Having seen Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet start together in the backcourt for most of the Raptors season thus far, it’s not often that the Raptors have plenty of size advantages in the starting lineup. Both Lowry and VanVleet stand at a mere 6 feet tall, but with their stocky build they can easily compete strength-wise with most 1 and 2 guards in the NBA. In the frontcourt, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol all have proportionate measures, but none so monstrous as to the point where they would tower over a matchup at their respective position.
Obviously the Raptors have had their injury issues though. Lowry has missed 11 games, VanVleet has missed 9, Anunoby has missed 1, Siakam has missed 11, and Gasol has missed 11. In all, this typical starting lineup that was expected to last 82 games, has only started together in 11 of the Raptors 40 contests to date. Nick Nurse has performed an extravagant juggling act through the first three months of the season, and has been forced to insert 11 of his 17 bodies under contract into the starting lineup at some point or another.
Maybe it would come as a surprise to see a 5-man unit consisting of Lowry, Anunoby, Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Gasol on the floor together on most nights. Last season, Gasol and Ibaka rarely played together at the same time (with the exception of the Raptors Second Round series against the Philadelphia 76ers) due to the multitude of size that they brought, which induced issues with floor spacing, and perimeter defense. Last night, Nick Nurse dared to take that leap, and go even bigger, inserting the 6’10 Siakam into the small forward position, and the 6’8 Anunoby into a guard slot.
Such a lineup had only been used once before all season – against Philadelphia, on December 8th, 2019, for a mere seven minutes. In that short stint, they still managed to outscore the Sixers by 10 points, shooting a perfect 4/4 from the floor.
Last night, Nurse hoped some of that magic might carry over. The same “Jumbo Lineup” started together for the first five minutes and eight seconds of the game, before Norman Powell subbed in for Gasol. In that short amount of time, the Raptors scored 13 points, and played fast, intense, team-oriented basketball, setting the tone for the rest of the game. Ultimately, that energy led to the Raptors having 73 first half points, finishing the game with seven players in double figures, and topping it off with 33 assists.
On the season overall, this Jumbo Lineup has the 6th highest per 100 possessions net point differential on the team at +28.7, meaning that if Lowry, Anunoby, Siakam, Ibaka, and Gasol were to stay on the floor together for 100 possessions (approximately a full NBA game), they would win by around 29 points. Obviously, the sample size of these five playing together is minuscule, at under 20 minutes, however it doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ve played exceptionally well together.
Among aspects that such a big lineup would struggle with in theory, as aforementioned, is floor spacing, however given the drastic improvements in the shooting abilities of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, this 5-man unit attempts 9.4 fewer threes than their opponents per 100 possessions, and makes 2.3 fewer, but ultimately shoots the ball 2.1% better from deep. It doesn’t hurt to throw into the mix that Ibaka is stroking the ball the best that he has from deep since his days in Orlando, Gasol is also shooting 37.0% from beyond the arc, and Lowry is draining 35.3% of his career high 8.9 looks from three-point range.
It’s highly unlikely that Nurse will opt to hold onto this starting lineup when VanVleet returns to action from his knee injury, both due to the fact that it forces the bench to play with an undersized frontcourt of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher, but also because moving VanVleet to the bench would be asinine given how tremendous he’s been playing this season – which is illustrated through the NBA’s most recent All-Star voting results. Despite breaking apart the Jumbo Lineup, it feels once again as though the Raptors have a plethora of riches, with multiple scoring options on the floor at any given time, and having more than one experienced veteran on the court to direct the young guys when they seem lost.
Still, if VanVleet is not cleared to play in tomorrow’s game against Washington, then fans can expect to get another glimpse of this Raptors Jumbo Lineup. We’ll see how a frustrated Wizards squad, featuring one of the smallest players in the league can handle such colossal size tomorrow, and if they choose to once again start both of their centres – as they happened to do in their most recent outing as well – to combat the strength of Gasol and Ibaka in the paint.