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Analyzing Toronto's starting lineup: Should the Raptors start Gasol?

The Raptors may want to consider changing the starting lineup, if only because the numbers suggest they could be really, really good.

Toronto Raptors HQ Roundtable: Marc Gasol, Valentine’s Day, NBA All-Star Weekend, and more Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors just made their biggest trade deadline acquisition in franchise history. It would have been perhaps the biggest all-in move ever if they hadn’t set that bar far higher with Kawhi Leonard in the summer. Still, Marc Gasol is the sort of name that the Raptors have rarely had attached to them.

A former defensive player of the year, All-Star calibre centre who even as he ages is posting raw production numbers in line with his career averages (about 15 points and 8 rebounds), and still carries impact numbers that put him among the elite big men in the game (his +3.0 BPM would rank 3rd on the Raptors, his +3.2 RPM is 8th among centres, and his +2.5 PIPM is 11th among centres).

BPM: a box-score metric attempting to capture player impact provided by basketball-reference
RPM: a player impact metric provided by ESPN
PIPM: a player impact metric provided by BBall-Index

And yet, for the first three games of his tenure before the All-Star break, Gasol came off the bench and rarely played with the other stars on the team. And in turn, the Raptors strung together three tight wins against the Knicks, Nets and Wizards — wins, but hardly a demonstration of the team’s dominance against far inferior opposition. And not exactly a call back to the early season success the team had before injuries beset them.

So, the question is whether the Raptors will start Gasol, and whether they make him a full time starter or platoon with Ibaka the way Valanciunas did. I would argue the entire logic of the trade is dictated by Gasol being an upgrade on Valanciunas not because of his production (comparing the two by individual production actually shows the team took a bit of a step back), but because of being able to keep him on the floor against a wider variety of opponents, and therefore to play him significantly more minutes than Valanciunas was given. And as such, there should be no question that Gasol should be the full-time (or nearly full-time) starter and command a heavy minutes load (though probably still less heavy than the 34 minutes per game he was carrying in Memphis).

In my mind, the real question is: just how good could the Raptors be with Gasol starting at centre? So let’s take a look.

The Current Starters

First, let’s consider what we would be losing if we started Gasol. The starting lineup with Ibaka at centre has been acclaimed all season as a dominant lineup, providing the Raptors with a dangerous look that can go toe to toe with the best teams in the league. Ibaka has seen his effectiveness increase at centre. And the team is near the top of the East, in spite of well-published troubles with the bench unit’s effectiveness.

So, they must be a great lineup. Everyone seems to think so. But how are they actually performing?

Well, in nearly 480 minutes played this season, the starting lineup of Lowry, Green, Leonard, Siakam and Ibaka has a 112.6 ORTG, a 106.6 DRTG and a +6 RTG.

ORTG: Offensive rating, points scored per 100 team possessions
DRTG: Defensive rating, points allowed per 100 team possessions
RTG: Net rating, point differential per 100 team possessions

For some context to those numbers, take a look at this:

Lineup | Minutes Played | ORTG | DRTG | RTG
Ibaka starting lineup: 479 MP, 112.6, 106.6, +6.0
Valanciunas starting lineup: 140 MP, 120.1, 98.7, +21.4
2017-18 starting lineup: 801 MP, 112.1, 102.7, +9.4

Leaving aside Valanciunas for the moment, the Raptors can’t be happy with the effectiveness of their starting group. Last season, the Raptors were playing Ibaka at PF, a position many believed he was no longer suited for, had a rookie small forward starting on the wing, and had to deal with the twin effect of DeMar DeRozan’s lacklustre perimeter defence and Valanciunas’ lack of foot speed as a help defender.

And yet, after upgrading Anunoby to Danny Green (one of the best perimeter defenders in the league), and DeRozan to Kawhi Leonard (again, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league), sliding Ibaka to centre and making room for the breakout year of one Pascal Siakam, this year’s starting lineup is posting worse numbers than last season’s.

