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Planning the Raptors Rotation: The starters, the bench, the best lineups

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

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday in Part 1 of planning the Raptors’ future, we started tackling the issue of figuring out a sensible rotation for the Raptors this season, based on what combinations of players worked well together last season and their net rating. A quick summary of the conclusions from that article:

  1. The obvious stuff: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka will start and play heavy minutes. Wright will play backup point guard, helming the two bench units led by DeRozan or Lowry.
  2. We’re building a 9-man rotation using the above four players, plus C.J. Miles, Norman Powell, Jonas Valanciunas, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl. Others will end up playing, but we’re outlining plan A, and on a night to night basis, nine players is about right.
  3. With respect to the centre position, we concluded that Valanciunas starting and playing the first stretch of each quarter should lead to the most team success. That leaves the starters mostly intact from last season, and bolsters the Lowry bench unit, opening up minutes late in each half for Poeltl to play with the starters or Ibaka to play at centre.
  4. That means Ibaka starts and plays most of his minutes at power forward, and Poeltl slots into the backup centre role, with Siakam coming off the bench at the four.

So, that leaves us with our other rotation question: who should start at small forward, and come off the bench, between newcomer Miles and Norm? Again, we’ll start with the baseline assumption that the guy who started some games there for the Raptors last year gets the job.

Can It Work?

Powell didn’t get a lot of starts, but he got some, and he got into a bunch of lineups that are similar to the starting unit, featuring several of the players from the presumed starting lineup this year. The following are the two lineups he played significant minutes in that look a little like the proposed starting lineup for this season, with all of Lowry, DeRozan and Valanciunas, plus a power forward.

Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Siakam-Valanciunas: -2.4 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Patterson-Valanciunas: +18.7 net rating

Now, that first one isn’t great, but the same lineup with Carroll in Powell’s place (which started for most of the first half of the season) posted a -8.8 net rating, so that’s a nice step up, relatively speaking. And the other is fantastic, as you’d expect of lineups with the starters and Patterson (a shooting power forward).

In the meantime, Powell’s success as a starter on an individual level last season was very impressive. He posted raw averages of 15.6 points on 50% shooting, 40% from 3, 3.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 32 minutes per game, and had an on-court net rating in those games of +3.5. Quite a feat when you consider how much the starters have struggled the past two seasons.

But What If It Can’t Work?

The alternative is to bring Powell off the bench. Well, let’s first take a look at Powell’s individual success coming off the bench, to compare to his numbers as a starter above.

His raw playing time dropped, of course, so I’ll pro-rate his numbers to per-32-minutes, his playing time as a starter. As a bench player, he posted pro-rated averages of 14.2 points on 41% shooting, 27% from 3, 4.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists, while carrying an on-court net rating of +4.

Now, that on-court net rating is slightly higher than what he posted as a starter, but let’s consider the context of those numbers. The Raptors for the past two seasons have been a team that posts poor numbers from the starting group and makes up for it with strong bench play. Last season, starters for the Raptors posted an average net rating of +3.8, while bench players posted an average net rating of +5.1. So really as a bench player he should be posting a significantly higher net rating than he does as a starter, meaning contextually he’s performing better as a starter than as a bench player.

As for bench units he played in, here are the biggest minutes lineups he played in with at least one of Lowry/DeMar sitting and with one of Poeltl/Nogueira at centre.

Joseph-Powell-Tucker-Patterson-Poeltl: -14.4 net rating
Joseph-Lowry-Powell-Ross-Nogueira: -9.1 net rating
Wright-DeRozan-Powell-Patterson-Poeltl: -17.4 net rating

Those are the only bench looks that got more than 15 minutes of playing time. There are lower minutes lineups that have mixed results, some very good and some just as poor. In any case, not a great sign. When left on his own to produce offense, or to play as the second fiddle to Lowry or DeRozan, his lineups have struggled, to go along with his individual scoring struggles off the bench.

Norm could certainly find success there this year — he is still a young player who is developing. But if the Raptors play him there, they are banking on him finding success where he hasn’t before, rather than where he has.

What About That Miles Guy?

It makes sense to look at Miles as well. There is no sense in maximizing Powell’s success if Miles is just going to struggle in his role.

Miles could certainly start. The Raptors have done just fine in lineups where they have a shooter at the small forward position, at least whenever they bothered to use a quality power forward alongside them.

Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Valanciunas: +26.8 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Nogueira-Valanciunas: +15.4 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Ross-Patterson-Valanciunas: +18.5 net rating

Miles can slot into Carroll or Terrence Ross’ roles pretty easily, judging by their usage metrics. Both Carroll and Ross posted usage rates between 15-20%, while Miles last season posted an 18% usage. Carroll and Ross have 50-60% of their field goal attempts come from long range, Miles was just above 60% the past two seasons. Both Carroll and Ross draw very few fouls (indicative of plays driving into the lane) at between 0.1 to 0.2 free throw attempts per field goal attempt. Miles posted a 0.15 free throw rate, right in the middle of that range. And Miles can shoot the three ball — he shot 41% last season and has averaged 38% from long range over the past five years. While Ross and Carroll shot 38% and 34% respectively last season.

So, yes, Miles would probably be fine to start, at least for the regular season. Once the Raptors faced the trapping defence of the Bucks in the playoffs, they had to add another ball handler to the floor to break those traps, a decision which coincided with moving Valanciunas to the bench to avoid the strange matchup against the tiny Bucks starting lineup and have him defend the bigger Monroe. The bigger impact move there was Powell playing as a third ball handler, judging by the results from these lineups in that series (though Valanciunas matching up against Monroe was certainly key as well).

Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Carroll-Ibaka: +17.4 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Ibaka-Valanciunas: -20.6 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Tucker-Valanciunas: +31.9 net rating

That may or may not happen again this season, but if the Raptors can have success with Powell starting every night, why not nip that issue in the bud?

Can Miles Operate as a Bench Player?

We’ve established that Miles could probably play as a starter, but could he have success off the bench as well? First off, since we’ve established that Miles can slip into Ross’ role pretty easily with their similar play styles and similar shooting abilities, let’s remind ourselves of Ross’ success in those bench units last season and the season before.

Joseph-Lowry-Ross-Patterson-Nogueira: +14.3 net rating
Joseph-DeRozan-Ross-Patterson-Nogueira: +1.4 net rating

Joseph-Lowry-Ross-Patterson-Biyombo: +16.4 net rating
Joseph-DeRozan-Ross-Patterson-Biyombo: +13.7 net rating

Having a shooter in those lineups seems crucial. Look at what happened to them when someone like Powell replaced Ross last season (these are small samples, so not the most reliable).

Joseph-Lowry-Powell-Patterson-Nogueira: +21.7 net rating
Joseph-DeRozan-Powell-Patterson-Nogueira: -37.0 net rating

The Lowry version seemed to still do well, with both Lowry and Patterson still there as shooters, but the DeRozan lineup struggled in its limited minutes. Which is doubly concerning this season when Patterson will be replaced by Siakam for some of those minutes (Ibaka should play power forward for some of the bench minutes if he’s going to be a heavy minutes contributor like last season). That makes the presence of a shooting wing off the bench all the more pressing this season.

As a demonstration, take a look at Siakam’s most used lineups (outside of the starting lineup where he was simply outmatched) last season and see if there is a pattern. As you’ll note from some of the extreme results, we are again dealing with small samples, as Siakam was mostly trotted out with the starters.

Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Siakam-Valanciunas: -2.4 net rating
Joseph-DeRozan-Carroll-Siakam-Valanciunas: -8.7 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Siakam-Nogueira: +41.8 net rating
Lowry-Powell-Carroll-Siakam-Valanciunas: -5.3 net rating
Lowry-DeRozan-Ross-Siakam-Valanciunas: +31.0 net rating

I’ve highlighted the guys that would be considered volume 3-point shooters who spread the floor, though with Carroll that claim is a little suspect with his low shooting percentage from range this year.

In any case, the top two lineups had only one real shooter in them, and struggled. The bottom three had two shooters, and on average did very well for themselves. These lineups wouldn’t be playing against starting quality opposition, so this seems to show that the bench unit could well survive or even thrive so long as it has some shooting in it, even if Siakam doesn’t improve his range next year. But if the bench units are run out with no shooters at all? That would likely be very bad.

