We may have reached a point where the needs of the Toronto Raptors and the needs of Jonas Valanciunas have made a decisive split. His minutes are down, he rarely plays in fourth quarters and there just doesn’t seem to be an opportunity to work through his mistakes on the court with wins now representing the team’s yardstick for success.
The primary cause for this dilemma remains the issues that Valanciunas displays on defence. He is still too often found out of position, or only half-committing to defensive rotations, he is still easy to bait into leaving his feet and he frequently neglects box-out assignments at the end of a defensive stand. The team lets up 11.7 points per 100 possessions more when Valanciunas is on the floor (per 82games.com) and that has left Dwane Casey unable to play Valanciunas down the stretch in tight contests, the most recent example being the nail-biter against Memphis last week.
Now, it needs to be said early and often that Valanciunas is not playing poorly. He is a tremendously efficient offensive player and his post moves are varied and well-executed. He’s in the top-ten in PER amongst centres at 20.53 and he’s increased his shooting percentages in each of his first three seasons.
However, those defensive issues are a problem, and the team cannot afford to just leave him on the court to work them out. This is his third NBA season and he is still making a lot of the same defensive mistakes that he made last year and the year before. It’s a combination of timidity and uncertainty. Part of that is not his fault. He has been burned several times this season and last when he has made his defensive rotation and no one has covered him by rotating to his man. That has made him tentative about fully committing to leaving his assignment, which pulls him into a half-committed No Man’s Land where he’s not decisively covering anyone. This leaves the team open to easy passing sequences that leaves the Raptors scrambling to keep up.
The Raptors are 16th in the NBA is opponent’s field goal percentage five feet and in (58.4%), and that’s on a schedule that’s seen them play Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Orlando, Miami and Washington — all teams in the bottom half of the league in shooting at the rim. This situation doesn’t fall entirely at the feet of Valanciunas, but he does represent the team’s last line of defence when he is out on the court, and right now that represents a dicey proposition for a club looking to stake its claim on the defensive end.
Now, this might not have been enough to cut into Valanciunas’ minutes on its own. He has seen a 4.4 reduction in minutes from last season, though, because this issue combines with a lack of toughness on the glass. The boxing-out issue has already been mentioned, but if you looked at his per-minute rebounding numbers you’d see that they are mostly holding steady from a season ago. The problem arises when you dig into those numbers to see where those rebounds are coming from. 61.7% of Valanciunas’ rebounds are categorized as uncontested (a stat which tracks rebounds that are snatched when there was no defender within 3.5 feet — thanks nba.com), meaning that he is mostly padding his rebounding numbers by chasing down those rebounds that other players have more or less conceded. For comparison, 64% of Amir Johnson’s rebounds are contested, as are 62.8% of Tyler Hansbrough’s. Given Valanciunas’ size advantage over both of those players you’d have hoped for better, but the numbers say what the numbers say.
The surprising part about all of this is how differently things are working out for Valanciunas than they were supposed to. He was brought in to be the team’s new Marcus Camby, a hyper-aggressive defensive and rebounding force that would see his offence evolve over time. Instead the reverse has been true, as his offensive game has significantly eclipsed the growth in his defensive and rebounding technique. Dwane Casey once said that a worst-case scenario for Valanciunas was Joakim Noah (oops), and to a certain degree the roster has been built with that comparable in mind. As Valanciunas rounds into the kind of player that he is going to be those expectations are going to need a bit of course-correcting.
Sadly, the person most likely to be impacted by all of this is Amir Johnson, the most tireless worker on the Raptors roster. If this is who Valanciunas is as a player (and it must be said again, it’s not a bad player, just a different one than expected), is Johnson the right counterpart for him in the post? While he’s still a tremendously effective player, he’s no longer the staggering plus-minus beast that he was in years past, and his nagging ankle injuries make him hard to rely on in the way that the Raptors need. With free agency coming up fast for Johnson, that Raptors will have a difficult time pricing him out as a running mate to Valanciunas going forward.
Still, it’s early. Very early. Now that Valanciunas is losing minutes as a result of his defensive struggles it might be enough to activate him at that end in the hopes of earning back his lost playing time. As a result of the team’s early success he’s been thrust into a situation that has the team needing more from him than it might even be fair to ask for considering how early we are in his career. Learning NBA defence is hard, and it takes time. The Raptors are simply at a point where they need a bit more consistency on defence because they are in winning mode now. That has pushed the development of Valanciunas into a weird corner that he’s going to have to work himself out of. Things rarely going according the schedule in professional sports, so Valanciunas and the Raptors are just going to have to find a way to keep developing their youngster while they attempt to stay at or near the top of the Eastern Conference.