Some of that could be explained away by the rough return from injury Kyle Lowry had after missing a month of games with a bad back — looking only at data from before Lowry went down in December, the lineup’s net rating rises to +11.1 — a better number, but hardly the significant upgrade on last season’s +9.4 you’d expect. And still well short of the Valanciunas lineup.

Even then, though, the lineup has been buoyed all year by a hot start and has been plummeting in effectiveness ever since. Even looking at the assumption that Lowry’s struggles returning from injury were a cause of the drop off doesn’t hold up — in the past 5 games (all wins), Lowry has shot 46% from long range on nearly 9 attempts a game, a true return to form. And yet, over those 5 games (playing in three of them), the Ibaka starting lineup has managed only a +7.8 net rating. Still fine, but the team is not aiming for fine.

Gasol for Valanciunas

Which leads to the point of optimism. The starting lineup has looked it’s best this season without Ibaka. Starting Valanciunas in his place has led to a significant improvement in the scoring margin for that lineup. As noted above, the +21 net rating for that group is obviously far better than the +6.0 the Ibaka group has racked up over the season, and remains far better even if we remove the past few months of the season since Valanciunas and Lowry got injured and missed so much time (+11 net rating). It’s the sort of return that was expected when the Leonard trade happened.

Now, there are all sorts of caveats. The minutes played for that group are far lower — 140 minutes is not nearly the sample that 480 minutes is. Still, this is not a small sample. On the season, even though Valanciunas hasn’t played (for the Raptors) since mid-December, that lineup’s 140 minutes still ranks as the 51st most played lineup in the entire league today. With 140 minutes played, that lineup would have been the 4th most played lineup for last season’s team over the entire year. It’s a solid sample.

A second caveat, and the most used argument I’ve seen, is that the Valanciunas lineup faced far inferior competition, so would have inflated ratings compared to the Ibaka lineup, which has faced more difficult competition. Which is correct! But the scale of the adjustment is not nearly so great as many seem to think. If we assume that the lineups played only in the games they started (this is certainly not true, but the assumption will lead to the absolute most extreme apparent difference in competition), we can get an evaluation of the relative strength of schedule each lineup faced.

I’ve posted on here before an approach I use to evaluate the team’s performance by taking into account the opponent’s ratings and the schedule (back to back effects, home court advantage). I’ve isolated the games Valanciunas started and the games Ibaka did, and figured out an effective net rating impact due to that strength of schedule.

In Valanciunas’ games, the team had an expected net rating performance of +2.5, meaning we can subtract that from the starting lineup’s performance and have a schedule-adjusted performance. Remember, this is an extreme approach, as the lineup’s opposition will actually be more varied than this, leading to a less extreme adjustment. Still, applying that factor gives the lineup only a +18.9 net rating.

Similarly, Ibaka’s starting lineup has an expected net rating performance of -0.9 (using only the games before Lowry’s injury — using all games gives -0.6), meaning the starting lineup has an adjusted net rating of +12.0 (prior to Lowry’s injury), or +6.6 (full season).

You can see, even with the opposition taken into account, and applied in an aggressive fashion, the difference between the lineups is significant (using the smaller sample) to stark (using the full season). Meaning if Gasol can replicate Valanciunas’ impact on the starters, the team could see a huge boost.

So... can he?

The Gasol Upgrade

We’ve already established that the true upgrade from Valanciunas to Gasol is likely to come in the form of minutes played — Valanciunas was carrying less than 19 MPG, and Gasol has been playing 34 MPG so far this season. Even if Gasol is scaled back to a more reasonable 30 MPG, that’s still a lot of extra minutes where Gasol can hopefully be providing the same or better impact that Valanciunas had on the other starters.

And he may well provide a better impact than Valanciunas — surely that is the hope among team management. But as shown above, replicating it would do wonders if it came along with more minutes, so let’s examine this trade from the perspective of matching the impact, and consider any additional impact as gravy.

