What initially frightened the Raptors fanbase was the injuries to Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. Both were staples on the team and the bench was dubious at best. Then, lo and behold, Toronto’s bench suddenly found their footing with both core players out and the Raptors ultimately started winning, too.
Now, Lowry and Ibaka are back and the Raptors have dropped four of their last five, with the lone win coming in a one-point affair against the brutal Chicago Bulls. The team has looked out of sorts, discombobulated, and disconnected. On Wednesday, they were manhandled by Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, which sparked an idea.
What if the Raptors took a page out of the Clippers’ playbook and started staggering some of their better players?
Notably, the Raptors were without Fred VanVleet for the game against the Clippers while L.A. was at full-strength. Despite that, the Clippers boast a unique starting five wherein they do not actually start their best five players; they save Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell to come off the bench and use the tandem to extend leads and beat up on bench units.
It appears to be a good strategy for them. Yes, they have Kawhi and Paul George too, but the Clippers also have the second-best record in a competitive Western Conference. Could the Raptors employ a similar concept?
Who Would Be Switched?
First, we need to dissect who are the best candidates on the Raptors to have their minutes and spot in the rotation switched up. By all accounts, Norman Powell is performing better in the starting lineup. According to Basketball-Reference, his scoring is up to 16.4 points per game when he starts compared to 10.5 on the bench. Moreover, his shooting splits all increase when he starts: 48.8 percent from the field, 39.1 percent from deep and 85.7 percent from the foul line on starts against 44.8, 31.1 and 79.3 percent when he comes off the bench. Lastly, his offensive rating skyrockets when he starts to 113 points per 100 possessions compared to 98 points per 100 possessions. And, right now, he’s started roughly half of the games this season.
Logically, if Powell is inserted into the lineup then either Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet are going to have to swap out as the size of OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol are too important defensively.
This is where things get a little tricky. Lowry is a stalwart in the starting five and the heart of the Raptors. VanVleet, on the other hand, is proving himself with steady play, young, and is growing in popularity (we see you, Hubie Brown, with that Finals MVP vote!). Therefore, it comes down to who fits better with those starting five versus who fits better with the bench unit.
To figure this out, I used Cleaning the Glass to construct a table, which shows the net differential of various combinations:
So, what can we discern from this table?
We first need to note that this is a relatively small sample size in terms of possessions, especially for Lowry. Besides that, what truly stands out is Lowry’s lineup differentials with Ibaka and without VanVleet, which stands at minus-7.0.
In the past, strictly by the eye test, Lowry and Ibaka seemed to hum on offense. We cannot forget the bread-and-butter pick-and-roll plays that often led to an open shot for Ibaka at the elbow. Yet in their limited time together this season, they have been performing subpar especially to their standards.
Meanwhile, VanVleet is performing relatively well with Ibaka and without Lowry for a solid plus-9.9. Granted, again, this is a very small sample size, but more fruitful than Lowry and Ibaka nonetheless. In general, VanVleet is performing well without Lowry on the floor, which makes some sense as they both do a lot of the same things for the team in similar ways (but Lowry has had to muscle his way back from injury).
Despite VanVleet seemingly serving better with a proposed starting lineup of Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol, Fred could be a better player coming off the bench. This is sheerly based on the poor performance with Lowry and Ibaka together. As it stands, relegating Lowry to the bench to play with Ibaka would do a disservice to the Raptors’ veterans, which is exactly what they are attempting to solve. In an odd way, Lowry underperforming compared to VanVleet has helped his case to stay in the starting five.
Essentially, Nick Nurse should consider experimenting with Lowry, Powell, Anunoby, Siakam and Gasol as the starters with VanVleet and Ibaka being the first off of the bench.
Would This Actually Work?
There are a few flaws in the table above. Most importantly, a majority of it just shows two-player net differentials and NBA basketball is often times a five-on-five game (unless you’re the Rockets when James Harden feels like shooting it). VanVleet and Lowry have had a combination of minutes with bench players, but not strictly with the bench players. The experiment could ultimately backfire.
Yet, I’d argue that it’s a risk worth taking. Although a five-game slump isn’t terrible in the grand scheme of things, we saw how this team can perform at its peak, so it would be disappointing if there weren’t attempts to get back on that pace. Plus, being on a good team is great for young player development — and Toronto does have a lot of guys who could continue to gain from that success in their pro careers.
To be honest, though, it would come as a surprise if Nurse made a change so suddenly. With Lowry and Ibaka only back for a few games apiece, he may be nervous to drastically change things and impede their steady comeback.
Still, if the tower continues to crumble, adjustments will need to be made. Before Masai Ujiri sells off large contracts at the trade deadline, let’s give these guys an opportunity to fix it on the court first.