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Abandoning the centre position is not a cure-all for the Raptors’ woes

The Toronto Raptors have downsized. It’s made the team better in the short term — but has brought new problems as well.

Toronto Raptors v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Friday, January 8: It took Nick Nurse but four and a half minutes to realize his shakeup had not worked.

Desperate for a spark, Nurse had moved Alex Len into the Toronto Raptors’ starting lineup in place of a struggling Aron Baynes for the team’s game against the Sacramento Kings — and the Kings promptly poured in sixteen points in the paint with Len on the court.

Nurse had seen enough. His move backfired, so he shook it up again.

He put Chris Boucher in at the five, and we did not see a traditional centre on the floor again for the entire game. Far from a coincidence, the Raptors put together their most impressive basketball display of the season for the rest of the game, outscoring the Kings 137-103 for the remainder from the time Len left the floor.

They stuck to this look against the Golden State Warriors, keeping Len and Baynes on ice for the entire game. The next day, against the Portland Trailblazers, Len started to match the size that Jusuf Nurkic brought, but even then, he still did not crack 10 minutes. Though they lost both games, their play was vastly improved from a dispiriting stretch early in the season. The shift away from traditional centres to pseudo-small ball, combined with the re-emergence of Pascal Siakam, has seen the Raptors graduate from unwatchable, borderline eye-gouge-able losing to fun, silver lining-filled losing.

While it is reasonable to expect that those shifts will soon translate to watchable wins, we should beware an over-reliance on the downsizing. It was a move born out of desperation, not a strategic masterstroke by Nick Nurse. As such, it handicaps the Raptors in multiple ways in the long run. This small look has been a big revelation, but it is not the long-term solution.

Why it is a problem?

The first problem lies in the sustainability of going small. Although the marquee small ball centres — Draymond Green, PJ Tucker — have downplayed the wear and tear that comes with shifting up a position, one look at Toronto’s de facto five, the stick-thin Chris Boucher, shows how he differs from those guys. They make up for their lack of height with girth, strength, and a low center of gravity. Boucher does not possess that might and can take a beating from some of the more powerful centres in the NBA.

This would also mean a significant jump in minutes for Boucher. Prior to the Sacramento game, he averaged 19.5 minutes. Since then, his minutes have jumped to 28.4 per game. With the way he has played thus far, he has certainly earned it, but a significant part of his effectiveness is the way he flies around the court like a pinball ricocheting off supercharged bumpers. With more minutes, particularly gruelling minutes, it will be tough for him to sustain that activity. It can also create foul trouble for a player not used to playing so many minutes, as it did against Golden State.

Shifting guys up a position will also create ripple effects, affecting other guys on the team. Sometimes, OG Anunoby will be asked to bang with a big. Considering he has great defensive instincts and is as strong as fortified steel, he can effectively do so. The problem is that it moves the team’s best wing defender off of the perimeter. Additionally, players like Norman Powell, for example, will have to shift up a position more frequently to small forward when he is traditionally a guard.

These are not enormous issues. The Raptors’ core guys are versatile, but if you have a border collie, it’s best used to herd sheep. Sure, you could probably make a decent guard dog out of it if you train it up right, but you will not be getting the maximum utility from it.

Speaking of versatility, although it is the malleability of the core players like OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Kyle Lowry that allows the team to play small, their lack of a reliable big man sees them lose some team-wide versatility. Over the past two seasons, the Raptors’ chameleonic nature was key to their success.

Marc Gasol was always ready for an intense matchup with an opposing big. Serge Ibaka offered a sleeker, faster look. There were also the break-in-case-of emergency options in the OG-at-centre lineup, or the double big look with both Gasol and Ibaka. This season, if Nurse busted out a Baynes-Len lineup, I would take it as a sign that he is taking his first steps away from coaching so he can start playing acoustic sets in smoky bars for a living.

Without reliable centre play, they lose a huge element of that lineup flexibility. In addition, Gasol and Ibaka were also excellent screen-setters; though Boucher and Kyle Lowry are developing an effective pick-and-roll combo, Boucher isn’t a brick-wall screener that opens up the floor.

Although small lineups will often force opposing teams to adjust, sometimes a matchup will just dictate a necessity for size. Experimenting with lineups is all about trying to tip a matchup in your favour, but without a traditional big who inspires confidence, it is like entering into an arms race on a budget.

Can it be solved?

The Raptors need to find a middle ground. The Golden State Warriors of old and Houston Rockets proved that a smaller go-to look can be effective, but the great Warriors teams always had big men like Andrew Bogut, Zaza Pachulia, or even Kevon Looney — guys who were at least somewhat reliable — that they leaned on quite heavily. The Rockets went without one last year, and it failed.

The Raptors are in this predicament in the first place because neither Baynes nor Len have hit the “somewhat reliable” threshold yet. They were the Raptors biggest offseason acquisitions this year, and they have been a bust up to this point. Admittedly, they came cheap, but if these centres turn into nothing more than a sunk cost, it will represent a slight stain on the record of Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster.

The easiest solution is for Aron Baynes to find a role with the team. He’s ranged somewhere between a positive contributor and a neutral one over his past four years, with positive on/off stats in three of those years, per Cleaning the Glass. Neutral, right now, would be pretty good for Toronto! 20 minutes a game of tough defense against opposing bigs and steps towards competence on offense could be all the Raptors need from their true centres.

I’m relying on Baynes over Len simply because Baynes has a precedent of supplying exactly what the Raptors would need from him. Len has not yet proven he has that in him.

I don’t think that a fluid starting lineup, provided the Raptors get something from Baynes or Len would be such a bad thing either. Nurse did exactly that with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, with remarkable success. Players like consistency in their roles typically, but Boucher and Len are career backups, and it is hard to see them being miffed with the opportunity for starts here or there. Additionally, Baynes’ reputation is that of a great teammate, so something like this gives him the chance to prove it in Toronto.

If the Raptors can’t extract some competency out of Baynes or Len, the only option to actually fix this problem and avoid punting on the season entirely is through trade. There are a few potential solutions on the trade market, but they are not ideal. Either the Raptors would have to overpay or send out Norman Powell, who would be the best player in a deal for a centre with him as the centrepiece.

For example, Toronto could essentially trade Powell straight up for Gorgui Dieng or Richaun Holmes with some filler salaries on either side so the math works. But these guys aren’t as good as Norm, and though they may fit better, they don’t provide an automatic cure-all for the team.

There is no home run trade for the team, and I’m inclined to ride it out and hope for the best. This team will not mortgage the future for a better shot in a transition year anyway, so that may very well be what happens.

Whatever the case, the small Raptors are fun and exciting. Nick Nurse has always been hesitant to play that card, but his hand has now been forced. Ideally, it has not become his only card. Being small can be Toronto’s go-to, particularly in crunch time and key moments as their best five is some combination of Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby, Boucher, Siakam, and Powell. To hit their ceiling, however, the Raptors need a big man in the fold.