Last year, the Toronto Raptors seemed absolutely invincible, and practically flawless when it came to injuries, (despite Jonas Valanciunas’ thumb injury). Even hearing about the mass amount of injuries the players encountered during the playoff run, everybody was able to play through them, except for the horrible timing of OG Anunoby’s emergency appendectomy.
This year has been a completely different story. According to @ManGamesLostNBA on twitter, the Raptors rank third in impact on teams by players lost to injury. We’ve seen Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka all miss significant time due to injuries this season. That is six of the Raptors’ seven best players. Yet, there has been zero shortage of success due to the Raptors’ versatility, and depth.
Since the Raptors have seen so many different variations of a starting lineup, and even more variations of a bench unit, or hybrid, I think it is important to recognize which of the many lineups used have been the best, and which ones should probably be used more going forward.
Three Best Lineups
1. Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol (192 Minutes).
Surprisingly, the Raptors’ best lineup of the 2019-2020 season does not consist of Kyle Lowry. Out of all Raptors lineups to play a minimum of 40 minutes this season, these five have the highest NET Rating at 16.1. They are also one of the best defensive lineups the Raptors have used this season, and if going by the same standard of minimum 40 minutes, they are the only lineup to have a defensive rating under 100, (98.2).
This is essentially the starting lineup the Raptors would like to throw out when at complete health, substituting Kyle Lowry for six-man, Norman Powell. It’s not a surprise this lineup is so strong defensively, as a result of the Raptors having a strong defensive starting lineup, and this lineup consisting of four of the five starters.
This lineup has a ton of versatility. You have the capability of running the offense through Pascal, Fred, Norm, or even Marc out of the high post, which is what the Raptors’ utilized a lot last year in the finals.
You also have a lot of guys capable of playing off ball. Fred shoots 43.9% on catch and shoot threes, while Norman shoots 43.0%. OG Anunoby, who 95% of his three-point attempts are assisted, and mainly from the corner, shoots 48.8% on assisted corner threes.
This lineup has been fantastic for Toronto, and rightfully so, it consists of all their best individual players, except for Kyle Lowry, (depending where you place Serge Ibaka). Even though this is statistically the best lineup that the Raptors have used this year, it still isn’t the lineup I would go with in a close game. Though it is very similar, I would replace either VanVleet or Powell with Kyle, depending on who is having a better game between the other two.
We’ll notice a common theme while looking at these lineups, and that is Marc Gasol. With that comes another theme, and that is Marc hasn’t played a whole lot this year. Gasol just automatically makes lineups better through his smart decision making, interior defensive presence, and ability to make shots when he chooses to shoot. The Raptors should be at full health when the season resumes, and hopefully Marc’s hamstring doesn’t flare up again.
2. Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol (111 Minutes).
That’s more like it. Over the past seven seasons, it became rare to see Raptors success without Kyle on the floor. This lineup is basically the same as the past one, except Lowry is on the floor this time, instead of Fred. This lineup consists of two all-stars, and two guys who could very well see themselves in the Most Improved Player award race.
Not far behind the previous lineup, this lineup holds a NET Rating of 13.4 with slightly better offense, and slightly worse defense. While the lineup with Fred at the helm of the other four, the Raptors played to an offensive rating of 114.3. Replace Fred with Kyle, and the offensive rating jumps a bit to 115.9.
Not a huge increase, the bigger increase, yet still fairly insignificant is the defensive rating, which is 102.5 for this current lineup.
I understand stats aren’t everything, and realistically, this is the better lineup due to the fact that Lowry is simply better than Fred. The two do have fairly similar skill sets. Both can shoot well off catch-and-shoot, both are short, strong guards who provide versatility on defense, and both are capable of playing successfully alongside a number of different teammates. Kyle is just better at it all.
The biggest difference between Fred and Kyle, is Kyle’s ability and willingness to push the pace, and outlet pass off rebounds. Kyle is a better rebounder than VanVleet, and due to that, he can grab a defense board and outlet it down the court faster. Kyle also has a willingness to play faster. You can tell by watching, that Fred likes to slow the pace, and set up a half court offense, while Kyle wants to get it up to Norm, Pascal, or OG leading the break.
