The Toronto Raptors are about to have a starting lineup logjam.
With OG Anunoby nearing his return from injury, the Raptors are on the precipice of having one too many starters. The issue for Toronto and Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has been exacerbated by the play of Norman Powell.
Since stepping into the starting lineup on January 22, Powell is averaging 22.6 points on nearly 50% shooting. He’s been the Raptors second-leading scorer behind only Pascal Siakam and he’s shown both improved playmaking and better defence over the stretch.
Making matters worse are Powell’s splits as a starter this season. He’s averaging 21.1 points on 50.5% shooting in the 13 games he’s started this year compared to just 10.5 points on 35.4% shooting in 11 games off the bench, and he’s repeatedly said he’d prefer to start because it gives him a better feel for the rhythm of the game.
If the Raptors were deadset on keeping Powell in the starting lineup the obvious change to make would be to bench Aron Baynes. The starting unit of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Baynes hasn’t performed particularly well this season. They’ve played 241 possessions together (114 minutes) and have posted a -4.2 Net Rating, according to NBA Stats.
With Baynes struggling earlier in the year the Raptors tried out that small-ball starting lineup with Powell replacing Baynes against the Golden State Warriors. It’s a lineup that’s played 60 possessions (29 minutes) together this year and posted a 4.8 Net Rating, with an awful 87.1 points per 100 possessions Offensive Rating and an elite 82.3 points per 100 possessions Defensive Rating, according to NBA Stats.
The benefits of the lineup are pretty clear. It’s extremely versatile, switchable, fast, and aggressive on both ends of the court and it allows for Toronto to get its five best players on the court simultaneously.
“I would envision a lot of dribble-drive, a lot of slipping [screens], a lot of transition and just making plays and letting the ball find the right guy and figuring it out after that,” Fred VanVleet said of the lineup.
The problem, however, is its lack of size. It forces the 6-foot-7 Anunoby to defend opposing centres and while he can do that at a very high level against some bigs, it’s a tough task against the NBA’s biggest bigs.
Thus, it doesn’t sound like the Raptors will be going to that small-ball starting lineup any time soon.
“I’m not so sure it presents itself here in the near future, just looking at who we’re playing,” Nurse said Saturday, referencing Toronto’s next six games against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Milwaukee Bucks, and Philadelphia 76ers. “There’s some awfully big bigs here coming at us. I would say we’ll get to it in the course of a game and hopefully it’ll kinda work its way back in.”
The key for Toronto will be mixing it in when opposing bigs head to the bench. The Raptors have played 311 possessions this season without Baynes, Chris Boucher, or former Raptor Alex Len on the court and they’ve posted a plus-14.8 rating in those minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass.
So even if it won’t be the starting unit for the Raptors in the near future, don’t be surprised if some form of that small-ball lineup begins to get significant minutes as long as Powell continues to stay hot.