Raptors-Cavaliers Mailbag: Rotations, assignments, priorities, and more

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A few days off to prepare for a playoff opponent also means time enough to publish another #RRMailbag. We’ll try to do mini-mailbags when time allows during the series, but I’m skeptical there will be time/room given how compressed the schedule is here (there isn’t a double off-day until after Game 6, if it goes that far). You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here, if, for whatever reason, you wanted to read old mailbags.

Before we go ahead: A reminder that we have a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. If you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do (and try to do even more). You can also follow me on Twitter for, uhh, tweets, and on Facebook for all of my writing/podcasting/radio stuff. Validate me. You can also ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between.

Alright, let’s get this money.


A quick note off the top: As always, I’m answering the questions asked, so please be careful to look if I’m talking about what I, Coach/GM Blake, would do, or what I believe the Raptors will do, before getting upset with me. (I mean, get upset with me, just know whether you’re mad at me the Raptors analyst or me the basketball opinion haver. Both versions are, of course, worthy of your scorn.)

I think the Raptors will return to their “regular” starting lineup here, although the term regular doesn’t really hold given the constant turnover in that group over the last two years. I think they’ll start Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas, and I think four of those names are probably the correct ones (more on that shortly). Valanciunas is just much better suited for the Tristan Thompson matchup, the Raptors really like what Ibaka can provide on Kevin Love defensively, and they’ve given little indication they’re going to budge on the Carroll front (for now). Oh, and Lowry and DeRozan are pretty good.

Rotation-wise, I think it’ll be similar to last series other than the starting lineup adjustment. Norman Powell will still factor in, they’ll only play one extra big unless there’s foul trouble, Carroll-Tucker-Patrick Patterson will combine for about 70 minutes so two are on the floor most of the time opposite LeBron James and their smaller lineups, and Delon Wright probably slides into a 10th-man/energy role, with Jakob Poeltl available for foul trouble situations. All of these aspects will get touched on in greater detail in the questions that follow.


I think they’re going to start Carroll. Dwane Casey’s given little indication that this will change, and he’s staunchly defended him throughout the playoffs (Carroll’s Raptor teammates continue to talk up his defense, too, for what it’s worth). If Casey were getting to the point where he’d make that change, it happened right as Carroll bounced back in Milwaukee, which probably extended his leash.

I don’t think this will last, though. Carroll is just not the defender he was in 2014-15, and despite the contract and psychological impact and general good-dudeness of Carroll, at some point actual performance is going to have to win out. Tucker is a better defender, full stop. He’s a better option on James, and it makes sense to maximize Tucker’s time against him (if Tucker sees the floor with James on the bench, I’ll be annoyed). The drawback with Tucker is that the Cavaliers will more freely help off of him than they would Carroll, and that’s a legitimate concern if Cleveland is going to blitz pick-and-rolls and have James help off the corner as a “free safety” of sorts, but Tucker’s an average shooter from the corners, and I think the defense outweighs the offense in this trade-off.

At some point, Casey will find his way to that same conclusion, unless Carroll surprises us with better defense than he’s shown in the last two postseasons. (I want to be clear here: I don’t mean to disrespect Carroll or his potential contributions, but Tucker is an elite defender. One player being awesome at something doesn’t have to be a negative about another.)


Before I provide the stats below, it’s worth noting that head-to-head defensive stats are incredibly noisy and require the full context they existed within. Teams change, offenses and defense change, players age for better or worse, and the numbers have no way of catching assignments, switching, cross-matching, and so on. There’s a ton of noise here, and I didn’t pull passing numbers. As always, there is no consistent success against James.

Anyway, here are the most recent numbers for James’ scoring with each relevant defender on the floor:

Needed? Yes. You always need options and weapons against a team like the Cavaliers, and Valanciunas has some utility. Namely, he’s necessary to help win the rebounding battle, because Cleveland is thin up front. Valanciunas will be the biggest, strongest player in the series, and as long as he’s on the floor, he needs to clean up Toronto’s glass and steal a few points at the other end. He can also be posted up a bit more in this series, as the Cavs are far more conservative guarding post-ups and don’t have the length to poke as many balls free. I’m not advocating a re-tooling of the offense, but Valanciunas has a role here.

