Toronto Raptors are better off starting small when OG Anunoby returns

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TORONTO – With OG Anunoby nearing his return from a calf strain that’s cost him the past nine games – he could be back in the lineup as early as Sunday night when the Raptors host Minnesota – Nick Nurse has a decision to make.

The fourth-year forward was playing the best basketball of his young career before sustaining the injury late in a loss to Indiana last month, and he will undoubtedly reclaim his spot in the team’s starting lineup once he’s healthy. Meanwhile, Norman Powell has filled in admirably.

Powell has scored at least 15 points in 10 straight contests – the longest streak of his six-year career. Over that stretch, in which he’s started each game, he’s averaged 22.6 points on 50 per cent shooting while hitting 45 per cent of his three-point attempts.

There’s an obvious solution: start them both.

At full strength, Toronto’s best option is to go small out of the gate – with Anunoby as the de facto centre alongside Pascal Siakam in the front court and next to the three guards, Powell, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry.

The sample size is still relatively small. That lineup barely played together last season, with one of the two centres – Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka – generally on the floor. It did log 37 minutes in the playoffs, though, and the results, particularly on the defensive end, were encouraging. That unit held opponents to just 83.3 points per 100 possessions.

In the 29 minutes that those five players have shared the court this season, they’ve been equally as impressive on defence, allowing 82.3 points per 100 possessions. Strangely, they’ve scored an abysmal 87.1 points per 100 possessions – the result of poor shooting (28 per cent from the field and 27 per cent from three-point range).

With more reps together, the offence should come around, especially now that Powell and Siakam have bounced back from slow starts and are playing their best ball of the campaign. They should also continue to excel defensively. What they give up in size, they make up for in quickness and versatility, which allows them to switch and play the aggressive style of defence that Nurse prefers.

Nurse experimented with the small lineup to start the game in Golden State last month – a 106-105 loss that came down to Siakam’s shot on the final possession – but it was short-lived. Powell struggled that night, scoring nine points on 3-of-8 shooting in 22 minutes, and Nurse went back to his traditional centres – Alex Len, who has since been waived, and Aron Baynes – from there.

Baynes has started 23 of Toronto’s 26 games, but the veteran centre continues to underwhelm in his first season with the Raptors, averaging 5.6 points and 5.5 rebounds on just 40 per cent shooting – a career-low – in 19 minutes per contest.

With Chris Boucher enjoying a breakout year and already logging the bulk of the minutes at the five position, a move to the bench would likely relegate Baynes to situational duty in matchups against bigger and more physical centres.

At some point, the Raptors are going to need something out of the lone traditional big man on their roster, which is why Nurse has stuck with Baynes through his struggles. But starting small and then turning it over to Boucher might be the best way to optimize their personnel.

Although you could certainly argue that Boucher has earned the right to start, given how well he’s played, there’s a reason why Nurse likes bringing him off the bench. He’s proven to be a good fit in that role, coming in and immediately impacting the game with his energy.

If they opt to continue starting Powell, it will also be a decision made based on fit as much as merit. The Raptors are a better team when Powell is scoring like he has been recently, or like he was for most of last season. However, for whatever reason, he just hasn’t looked like the same player coming off the bench.

In 13 games as a starter this season, Powell’s averaged 22.1 points on 51 per cent shooting and 45 per cent from three-point range in 33 minutes per contest. In 11 games as a reserve, he’s scored 10.5 points on just 35 per cent shooting and 39 per cent from three in 21 minutes. That’s been a trend throughout his professional career.

It’s not that he isn’t buying into his role when he comes off the bench. Some players just have a harder time feeling their way into the game after subbing in.

Powell is a rhythm shooter, and it’s clear that starting helps him find and maintain that rhythm. Over the past 10 games, Powell has shot 71 per cent in the first quarter. He’s hit 11 of his 15 three-point attempts while averaging 9.0 points in the opening frame – tied with his former teammate Kawhi Leonard for fourth in the NBA over that span, trailing only Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Joel Embiid.

“As a starter, you know you’re going to be out there, just being able to get a flow and rhythm to the game,” the 27-year-old Powell said last month. “I always try to play to the best of my abilities no matter what the situation is. Whether I’m starting or coming off the bench, I try to do exactly what the coaches need of me, play my best basketball in whatever minutes I get out there, and help the team win. No matter what the situation is, my focus will always be on trying to help the team win. I’m a team guy. I will always give myself up for the team, no matter what.”

“That’s obviously a legitimate thing,” Nurse said of Powell’s success as a starter back in January. “But the first thing you’ve got to decide is who you’re taking out. So there’s always two parts to the equation.

“It becomes opportunity, it’s a different opportunity. All the balls that are flowing through Kyle are flowing through Norm. He gets to get his confidence and gets touches and gets to feeling the ball really early in the game when that’s the lineup. It’s tricky, man. That’s how intricate it is.”

Assuming Anunoby does in fact play on Sunday, and if Nurse decides to go small, that unit would be tested right away.

Karl-Anthony Towns, who just returned to the Timberwolves’ lineup after recovering from COVID-19, is hard to handle even if you can match his size. Anunoby, who would likely draw the Towns assignment if Baynes is moved to the bench, is giving up at least four inches and more than 15 pounds to Minnesota’s all-star centre.

Still, with his deceptive strength and defensive acumen, Anunoby has shown that he can keep up with some of the league’s best big men. Just before his injury, the Raptors’ forward played a key part in neutralizing Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis, both in two-game series.

There would surely be an adjustment period, as guys shift roles and get comfortable playing out of position, in addition to some expected concerns. Do they have enough size to matchup with some of the league’s bigger clubs? Will they be able to hold their own on the glass, or does rebounding become an even bigger issue for a team that already ranks second-last in the league in that category?

These are all fair questions, and things that Nurse and the coaches would have to work around, to be sure, but the upside of that group far outweighs any of those drawbacks. There’s good reason to believe that it’s their optimal five-man unit.​