When the culture reset was largely becoming defined as a change in the Toronto Raptors’ offensive schemes as the season neared, it was hard to envision a season that would be anything more than a work in progress. After all, this was a team whose offense perpetually stagnated in the postseason, was among the worst at generating baskets off movement, and was now going to be asking core players who had played one way for several years as well as young players without a meaningful role to make a complete U-turn.
Some, like DeMar DeRozan and Pascal Siakam thrived under the new system, exhibiting aspects of their game that the old way didn’t allow. Others, like Kyle Lowry, needed some time to warm to the idea. On the far end of the spectrum were the likes of Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell, who both struggled to come to grips with making quicker reads than they’ve been accustomed to.
Entering this season, word on the street surrounding Jonas Valanciunas was that this was a man who lost his way just as so many centers have done in the pace-and-space era. He endured a tough 2017 playoffs, getting yanked from the starting lineup for more ball handling, speed and overall versatility, and then had his offense rendered useless in the second round as the Cleveland Cavaliers happily traded three-pointers for twos. In a league where pick-and-roll offense to target mismatches was becoming the norm, his struggles in that aspect of the game became magnified.
The Raptors even tried to attach their 2017 first-round pick — before OG Anunoby was expected to be available — to the Lithuanian to try and create interest in him, but nothing came to fruition. After continued efforts until mid-July, the team’s efforts to move Valanciunas finally stalled.
So, to now look back on what Valanciunas accomplished over the 2017-18 season knowing how the league viewed him and just how misplaced he seemed by the end of last season, his improved play was nothing short of remarkable. Heck, he said it better than anyone on the most recent episode of Open Gym.
“Season was good. I liked it, I enjoyed it. I was balling my ass off.”
It may sound like an exaggeration considering his raw numbers were rather similar to seasons past, but it speaks volumes of the confidence he gained playing in this rejuvenated offensive system and how much more valued he felt by it. Whether it was making reads out of the high post to create for his teammates or beat his man off the dribble and get to the basket, improving his defensive positioning and use of his verticality, or even extending his range to the point where fellow centers fell for pump-fakes at the three-point line, this was an unforgettable season for Valanciunas.
Just listen to the excitement from Matt Devlin in the clip below when the 26-year-old knocked down a triple while it still had a novel feel to it… I know, every Jonas three-pointer is like a whole new experience, but to hear Devlin’s charged up response here and think about how things went from that to “Death, taxes and JV threes” speaks to the effort Valanciunas put in during the offseason to become a respectable threat from that range.
A 20-point, nine rebound third quarter against the Bucks was among the season highlights for the big man, as he abused both Thon Maker and John Henson down low after picking up two fouls within the first 90 seconds of the game to leave him scoreless at the half.
Of course, nothing beats the ultimate “Welcome to Lithuania” moment that came just after the all-star break when Valanciunas sent the game into overtime with a great read after catching the inbounds to take matters into his own hands and beat Henson to the basket for what really should have been an and-1 to end the game.
There’s the clip that went viral of Steve Kerr talking about the strength players draw from everyone touching the ball and how that translates to giving more on defense and helping team morale and there’s no doubt that applied to Valanciunas.
Unlike seasons past, Dwane Casey felt he was able to entrust his starting center with fourth quarter minutes, and he delivered in spades. Valanciunas finished the season with the fifth-most clutch minutes (last five minutes of a game within five points or fewer) and was a team-best plus-39.
One closing lineup that emerged that was particularly successful was the starting unit with Fred VanVleet in place of OG Anunoby, as they finished with a plus-24.6 net rating and a spectacular 128.4 offensive rating over 101 minutes. They were also excellent on the glass, grabbing 58.2 percent of all available rebounds. The shoulder injury VanVleet suffered in the final game of the regular season obviously hindered Casey’s ability to turn to this lineup in the playoffs, and that’s where some of the questions about the Lithuanian heading into next season begin.
In the first game of the second round against the Cavs, Valanciunas was an absolute beast for the better part of three quarters. He finished the game with 21 points and 21 rebounds, but that heartbreaking loss that set the tone for the remainder of the series turned just as Valanciunas struggled to finish over and around Tristan Thompson. He went 0-for-5 to finish the fourth quarter and then didn’t attempt a shot in overtime.
Now, to be clear, by no means was that loss on Valanciunas. But, I’ve always found it interesting that the Cavs have seemed genuinely unperturbed by the Lithuanian’s presence on the court the last few years. Over the course of 48 minutes, they genuinely believe the matchup of LeBron James and four shooters will win out. They are the only team that presents this conundrum, but as Masai Ujiri’s actions since the season ended suggest, beating King James and finding a higher ceiling in the playoffs seems to be of paramount importance.
With other mobile centers such as Joel Embiid, Al Horford (he’ll be playing there with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward), Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner, it appears that the Raptors may need to choose between one of Valanciunas and Ibaka. One of those big positions needs to be more mobile and a regular season game against the Boston Celtics served plenty of evidence of this.
When the Raptors blew out the Celtics in their second overall meeting, but the first at the Air Canada Centre, Casey challenged Ibaka to pressure Horford full-court, thus taking away his playmaking ability but also cutting down on Valanciunas’s workload. His primary responsibility was Aron Baynes, allowing him to stay around the rim, contest shots, and rebound.
The easy argument is that the starting lineup was highly effective in both the regular season and playoffs, but this is where I lean on what Daryl Morey — GM of the Houston Rockets — said about trying to take down the Golden State Warriors.
Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey doesn’t understand the teams that aren’t obsessed with beating the Warriors. pic.twitter.com/L13j5R5Zv9
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 6, 2018
If the Raptors true intentions are to compete at a championship level for the next two seasons, they need to look squarely at how equipped they are to beat the Celtics, the Warriors, and whichever team LeBron chooses between the Cavs, Rockets, 76ers and Lakers.
Is Ibaka someone who can stay in front of his man on the perimeter while also making his presence felt on the inside against those teams? Is Valanciunas someone who can consistently protect the rim and not get abused on screen-and-rolls? This is where the Raptors are stuck. Maybe not, though, depending on how other teams view Valanciunas’s resurgence. Ibaka, on the other hand, appears to have diminished his trade value to DeMarre Carroll levels and it’s highly unlikely Ujiri forks over another draft pick to get him off the books.
Unjust as it may be for Valanciunas to be moved after arguably his best season as a Raptor, it’s a credit unto himself that he’s even brought himself back to this level of relevancy and made himself potentially a desirable commodity among other front offices.
Chalk that up as a win for the big guys.