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Raptors in the Clutch: Does Toronto have too much of a good thing?

The Raptors are very good (and fun). But they’ve struggled in some specific situations down the stretch of games. Let’s try to figure out why.

Toronto Raptors v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

So... things are going well for the Raptors. They are 26-10, the best record through 36 games in franchise history, and have bounced back with three solid wins after faltering a bit after the Christmas break.

But there are some reasons for concern. They’ve mostly built their record by beating up on losing teams — which they should be doing, don’t get me wrong — and under-performing against winning teams. They currently sport a record of 19-3 against teams that are currently under .500, and a record of 7-7 against teams that are currently .500 or better. Now, those 14 games against winning teams are heavily skewed because of a road heavy schedule (nine of the 14 on the road, where they are 3-6, versus 4-1 at home against winning teams).

Still, it’s worth looking to see if there are any particular weaknesses on the team, and one area that jumps out is the teams relative performance in close games — the sort of games you’d expect to be in against better opposition.

Closing Out Games

The Raptors have posted amazing measures for the season as a whole. They rank third in the NBA in net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) at +7.5, just a hair behind a free-falling Houston for second (+8.5), and well ahead of the next closest competitor, the Celtics (+5.1).

But in close games, in the final minutes, not so much. The NBA defines clutch minutes as the final five minutes or overtime of a game when the score is within five points. In those situations, the Raptors slide all the way down to 14th, with a barely positive +1.7 net rating, roughly middle of the pack in both clutch offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) and defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions).

This correlates with their current .500 record against winning teams, and is showing a trend that when situations get tight, the team is not performing like the elite NBA team it usually looks like.

So, what’s the problem?

Who is Closing Games?

Let’s take a look at which players have been closing games, how often, and how the team has performed with them on the floor in clutch minutes.

Player | Minutes Played | Net Rating
Lowry, 53, +1.7
DeRozan, 53, +1.7
Ibaka, 52, +4.1
VanVleet, 31, -6.0
Anunoby, 28, +21.2

Everyone else has played sporadic clutch minutes, less than 15 total on the season, and as you’d expect with samples that small have net ratings all over the map.

But there’s a clear outlier here (well, two of them). As you’ll note, DeRozan and Lowry have both played every minute of clutch time, as you’d expect, and as such have net ratings the same as the team’s overall net rating in the clutch. OG has been incredible, as he seems to be in every situation. But we’re looking for problems first, not solutions, and there’s one mark that sticks out like a sore thumb there.

Fred VanVleet posts a -6.0 net rating while playing over half the team’s clutch minutes. If you work backwards from that and the team’s overall rating, that means the team has posted a +12.6 net rating in the clutch minutes without VanVleet. That’s an 18 point swing, and even with the small samples inherent in clutch situations, that’s a problem worth addressing.

Backing out a little further and looking at the team level results, and with that net rating it won’t surprise you that the team is only 5-4 in close games when VanVleet plays clutch minutes. They are 4-2 in close games where he doesn’t.

But FVV Has Been Awesome

He has, especially in bench units. And his steady play has earned him the trust of the coaches in the Raptors’ closing minutes.

On the year, VanVleet is still second on the team in overall on-court net rating, and an insane fourth in the league with a score of +12.0 (yes, the higher ranked Raptor is OG Anunoby, of course, second in the league with a +14.1 rating). The bench units have been incredibly successful, though there is some question how much of that is due to Delon Wright and OG’s sporadic presence there.

The bench unit ranks second in the league with a +7.5 net rating (right in line with the starters and overall team rating, the first time in a long time we could say that about the Raptors). But looking closer at the units that have been used, it’s actually been very hit and miss. Here are the only four all-bench units (listed by their initials) that have over 15 minutes played this season.

FVV-DW-NP-PS-JP: 58 MP, -1.2 RTG
FVV-NP-CJM-PS-JP: 54 MP, -23.5 RTG

Now, this is concerning, but not overly so. When the playoffs start, rotations should shrink (and could in key regular season games as well), and the star-led units would get more time to shine. And shine they have.

DeRozan without Ibaka or Lowry: 148 MP, +17.6 RTG
Lowry without Ibaka or DeRozan: 100 MP, +18.7 RTG

Yeah, they’ll be fine. But it does speak to where VanVleet’s incredible on-court ratings come from — he fits nicely alongside either star (often with Wright present as well) against inferior bench opposition, a formula that has worked for the Raptors for years, giving rise in part to Patrick Patterson’s plus-minus dominance in his time with the team.

But in lineups where both stars play alongside VanVleet (and presumably the competition gets much stiffer), those incredible ratings drop quickly, to about +5, and as noted earlier, well into the negatives in key moments.

One of the key differences is the defense. VanVleet has the worst on-court defensive rating of any heavy minutes closer, and we see a similarly mediocre defensive rating in the lineups where he plays with both stars in general. Against better competition, VanVleet’s size begins to tell a bit, but I don’t think it is VanVleet’s individual defense that is the issue. VanVleet playing means he basically has to defend the smallest opposing player — which shoehorns Lowry and DeRozan onto opponents they may be able to avoid if a more versatile defender (such as Wright or Anunoby) plays in VanVleet’s place.

The offence also tends to die a bit in the clutch, with VanVleet again posting the worst on-court number (99 ORTG, very poor). Again, his individual offense is not terrible, but too often he ends up running the offense when really you want the ball in the hands of your stars down the stretch. Against opposing teams’ best defensive looks VanVleet can’t easily get inside and finish to make him effective as a tertiary attacker.

So... Who Should Play Instead?

Sadly... I don’t know. We don’t have much of a sample with anyone else. OG should pretty clearly always be closing, but that still often leaves an extra spot open if he’s in the 4-spot beside Ibaka. Delon Wright probably deserves as big a shot as VanVleet has gotten. Jonas Valanciunas should only close when the matchup is right, which is how he’s been used so far and he’s been very effective when he has closed games. C.J. Miles is someone most observers probably expected to close a lot of games and he’s gotten very few chances so far.

This isn’t one of those issues where there is an obvious improvement to fix the issue. It’s reminiscent of the starting unit’s early season struggles — which, as it turned out, fixed themselves. But in that case there was no obvious solution to try without significant issues being created elsewhere. In this case, its a matter of finding out what else the team might have in terms of options, and there’s basically no rotation ramifications from trying something.

And if they want to improve that record against winning teams and in close games, VanVleet might need to return to a slightly smaller role.

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