There is a lot of talk going into the season about Jonas Valanciunas and ‘fit’. That’s mostly because, as a recipient of a massive offseason contract extension, he now gets to have parts of Toronto’s roster shaped to his game rather than having to fit to match the pieces around him. Like it or not, the fact is that when you are drafted by a team and then gifted with a bountiful new contract, the team is obligated to justify their largess, and the easiest way to do that is to surround you with players that make you look good.
That’s why the smart money has been on Patrick Patterson starting alongside Valanciunas when the regular season tips off at the end of the month, much like he has during the team’s two preseason games. The thinking goes that, as Valanciunas needs space to operate in the paint, the threat of Patterson’s three-point shooting will pull defences out and give him an open lane to work with. That thinking, though, doesn’t really pass the smell test.
Last season, the tandem of Valanciunas and Patterson played 639 minutes together, a large enough pool of minutes to draw some instructive conclusions. On offence they produced at a mediocre offensive rating of 105.7 points per 100 possessions, the tenth-worst output for a Raptors duo that played at least 300 minutes together (of which there are 43 combinations). The big problem with that tandem is that it doesn’t actually solve the problem that, on paper, it’s intended to solve.
When most teams combine a post scorer with a long-distance threat, the goal is to extend the defence past the point of being able to effectively rotate to cover the points of attack. For instance, the defence either has to let the post player go one-on-one or risk a double-team that, with proper ball swings, leave the defence vulnerable to an open three-point shot. The problem with the Raptors is that Valanciunas is so slow to pass, and so inaccurate when he does, that defences have plenty of time to rotate back to Patterson if they abandon him to double the post. Exposing defences that double by using outside shooting only works if a quick passing action is initiated once the double team arrives, and the words ‘quick passing action’ haven’t yet made it into the Valanciunas scouting report.
Combine this with how easy it is to bait so many other Raptors into isolation play (thus lowering the chances that a passing sequence will actually last long enough to reach a shooter on the weak side of the floor) and using Patterson to create space is a tactic that only the most ill-prepared defences will fall victim to consistently.
That’s not the big problem here, though. Patterson not getting the clean, open shots that he might get playing alongside Anthony Davis or Dwight Howard, for instance, is an inconvenience, not a problem. Patterson is a good enough player to find ways to help offensively.
The big problem here is what the Raptors have to leave on the table in order to slot Patterson in alongside Valanciunas, and that’s defence. The Patterson-Valanciunas defensive pairing is the ninth-worst defensive two-man tandem on the team, with only a bloodied field of Terrence Ross pairings falling below them. Last year they were the second- and third-worst rotation players in terms of defensive efficiency (below them? Welcome back, Terrence Ross), and so pairing them up obviously leaves a lot of holes for the rest of the team to have to try and patch-up. Considering that a return to defensive respectability is a major goal for this season, you see why that’s problematic. It’s probably worth noting here that they were also the twelfth-worst rebounding two-man tandem on the team, but I think the overall point has been made: this is a starting front court that won’t work if the Raptors want to improve upon their 2014-15 campaign.
Do you want to know who Valanciunas paired best with on offence last year? James Johnson. Do you know who he paired best with on defence last year? James Johnson. Do you want to know who he paired best with in terms of rebounding, or do you see where this is going? (spoiler alert, it was James Johnson)
The reason why the tandem works is because Johnson is quick, nimble and active at all the times when Valanciunas is slow, awkward and passive. He can cover ground on defensive rotations that Valanciunas can’t (although whether he will stick to his team’s concepts when doing it is another issue). He can’t shoot very well, but he makes terrific cuts and quick passes, which can have similar disruptive effects against a defence as spreading out behind the arc can. Plus, unlike Patterson, Johnson is an active rebounder and shot blocker.
Now, it should be said that most of the minutes in which Valanciunas shared the floor with Johnson came with Johnson at the small forward spot, not the power forward spot. However, Johnson’s game has always been more akin to a small ball power forward’s, and the skills he brings to the table when paired with Valanciunas translate to both forward spots.
All that said, starting Johnson alongside Valanciunas is a long way from a no-brainer proposition. He is highly unpredictable, he does not have the trust of Dwane Casey if last year’s minute distribution is any indication, and he remains undersized as a four at a time when most teams still start a traditional big at power forward. There were times last season when calls for more minutes for Johnson reached laughable proportions, considering his NBA résumé, but this might be one instance where his fit alongside a teammate might make giving him consistent playing time palatable.
However, Valanciunas is a big-deal cornerstone in Toronto, now. He’s a good player that isn’t in an ideal situation, roster-wise. The Raptors do not have an ideal pairing for him at power forward, but they do have a better option than the presumptive favourite in Patterson. The club went out and spent big on DeMarre Carroll to compliment DeRozan on the wing, and it’s because if you are going to invest heavily in DeRozan at shooting guard then that means investing in a proper compliment at small forward. The same logic now applies to Valanciunas. Starting Johnson would have positive and negative ripple effects that extend far beyond the benefits to Valanciunas that need to be considered (like how his presence at small forward killed the offence when he shared the court with DeRozan and Kyle Lowry last season), but the way things are lining up right now, Valanciunas is not being made to look good alongside Patterson and that has to be accounted for. In a best-case scenario it gets accounted for by bringing in a whole new player at some point, but for now Casey has to play the cards he’s been dealt.
Casey is on record as saying he believes Patterson is better off of the bench, and his lack of starts alongside Valanciunas last season (3), even when Amir Johnson was not available, shows the level of his discomfort with that pairing. It’s easy to start Patterson alongside Valanciunas this year, though, because that’s what everyone expects Casey to do. In a (probable) contract year, Casey has a lot of incentive to play it safe. However, there are indications that there is a better option on the roster – one that Casey has called ‘probably the most talented player on our roster’ in the ultimate trolling move of last season’s exit pressers – and it says here it is one that would be wise to experiment with before reflexively settling on the safe choice because, well, because the safe choice of pairing Valanciunas with Patterson just isn’t very good.