It is limited, though. He can’t play a ton against non-Thompson bigs for defensive purposes, and if he struggles, I don’t think the Raptors will hesitate to give him quick hooks and play small more often. Jakob Poeltl matches up fairly well, stylistically, with the Cavaliers, but he’s a relatively untested rookie and Cleveland would probably really go at him to see what he can withstand. The more realistic option is probably that the Raptors roll the dice with Patterson at center for some minutes against the Cavs’ bench, if they need a third center in the rotation.

I wouldn’t get too excited just yet about the Cavaliers’ porous defense. It’s an area to be attacked, for sure, but they can still push to a higher level, and they aren’t quite as bad, personnel wise, as reputations may suggest. J.R. Smith, for example, had turned into a pretty good defender for a while before apparently losing that skill after his thumb injury. Kevin Love isn’t as bad as he gets derided for. And James and Thompson are really good.

But yes, there are weak-spots. Channing Frye should be attacked when in the game, especially if they can get him guarding pick-and-rolls. DeRozan should go at Iman Shumpert and force help against bench units (Shumpert is fine but he doesn’t do well with DeRozan’s size and style). The Raptors will probably run a lot of 2-1 pick-and-rolls late in games to try to get DeRozan switched up against Kyrie Irving, which will force a lot of help in the post. And, of course, like with Milwaukee, ball movement against traps – Cleveland will use them but they are not nearly as well-equipped as the Bucks – is paramount.

There’s a lot the Raptors can do here to try to keep up, if their stars are playing like stars and role players can hit shots. (Can/If are very different from Will/Did, obviously.)

Yeah, probably. Valanciunas’ biggest weaknesses are stretchy bigs who can pull him out to the 3-point line and quick pick-and-roll point guards, and the Cavaliers have several of the former and one of the best of the latter. He’s going to struggle defensively, so matching him up with Thompson makes the most sense. It’s why I think he’ll start. And while recent history would suggest otherwise, I do think Playoff Valanciunas, particularly the guy from the last three Bucks games, has it within him to swing that matchup.

You could concoct a starting five that defends Cleveland well without Valanciunas. Ibaka sliding to center and Patterson starting at power forward would be a fine look, and is probably on the table as a closing unit (with Tucker in Carroll’s place). But the issue with a non-Valanciunas starting lineup is that it means Valanciunas’ minutes are coming against Frye or Love at center, or they’re not coming at all and Ibaka is being overworked as a full-time five. You pretty much have to start him, in my opinion.

Another note here for the people who get really upset about Valanciunas criticism: I’m answering the questions I’m being asked. He has a place in this series, it’s just a matchup-dependent one, and his success will hinge on his work on the glass (and getting him a few more touches than against Milwaukee).

I don’t think it will be too big an issue scoring. A bit of it depends on how well Lowry plays, but if he’s on, he can really take it to any of the non-James Cavs in space. Irving is a poor defender and there isn’t a ton of rim protection here outside of James and Thompson, one of whom will be out of the way if they’re trapping. The playoff-wide numbers hide it a bit, too, but DeRozan was actually pretty good against the Cavs last year, averaging 23 points on 50-percent shooting with 3.5 assists. As always, the team goes as those two go.

As for the rest, Ibaka is such a massive upgrade on the power forward mix the Raptors trotted out a year ago. He’s a big pick-and-pop threat, can post up a little bit, sets good (borderline illegal) screens, and can attack for himself if needed. Valanciunas remains a dive threat and could see more post touches than usual. Carroll hasn’t shot well for the bulk of the year, but opponents tend to respect the threat of him more than any other non-Lowry Raptor. There’s enough here – the Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll trio scored 104.7 points per-100 possessions in this series last year with a combination of Patterson, Luis Scola, and Bismack Biyombo at the frontcourt spots.


