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Raptors appear to be getting over the hump

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The Raptors have been scuffling along for a month, but things are starting to turn around. Let’s take a look.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On December 12th, the Raptors looked to be peaking. They were looking to bounce back from a couple tight losses that followed a 9-1 stretch, and they got dominating blowout wins over two top West teams, in a road back to back, starting a difficult West coast road trip off in style. The second game on the 12th was against the Warriors, who were looking for revenge and were at full strength after losing a close match shorthanded in Toronto a couple of weeks earlier.

The Raptors crushed them, winning by 20. They were riding high, and suddenly this tough road trip looked like it might be a sweep.

Unfortunately, a couple of other things happened in that game. Jonas Valanciunas had his thumb dislocated on a hard (uncalled) foul from Draymond Green. And Kyle Lowry hurt his back.

Since that game, Valanciunas has not played, and will likely be out for a few more weeks. Lowry missed four games, attempted to come back against the 76ers, and then missed six more games before making a more successful return four games ago against Indiana.

In the 11 games between the Golden State game and Lowry’s successful return, the Raptors went 6-5. They’ve won four in a row since Lowry came back, but two of those wins were narrow last minute wins over less than impressive competition in the Hawks and Wizards.

So, let’s take a look at what has stayed the same and what has changed over this stretch, and figure out what issues should sort themselves out when the team is fully healthy — and maybe look for some signs that the Raptors could be even better than they were early in the season for having gone through this rough patch.

The Bench

First off, let’s start with something that was an issue early in the season. In the period of games leading up to December 12th, here are the on-court ratings for the bench players and the most used bench lineups (all lineups with no Lowry or Leonard and at least 15 MP).

Player | Minutes | Net Rating
Miles, 337 MP, -11.3 RTG
Monroe, 95 MP, -8.8 RTG
Brown, 153 MP, -6.3 RTG
Wright, 406 MP, -6.3 RTG
Richardson, 76 MP, -3.3 RTG
Anunoby, 486 MP, -0.6 RTG
Powell, 164 MP, +1.9 RTG
VanVleet, 633 MP, +5.2 RTG
Valanciunas, 564 MP, +5.4 RTG

Lineup | Minutes | ORTG | DRTG | RTG
FVV-DW-CJM-OGA-JV: 48 MP, 109.7 ORTG, 114.8 DRTG, -5.1
FVV-DW-CJM-OGA-SI: 34 MP, 100.0 ORTG, 119.4 DRTG, -19.4
FVV-DW-OGA-PS-JV: 22 MP, 98.0 ORTG, 100.0 DRTG, -2.0
FVV-NP-CJM-OGA-JV: 19 MP, 77.8 ORTG, 106.5 DRTG, -28.7

Now, all those lineups are small samples, but they are all also bad. The best being the group with Siakam there to bolster the lineup is not surprising (and also the one with no CJ Miles, who is just having an awful year).

The Starters

Now, all those bench issues were not a huge problem in the early part of the season, thanks to the dominance of the various starting and closing units.

Lineup | Minutes | ORTG | DRTG | RTG
KL-DG-KL-PS-SI: 293 MP, 114.5 ORTG, 103.4 DRTG, +11.1
KL-DG-KL-PS-JV: 140 MP, 120.1 ORTG, 98.7 DRTG, +21.4
KL-FVV-DG-PS-SI: 72 MP, 117.9 ORTG, 87.5 DRTG, +30.4

Take away Lowry, and that cushion goes away, in theory. The most used lineup since December 12th was:

Lineup | Minutes | ORTG | DRTG | RTG
FVV-DG-KL-PS-SI: 137 MP, 119.8 ORTG, 108.8 DRTG, +11.0

Huh. Well, if the starters managed to still be decent, what’s with the ~.500 record over that stretch?

Back to the Bench

Since December 12th:

Player | Minutes | Net Rating
Boucher, 45 MP, -19.5 RTG
Miles, 133 MP, -14.7 RTG
Monroe, 222 MP, -10.6 RTG
Brown, 59 MP, -9.9 RTG
Anunoby, 330 MP, -6.9 RTG
Powell, 251 MP, -5.4 RTG
Wright, 331 MP, -2.9 RTG

So, the starters have held up OK (though we’ve lost out on those dominant variants to the starting lineup), but now we’ve gone from a bench that was problematic except for 2 positive contributors in Valanciunas and VanVleet mostly keeping it afloat, to having VanVleet starting and Valanciunas hurt, and being left with a bench that is basically just problematic.

This is actually a really good sign. Once the Raptors are fully healthy, the bench may sort itself out, especially as the Raptors have started using Siakam and their stars more with the bench units.

Before December 12th, Siakam had nine percent of his minutes come with bench units (no Lowry or Leonard). Since then, nearly 20 percent of his minutes have come in bench units. Lowry has gone from 34 percent of his minutes played away from Leonard (and that includes all those games Leonard missed) to over 50 percent since then (admittedly in a sample of only a few games). Leonard has gone from only 15 percent of his minutes away from Lowry to 23 percent in the past three games together.

If that trend continues when the team is healthy again, that should help bolster the bench to be a consistent positive contributor, while the starting and closing units should return to form — having the option to put Valanciunas at C or bring VanVleet as an extra ball handler is quite valuable, as seen in the lineup ratings up above.

For now, we can rest easy knowing that most of the issues the team has faced lately do seem to be directly tied to the hit their depth has taken over the past month or so, and with them starting to get healthy again (and with the removal of a couple key weaknesses in their bench units in Brown and Miles), the team should see a return to form soon.

With the hardest part of their schedule over now, the team is in a good position to get a firm grip on the top spot in the league and guarantee themselves home court advantage in the playoffs.

All stats per nba.com