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Planning the Raptors Rotation: A look at the starters and frontcourt

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Using what we know from last season, who should start, come off the bench, and play with whom?

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

We often go through this Raptors rotation exercise late in the season as the team approaches the playoffs using data from the current regular season. But with so many apparent questions about Toronto’s rotation this year, I thought it would be worthwhile to compile some arguments now.

In Part 1 (with Part 2 coming tomorrow), we’ll look at who should start for the Raps, as well as who should comprise the primary bench units, and who should finish games and/or play in small ball units.

The Obvious Stuff

Let’s start with what we know and take as given for this exercise. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka will start. They will all play heavy minutes, and Lowry or DeRozan will be counted on as the anchor for each bench unit. This model has worked great for the Raptors the past two seasons and I can’t see them going away from it now, no matter how much they may want to conserve Lowry or Ibaka for the playoffs. That logic applied the past two seasons and Lowry’s minutes load only went up, so I don’t expect any change there.

The players we’ll be considering as rotation candidates will be Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka, Norman Powell, Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright. That’s a solid 9-man rotation. Certainly others will factor in at some point — including OG Anunoby when he is back from his injury, and Fred VanVleet will probably get some run. But for now we will consider these nine to represent the available roles — the starters, then one backup wing (to play alongside DeRozan or Lowry) and a backup PG, PF and C.

There are some roles where there are very few question marks in terms of when they should be played. Wright, for example, will almost certainly play as the second guard in the bench units, playing the role of playmaker in Lowry lineups and off the ball in DeRozan lineups, and in few other lineups, taking Cory Joseph’s primary function from the past two seasons. So we don’t need to worry about him too much, for example.

The main questions that seem to be plaguing fans of the team are who should start at centre, and who should start at small forward, and then what should happen with the bench.

Should the team roll out a starting unit with Valanciunas playing beside a quality PF for the first time in years? Should Poeltl be used as the starter as an energy defender, while Valanciunas is used as a scorer off the bench? Or should Ibaka start there, with Siakam beside him at PF, and Valanciunas coming off the bench?

Should Norman Powell start at SF as he did in the playoffs against the Bucks, and early in the season on DeMarre Carroll’s sporadic rest days? Or should newly signed sniper Miles slide into Carroll’s vacated role, providing deadly shooting in the starting lineup?

We’ll try to answer these questions in a couple of posts. For the purpose of this exercise, we are looking primarily at what we think will lead to on-court success. In other words, we want the lineups we develop to outscore the opposition as much as possible. On-court net rating for the various lineups will be the most used measure here. We’ll touch on development opportunities and limitations for young players, but those will be secondary concerns.

On-court net rating: the difference between a team’s offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) and defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) while a player or lineup is on the court. Essentially a pace-adjusted point differential over a full 48 minutes played.

Let’s begin with the starting centre. We’ll start with the default option: bringing back the status quo, and starting Valanciunas at centre beside Serge Ibaka in the frontcourt.

Can It Work?

We have only a tiny sample from last season of Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka and Valanciunas playing together. But we do have a solid sample of DeRozan, Ibaka and Valanciunas, who started together for the post-all-star stretch, albeit while Lowry was hurt. So, how did they do?

Well, they struggled, especially to start, as the team tried to find its way without Lowry. Through their first nine games after the break, the group of DeRozan, Valanciunas and Ibaka posted a very poor -9 net rating. But they did course correct, as by the end of the season, they had gotten up to a -1.5 net rating as a group, on the strength of a +8 net rating over the final nine games.

In any case, that -1.5 net rating is poor, but nothing like the struggles the starting units with Luis Scola or Siakam suffered through over the past couple of seasons (Siakam’s group from last season posted a -9 net rating for the full year). And that’s without Lowry.

And the Raptors have seen success with slightly modified starting units over the past couple of seasons. Here are the most used non-small-ball lineups with all of Lowry, DeRozan and Valanciunas in them, but without Pascal Siakam at PF, from last season.

Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Valanciunas: +27.6 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Nogueira-Valanciunas: +15.4 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Ross-Patterson-Valanciunas: +18.5 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Patterson-Valanciunas: +18.7 net rating

That’s some consistent success right there, and that’s every lineup that meets the above description with more than 40 minutes played over the entire season.

All of this is to say, four-man unit of Lowry-DeRozan-Ibaka-JV can probably work, if Ibaka at PF can replicate the success of Patterson or Nogueira at PF, which seems likely to me.

But one other thing we can look at: how much does Lowry help those lineups? This will require using some small samples, but let’s investigate for interest’s sake. Three of the four lineups above have an alternate version with Cory Joseph in Lowry’s place with a sample of over 20 minutes.