You can evidently see the difference in fast break opportunities, by looking at the PACE. PACE is a statistic which measures how many possessions there were for each team, therefore, telling you who pushed the pace, and who used up more of the clock. The second lineup with Lowry has a PACE of 105.69, while Fred with the the same four have a PACE of 98.08.
3. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol (280 Minutes).
Finally, we get to the Raptors’ preferred starting lineup; one that sees both Fred and Kyle on the floor together. A traditionally undersized lineup, but the defensive versatility of Fred, and especially Kyle allow this lineup to thrive against the majority of opposing match ups.
This lineup has totaled 280 minutes over the course of the season, the most of any Raptors lineup this year. To put this into perspective of how injury-plagued the Raptors have been this year, the usual Nuggets starting lineup leads the league in minutes played for a five-man lineup with 735, and the Jazz’s lineup of Bojan Bogdanovich, Rudy Gobert, Royce O’neal, Joe Ingles, and Donovan Mitchell has played 570 minutes together. Keep in mind, Utah has had a fluctuating starting lineup throughout the course of the season as well.
In comparison to the previously two mentioned lineups, this lineup is surprisingly the better rebounding lineup. They have a higher Offensive Rebounding Percentage, Defensive Rebounding Percentage, and Rebounding Percentage than the other two lineups.
The Raptors have had seven really strong consistent players this season; these five, Ibaka, and Powell. So it is difficult to definitively say that these five have been the Raptors’ best players, but this lineup has definitely been the most consistent this season. I feel it is nearly impossible to replace the productivity and talent of Pascal and Kyle, and the steadiness and consistency of Fred, Marc, and OG allow them to be perfect role-pieces.
Three Most Underutilized Lineups
Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol (30 Minutes).
Instead of deciding to bash Nick Nurse for not giving these lineups enough minutes, I will give him the benefit of the doubt that the Raptors have had too many injuries to send these lineups out for a substantial minute total.
This is similar to the lineup which the Raptors threw out in the Philadelphia series last year, which played a large role in helping them win that series in seven games. Of course, it was Kawhi Leonard instead of OG, which makes a world of a difference. However, the concept of the lineup is still the same, size. This is the biggest conceivable lineup the Raptors can throw out, unless you want to place Chris Boucher at small forward.
The ability of both Gasol and Ibaka to both play along the arc, and on the interior is what makes this lineup work. Back when Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas played together, Ibaka was an inconsistent shooter, and Jonas wasn’t much of a three-point threat, even though he grew to become a bit more of one in his later years.
The one area where this lineup may struggle is ball creation. One of the reasons it worked last year, was because on top of Pascal and Lowry, you had arguably the best player in the league in Kawhi. Now, you sub OG in, who has many strengths, but ball handling certainly isn’t one of them. I hate to bash on OG, but he may have the weakest handle on the team, and that might even be including Marc and Serge. That probably is a slight exaggeration, but the point is, OG doesn’t have a strong enough handle to create offense, especially when there are only two others capable.
The strength of this lineup is definitely on the defensive end of the ball. Pascal, and OG have the versatility to guard one through five, and defend them at a high level. Even Kyle has some of the tools to thrive when getting switched onto a big man. This lineup is big, and has the ability to shoot.
In only a very small sample size of 30 minutes, this lineup has managed to rack up a NET rating of 27.8, and that is a lot due to their defense. Out of any Raptors lineup to play a minimum of 30 minutes, this one has the lowest defensive rating, only 92.2. They haven’t been to shabby offensively in their limited minutes together either, posting an offensive rating of 120.
Like I mentioned, an extremely small sample size, but a successful small sample size. This lineup could prove useful in another potential series against the 76ers, or potentially the Bucks. Any sort of match up which deems problematic on the glass, or on the interior defensively, we could see Nurse utilize this lineup.