Definitely. I was surprised at how little Patterson played against the Bucks, but it wound up being tough to fault with how the rest of the players responded. Here, the Raptors figure to play small-ish most of the time Thompson’s not on the court, and even some of the time he is, which means extra frontcourt minutes to go around. The Raptors can really downsize with Carroll or Tucker at the four if James is there, too, but they can also use Patterson there, and I doubt they want to go quite that small with any two of Frye/Love/Thompson on the floor. With shooting bigs and an impossible task like James, Patterson suddenly becomes one of the Raptors’ most useful defensive pieces. Now, if his sometimes streaky shooting skews hot in this series…

I’m hoping the back isn’t too much of an issue. He played well enough through it and had three days off for treatment, so the Raptors have to hope it’s a minor issue at most. And despite cold shooting, Lowry’s impact on the Bucks series was still fairly pronounced, similar to how it went in the entire playoff run a year ago. I’m not supremely confident that Lowry will be back to full KLOE, but that’s exactly where he’ll need to be if the Raptors are going to upset the Cavs. Simply “very good Lowry” would be enough to make this competitive and a lot of fun. Fingers crossed.


I definitely think Norman Powell as a change-up look on Irving makes sense for points of games. I don’t think he’ll be the primary defender, though – Powell off the bench allows him to stick to Korver, which might be an even bigger use for Powell in this series than Irving. When Powell shares the floor with Lowry or Cory Joseph, he could definitely check Irving and let the point guard move on to J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert, but the Raptors don’t have many other good options for Korver. Powell’s adept at fighting around and through screens, and Korver is a goddam maestro moving off the ball. If Irving gets cooking? By all means. I just don’t think it’ll be the base approach.

As for Wright, I’m skeptical he’s quick enough for Irving. The length and instincts are nice, but by Wright’s own admission, quicker point guards can give him a bit of trouble in the pick-and-roll. It could be worth a quick look, but it’s not Wright’s best matchup. Lowry and Joseph are going to have to answer a lot of the Irving challenge.

It’s an interesting question because Matthew Dellavedova and Deron Williams are such different players. The Cavaliers ethered Toronto a year ago with a James-and-bench unit that included Dellavedova running pick-and-rolls, and the Bucks had some early success with Dellavedova as a screener. Williams, though, is a better point guard and a comparable shooter, plus makes much better use of his size. He could be a tougher challenge for Joseph in bench groups for that reason, and he tore the Pacers apart for stretches. He can also still lock in on defense, though it’s been as inconsistent as most Cavs.

I’m not sure it’s possible to overcompensate for the amount of shooting Cleveland has, but yes, the Raptors definitely had more luck protecting the paint first and scrambling out to shooters. They’re built a little better to play that way, especially now that Valanciunas is around, and the Cavaliers tore the Raptors apart in the paint when the strategy was to guard the arc. The switch back to their more comfortable defense resulted in a short-term improvement in defense until the Cavs, uhh, Cavsed.

This time around, Casey is talking up protecting the paint first and dealing with shooters with “multiple efforts.” On the bright side, the Raptors have better personnel for scrambling out on shooters this time around, and they may not have to quite as much since they have additional options to throw at James to try to slow him down just a tick. They also won’t want to have Ibaka playing too far from the paint – if you’re going to do that, you may as well just try him on James, anyway – because it negates so much of his defensive value (the Cavs adamantly tried to force Biyombo out of the paint last year).

There aren’t good answers here. Pack the paint and Cleveland rains hell-fire with ludicrous volume from the corners. Stay on shooters and there’s no way to help on Irving and James, two of the most difficult individual assignments in basketball. The Raptors are going to vary their looks by lineup and to keep Cleveland seeing different things, and I don’t think you’ll see Toronto stubbornly dig in to one approach if it isn’t working. The paint will be the priority out of the gate, though.

Raptors Miscellaneous

Absolutely he can. The impact Tucker has on the team’s defensive rating when he’s on the court goes well beyond just his own individual defense. The same goes for Ibaka, who is a really active defensive communicator. Talking like that helps everyone be aware of what’s coming and what they’re responsible for, and it’s something the Raptors kind of lacked outside of Lowry in the past (and Lowry, being a point guard, can only really do that in transition or off-ball).  Beyond just the communication, the lack of one-on-one breakdowns allows everyone else to do their job a little better, because there aren’t the initial holes to cover for.

