The Toronto Raptors have never fully embraced the modern NBA trends. When replacing Jay Triano they didn’t hire a young coach with new and exciting ideas, they hired a longtime assistant known for discipline and motivation. Two of their three most potent offensive weapons are a back to the basket center and a shooting guard whose game often has more in common with the small forwards of the 80’s than the guards of today. In today’s league full of open spaces, where offenses try to spread the defense as thin as possible to create easy opportunities to drive the Raptors are content to allow teams to pack the paint, then throw their bodies into the crowded paint to draw fouls. Sometimes it seems like they’re not just bucking trends, they’re thumbing their noses at them.
Sometimes this seems like it might not be a bad thing, especially when you consider how some of their attempts at building a team in the new NBA mold turned out. When some of your most notable attempts at joining the modern era are signing tweener forward Hedo Turkoglu to a huge contract and drafting Andrea “It’s not Reboundball” Bargnani the modern game just might not be for you. Give me old man Chuck Hayes and Rasho Nesterovic and starting Luis Scola because he’s a power forward with a pulse over that nonsense any day.
Change is often best when it comes about organically, and people who are very resistant to change surprise you when they have no other options. This is especially true in the NBA, where you adapt or you die and disaster tends to strike during those times when your options are severely limited by the collective bargaining agreement. If you lose a key player when you’re capped out and your roster is full what else can you do? Even the most set in his ways coach can channel his inner Don Nelson when circumstances dictate. The Raptors have certainly been on the wrong end of that before -the Wizards were forced to discover small ball in 2015 just in time use it to exploit the Raptors weaknesses in the first round.
This means there could be a silver lining in the injury and surgery that have removed Jared Sullinger from the Raptors lineup for the time being. When injuries leave your roster unbalanced it not only becomes easier to break from your regular strategies, it can almost be essential. You’re not going to have a good, balanced roster no matter what you do so you don’t have much of a choice but to throw your best five guys out there and find ways to make it work. This isn’t exactly Casey’s style, though to his credit he has dabbled with going small a bit in the past. It’s usually been done the wrong way – going small at center – or hasn’t been accompanied by the necessary stylistic changes to make it successful. If the Raptors are going to be successful with this roster with Sullinger out indefinitely he may actually commit to the roster and execute it successfully by surrounding his the few big men he has with wings and pushing the pace
With Sullinger out the Raptors have more speed than size and will have difficulty grinding out wins with their interior play as they have in the past. They can’t crash the offensive glass for extra possessions and shutting down the paint consistently will be tough with two rookies logging most of the frontcourt minutes off the bench. Fortunately the Raptors who remain are versatile, athletic and have the temperament necessary to succeed as a small ball club.
It’s not difficult to see the positives. The key to it all, and the one who would likely benefit the most, is DeMarre Carroll. Carroll would slide over to the power forward spot, where he may end up a little overmatched physically on the defensive end but would finally be in a situation where his offensive responsibilities suit his skillset. The Raptors ask their wings to do drive and kick and do a lot out of the pick and roll, neither of which are strengths for Carroll owing to his footspeed and lack of a refined offensive game. When he’s guarded by wings he really struggles to either get inside the defense or get separation for a shot. Being guarded by slower big men who are not as accustomed to operating on the perimeter would help him out tremendously in this regard and their hesitance to guard all the way out to the three point line would get him more open three point opportunities.
Shifting Carroll from the wing to the frontcourt also frees up minutes for Norman Powell, who has earned playing time but has difficulty getting it consistently in a crowded backcourt. He’s the kind of player a team needs to play small ball, one whose determination and strength allow him to play bigger than his size and whose speed presents problems for his matchups on the offensive end. If Carroll slides over to play power forward somebody needs to guard bigger wings and history has shown us that DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross are not getting the job done so the responsibility should fall to Norm. Giving Norm a rotation spot and a clearly defined role not only helps them adjust to the loss of Sullinger, it allows them to evaluate what they have in him far better than spot minutes and practice ever would. This also preserves Casey’s beloved bench unit by allowing him to keep Patrick Patterson in the sixth man role.
The other key beneficiaries to this shift in strategy would be the core offensive weapons. Going small with Sullinger out means the Raptors would have more shooting on the floor, which would create space for them to operate inside. Defenders helping on DeRozan’s drives would be a step later, passing lanes to a rolling Valanciunas would be a bit wider and those hands contesting Lowry pull ups would be too late to affect the shot. With Valanciunas’ increasingly effective midrange game and multiple three point shooters on the floor they should be able to spread the floor and bring themselves a little bit closer to running a 2016 NBA offense. They’d have to pick up the pace a bit, meaning Valanciunas’ might get more post touches that start before there are 10 seconds left on the shot clock and DeRozan might get more opportunities to shine in transition and add to his poster reel.
This is something that this guard-heavy Raptors team should have been looking at doing for extended stretches anyway. Even with Sullinger in the lineup the Raptors need shooting and Powell needs minutes – this is the only way the team can satisfy both of those needs. The team can’t afford to have a quality player watching the action from the bench and can’t try to merely mitigate the damage caused by Sullinger’s extended absence with patchwork solutions. They need to be proactive and find ways to make the roster composition work for them and let the other team decide if they want to let Carroll get open outside looks or if they want to adjust their rotation to take that away. If the Raptors are able to do that it not only reduces the impact of the injury, it gives the team a whole new look they can use when he’s healthy as matchups dictate, making them a little more versatile once the postseason rolls around. Sullinger’s injury is undoubtedly a blow to the Raptors now but if it forces old dog Casey to learn a few new tricks the Raptors could reap longterm benefits.