Joseph-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Valanciunas: -46.7 net rating
Joseph-DeRozan-Ross-Patterson-Valanciunas: -44.4 net rating
Joseph-DeRozan-Powell-Patterson-Valanciunas: -20.5 net rating

That’s some consistent (if small sample) failure right there. As unreliable as the sample is, that’s an incredible amount of suck. And there are about 70 minutes of game time between those three lineups, so it’s not a ridiculous sample. Lowry really does make that much of a difference.

Now, I’m not going to say that the typical +50 net rating swing between those lineups would apply to the -1.5 net rating the Lowry-less starting lineup managed last season, but it seems perfectly reasonable to suspect that the starters with Lowry there would find significantly more success. This is great news, as they already seemed to be gelling towards the end of the year as they posted a better rating.

But What If It Can’t Work?

Now, I think we’ve established that the team should be able to function very nicely with Ibaka at PF beside Valanciunas at C, but let’s explore the alternative. What if we wanted Valanciunas to carry a bigger offensive role, helping the bench units that typically rely on DeRozan and Lowry to do everything?

How did Valanciunas do with the bench units last year — specifically, how did Valanciunas perform with Lowry (without DeRozan), and with DeRozan (without Lowry)? Valanciunas didn’t spend that much time with any one bench unit, so this approach gives us the biggest sample. And this is in the context of how much Valanciunas helped the stars carry their loads without the other star, so we’ll compare to how they did on their own as well.

Lowry without DeRozan - with Valanciunas: +12.6 net rating
Lowry without DeRozan - without Valanciunas: +9.9 net rating
DeRozan without Lowry - with Valanciunas: -4.1 net rating
DeRozan without Lowry - without Valanciunas: +3.4 net rating

One thing stands out: Valanciunas really doesn’t help DeRozan at all in his bench units. They both like to operate inside, and without the consistent outside threat from Lowry, it just doesn’t work, especially with both being somewhat of a defensive liability as well. When Lowry is out there with them, their net rating swings from -4 to +4 (and keep in mind, that +4 is weighed down by the horrible starting lineup they were all saddled with), so he’s the key to making that pairing work.

That said, Jonas does help Lowry’s bench unit out, which makes sense, as you don’t have that same overlap of scoring areas or defensive weakness. So if you were to bring Valanciunas off the bench full time, he’d really only be helpful in those start-of-2nd and start-of-4th quarter minutes when Lowry is anchoring the bench unit, and would probably be getting in the way for the other bench minutes.

What About Ibaka?

Ibaka as a full time centre is an interesting question. He definitely had success there this past season in short spurts, closing games and then in the Bucks series in the playoffs against a super small opponent. But his success there was more mixed than is often thought, with one obvious pattern. These are his most used lineups where he was the only centre on the floor (all of these are pretty small samples, all between 15-40 minutes played).

Joseph-DeRozan-Powell-Tucker-Ibaka: +24.2
Joseph-DeRozan-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka: +18.4
Joseph-DeRozan-Carroll-Tucker-Ibaka: +20.0
Joseph-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Ibaka: +0.1
Wright-Powell-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka: -25.8
Joseph-DeRozan-Powell-Patterson-Ibaka: -18.9

So, yes, he had some very successful looks. But they all came with P.J. Tucker out there with him, two of them with Tucker as the small ball 4. Further down the list, we have a lineup with Tucker moved to the wing, which struggled without a star out there, so it’s not foolproof. And the other two lineups both just replace Tucker with Patterson — and lead to lukewarm to terrible results.

At the very least we can say that there is not much proof that Ibaka at centre is really a fantastic heavy minutes look for the team, not enough to commit to a full season of starting him there. Especially when considering that it won’t be PJ Tucker or Patrick Patterson starting beside him — it would likely be Pascal Siakam, the weak link from the starting lineup last season. Throw in any concerns about Ibaka holding up under the strain of a full year playing against the biggest players in the league, and it seems like a big risk to go that route.

Still, I do think the team should look to get him minutes at centre, especially in short spurts, particularly against small matchups and in closing minutes when it makes sense. The upside of those successful lineups is through the roof, and they were used almost exclusively as fourth quarter and closing lineups. If this version of the Raptors can replicate that success, they should.

What About Poeltl?

As for Poeltl, his improvement throughout last year was impressive, but he picks up fouls at a high rate (roughly one foul every 5-6 minutes), which puts the team in a tough spot. If Jak does pick up fouls early, the opposing team gets into the bonus too soon, and it forces him to check out, making the rotation go a bit screwy.

