The Boston Celtics manhandling of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 prompted a wave of outrage around these parts.
It was proof, many said, that Dwane Casey couldn’t coach his way out of a wet paper-bag, if you spotted him a knife and a map. How could a team of kids, with no stars, murder the Cavs, when Toronto, the better regular season team, with multiple All-Stars, looked so awful?
That line of thinking leads to the following: if the Celtics beat, or maybe even just push the Cavs to the limit, it’s proof that Dwane Casey is a bad coach.
But what if that’s wrong? What if the Celtics success, and by extension Toronto’s failures of the last two post seasons are a much greater indictment of the current rosters’ ability to compete at the highest level than the coach’s ability to use it?
Or, as one wag put it on twitter: (What if) Dwane Casey got fired for maximizing the Raptors potential?
There is a strong case to be made that the Toronto Raptor’s roster is not suited to modern basketball at the highest level — especially on the defensive end.
Too Many Players Can Only Do One Thing
Almost half of the roster, the three centres (Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, and Lucas Nogueira), plus Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, can really only guard one position. Yes, FVV and KLOE are both bulldogs, but their stature means teams with intelligent wings and bigs can force the Raptors into scramble mode on almost every pick-and-roll (The fact Bradley Beal couldn’t punish Lowry throughout the Raps first round series is a big part of the Wizards’ problems).
This hamstrings the Raptors in their attempts to match up with teams that are more flexible. We saw it against Cleveland all three years, but to lesser extents against the Pacers, Heat and Bucks. Those teams that have fewer roster spots occupied by pure 1’s and 5’s and as a result had a lot more weirdo lineups that were and are plausibly effective.
Weirdly enough, the Golden State Warriors also have this issue — with five guys who can basically only guard the four or the five. When the Warriors were slumping (and injured) a great deal of digital ink was spilled on the fact that the Warriors had hamstrung coach Steve Kerr by giving him a bench filled with Kevon Looney, Javale McGee, Damian Jones, David West and Zaza Pachulia — forcing him into either going big, or trying to cobble an effective team out of weird pieces like Nick Young, Quinn Cook and Patrick McCaw.
Of course, unlike our beloved Dinos, Golden State can turn to a quintet of Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Andre Igoudala that may be the best five-man unit in the history of the game.
The DeRozan Factor
There is no other way to put it: No team relies on so much of their offense from a player who is as significant a defensive liability as DeMar DeRozan. The Cavs relentless hunting of DeRozan in pick-and-rolls proved this. Time after time, DeMar would die on a screen, guess wrong, shade too far away from a shooter — setting off a chain reaction that LeBron was only too happy to exploit.
Maybe the same factor that enables DeMar’s calculating offensive game to thrive, with its probing and testing of the defense, is what hurts him on D. It’s as if being unable to control the rules of engagement brings out the worst in DeRozan’s basketball instincts.
I might even try a version of DeRozan at the four in super small line-ups. As a post defender, DeMar’s surprising strength and pride plays up. I’m not saying he would have shut down Kevin Love, but I wonder if he might have given him a shocking amount of trouble down low. Even still though, it’s no long term solution.
The fact the Raps best stretch of play against Cleveland came when DeRozan was benched can’t be minimized. That Casey would even think to win by sticking one of his consensus top two players on the pine is mind-boggling. The fact he had the guts to it is to be admired. I can’t think of a single second round team, with, oddly, the possible exception of the Cavs, who would ever even imagine that as a realistic scenario.
(A side note here: Again, let’s not forget how good LeBron is. When I watched Game 5 of Celtics-Sixers, I was frustrated by how many times one of those teams would work their way into a mismatch, only for the ball not to go there. When playoff LeBron is on the floor, he ruthlessly exploits those opportunities, and this Toronto roster gave him a lot of those opportunities.
LeBron’s single greatest basketball skill, and the one that makes him my G.O.A.T, is that he can do this. Put this year’s Raps against any other team in the NBA and they would have shown better simply because the other team wouldn’t have had one of the best basketball minds in NBA history on the floor. It’s one of the underappreciated elements of LeBron. He never lets a mismatch go unpunished.)
((A second side note: This isn’t too say that DeMar is unplayable, or the Raps can never win with him, but if he’s on the floor, you better surround him with multi-positional defensive jack-knifes. Hmm, kind of like the ones Celtics coach Brad Stevens had when hiding Isiah Thomas last year.
Which leads us to....))
The Dinos Are Going Extinct
The Raptors have an almost total lack of flexibility on the wing. People are shocked by how well the Celtics are doing without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, but they shouldn’t be. The C’s have six guys that can credibly guard four positions — at least for a possession or three — in Marcus Morris, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jason Tatum, Marcus Smart and Semi Ojeyele. When Gordon Hayward returns, and as Guerschon Yabusele develops, they could have eight.
The Raptors might have three, if you’re feeling generous about Serge Ibaka sticking on a two-guard for a few possessions. In the post-season however, Ibaka struggled with every number, took himself out of position to chase blocks, and regressed brutally on the boards.
The perfect Toronto line-up for modern basketball would look something like this: Ibaka, Pascal Siakam. OG Anunoby, DeRozan and Lowry — and just reading those names you can see the problems Casey faced.
On paper that line-up might just have enough shooting and ball-handling — if you’re feeling frisky about Ibaka and OG’s stroke, and Siakam’s handle. But wait, that lineup still has a defensive sieve, an under-sized PG, and uh, well Ibaka.
Try subbing in Norm Powell in for DeRozan and you are better defensively, but your offense is now gasping for points.
You could sub Delon Wright in at either back-court spot, and maybe you’d be better if you think Wright can physically hold his own all the way up to the three spot. But, if Delon shoots poorly, or, maybe more likely, stops shooting — and again, the offense craters.
C.J. Miles gives you shooting, but no play-making, and at best he’s a Kyle Korver-esque defender who’s usually in the right place but can be attacked easily on the perimeter and the post.
Notice what we haven’t done? Swap in anybody in the front-court. You could try Poeltl in Ibaka’s spot, and you might be better defensively, but then you almost have to have Wright in for DeRozan because otherwise there is simply no room to operate on offense, and if you do do that, well, who the hell is taking advantage of those driving lanes?
(And for the VanVleet fans angrily fuming in the background, sure, swap FVV for Kyle if you want. But, if you think you can thrive in a seven-game series, against any truly good NBA team, with having a maybe twelve-foot combined back-court, you’re kidding yourself.)
All this is to say (and brace yourselves here), Brad Stevens is a genius coach. He’s innovative in ways Casey isn’t — no question. But, general manager Danny Ainge was able to hand Stevens a set of players that are perfect for where the NBA is going.
This roster isn’t Masai Ujiri’s fault, and in fact, a lot of the best pieces are because of him. But as you watch the Celtics continue to swarm and overwhelm any of the Cavs not named LeBron, remember the lesson you’re learning isn’t about one coach knowing how to use his pieces better, it’s really about a coach who didn’t have them to begin with.