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Searching for the ideal transitional and closing lineups for the Raptors

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We’ve got basically an entire season to go off now, and it’s time to decide what options the Raptors can rely upon going into the playoffs.

NBA Playoffs 2019 Toronto Raptors Stress Test: Ranking every playoff series by pressure, DeMar DeRozan, Fred VanVleet Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we started tackling the various rotation questions facing the Raptors heading into the playoffs. We left off with the issues the transitional lineups between starters and bench have had this season.

We saw that the transitional lineups have struggled, as shown below.

Lineup | MP | ORTG | DRTG | RTG
KL-DD-CJM-PS-JP: 52 minutes, 96.0 ORTG, 110.1 DRTG, -14.1 RTG
KL-DD-OGA-SI-JP: 49 minutes, 106.0 ORTG, 122.8 DRTG, -16.9 RTG
KL-DD-CJM-SI-JP: 48 minutes, 110.7 ORTG, 103.8 DRTG, +6.9 RTG

And we looked at some small ball lineups to use situationally.

Lineup | MP | ORTG | DRTG | RTG
KL-DD-NP-PS-SI: 34 minutes, 110.2 ORTG, 97.5 DRTG, +12.8 RTG
KL-FVV-DD-PS-SI: 23 minutes, 98.4 ORTG, 99.8 DRTG, -1.4 RTG
KL-DW-DD-PS-SI: 21 minutes, 119.1 ORTG, 92.4 DRTG, +26.8 RTG

And closed with this:

Those small looks have also been used sparingly this year, mostly in situations where it makes sense — to match up with smaller opposition. So if it makes sense in-game, they should certainly try these looks rather than the early Jakob Poeltl and C.J. Miles minutes. But what if it doesn’t?

Well, at that point we have to question the players subbing off.

Another Alternative

In OG Anunoby’s case, I’d expect in a lot of major playoff match-ups the Raptors will want 48 minutes of OG or Pascal Siakam on the opposition’s best forward, so they will likely be substitutions for each other. And Anunoby has found most of his success playing in that starting lineup, so we’ll assume he checks out at this point. Meaning Siakam checks in.

Siakam at the three makes little sense, usually, so we’ll also assume one of the bigs checks out. We’ve covered the small ball looks, so let’s explore what happens if Serge Ibaka checks out of the game instead, leaving Jonas Valanciunas beside Siakam. Here is the 4-man lineup with those two frontlining the Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan backcourt.

Lineup | MP | ORTG | DRTG | RTG
KL-DD-PS-JV: 87 minutes, 104.8 ORTG, 108.8 DRTG, -3.9 RTG

That’s not great. It’s a little better than the significantly negative transitional lineups, but let’s aim a little higher. It’s a look they could use if Ibaka was to get in foul trouble (the most used 5-man lineup in the sample is actually with OG at the 3, and is a significant positive), but in terms of getting guys breathers it looks like a lineup you don’t want to rely on overmuch.

Even More Alternatives

So, if transitional looks with Ibaka at PF don’t work, and transitional lineups with JV at C don’t work, and the situation doesn’t call for a small look, what’s the team to do?

To answer that question, I ask another: why do there need to be transitional lineups at all? What is to stop the Raptors from leaving their starting unit out there until the time when the DeRozan bench unit takes over?

Typically, the Raptors’ starters are used for about the first eight minutes of the 1st and 3rd quarters. The DeRozan bench lineup will take over about two minutes later. So, they just need to bridge those two minutes. The obvious answer is to have the starters play two more minutes than usual. That’s not an extra minutes load on Lowry, DeRozan or Ibaka, as they’d be playing the transitional minutes, and it’s not like Valanciunas or Anunoby are exactly overloaded with minutes on a typical night with their season averages of 22.5 and 20 minutes respectively.

And that’s a good plan A. The key will be if there is a quarter where the players are gassed and need a break, or one of JV or Serge picks up a couple early fouls, when that substitution will need to happen earlier. The temptation there is to go back to those transitional lineups — but I would argue the Raps have a pretty solid track record of those failing. If you can get a small ball look out there, go for it, but otherwise you are throwing out a lineup you expect to bleed points. So, in that scenario, perhaps the team should explore bringing in the DeRozan bench unit a couple minutes early. Our study two weeks ago suggests they would not necessarily struggle too much going up against the better competition, and they have built up some chemistry that might help overcome that. In any case, it’s a look that might struggle against the opposition rather than one we are confident will struggle.

The same idea applies to the middle of the 2nd and 4th quarters. Rather than transitioning back starters slowly, let the all bench unit or the Lowry bench unit run for about half of each quarter and bring back the entire closing unit all at once.

