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This thing about starting

The Toronto Raptors need to change their starting lineup. This much has been plain since the opening night of the regular season, when a cold-shooting preseason sent Patrick Patterson to the bench and vaulted Luis Scola into the starting power forward position. Head coach Dwane Casey was adamant at the time that the position wouldn’t be fluid despite the fact that Patterson was a better player and a more natural fit alongside Jonas Valanciunas, and Casey stayed true to that – Jason Thompson, not Patterson, drew the six starts in which Scola sat for rest, with Scola starting the other 76 games.

It is strange, if not uncommon, to shift a better player to a bench role for some semblance of comfort or maximization.

“It’s the age-old thing, I love Luis, I love his spirit, but for us, Patrick is the more productive player, but he can’t play 48,” Casey said last week, per The Toronto Sun. “Patrick has this thing about starting, he likes it (but doesn’t play well when he does), but he’s more valuable to us off the bench, giving us that shot in the arm.”

That’s incorrect, or at least not provably correct. Patterson started in a handful of preseason games and didn’t play well, sure, but if we’re judging off of preseason, Trey Thompkins would be in the MVP conversation. Patterson might be more valuable per-possession off of the bench, when those deathly reserve groups picked apart opposing bench units, but coming off of the bench limits the number of possessions he can play, and it also leaves other lineups in suboptimal forms. There are also fewer of those bench units to pick on (or there should be, theoretically, thanks Frank Vogel) in the playoffs. Patterson is valuable in any role, which is why he appears all over the list of the team’s best lineups.

The Raptors went 56-26 during the regular season, an unqualified success. That record, along with all of the great, intangible things to like about Scola the person and locker room presence, has been enough for some to declare the matter closed. The Raptors are good, anyway, so why disrupt things with a change?

Because good is the enemy of great. Because good isn’t good enough when the margins are magnified to the degree they are in the postseason. And because the Raptors’ are running out of time to simply let their large-sample dominance crush an inferior but optimized opponent.

“This is the playoffs, and every possession’s important,” Casey said Tuesday, implicitly acknowledging the off-the-charts leverage index of a Game 5 that can swing the series dramatically.

The Pacers adjusted to the Raptors by starting Myles Turner over Lavoy Allen, and if Casey truly believes that, the Raptors need to respond in kind and start Patterson on Tuesday.

Patterson said Sunday a change isn’t needed – “Nope,” he responded defiantly – but doesn’t have a problem starting if needed. “Yup,” he said plainly Tuesday. “I do whatever’s asked of me. I’m a team player, I do whatever’s asked of me.” So it doesn’t seem to be much of a hurdle for him, at least not one he’s admitting to. And why should their be? He’s played some sheltered minutes by nature of coming off the bench, but he’s also closed out most games and defended some of the very best players in the NBA. There’s little reason to think he won’t succeed in a more prominent role.

This isn’t anything against Scola. He’s provided value on his contract, his 3-point shooting has been a fun surprise, and few seem to try harder and set a tone quite like the Argentine. Nobody dislikes Scola. Nobody is saying he should be removed from the starting lineup because he’s a bad dude or a bad basketball player. He just can’t start any longer, struggling to close out on Turner jumpers, misfiring on wide open looks, and awkwardly rumbling back in transition a split-second too late.

The reality is, Scola never made sense in the starting lineup, and the Raptors won 56 games in spite of that setup, not because of it. The Raptors had four primary units that involved the Scola-Valanciunas frontcourt, and each was summarily played off the floor during the regular season. Seven of the nine most common Scola-Valanciunas lineups were outscored. Scola had the worst net rating of anyone who finished the season on the team (Patterson was second to only Thompson, who had but a cup of coffee). The Raptors were woeful in the first six minutes of each half and made up for it with extreme success the rest of the time. The quantitative reasons go on and on, and there are strong qualitative reasons backing up a switch to Patterson as the starter.

Those qualitative reasons are in large part why the issue is so maddening. This isn’t a case of the numbers standing in contrast to old school basketball dogma, with a change in starting lineup representing some fundamental shift in basketball philosophy. Instead, it always made more sense to start Patterson alongside Valanciunas and leverage Scola off the bench, with the Patterson-Valanciunas pairing standing as complementary at both ends.

The Raptors wound up having one of the best benches in basketball as a result of bringing Patterson in as a reserve, but again, that’s not a reason for keeping him there. The bench wasn’t good because it was great as a unit. It was, but it was great in large part because it has good players, and because Patterson was excellent. There’s a reason he had one of the best on-off marks in team history, why he should have been in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year, and why this feels like the 20th time I’ve written that he should start: It’s because he’s quite good, and markedly better than Scola.

Teams shorten their rotations in the playoffs. Casey may opt to do like he did in the regular season and start Thompson instead of Scola, improving the defensive versatility of the starting lineup but making a negligible impact on the offense. That doesn’t cut it, though I fear that might be the move they make. Patterson should be playing 35 minutes, and that’s nearly impossible to do without starting, lest you task him with long stretches of rest-free play. And again, Patterson remedies what the Pacers have been hurting Toronto with better than Thompson, and certainly better than Scola.

Transition defense? Patterson’s not only the team’s fastest big, he’s also developed into a versatile, switch-anything and pick-up-whoever defender, and he’s quick to get back out of the corners.

Half-court defense? Patterson’s a quicker pick-and-pop closer for the Turner type, more capable on combo-forwards when the Pacers go small, and, again, can switch multiple positions to help on George Hill or Paul George as needed. I’m not sure people understand just how good Patterson has become as a defender.

All that extra attention the Kyle Lowry-Valanciunas pick-and-rolls are getting? The Pacers will be much less comfortable sending help off the weak wing when Patterson is the shooter. Yes, Scola shot a higher percentage on threes this year, and he did so with a roughly equivalent mix of contested and uncontested looks. but Patterson’s career shooting sample is four times as large, and team’s respect his stroke far more. Spacing is about gravity as much as 3-point percentage, and Patterson’s pull is greater. Think of how the Raptors defend C.J. Miles on the arc compared to Solomon Hill, who’s had a really hot stretch but has succeeded in a much smaller sample. It’s the same idea: Patterson is an established threat, and teams are less keen on him killing them from outside. He’s also improved when it comes to attacking closeouts, though you’d still rather he let it fly.

And yes, starting Patterson might give something back in the area of rebounding. It’s his biggest weakness, and the Pacers neutralized Valanciunas’ edge in that area in Game 4. I’m confident the other things he brings to the table – including a massive swing in net points in the paint, for any who think Scola provides some sort of interior edge – outweighs the loss in rebounding, especially since the Raptors don’t want to chase offensive rebounds with anyone but Valanciunas in this series, anyway.

Look, the Raptors’ starting lineup has only been outscored by three points in 35 minutes in this series. They’re surviving. And Scola is, like, the best human. Those aren’t reasons to maintain the status quo. The Raptors need a change, and since a super-small look with DeMarre Carroll at the four and Norman Powell on the wing isn’t tenable now that Allen isn’t starting as a hiding place for DeMar DeRozan, and because Thompson would represent a half-measure, Patterson needs to start.

This isn’t anything shocking or dramatic. Patterson is their best power forward, and the Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Valanciunas lineup is probably Toronto’s best. The series is down to a best two-of-three, and there’s simply no time left to hope good is good enough, when great is sitting right there.

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