A quarter way through the 2021-22 NBA season and the Toronto Raptors are 9-10 with the seventh best offence and the 24th best defence in the league. Go figure!
The good news is that the Raptors are wrapping up a season-long 13-day, six-game road trip on Friday and will return home for seven straight games (and 10 of the next 11, 17 of the next 21), giving them a good opportunity to go on a run in an extremely competitive Eastern Conference that has 11 teams separated by just 3.0 games.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, however, they have been hit by the injury bug for the third consecutive season, with Pascal Siakam (11), OG Anunoby (5), Khem Birch (4), and Yuta Watanabe (18) all having missed at least four games, limiting head coach Nick Nurse’s ability to settle on any semblance of a rotation and the players’ abilities to develop chemistry, especially on the defensive end where the breakdowns have been plentiful.
After all, Nurse is at his best when he has an array of different players and lineups to experiment with, and as the Raptors look to get fully healthy for the first time all season, he will continue rotating through different lineup combinations until he discovers which players are best suited to play with one another. It might take some time.
While Nurse has drawn criticism for running through so many different lineup combinations and changing his rotations so often that it's seemingly hurting on-court chemistry, you can hardly blame him for experimenting during the regular season. After all, it was during the 2018-19 season that Nurse tried playing two nominal centres in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol together, and it paid off in the playoffs against the supersized Philadelphia 76ers when the Raptors depended on that jumbo frontcourt to survive.
With such a young, inexperienced and new roster in Toronto, Nurse will continue to tinker until he finds lineup combinations that work, and even then there will be matchup-based changes. Still, every team has their go-to lineups, and here are five key lineups that could determine the Raptors’ success for the remainder of the season.
The core five
Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam
The Raptors’ five best players represent an interesting experiment in team building, bucking against the trend of depending on a traditional centre and instead favouring skill and mobility in the frontcourt, hoping that three 6-foot-9 guys with plus-wingspans and a ton of strength can collectively defend centres on one end and maybe even play them off the floor on the other.
Regardless of whether this group starts together or if one of them comes off the bench moving forward, they are guaranteed to play a lot of minutes together and need to be successful for the Raptors to feel confident in their team-building philosophy. After all, if you can’t play your best five players together — and if their skill sets don’t compliment each other — then they probably aren’t long to be your best five players.
In 100 possessions this season, the Raptors core five has a net rating of +2.0. At first glance, it looks like they have been great defensively, allowing just 101.0 points per 100 possessions, as opponents shoot an effective field goal percentage of just 50.0 percent. Plus, they are turning opponents over on 17 percent of possessions and using it to fuel an elite transition attack.
However, a deeper dive into the numbers shows that they are committing the most egregious sins that small lineups tend to commit (other than fouling, which they have been very disciplined not to do): giving up a ton of offensive rebounds, as opponents grab 33 percent of their own misses, and allowing a comically-high amount of corner threes as they make up for their lack of a traditional rim protector by helping off the corners so much so that 20.8 percent of opponent shots are coming from the corners, where opponents have been unlucky to shoot just 30 percent. A lot of these defensive breakdowns are a result of inexperience, though, and the more this group plays together, the better they should be able to gang rebound and cover for each other with crisp rotations, especially by contesting shots in the corners.
Offensively, despite struggling out of the gate by scoring just 103.0 points per 100 possessions, this group has a ton of firepower. After all, these are the five best offensive players on the roster, and there is enough spacing and playmaking to be a lethal combination once the chemistry comes along.
All of them are willing three-point shooters and, with the exception of Barnes, all have hit at least 37 percent of their threes on the season, making the spacing really good and opening up driving lanes to attack. Plus, in VanVleet, Siakam and Barnes, this group has three really good playmakers who all like to facilitate in different ways — VanVleet from the pick-and-roll, Siakam from the post, and Barnes from the elbows — making it a multifaceted and unpredictable offence.
The big question is: can they defend? If they manage to keep opposing centres in check and finish defensive possessions with rebounds, opposing centres will be in for a long night on the other end of the floor, because stashing your centre on any of Anunoby, Barnes or Siakam is a recipe for disaster, and that is what makes this group so intriguing.
VanVleet, Trent, Anunoby, Siakam, Birch
While it might be sacrilegious to put Barnes on the bench, a starting lineup of VanVleet-Trent-Anunoby-Siakam-Birch could be one of the best all-around starting groups in the league if Nurse chooses to go in this direction at full strength, allowing Barnes to be the primary ball-handler on a bench unit. This more traditional group puts everyone in their normal position and asks them to do things they are comfortable doing: VanVleet the point guard, Trent and Anunoby the spot-up shooters, Siakam the swiss army knife posting-up and facilitating, and Birch the screen-and-roller.