Speaking of which...

Closer Lineups

Who do you close with? The answer for many teams is simply their starters, typically the strongest group. There are times you have to go small (or big) to match up, but most often you want to just put your best players on the floor in winning time.

So, first, let’s look at how various players have performed in the clutch this year — that is, how the team has performed when those players have played in the clutch. NBA.com defines clutch time as the final five minutes of the 4th quarter (or overtime) when the score is within five points.

Player | MP | ORTG | DRTG | RTG
DeRozan: 150 minutes, 104.5 ORTG, 107.0 DRTG, -2.5 RTG
Lowry: 129 minutes, 105.2 ORTG, 107.1 DRTG, -1.9 RTG
Ibaka: 112 minutes, 106.8 ORTG, 105.6 DRTG, +1.2 RTG
VanVleet: 93 minutes, 105.2 ORTG, 101.2 DRTG, +4.0 RTG
Valanciunas: 67 minutes, 110.2 ORTG, 107.5 DRTG, +2.8 RTG
Siakam: 55 minutes, 96.4 ORTG, 103.9 DRTG, -7.5 RTG
Wright: 54 minutes, 103.0 ORTG, 108.0 DRTG, -5.0 RTG
Anunoby: 31 minutes, 117.7 ORTG, 98.0 DRTG, +19.7 RTG
Miles: 27 minutes, 105.8 ORTG, 105.8 DRTG, 0.0 RTG
Poeltl: 21 minutes, 98.5 ORTG, 128.0 DRTG, -29.5 RTG

Some quick observations. VanVleet and Anunoby both seem to be key defensive players in the clutch. Anunoby’s sample sadly comes from only six games from early in the year, but if there are match-ups where you need a bigger wing defender in crunch time and Fred VanVleet doesn’t make sense on that end, Anunoby has had success when he’s been used, and as we noted, closing with your starters makes sense anyway. But considering the recent trends, he would likely only be used in that situation where VanVleet isn’t an option.

One other thing that stands out is how the offense absolutely dies when Siakam or Poeltl play. With reduced spacing, the defence can key on Lowry and DeRozan too easily. Leaving aside Anunoby’s few games of great success, the key to the offense appears to be playing Valanciunas, and to a lesser extent Ibaka. Meanwhile, the defence with or without Valanciunas has performed about the same in the clutch. Another clue pointing to playing the starters together late, or at least most of them.

So, that leaves us with two prospective closing lineups, which look like this for the year (both for the overall lineup success and the 4th quarter minutes for that lineup).

Lineup | MP | Overall RTG | 4th Q RTG
KL-FVV-DD-SI-JV: +24.6 RTG; +16.4 4th Q RTG
KL-DD-OGA-SI-JV: +11.5 RTG; +48.7 4th Q RTG (tiny 7-minute sample, sadly)

In addition, the small ball looks we discussed above could work if absolutely required, but with Siakam’s struggles in the clutch, the team seems better suited to play to their strengths in that situation rather than try to play the matchup game.

One more thing to look at is how individual players are scoring late in the game, as those on-court offensive ratings above are all pretty lacklustre, and going down the stretch, if the team can maintain their style and not revert to old, bad habits, they will still need players to hit shots.

TS%: True Shooting Percentage, an adjusted FG% measure that takes into account the value of three point shots and free throws.

Player | 4th Q TS%
DeRozan: 57.2%
Lowry: 59.3%
Ibaka: 46.6%
VanVleet: 52.7%
Valanciunas: 62.0%
Anunoby: 56.8%

Lots of good numbers there, with one notable exception. What’s going on with Serge late in games? Let’s look at his raw shooting splits.

Ibaka in the 4th Q:
30-of-60 from 2-point range
10-of-13 from the free throw line
3-of-19 from three point range

That’s mostly a fine distribution, except for the distance shooting. It’s a small sample, so hopefully this is not a trend that continues, but if this is a sign of Ibaka being tired late in games, hopefully the team can find some more rest minutes for him in the middle of games — perhaps by extending those DeRozan bench and Lowry bench minutes. Just something to watch.

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So, that’s it. Do you have any hopes for the Raptors’ playoff rotation that weren’t covered in this series? Perhaps you think a look that has worked will not in the future? Or do you have a concern about a match-up that may throw a wrench into these rotations? Sound off in the comments.

As ever, if there are any questions about the stats or sources, feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to clarify anything that is unclear.

All stats per NBA.com, as of April 2nd, 2018.