Last night the Toronto Raptors kicked off the 2023-24 NBA season with a home opener game in Toronto vs the Minnesota Timberwolves. Not only did they win, but it was the first career NBA win for Darko Rajakovic as a head coach.
For a full recap of the game, see our postgame review here.
While the game was not perfect by any means — especially offensively — there were still a lot of positives to the game. Maybe one the team would have lost in previous seasons, they were able to hold strong in the fourth and get the win. The communication seemed to be flowing throughout the game as well.
One thing Rajakovic noted before the game was that he had a ten man rotation figured out to start the season. Obviously a very normal thing for coaches to do — have their 9-11 guys they are going to stick with for the most part. The roster is rounded out by two-way players who will jump from the team to their G-League affiliate — the Raptors 905 — plus a few guys who will be on “the cusp” of the rotation. Those cuspers could get minutes on any given night, especially as players potentially get injured throughout the season. Then there are the guys who may not get much of a run, but will be ready and available should the team need them.
Darko didn’t let everyone know exactly who was in his rotation before the game, but as the game progressed, we got a pretty good idea of who those primary ten will be to start.
First obviously are the starters. Dennis Schroder, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, and Jakob Poeltl. Unless one of them is out for any reason, it seems like this will be the starting lineup. It’s definitely a little more traditional of a lineup than in Raptors’ seasons past.
This is mostly because we have someone in the traditional point guard position (Schroder), and an actual center (Poeltl). Before the return of Jakob Poeltl at last season’s trade deadline, “Vision 6’9” meant that players like Siakam and Anunoby were sharing the role of post player while also having the responsibilities of normal wing players. We all have our opinions on the success or non-success of Vision 6’9, but it seems Darko will go a bit more traditional for now.
As for Dennis Schroder, he was brought in as the primary “Fred VanVleet” replacement. It seemed he was adjusting well to being a vocal leader on this particular team last night, as the team was seen communicating on court quite a lot. He played a fantastic game, scoring a team-high 22 points and seven assists, with a +/- of 10.
Scottie Barnes also has a lot of eyes on him this season. Yesterday it was announced that the Raptors had exercised their fourth year team option on him, meaning he is contracted through the 2024-25 season. Not surprising given they seem to be putting their hopes into him to become the franchise’s cornerstone player. In last night’s home opener he played incredible defence, getting five blocks in the game. He scored 17 points total. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a great season for the 2021 Rookie of the Year.
We are gonna split the bench into two separate categories. First is the primary bench — these are the guys who could slide into the starting lineup at any given point to fill in for injuries/illness etc. They are also the ones who seemingly have a safe spot in the rotation.
First is Gary Trent Jr. If basketball were a game played with six players on the court, Gary Trent Jr would be starting for the Toronto Raptors. It’s not that he doesn’t have the talent to be a starter, but he just doesn’t fit into this current lineup the Raptors have going. He is surely going to have an efficient season leading the bench. His defence wasn’t to its usual standard in the home opener but he was still extremely active. He is the kind of player who can explode on any given night and is extremely clutch, which surely Darko will use to his advantage in late game scenarios.
The next primary bench player is Precious Achiuwa. He ended up closing out the game last night, mostly because there wasn’t another stoppage in the game to sub in Poeltl. Darko commented after that he was happy with the way Achiuwa performed in that situation. Precious is still a younger player with a lot of potential, and if he can be a solid backup center in this rotation, it would be a great boost for the bench.
One thing Coach did mention last night was that he wasn’t necessarily married to this ten man rotation. Things could change, other players could earn minutes, etc. The 8-10 spots in this primary ten man rotation seem a little more flexible than the previous spots.
First up is Malachi Flynn. We all know the ups and downs Flynn has endured through his career so far. He was essentially not in Nick Nurse’s rotation over the past few years, despite being one of the only other “traditional” point guards on the roster apart from VanVleet. We saw extremely sporadic minutes from Malachi in the last two seasons — sometimes he’s be given the green light and other times he’d be sent in and quickly taken out. Seeing him the first half was rare. Obviously because of that his play was up and down as well.
Rajakovic seems to be keen to use him a little more. It seems to start the season he may relieve Dennis Schroder for minutes and be a mainstay in the lineups. The only question is whether he can use these increased minutes to his advantage. In last night’s game he was a team low -14 on the +/- scale and only scored three points. First game jitters or is this what to expect from a player whose development was basically thrown out the window for the first years of his career?
After him comes Jalen McDaniels — a little bit of a surprise to the lineup. It’s his first season with the team, which doesn’t say too much, to Darko everyone is new. He didn’t score last night and was a -3 on the night. A spot maybe expected to go to Otto Porter Jr over him, it’ll be interesting to see if McDaniels remains in the ten man rotation or is he ends up being one of those cusp-switch-up guys.
The last spot in the ten man rotation seemed to go to Gradey Dick. This seems to be a developmental minded decision — while Gradey Dick is definitely talented, he needs some reps to get him integrated into NBA basketball. He’s like a baby deer, wobbly and a little unsure but full of energy. The talent is surely there — the kid knocks down shot after shot in warm ups and practice. Hopefully with some reps, Gradey’s minutes can be more impactful to the team.
Out of the Rotation — For Now
There are a few players that seem to be out of the rotation but could be inserted back in at any moment.
Starting with Chris Boucher — who we guessed would be in ahead of Dick, but wasn’t. Darko mentioned a conversation he had with Boucher, calling him a extreme professional, and telling him to stay ready. Boucher could be the guy who gets minutes when Darko needs to shake things up, when the roster dwindles form injury, or could even be back in the rotation at some point.
Another surprising omission was Otto Porter Jr — this could be due to his continued ramp up after missing most of last season, though. Depending on his progress, this may just be to continue to condition the vet. He could be another one of those in and out players — out currently but in if the current “cuspers” aren’t performing up to par. Porter Jr could be a great veteran presence to this extremely young team, and hopefully he gets some run as the season progresses.
Like Coach said yesterday — he isn’t married to this exact rotation! He also has mentioned how much the current ten have earned their spots. Rajakovic seems to be a guy who rewards hard work and patience, so it also seems logical to assume that any of those borderline guys could be rewarded with minutes at any given point.
We will see how much this rotation stays as the Raptors head into their games this weekend against the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers, and then next week with Portland and Milwaukee.