minutes

Either seem at least acceptable, especially considering they roll out against opposing starters most often. Small samples with Lowry since his return are unreliable, but swing all over the map for results. The top lineup is terrible in the three games (skewed heavily by slow starts in a couple of games), while the bottom is fantastic. But again, both cases are in minuscule sample sizes, and we’re better off figuring if the lineups can work with Joseph they can work with Lowry, rather than relying on that data.

As for the Lowry and bench unit, it’s basically a no-lose situation. It’s going to be great. Here are the most used lineups this season with Lowry and without DeRozan.

Lowry-Joseph-Ross-Patterson-Nogueira: +14.3 net rating, 199 minutes
Lowry-Powell-Carroll-Patterson-Valanciunas: +25.3 net rating, 55 minutes
Lowry-Joseph-Ross-Patterson-Poeltl: -14.8 net rating, 43 minutes
Lowry-Joseph-Ross-Powell-Nogueira: -9.1 net rating, 38 minutes
Lowry-Joseph-Ross-Carroll-Nogueira: +27.7 net rating, 32 minutes
Lowry-Joseph-Ross-Powell-Valanciunas: +25.2 net rating, 27 minutes
Lowry-Joseph-Ross-Poeltl-Nogueira: +13.7 net rating, 22 minutes

Those are all the combinations with over 20 minutes played, and as you can see they are mostly great. The bad Poeltl lineup is entirely from very early in the season, so it could be much better now that Poeltl has been playing better. In any case we decided above we are shrinking the rotation, but it is worth noting that we shouldn’t write off Poeltl at C in Lowry lineups should foul trouble arise.

The good news for the Raptors and for our previous assumption that we’d be shrinking the rotation? There are two Valanciunas lineups there, and both are great. So, if we assume Lowry, Joseph and Valanciunas, and Patterson (as he’s been a staple in these lineups for two years now), that leaves the wing.

Ross is obviously no longer an option, but we also see that lineups with Ross, Powell and Carroll all have success above, so this might be another case where it doesn’t matter. Still, let’s look at the lineups that have all four of the aforementioned players to see who they’ve played well with.

Lowry-Joseph-Patterson-Valanciunas with:

Tucker: +5.8 net rating, 18 minutes
Powell: +13.5 net rating, 11 minutes

Carroll has played only three minutes with that combination. Overall that foursome has played 52 minutes together and has a +10.5 net rating, and no 5-man combination with those four has posted a negative net rating (many of those combinations are very small samples).

Then of course we have our ideal closing lineups (two versions, big and small). Lowry has returned to these (in Joseph’s place for the big one, in Powell’s place in the small one), but we’ll present the pre-Lowry versions as the sample size with him in there is tiny.

Joseph-DeRozan-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka: +18.4 net rating, 30 minutes
Joseph-Powell-DeRozan-Tucker-Ibaka: +24.2 net rating, 34 minutes


We’ll keep it simple. We have our rough rotation.

Starters: Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Ibaka-Valanciunas
DeRozan bench: Joseph-DeRozan-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka
Lowry bench: Lowry-Joseph-Carroll-Patterson-Valanciunas
Closing (big): Lowry-DeRozan-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka
Closing (small): Lowry-Joseph-DeRozan-Tucker-Ibaka

There will be some transitional lineups between those sets, but most of those will have both Lowry and DeRozan in them, as well as some pairing of Patterson, Ibaka and Valanciunas, so it is hard to go far wrong for those short minutes.

An argument can be made to start Tucker, as the starting unit has been better with him than with Carroll, both in the larger post-all-star sample and in the recent tiny with-Lowry sample. But it makes for a difficult substitution pattern, as that DeRozan bench unit has shown to desperately need Tucker there. Possibly you could start Tucker and give him a quick hook, running that Carroll lineup as a bridge to the DeRozan bench unit (where Tucker would re-enter). In any case, the Raptors have some very solid building blocks there to build a playoff rotation around.

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