In years past, the Raptors frontcourt depth has been a source of concern for the team, often the place that fans look for trades to be made in order to find improvement as the season went along. So far this season, not only has that group shown impressive depth, with three centers and two power forwards all showing strengths, but also with the emergence of OG Anunoby alongside new acquisition CJ Miles, small-ball is even more an option for the team than in many previous years. Yet, despite all the weapons up front, the team has struggled mightily with rebounding at times, and it’s been a major contributing factor to some of the losses. In wins so far this season, the Raptors have been grabbing 52% of available rebounds, versus just 45% in losses, and the difference is entirely made up on the defensive end. Toronto has actually had a better offensive rebounding rate in losses, but is getting only 70.4% of their defensive boards in their 5 losses and has grabbed 79.4% of opponents’ misses in wins.
With this in mind, I thought it might be worth looking at the front court rotations and how they’ve worked out with regards to both efficiency and rebounding thus far, as there has been plenty of mixing and matching to try to find workable combinations with varying degrees of success. Because of the volatility of small sample sizes, I’m going to mostly include configurations over 50 minutes this season.
Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka – 108 minutes, 0.0 net rating, 51% rebounding
The starting frontcourt, it feels appropriate that they’ve broken even, because the starters have been a mixed bag. Both player have been strong offensively to start the year and have had some great outings when they’re involved on the offensive end. They have often looked mismatched together, however, with neither player quick enough to cover miscues by the other Raptors on the court, and this has resulted in some early offensive bursts for opposing teams. This pairing tends to create enough offense for the Raptors to make up for their defensive struggles, but that’s a tough tightrope to walk consistently, and when the team does run into trouble scoring, the defense won’t be enough to cover up for those mistakes.
Jakob Poeltl Small-ball lineups – 102 minutes, +6.3 net rating, 49.4% rebounding
This is actually the second most frequently used frontcourt configuration for the Raptors this season, and it’s been the strongest rebounding smallball lineup as well. With Jakob Poeltl out there as the lone big man, the Raptors have been able to outscore their opponents while still nearly breaking even on the boards, and that’s allowed the bench lineups to get out and run. Jak has good instincts on both ends of the floor, and with all the length and quickness the team can field on the wings in these groups, it’s probably the best way to get in small-ball minutes.
Lucas Nogueira and Pascal Siakam – 86 minutes, +14.3 net rating, 50.7% rebounding
This is, curiously, the only group for Bebe that’s even close to positive on rebounding, with him at 43.2% with Ibaka and 42.4% in small-ball lineups(both groups under 50 minutes played). With these two both having not many positive groupings despite being high upside players, it seems like a confident bet to say the best way to use either is to use them together, because they seem to have workable chemistry that results in team success. While their offensive rebounding rate together isn’t impressive by any means, they’ve controlled the defensive glass and boast a 96.6 defensive rating.
Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam – 64 minutes, -13.1 net rating, 53% rebounding
Whatever chemistry that Bebe and Siakam have established, it hasn’t been there with Poeltl. While dominant on the boards, the Raptors have neither scored efficiently nor stopped opponents consistently with these two out there together, and these minutes might be something the team has to look to limit going further in favor of other groupings. While there might certainly be other factors at play here in their struggles, it’s not a promising sign that Poeltl, who is a positive in most other frontcourt set-ups has struggled consistently with Pascal.
Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam – 61 minutes, +2.5 net rating, 46.1% rebounding
Playing the two power forwards together has yielded some small successes, while surrendering a lot of rebounds. While Serge and Pascal haven’t really struggled together, the truth is that with the three centers the team has on the roster as well as the relative success of Ibaka small-ball lineups(+16.9 net rating, 46.2% rebounding in 32 minutes), there really is no reason to play these two together when there are better options and it takes away minutes from the other guys.
In the small sample size theater of the other set-ups not listed above, it’s worth mentioning that both Poeltl-Ibaka and Nogueira-Ibaka were better than Ibaka with Valanciunas in terms of net rating, but Ibaka and Bebe together struggled to rebound while Poeltl with Ibaka was the strongest grouping in terms of both rebounding and net rating. As well, Valanciunas and Siakam put up similar numbers to Siakam with Poeltl, except they also struggled to rebound, and the 20 minutes of Bebe without another big man were a struggle, both in terms of team success and rebounding.
With all of that in mind, it would appear that the numbers indicate that going forward the starting frontcourt doesn’t seem easily solvable, as moving Ibaka out of the starting lineup likely isn’t feasible. If there is a move to be made, putting Poeltl in the starting lineup would be the best move to make by the numbers and eye test, with Poeltl both quick and savvy enough to cover up for the defensive lapses that Ibaka simply doesn’t have the foot-speed to respond to at this point in his career, but that doesn’t leave easy solutions off the bench either, because Valanciunas doesn’t seem the best fit as a small-ball center and hasn’t really fit beside Siakam, so it becomes hard to find a place for him in the rotation if you make the move for the slight gain that Poeltl with Ibaka has looked thus far. At the same time, keeping the starters the same gives some solid bench looks, with both Bebe-Siakam and Poeltl with small-ball groups having strong starts to the year, and that’s how the numbers would suggest each player is best used going forward, if the team is to stay with the larger rotation.