11. Toronto’s starting lineup will play well enough to complicate decisions regarding the future of Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry.
In a general sense, Gay and DeMar DeRozan are troublingly similar players who are owed a combined $27.4 million this season. Both are most useful as scorers and better with the ball than without. But their limitations as creators are obvious. Because neither is effective from three-point range, able to draw fouls consistently or committed to attacking the basket, the two players’ contributions tend to come and go with their mid-range jumpers. Beyond that, neither is much of a passer, a top-notch perimeter defender or a game-changing cutter. They are variations on the same theme, for better or worse.
One such player is manageable, if not common among NBA rotations. But with two acting as such central elements of Toronto’s offense, the pairing of Gay and DeRozan would seem likely to strain the Raptors’ spacing and flow in their efforts to score.
But that just hasn’t been the case in the context of Toronto’s starting lineup, composed of Gay, DeRozan, point guard Kyle Lowry, power forward Amir Johnson and center Jonas Valanciunas. In the 300-plus minutes that group logged after Gay’s arrival last season, the Raptors scored 105.4 points per 100 possessions — roughly on par with the output of the Spurs’ high-functioning starting lineup. Better yet: Toronto’s top five also managed to play startlingly effective defense, to the point that it ranked as one of the best lineups in the league by net rating.
The context changes now that the Raptors will be asked to sustain that kind of play for a full season, but I see that group playing well enough to complicate the team’s course. Many consider it a foregone conclusion that newly hired (and analytically inclined) general manager Masai Ujiri will look to trade Gay (who has a $19.3 million player option for next season) at the earliest opportunity, but there’s a point at which the Raptors’ on-court effectiveness could make that decision more challenging. Plus, with Lowry set to be a free agent after the season, Ujiri faces a decision on his immediate future. If this group plays well again together, can Toronto — which would have no room under the cap without shedding salary — really afford to let Lowry go?