The regular season is just practice for the playoffs, at least according to noted member of the Toronto Raptors, Kawhi Leonard. It’s 82 games of preparation for the games that actually matter.
Kawhi’s presence in Toronto makes this even more true for the Raptors. From the moment they traded for Kawhi in July the Raptors have been all in on this season. Have a successful year and they have a chance at convincing Kawhi to return, but if they experience another playoff failure then a rebuilt could be in the cards after Kawhi walks.
After our recent playoff failures in Toronto it’s a valid expectation to have. The culmination of years of build-up to one run that likely defines the future. It’s fitting.
In years past the Raptors were unable to take their game to another level. They struggled with the Wizards when they shouldn’t have, barely squeaked out victories over the Heat, and got embarrassed by the Cavaliers 3 years running.
Comparatively, this years Raptors team should be far more adaptable and Nick Nurse has spent the season testing every possible unit to test the possibilities available to him. On Thursday we even say a line-up of Patrick McCaw, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Chris Boucher. That’s weird. Granted, some of the decision making here was due to the absences of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka, but that’s still a bizarre (and fun!) group to intentionally put together.
The 2019 Raptors are simply more versatile compared to previous years, with more players capable of defending multiple positions and better overall shooting to spread the floor. One player above all defines these hopes/differences: Pascal Siakam.
Siakam has transformed himself since last season, and is two seasons removed from being little more than a fast runner. It is truly remarkable to observe the strides he has taken, and he offers the option for the Raptors to play small.
According to Basketball Reference Siakam has seen 9 percent of his minutes at centre as the primary big on the floor, a look that Nurse could go to more frequently come playoff time if the match-ups call for it.
The sample size is still very small. In total there have been roughly 196 minutes with Siakam at centre. Many of these minutes included players who are no longer with the Raptors (ex. Delon Wright) and some have included players unlikely to see playoff minutes outside of garbage time (ex. Malcolm Miller).
In fact, if you are only counting lineups that include rotation players currently with Raptors, there have been approximately 73 minutes of lineup data available to us with Siakam at centre. The most frequent such group has been VanVleet, Lowry, Green, OG, and Siakam, playing a total of 11 minutes together over 6 games.
So despite the small sample size, what if anything can we take away from the 73 minutes of data that we have?
Siakam and OG:
Almost every line-up that has Siakam at centre has included OG at power forward, with a few having Kawhi or Powell (now that’s smallball!) in that spot. Siakam playing at centre is a natural way to provide additional opportunity for OG to see the floor.
With a lot happening in his life off the court this season, OG’s production has been up and down. Overall his offensive rating dropped from 113 last season to 106 this season, but when he plays alongside of Siakam at centre his offensive rating this year jumps to 122 in 51 minutes (according to NBAWowy.com).
This has been one of the bigger concerns at the idea of Siakam at centre, but the majority of the data we have indicates that it hasn’t been an issue. On the season Siakam has a rebounding percentage of 10.5. When playing without another centre he bumps his personal rebounding percentage to 19.1.
This is of course a small sample size, but as a point of reference only 6 players on the season have a rebounding percentage of at least 19 (Drummond, Whiteside, Ed Davis, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, and Joel Embiid).
This is where things get especially interesting in our available small sample. Siakam at centre has been a killer defensive unit. In 155 defensive possessions the Raptors have a defensive rating of 87.7, while allowing opponents a true shooting percentage of 49.3.
A defensive rating of 87.7 is unsustainable, but it is encouraging. The same can be said about opponent shooting percentages, as it would be hard to consistently hold opponents to 42.6 percent on two pointers and 30.8 percent from beyond the arc.
It’s a small sample size, but there are encouraging signs that Siakam at centre can be a line-up the Raptors can go to regularly in the playoffs whenever they need a different look. Siakam in the middle allows the Raptors to play at a faster pace, and gives them more versatility on both sides of the ball.