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Dwane Casey suggests starting lineup change could be coming

Livid with his team’s woeful performance in a one-point loss to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday, head coach Dwane Casey is looking for answers.

Casey called the team’s play “embarrassing,” suggesting the Raptors may have been looking ahead to the Golden State Warriors on Saturday. That’s something Casey warned about before the game, writing “VERY CAPABLE” on the locker room whiteboard before the game as a reminder not to sleep on a struggling but spry Nuggets team.

Despite his warnings, the Raptors came out dead flat. They were down 15-4 quickly and 25-9 shortly after that, finishing the first quarter stuck 10 and continuing a very troublesome trend. The Raptors are now 6-12-2 in the first quarter and have been outscored by 43 points. They own the league’s No. 29-ranked first-quarter offense and its No. 27-ranked net rating despite ranking seventh and eighth in those areas, respectively, overall. We’ve been over this before – there’s not a great explanation as to why the exact same group of players struggles so mightily against the exact same group of opponents in the first, only to steamroll them later on.

“I don’t know,” head coach Dwane Casey said back in mid-November. “When you figure it out, let me know, we’ll go into business together. It’s a mystery.”

They still haven’t figured it out. Casey was critical of the team’s mental approach to games Thursday and suggested that a change to the starting lineup is something the team will explore.

Note: The Casey notes are linked to the beat reporters I saw them from, as I wasn’t at the game tonight. A continued enormous thanks goes out to Eric Koreen, Josh Lewenberg, Wozzle, Michael Grange, Handsome Chris O’Leary, and everyone else who covers the team. We’ve been gifted an awesome group of beat writers for the Raptors, and the blog life would be far more difficult without the work they do (not to mention far less nuanced).

Now the question becomes what change they make. Again, there’s no strong statistical or strategic explanation for the first-third gap in offensive performance, except that Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and DeMarre Carroll hit more shots later. Jonas Valanaciunas had strong first quarters despite some turnover issues, and his replacement, Bismack Biyombo, is hardly making up for his absence on offense. Luis Scola’s the only starter generally performing well early, but he’s also the least reasonable fit with the others and the best fit with the second unit.

So, what change could the team make to try to goose their early performance?

PG-SG-SF: Lowry, DeRozan, and Carroll aren’t moving to the bench. It’s not even worth discussing, because it’s not going to happen.

PF: Patrick Patterson always seemed a better fit with the starters and Scola with the second unit. Patterson provides a bit more spacing than Scola, and while he’s not as good a rebounder, he’s a more versatile defender. This held next to Valanciunas and actually holds further with Biyombo, as that extra bit of spacing Patterson provides is all the more important, and Patterson’s smart, mistake-free system defense are a nice fit next to Biyombo. Scola’s ability to create his own offense is something the second unit is sorely lacking.

The current starting lineup is being outscored by 5.5 points per-100 possessions (PPC) in 105 minutes together. The same group with Patterson in place of Scola has outscored opponents by 12.4 PPC, albeit in a small 35-minute sample.

Patterson for Scola is the move I make, assuming the apparent hand injury that’s plagued Patterson the last two games isn’t a major concern.

C: Removing Biyombo for Blake Murphy would probably help the offense. The Raptors start games 4-on-5 at that end of the floor, with teams aggressively doubling the ball-handler any time Biyombo sets a screen. When he’s not the screen-setter, his man helps off of him freely, clogging the lane for Lowry and DeRozan drives. It’s a problem, but it’s proven a far bigger problem when Biyombo plays with the reserves – the starters are talented enough to score around him for the most part, and he’s sunk bench-heavy units. Casey also likes reliable defense, which Biyombo provides.

And there aren’t great options here. Lucas Nogueira looked OK in spot duty Sunday, looked really solid in longer run Wednesday, and was somewhere in-between Thursday. It seems unlikely Casey would trust the sophomore with a starting role so quickly, but Nogueira’s creativity and skill as a dive man could help lift the offense some. His length would remain a factor on defense, even if his decision making in the pick-and-roll is still developing.

I doubt Casey finds this a palatable option, both because of the risk of having to yank Nogueira from the role if he performs poorly and the risk of further inhibiting an already shaky second unit.

Weird: By now, everyone should be well aware I’m in favor of weird lineups. There are three potential tweaks the Raptors may consider.

Start Cory Joseph: Whether this bumps Scola to the five or to the bench, getting their closing foursome out earlier would definitely help with the early flow of the offense. The drawback is that these players are already playing too many minutes and starting Joseph makes it more difficult to stagger rotations effectively. Further, it asks DeRozan and Carroll, already facing heavy workloads, to play more minutes up a position. This option might do more harm than good.

Start Terrence Ross: I know, I know. But the Raptors could add another wing to the mix, cross-match three positions, and add additional shooting (well, if we still believe in regression to the mean). It could also kick-start Ross, who knows? The same issues apply as starting Joseph, but it keeps the integrity of the second unit in tact. It also runs the risk of rewarding Ross for poor play, something the team may be hesitant to do.

Don’t start a center: Scola at center with Patterson at the four? James Johnson at center with Patterson at the four? I’m game to try either, especially against the Warriors, because why not? I know it’s a weird move to make, but I’ve been suggesting for weeks that a Patterson-Johnson frontcourt for super-small lineups could be worth a look, and Saturday is the best chance to try it. It’s probably too extreme a change to make, but sliding Scola to the five might be something Casey considers.

What starting lineup tweak do you make, if any? I’m guessing Patterson draws in at the four sometime soon, even if that does punish the one guy in the starting lineup actually starting out well. They have to try something.

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