Due to injuries to Siakam, Anunoby and Birch, this lineup has played just 14 possessions this season, but they have all the makings of a good group on both ends of the floor. Defensively, VanVleet and Trent can contain ball-handlers on the perimeter, Anunoby can defend the best wing, and Birch and Siakam can act as rim protectors. Because this is one of the Raptors' most veteran lineups — and because they already proved they could play together last season — the defensive breakdowns should be far and few between.
Offensively, this group is primed to run spread pick-and-roll with VanVleet and Birch — who are scoring 115.0 points per 100 possessions together, developing a really nice two-man game — and Trent, Anunoby, and Siakam spotting up on the perimeter. All three of those guys can either shoot the three or attack off the dribble, making it a difficult play to defend. Swap in Svi Mykhailiuk for Trent Jr. or Precious Achiuwa for Birch, and the same tenets apply.
VanVleet, Dalano Banton, Barnes, Siakam, Chris Boucher
Any combination of VanVleet and four giants (Dalano Banton, Barnes, Anunoby, Siakam, Watanabe, Chris Boucher, Achiuwa, Birch) seems like a very odd group at first glance, but the Raptors' identity is supposed to be long and positionless, and these groups have the size and length to dominate defensively. Stylistically, they can either switch one through five or sprinkle in a zone defence to take advantage of their length, which is something they recently experimented with.
“Yeah, we've been toying around with that thing for a long time and it's taken us a long time to get to it this year once the season started.... And it was a good lineup that kind of, we kind of had the right feel out there with it with Chris, Dalano and Scottie kind of playing the outside of it, Freddy kind of plays the rover in the middle, and then Pascal's kind of got the rim protection in that thing,” Nurse says of that group playing zone. “So, it is something we hope to keep developing. And it is suited to when we've got a lot of length on the floor, and hopefully we'll get all the length back together a little bit and maybe we'll be able to use it some more.”
Of course, certain iterations of this jumbo lineup (say ones without both VanVleet and Siakam on the floor) will have trouble scoring the ball, but they can make up for it the same way the Raptors have made up for their offensive limitations all season: by getting out in transition and by dominating the offensive glass.
VanVleet, Trent, Mykhailiuk, Anunoby, Birch
Defence is one thing, but what happens when you are trailing and need a lineup that will provide a scoring boost? Throw some shooters on the floor and see what happens.
The group of VanVleet-Trent-Mykhailiuk-Anunoby-Birch is actually the Raptors' fourth most commonly used lineup this season at 79 possessions, scoring 117.7 points per 100 possessions (including an amazing 104.5 mark in the half court) and outscoring opponents by a whopping 27.6 points per 100 possessions. It makes sense given that VanVleet, Trent, Mykhailiuk, and Anunoby are all elite three-point shooters, each hitting at least 35 percent on a high volume, and Birch is a great screen-setter with a knack for freeing up shooters and finding open space on the roll. Plus, that group has turned opponents over on 19.8 percent of possessions, though their transition offence could use some work.
However, some luck is baked into the group’s hot start. Defensively, they are quite small and fail to match the Raptors’ identity of a long and athletic team. Right now, 41.4 percent of opponent shots are coming from beyond the arc, including 20 percent from the corners, where teams have been unlucky to shoot just 25 and 15.4 percent, respectively. Those numbers are guaranteed to go up, just as they have when you swap Achiuwa in for Birch, when opponents are shooting 41.7 percent from three and outscoring the Raptors by 30.6 points per 100 possessions. While Achiuwa and Birch are different players, they’re not that different, so the main question this smaller group needs to answer is whether or not they have enough juice to survive defensively, especially on the perimeter.
The (international) bench mob
Banton, Trent, Barnes, Watanabe, Achiuwa
Let’s get funky.
The Raptors bench is averaging just 25 points per game, making it the lowest scoring bench in the league. Fortunately, Watanabe returning to the fold should help immensely, with no one on the bench replicating his ability to execute the defensive scheme, rebound, and knock down open threes.
A combination of Banton-Trent-Barnes-Watanabe-Achiuwa is about as funky as it gets, with Barnes the primary ball-handler and Trent Jr. the primary scorer, while Banton, Watanabe, and Achiuwa can all switch across positions defensively, pressure the ball, and protect the rim.
Offensively, this group could be lethal in transition, an area the Raptors have slowly but surely improved as the season has gone along. Banton and Barnes are both elite in transition, both as playmakers and finishers, and the two have a nice chemistry together on offence. Of course, this group is not going to have a great half court offence given the lack of spacing (only Trent and Watanabe shoot threes efficiently), but through a combination of offensive rebounds and transition buckets, they could score enough to not just survive, but ultimately change the dynamic of games.
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