And if Powell comes off the bench, that’s likely what we’d see with those DeRozan bench units. A lineup of Wright, DeRozan, Powell, Siakam and Poeltl has three young players with either no range or no proven range, an athletic swing man who has proven to be a better shooter when surrounded by top talent and to struggle off the bench, and an All-Star guard who needs above all else spacing to operate in. There aren’t many of those sorts of lineups from last year, but here’s the closest I could find.

Joseph-DeRozan-Powell-Siakam-Valanciunas: -12.0 net rating

Some bench minutes will include Ibaka at power forward, and obviously Lowry will help his units, and those minutes will be fine, even great, regardless of who is at small forward. But the team can’t easily ensure they have multiple starters on the floor at all times, nor have they tried anything like that in the past. Last season no starter except DeRozan averaged more than nine minutes (Ibaka just edged above that line at 9.2) in the first quarter. The easiest answer for keeping shooting on the floor for all the bench unit minutes is to have Miles come off the bench.

So Who Starts?

Where does that put us? We have Powell, who has had great success in starting lineups, and seemed necessary once the playoffs and team-specific defensive schemes arrived. He’s struggled off the bench, trying to do too much in a scoring role, and the bench has been worse with him playing than it typically is.

We have Miles, a guy who looks like the same archetype of player that Ross or Carroll were, with a similar or superior shooting stroke and similar limitations, who could start in Carroll’s role, or come off the bench in Ross’ role, and probably find success either way, at least until the playoffs start.

We have a starting unit that has piles of shooting in it, unlike previous seasons when Lowry was the only reliable shooter, and can accommodate an only-decent shooter like Powell. And we have a bench unit made up of unproven shooters that will already have enough ball handlers (with Wright always there beside one of the All-Stars, against inferior opposition).

Throw in considerations like having Miles’ veteran experience there in the bench units with all that youth, while Powell plays with veterans like Lowry and DeRozan and Ibaka in the starting unit, and the conclusion seems clear.

For the purposes of this exercise, based on the numbers presented above, Powell should start at small forward and Miles should come off the bench.

What Does the Rotation Look Like?

We outlined last time a likely minutes distribution for the big men, and we already know how DeRozan and Lowry and Wright are likely to be used based on the last couple of seasons. There will be some additional transitional lineups between all these, but here is an example of how our theoretical rotation might look based on the conclusions we came to in these two articles.

First Quarter:
Starting Lineup: Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Ibaka-Valanciunas (first ~6 minutes)
Transition: Lowry-DeRozan-Miles-Ibaka-Poeltl (next ~3 minutes)
DeRozan Bench: Wright-DeRozan-Miles-Siakam-Poeltl (final ~3 minutes)

Second Quarter:
Lowry Bench: Wright-Lowry-Miles-Siakam-Valanciunas (first ~3 minutes)
Transition: Wright-Lowry-Powell-Ibaka-Valanciunas (next ~3 minutes)
Starting Lineup: Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Ibaka-Valanciunas (next ~3 minutes)
Lowry Pre-Half Rest Lineup: Wright-DeRozan-Miles-Ibaka-Poeltl (final ~3 minutes)

Third Quarter: repeat first quarter

Fourth Quarter:
Lowry Bench: Wright-Lowry-Miles-Siakam-Valanciunas (first ~3 minutes)
Transition: Wright-Lowry-Powell-Ibaka-Poeltl (next ~3 minutes)
Starting Lineup: Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Ibaka-Valanciunas (final ~6 minutes)
Closing Lineup: Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Miles-Ibaka (alternate final ~6 minutes)

It will never be quite so rigid, but every one of those units passes the test, based on the successful lineups and roles each player was in last season. Some more of that small ball unit may be sprinkled throughout depending on the matchup on any given night, but the above units should all have a good chance to outperform the opposition.

That leaves players with roughly this minutes load, although the average will come down a bit as some players rest in blowout wins or losses:

Lowry: 39 MPG
DeRozan: 36 MPG
Powell: 30 MPG
Ibaka: 36 MPG
Valanciunas: 27 MPG
Wright: 21 MPG
Miles: 21 MPG
Siakam: 12 MPG
Poeltl: 18 MPG

So, what do you think? Do you agree with the rotation I’ve outlined here, or with the two major decisions at centre and small forward made that led to it? Or do you think I’m crazy? Are there any assumptions made here that don’t seem to add up? Or perhaps you think there are other considerations that wouldn’t show up in the numbers.

Sound off below, and we’ll hash it out.

All stats per