There are several things Valanciunas rather obviously brought to the team this year, and some less obvious things. Anyone could tell you Valanciunas was by far the best rebounder on the team, and their most reliable and efficient inside scorer. He produced at an incredible rate for the limited minutes he got and carried a high usage rate. The things people may not be as aware of are his rim protection and how he unlocked offence for other players through his screening.

The rebounding is an area of concern. In 80% more playing time per game, Gasol grabs only 20% more rebounds than Valanciunas. Gasol’s 9 rebounds per 36 minutes pales in comparison to his predecessor’s 13 rebounds per 36. The good news is that defensively, they actually post similar rebounding rates, with Valanciunas grabbing 30% of available defensive rebounds and Gasol grabbing 26%. So only a small downgrade there, and obviously one would hope Gasol’s status as a defensive player could make up for any loss there. The real difference is on the offensive end, as Gasol tends to stay further from the rim and grabs far fewer offensive boards (3.5% versus 10.5%).

Similarly, Gasol does not put up the same scoring numbers as Valanciunas. Gasol’s efficiency (54% TS%) is a far cry from the younger centre’s (63% TS%), and his 17 points per 36 minutes comes nowhere near Valanciunas’ 24 points per 36. In terms of pure production, this seems like a fairly stiff drop off.

Starting Lineup Scoring

But we should consider how Valanciunas is putting up those numbers, and how important they are to the starters’ success. In the starting lineup, Valanciunas has averaged 8 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes — almost exactly what Gasol has averaged this season in Memphis. So that’s one concern that isn’t likely a problem. The offensive rebounding is another matter — Valanciunas has actually seen his offensive rebound rate increase to 12.6% of available rebounds with the starters.

But is that offensive rebounding the key to that lineup’s offensive success? The Ibaka starters actually have a higher offensive rebound rate as a lineup (27%) than the Valanciunas version does (24%), and a significantly worse offensive rating. So that’s probably a strength they can afford to let drop a bit.

So then what contribution is Valanciunas making offensive if the rebounding is not that impactful? Well, his individual scoring is one thing. He does provide about 23 points per 36 minutes for that group, very similar to his overall scoring numbers. But you know who else scores at volume for the starting group he is in? Serge Ibaka, with 21 points per 36 in his far less effective lineup.

So again, we find a potential drop off in production from Gasol might not be all that concerning, considering how little difference there is in the volume scoring of the two previous centres, and yet there being so much difference in the effectiveness of the lineup.

So what does Valanciunas provide that Ibaka doesn’t that could explain that difference in offensive success between the two lineups?

Screens, is the simple answer. Valanciunas provides the team with 4.7 screen assists per 36 minutes, and that’s with him playing the majority of his minutes with players who are not the screen and roll threats that Kyle Lowry or Kawhi Leonard are (oh, if I never have to watch another Fred VanVleet pick and roll it will be too soon). While Ibaka, playing mostly with those two players, has provided only 3.7 screen assists per 36 minutes. Sadly it is not possible to filter hustle stats like screen assists for time on court together, but the noticeable effectiveness of the Kawhi Leonard-JV pick and roll early in the season suggests that skill is a crucial one for Gasol to replicate.

And good news! Gasol can set screens. Now, his role in Memphis didn’t have him set many screens, as he would create a lot of offence himself, but he still racked up 3 screen assists per 36 minutes, and in his three games here has already averaged 4.2 screen assists per 36, also playing mostly with the bench players Valanciunas played with, so signs are positive he can be effective as that big body setting solid screens to free up the scorers in the starting lineup.

So that’s all positive. And of course, there are piles of things Gasol is better at than Valanciunas, most notably his shooting and passing, both of which should provide new avenues for offensive success.

Starting Lineup Defence

So, there is this too. The starters’ offence being better with Valanciunas makes some sense — he’s always been an incredibly effective offensive player. But the defence had also been significantly better with Valanciunas. And that runs counter to the typical narrative about his strengths and weaknesses.