None of this is perfect or seamless. Even the best defenses get beat, and a good deal of building a system is about what happens if you get beat, what happens if a guy gets where you’re trying to prevent him from getting, and so on. Communication is paramount and a big part of team defense, so it’s little surprise that Tucker’s impact, statistically, has extended beyond his own matchups. (The team also says it gets everyone else talking more and has an accountability factor, the latter of which is hard to know for sure without being in the film sessions.)

This is a question that seems to frustrate people, and I get it, but it’s kind of a catch-22 for a coach. Adjust proactively to the challenges an opponent presents, and you’re letting them dictate the terms and not doing what you do best. Stick to what you do best and dictate your own terms, and then you were too reactive and slow to adjust to the opponent. You can’t really win.

In this postseason, the answer is that the two opponents they’ve drawn present very unique challenges. The Raptors’ system might work on the whole, but Milwaukee’s defense is kind of the antithesis to how Toronto operates on offense. If the Raptors didn’t eventually adjust coming out of Game 3, they would have lost that series. You just can’t drive relentlessly into all that length, which is how the Raptors create a lot of their offense traditionally. The Cavaliers present the same kind of challenges at the other end, because they employ the best player in the world and flank him with a ridiculous stable of shooters.

I don’t think Toronto would be changing a ton if they drew an Indiana, Chicago, or even Boston. Milwaukee and Cleveland are unique challenges, and you have the choice to be reactive or proactive. There are arguments for each. Against the Cavaliers, you can’t simply do you and expect to make them to adjust, because you do not have LeBron.

I would think any of the guys who saw time with the 905 would get one. Jared Sullinger might not want it, mind you, but I’m sure if he thought it would look good in his trophy case and he asked, the team would have no problem getting him one. And yes, they actually are getting rings. They got sized for them on Friday.

Jose Calderon better get a ring if the Warriors win it all, by the way.

Absolutely. A shameless plug: This Bruno Caboclo-Raptors 905 championship piece I wrote for The Athletic last week is one of my favorite things I’ve done this season. He was excellent over the last two games of the finals, and hearing Raptors people talk about how close he is to the NBA was interesting. They seem a bit more optimistic of the timeline than I do (I’ve generally written he’ll probably only be a bit player again next year, as the defense is really close but the offense still has a ways to go). He showed why over those last couple games.

Vince Carter’s comments that he intends to play again next season have me very excited at the idea of a return to Toronto. I know many people would be against it, but I think it’d be a nice wrap on his career and a good way to heal old wounds. The Raptors have had enough success now that Carter’s departure doesn’t hang over the entire franchise. Superstars have chosen to stay, they’ve had more playoff success than when he was here, and so on. It doesn’t change the massive impact he had on basketball in the city and country, and him coming back for a farewell season would be cool.

Plus, even at his age, he was still kind of productive for Memphis. He averaged 25 minutes on a quality team, shot a good clip on threes, had decent-to-good advanced metrics, and has really grown as a leader. And I could use someone else in town to watch wrestling with.

Non-Raptors Miscellaneous

The ODC question is one I always want to have fun with and keep secret, but I’ve answered it in this space a few times (even though there’s one guy in my mentions always claiming I won’t tell anyone). Anyway, when I first started writing as a hobby back in 2007, I had a baseball blog called The On-Deck Circle which, because it is a bad name for a blog, eventually just became The ODC. So when I got a Twitter handle in 2007 or 2008 and was still using that site, and my name was unavailable, I tacked ODC on the end. This is not a very good story. I should have pretended it’s a secret.

As for top albums this year, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN is probably at the top of the list, though I haven’t spent as much time with recent releases as I’d like. Some other early favorites: After The Party – The Menzingers, Sick Scenes – Los Campesinos, For Posterity – Dryjacket, The Yunahon Mixtape – oso oso, You’re Not As _ As You Think – Sorority Noise. There are others, too. Would be interested to hear the favorites of others in the comments.

As a reminder, if you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, we’ve started a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. Any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do, and try to do even more.

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