Recent injuries to the Raptors — perhaps you’ve heard about them — pretty much opens the lab for Nick Nurse to experiment. Given his documented unconventional way of thinking, Nurse can now get really creative with his lineups and rotations, because he’s doing it out of necessity. So far, some Raptors lineups have looked good, some were atrocious, and some played out the opposite of how it seemed it would go on paper.
On the semi-bright side here, it’s also a good thing the Raptors essentially have seven starter-calibre players. With Fred VanVleet perhaps back in the lineup soon, that means they’ll still have Kyle Lowry, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka soaking up most of the minutes. After that, it can get really weird.
Who’s the fifth starter, who’ll soak up most of the available minutes, and most importantly: just how funky can Toronto’s five-man lineup be?
Miller Time: Lowry-VanVleet-Malcolm Miller-Anunoby-Ibaka
We had a glimpse of Malcolm Miller starting a couple of years ago when both OG and Norman Powell went down with injuries. It’s a small sample size, but he looked decent during that stretch. However, those minutes were played with vastly different offensive options such as DeMar DeRozan, Lowry, Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas.
Miller should compensate a little bit for the defensive versatility and length that Siakam would typically bring. Defensively, there shouldn’t be a big drop off (at least in terms of executing Toronto’s schemes), but offensively is where it can get extremely tricky — unless Miller comes in aggressively and starts hoisting shots at an insane rate.
Bien sûr: Lowry-VanVleet-Anunoby-Boucher-Ibaka
Coach Nurse can go long and athletic up front, and a Chris Boucher-Anunoby-Ibaka front-court can make it really difficult for opposing teams to shoot around the rim. While he’s good at rim protection, Boucher still makes mistakes on defensive rotations and switches.
Boucher’s untapped skills and his unabashed willingness to shoot should prevent the offense from stagnating entirely. Now, whether those shots go in or not, that’s a different question.
Lowry’s desire to run-and-gun fits Boucher’s game, and he can be a good substitute for Siakam on those cherry-pick situations. However, moving Boucher to the starting lineup would break up the chemistry of the Rondae-Davis-Boucher wrecking crew. Also, moving Boucher to the starting spot, we might see him put up 20 shots. Are we ready for that? Is anyone?
Of course, we can always wish, but the reality is, there’s a higher chance that we see a Lowry-VanVleet-McCaw-Anunoby-Ibaka starting lineup. It’s worth noting that the Raptors 905 have been experimenting with a three-PG five-man lineup this season too.
This ultra-small ball group, but with length and rim protection added by Boucher and Ibaka, can get really interesting. On paper, Ibaka looks like he’s the sole post-up threat. However, that’s the 90’s game, and it’s all about drive and kick, layups and three-pointers.
Here the Raptors can use Lowry and VanVleet as shot creators, McCaw as the conduit, and insist that Ibaka and Boucher be willing to shoot at all times (no problem!). You can’t go wrong with that. The question is how they’ll hold up defensively.
High Variance: [VanVleet/Lowry]-Anunoby-Boucher-Rondae-Ibaka
Coach Nurse can go somewhat big, with Anunoby at the SG spot. VanVleet or Lowry are the only options at the point (too volatile for it to be McCaw or Davis) as you need the savvy leadership of those two.
This group can potentially be as energetic as the Davis-Rondae-Boucher crew, and it should offer enough half court offense. The downside here is if the opposing defense will happily let anyone else not named VanVleet or Lowry shoot threes and clamp the paint.
Ultra Small-Ball: Lowry-VanVleet-McCaw-Davis-Ibaka
This concoction seems to be waaaay out of the leftfield. However, if you’re following the Raptors 905 games this season, they have experimented with playing four of Tyler Ennis, Jawun Evans, Shamorie Ponds, Matt Morgan, and Duane Notice. Heck, sometimes, they go without playing even a legit centre.
Actually, this is nothing new. The Raptors have had an ultra-small ball lineup in the past, having fielded a squad of a Lowry-VanVleet-Delon Wright-C.J. Miles, or other iterations with DeMar or Miles who would end up playing in the PF spot (if you can still believe that).
Obviously, there’s a significant risk defensively, but if their quick hands and quick rotations can prevent bigger guys from getting into the paint (or slow them enough for Ibaka), it could be something to see. With this group, we might see a consistent full-court press that doesn’t necessarily have to happen at the end of the game.
Raptors 905: Ponds-Davis-Miller-Rondae-Boucher
This lineup is very unlikely to happen, as I doubt Nurse would spend a single non-garbage time minute without one of Lowry/VanVleet/McCaw on the floor. However, just look at how weird and fun that lineup can be. You have the fast-twitch wrecking crew of Davis-Rondae-Boucher, and you have Ponds, who is an interesting prospect and someone that we’d like to see whether he can “cook” at the NBA level.
Garbage Time: Ponds-Davis-Miller-Brissett-Dewan
This lineup is how I thought the Raptors 905 roster could look like this year, and it would be nice for Nurse if he can put these five on the floor together. It’s a good audition for Ponds, Oshae Brissett, and Dewan Hernandez to steal some rotation minutes here and there.
Of course, Mr. 99% Matt Thomas should be back soon too, but there’s no word if it’s before the end of the year or after the holidays. The Raptors have seven games in twelve nights (of Christmas?), and the Nurse has to watch Lowry’s minutes and ease VanVleet into the rotation. For now, or at least during this stretch, it looks like the Raptors and the fanbase are about to go on yet another rollercoaster ride.