One obvious reason why has already been covered — Valanciunas’ superior defensive rebounding means the lineup’s defensive rebounding is better. Right? Well, slightly better. The two starting lineups have defensive rebound rates of 70.6% and 71.1% — neither are particularly good. And the difference there is not nearly enough to drive the difference between their defensive ratings.

Some of it may simply be that more offensive success leads to fewer transition opportunities for the opposition. But no — on closer examination, the Valanciunas starting lineup gives up more fast break points (12.0 points per 48 minutes) than the Ibaka group (10.9). So that’s not it. The lineup is simply more effective in the half court at getting initial stops. Perhaps knowing they can have similar rebounding success with Valanciunas grabbing the rebounds allows the perimeter defenders to focus more on forcing misses rather than having to direct energy toward rebounding the ball. Hard to say.

We’ve already looked at the difference in competition, and the adjustment is not nearly high enough to account for the difference in success.

So, what does Valanciunas do defensively that is far better than what Ibaka does? He doesn’t move in space as well (though Ibaka isn’t great either). But what about interior defence? The big narrative with Ibaka this year is he’s back to defending the rim like he did early in his career being able to play closer to the rim on defence.

Well, a quick look suggests that that simply is not the case. The starting lineup allows opponents to score 46 points in the paint per 48 minutes with Ibaka, and only 41 with Valanciunas. In the meantime, Ibaka’s block rate is sitting at 3.7% this season — down from 3.8% last season, and the lowest it has ever been. Valanciunas, with a very different reputation, had a pretty similar 3.3% block rate on the Raptors.

But blocks aren’t everything, challenging shots is important and blocks are really just one indicator of rim protection. So, looking at opponent FG% within 6 feet of the rim... Ibaka has had a positive impact at the rim — opponents are shooting only 53% when he is in the vicinity, 9% below their average success rate. But Valanciunas has had even more success — opponents are shooting only 46% (!) with Valanciunas nearby, 16% below their average. Meanwhile the two contested a nearly identical number of shots at the rim per minute played.

Whether that success was sustainable or not against a wider variety of opponents or even over a bigger sample as the season went on is questionable. Defensive FG% stats are notoriously noisy and can swing wildly. But that rim protection clearly made a big difference for the starting lineup’s defence.

The bad news is that Gasol has had a rough ride in Memphis this year — players are hitting shots over him to the tune of 58% near the rim. He’s still having an impact, that’s still 3% below those players’ average efficiency there, but he hasn’t thus far replicated the success of the Raptors’ centres. At the least, his block rate has been similar to Valanciunas’ this season. So perhaps there is some systemic difference between the Raptors and Grizzlies that will help Gasol re-create that individual rim protection. The one bit of good news here is that Gasol does seem to help his team limit points in the paint — the Grizzlies only allowed 41.7 PITP/48 with Gasol on the court, similar to the number the Valanciunas starters put up.

We’ll See

Overall, there are some questions that are worth keeping an eye on, but there appears to be a lot of reason to hope that Gasol can replicate much of what Valanciunas provided to the starting lineup. And we haven’t really given much thought to the stuff Gasol can do on top of that. There is a lot of upside with his outside shooting and passing, both of which were lacking in both Ibaka and Valanciunas.

We’ll have to wait and see. With a decent sample in the run up to the playoffs, we should have a better idea what will work and what won’t by the time a playoff rotation needs to be set, and we won’t have to rely on on-off splits of players who aren’t even on the team anymore to try to craft solutions to the problems the team has been facing of late.

And let’s keep in mind the thesis of the above piece — simply replicating the success the starters had early in the season with Valanciunas, without any additional benefit from the varied skill set of a player like Marc Gasol, and just unlocking more of that success by playing Gasol more than JV had played, would give the Raptors one of the best lineups in the league and allow them to go toe to toe with the best teams in the league. What else they unlock above and beyond that will be fascinating to watch.

All stats per unless otherwise noted.