It has been a crazy season so far for the Toronto Raptors. After starting 2-8, finally they have climbed back to a .500 record. Even this climb to 15-15 hasn’t been smooth sailing. In the last 20 games, the Raptors have lost to a depleted Miami Heat roster, the Sacramento Kings, and the Minnesota Timberwolves. At the same time they have defeated the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks two times. We have seen flashes of brilliance, but for the most part it has been a painful road to get to this point.
The Raptors are not alone in the craziness of this season. Look at the Miami Heat, the Dallas Mavericks, and even the Boston Celtics who are just one game above .500. There are so many factors that are contributing to unpredictability during this season. No fans, contact tracing, and for the Raptors – a new home. Half of the league seems to have a player shooting 50/40/90, which used to be an extremely rare accomplishment. All things considered, the Raptors are still right in the mix of things. They are now sixth in the struggling Eastern Conference. They are just five games out of first place, and only two games back of third. Contrarily, they are just three games up from twelfth.
So what can we make about the Raptors moving forward? They could clearly use a centre, despite some decent moments from Aron Baynes. But do they really need a starting centre? Nick Nurse finally did what the fans have been pleading for all season. The Raptors started small with their best, and longest tenured five man lineup. This lineup of course is Fred Vanvleet, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. Powell has consistently shown major upside when he starts and this is the path moving forward for the Raptors (once Lowry returns). But just how successful can it be?
Small Sample – promising results
Due to starting Baynes and some injuries, this lineup has only played together for 37:55 minutes this season. Per 100 possessions, they have a +5.1 point differential, +5.2 assists, and +6.7 steals. The foundation of this lineup is built on playing fast, elite team defense, and chemistry between players who have grown together in the Raptor system. Nurse has such a creative system that takes time to learn which these guys perform better than anyone else. And it’s not even close. We saw this unit in game 6 against the Boston Celtics go punch for punch against a lot of talented offensive players.
Defensively, this is where people get concerned. They do not have anyone to defend the rim and thus opponents will attack this. Per 100, they have a -8.6 block rate which is the worst among their 20 most used lineups. It would be easy to assume that rebounding would be an issue, but they are only -2.6% with this unit. The switchability of all five players and the defensive IQ looks so good with the eye test that you can forgive some of these numbers. They create havoc on the ball, send doubles to create turnovers, and rarely get caught out of position. When you see a Terence Davis or even a Chris Boucher on the floor, it can be frustrating because one small misread will result in an easy bucket for an opponent.
Which match ups can they succeed against?
When you deploy a lineup like this, it can be very circumstantial on who it will succeed against. Looking at the top teams in the East, we have seen it against the Bucks, and the Celtics. Both matchups have seen success from this lineup in the limited sample. This is likely to do with that fact that neither team has an elite big man who operates on post ups. Of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo does exist, but the primary defense is to build a wall to take away his drives. This would also apply to teams such as the Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, and Indiana Pacers. They have offences based around perimeter players. Bam Adebayo and Domantas Sabonis are great bigs, but OG and Pascal can contain them as well as most true centres could.
The Philadelphia 76ers could be the problem here. In the past, the Raptors had Marc Gasol to solve the Joel Embiid conundrum. Nobody on this roster, nevermind the small ball, can shut down Embiid. You need a tall, strong player, who does not bite on Embiids fakes and send him to the free throw line all night. In fairness, not many players can do this. The problem is that the Raptors have even less of a fight against him. Between him and Ben Simmons on the floor the Raptors will be hard pressed to slow them down in important moments.
The good news is that offensively this lineup can cause problems for any defense if they are playing well. It will just come down to if they can make big stops in crunch time to win games.
Once this roster is fully healthy, we can expect a lot of small ball minutes for this team. It will be interesting to see how opposing teams adapt to the Raptors small ball. Coaches will be faced with the question if they go big to counter it, or match it with speed and shooting. Of course, the bench will pay a major role at the end of the day. This lineup alone will not make the Raptors a threat in the east. They need more out of their bench on a consistent basis – and likely an upgrade on Aron Baynes to give them some meaningful minutes from a centre. There are plenty of options, but don’t expect Andre Drummond unless he is bought out by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It would be fair to expect improvement for the Raptors for the rest of the season. Playing your most talented players at the same time will likely produce good results. When you play small, you have more variance. They will likely lose to some teams that they should beat, but beat some elite teams along the way. When you rely on shooting, no defensive breakdowns, and the lack of a true Superstar – you will be consistently inconsistent. It is unlikely (barring a major trade) that this Raptors team will reach a 2-3 seed and come out of the Eastern Conference come playoff time. If things go well, they will be more of a 4-5 seed and maybe win a round or two if they catch fire and get the right matchups.