At the same time, Poeltl had four spot starts last season, and posted a -18.7 net rating in those starts, while he was part of some successful bench units posting a +2.7 net rating over 50 games. This may simply be a case of already having other options to start that are more established, but until Poeltl proves he deserves to start without a doubt, he’ll probably stay in his off the bench spot. Plus, the team seemed to struggle in the small sample where they played Poeltl against the other team’s top players (signified by when the Raptors had both Lowry and DeRozan on the court). Here are his top lineups at centre by minutes played with both all-stars on the court.

Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Siakam-Poeltl: -38.3 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Patterson-Poeltl: -28.6 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Poeltl: -17.2 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Ross-Patterson-Poeltl: -31.0 net rating

Those are all in very small samples, but not exactly promising. The minutes for those lineups were limited for a very good reason.

On the other hand, the DeRozan bench unit struggled to find any cohesiveness for most of the season — with one exception.

Joseph-DeRozan-Ross-Patterson-Nogueira: +1.4 net rating
Joseph-DeRozan-Ross-Carroll-Nogueira: -28.6 net rating
Joseph-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Nogueira: -8.9 net rating
Joseph-DeRozan-Ross-Patterson-Poeltl: +23.9 net rating

Now, that Poeltl lineup was used sparingly, and mostly at the start of the year, as by the time he supplanted Nogueira in the bench unit, Lowry was hurt and everything got thrown off. But even in a small sample that’s a great sign.

Poeltl did get a few chances with the Lowry bench unit as well, but that was far less effective.

Joseph-Lowry-Ross-Patterson-Poeltl: -14.6 net rating

And Poeltl did get a chance to play beside Ibaka a bit later in the year, and posted a +8.2 net rating in 36 minutes. So he might be able to fill some more minutes in the rotation with Ibaka there to cover for him.

So, all the puzzle pieces are coming together.

  1. All signs point to a starting lineup with Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka being very effective, given a full training camp together and Lowry there to head that lineup.
  2. Valanciunas also seems very effective in Lowry bench units, allowing him a chance to be used more heavily offensively, and giving him some easier defensive minutes.
  3. Ibaka may or may not be great as a small ball C, but should probably not be relied on for heavy minutes there. This should be tried in small ball closing lineups against the right matchups.
  4. Poeltl should probably not start if the team wants to win those minutes, but has shown he can play well beside Ibaka and can probably centre a very effective DeRozan bench unit.

Given those ideas, a front court rotation starts to come into focus. Valanciunas seems to win the starting centre job beside Ibaka from these observations. But should also be given minutes against bench units with Lowry on the court. So him getting the first six to seven minutes of each quarter would line him up with both those lineups. That approach would also probably be a boon for a player who has seemingly struggled with his conditioning in an increasingly fast game.

Then Valanciunas could also, if needed, take a few minutes at the end of the game if the opposition is closing with a particularly big lineup. That puts him in the 26-30 MPG range, right in line with his averages the past few years.

Ibaka would play big minutes like last season, mostly at PF, starting and finishing games and only sitting for the bench minutes — a few minutes at the 1st/2nd and 3rd/4th quarter breaks. That also staggers his breaks with DeRozan’s and Lowry’s, meaning the team only has to go three minute stretches with either All-Star playing with the more inexperienced Siakam.

Poeltl would then fill in the rest of the rotation. That means the DeRozan bench unit minutes, roughly six minutes in each of the 1st and 3rd quarters, plus the last few minutes of the 2nd quarter when Lowry usually takes an early halftime — which leaves the DeRozan bench unit out there, which has struggled with Valanciunas. That puts him up against better competition where he struggled last year, but hopefully Ibaka being out there will help. Meanwhile, Ibaka can carry a few minutes at centre to bridge the bench and closing units in the middle of the 2nd and 4th quarters (potentially staying there in the 4th if the teams are closing small).

So, that leaves Valanciunas, Poeltl and Ibaka only playing with lineups that have either had success or look very likely to have success playing together, with their minutes totals (at centre) coming to about 28, 14 and 6 respectively. That lines up pretty nicely with the amount Valanciunas has been used of late, and the amount of time Ibaka spent at centre on a per-game basis last season (9 minutes per game, but with Tucker and Patterson around it was more easily used, and with Lowry absent Valanciunas was limited in effectiveness).

I hope everyone enjoyed this deep dive into the potential big man rotation this year. Any big disagreements? Any context you want to add to any of the numbers here?

We’ll cover the other big question next time around with a similar deep dive into the small forward position.

All stats per NBA.com.