The one essential ingredient to cause this lineup success is Pascal and Kyle. These two are the only two in this whole lineup who can create offense in the half court. You may be able to get away with an Ibaka post-up for a few possessions, but for the most part, Kyle and Pascal have to create through isolation, or pick-and-roll. If this happens, this lineup can create offensive success along with their inevitably good defense.
Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Terence Davis, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka (21 Minutes).
Like many other Raptor fans, I am a humongous Terence Davis supporter, and believe he should be getting more run. I understand Nurse’s methodology of giving a rookie a short leash, but I don’t feel there is a way that McCaw has earned the minutes he plays either. Either way, that is a completely different argument.
Terence Davis, the undrafted rookie has had a fantastic season, and you can read more about my opinion on him here: https://www.raptorscage.ca/terence-davis-undrafted-yet-ubelievable/.
The Raptors, before the Marc Gasol trade which Delon Wright was a part of, ran a lot of three-point-guard lineups, and they were quite successful. This was of course due to the length of Delon, and Kyle’s defensive versatility. This lineup though, could act in a lot of the same ways. Terence has similar height and length to Delon, and loads more athleticism.
Nurse seems fairly resistant to play these three together, and rightfully so. The move to small ball, has increased the size of wings in the league, and three guard-lineups are a rarity. As this lineup may struggle on the defensive end, these five sure would be able to score, and that sure is backed up by stats. In the minuscule amount of time they have played together, they have managed to put together a 145.7 offensive rating. That is the second highest rating for a Raptors lineup which has played a minimum of 20 minutes together, only behind the crew that was on the floor during the 30-point Dallas comeback.
This entire lineup is athletic, and quick. The slowest player on the floor would be Serge, who still should be able to beat the majority of centers down the floor. This lineup also doesn’t shy away from creation. Four out of the five players would be capable of taking a defender off-the-dribble, and Serge is probably the best post-player behind Pascal.
This lineup would require a specific look from the opposition. One that doesn’t showcase long, tall wings, but against smaller teams, I could see this lineup performing wonders, and running up the score on opponents.
Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Pascal Siakam (26 Minutes).
We have finally reached the portion of the program, where we present to you, the “Pascal at center” lineup. With Gasol, Ibaka, and Boucher all on the roster, and all playing fairly strong in their minutes, there isn’t much opportunity for a small-ball lineup that sees Pascal as the tallest guy on the court. This is also due to the fact of Pascal being the most important player offensively, and not wanting to tire him out defensively by having him bang inside with other teams centers.
This lineup screams athleticism, and defensive-versatility. This is the type of lineup which could switch everything, and rebounding-wise, wouldn’t be too bad either. The three guys in the front-court are all strong rebounders for their size, not to mention Kyle is arguably the best six-foot-tall rebounder ever. In their limited sample size together, this lineup has a 100% defensive rebounding percentage, meaning nobody has ever secured an offensive rebound on them. Obviously, if they were issued 100+ minutes, someone would grab a rebound on them, but 26 minutes is still a decent sample-size, and to grab every defensive rebound available is an accomplishment.
Offensively as well, this lineup is dynamic. You have three players capable of creating for themselves and others, and four of them are average to above-average shooters. Rondae is essentially just on the floor for defense and rebounding, but he is sure good at it.
People are constantly begging for Pascal at center lineups, and the Raptors have the forwards to make this possible. In fact, I don’t even believe it is necessary to place Pascal on opposing team’s centers; OG and Rondae are probably better post-defenders anyway.
We’ve seen a lot of lineups that have worked, and a lot of lineups which have not worked this season. One of the “blessings in disguise” in having a lot of injuries is the lineup fluctuates a lot, and that can be really helpful come playoffs. We saw the Raptors have to use a variety of lineups in their championship run last year, and without a player of Kawhi’s stature, the odds are that they will have to be even more creative this year. The Raptors have tons of depth, and tons of versatility, and we have seen so much of it, and hopefully we continue to see more.