Finding a makeshift death lineup

10 mins read

An outsized contributor to winning games in the NBA depends on a team boasting one lineup, a group that can play against almost any opponent, upon whom the coach can depend to win their minutes. The Golden State Warriors taught the league over the last half-decade the importance of a lineup that can win its minutes by huge margins, and we started calling the Warriors’ best lineup, from year-to-year, the death lineup. The Raptors, even though they are hobbled, have enough talent to find a group that can consistently win minutes against any opponent. Over the Raptors’ last 10 games, no lineup has played in more than seven games. To be fair, some of that is because Fred VanVleet hurt himself recently, and also because Matt Thomas returned from injury. However, the only groups that have outscored opponents by a cumulative double digits have played in either two or three games. Total. There’s more than continued injury causing Toronto’s inability to find one consistently successful lineup. It’s quite surprising that the Raptors haven’t found such a lineup amidst this stretch of injuries.

It is equally surprising that they haven’t even tried tried to use the specific grouping of Kyle Lowry, Terence Davis, OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher, and Serge Ibaka.

There are two ways to approach surprise when it comes to certain lineups. If you told me at the beginning of the season that a lineup of Kyle Lowry – Terence Davis – OG Anunoby – Chris Boucher – Serge Ibaka did play a single minute together, I would be shocked and probably appalled. I would certainly be curious about what disasters befell the Raptors. However, now that I know what disasters have befallen the Raptors, I am shocked and increasingly appalled that this fivesome hasn’t seen a single second together.

Why? Well, for shooting, mostly. Since I wrote that the Raptors were the best shooting team in the league, the Raptors have fallen off a cliff. I explained why that happened here. To put it in simple numbers, since Toronto was beset by injuries 10 games ago, the team has shot a combined 123-for-362 from deep, or 34.0 percent. That’s not horrible, but you couldn’t confuse the Raptors of the past 10 games as the best shooting team in the league. And though shooting well can’t necessarily win you a game, shooting poorly can certainly lose you a game. My proposed lineup constitutes the best shooters available to Toronto at each position, minus Matt Thomas. I’ll get to that later. But Lowry, Davis, Anunoby, Boucher, and Ibaka have shot, over the course of the season, a combined 228-of-626 from deep, or 36.4 percent. That’s not quite going to set the world on fire, but it’s definitely among the best compilations of shooters Toronto can muster with snipers like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol on the shelf.

Each of Lowry, Davis, Anunoby, Boucher, and Ibaka can shoot from deep, which offers even more space to shoot to the others. Shooting skill among multiple players on the court, as the Golden State Warriors also taught the world over the past half-decade, has a multiplicative effect rather than becoming redundant. Lowry would have multiple pick-and-roll partners in Boucher and Ibaka. There are multiple initiators in Lowry and Davis. Any of the five can attack a closeout, and Anunoby is particularly effective when he drives into a moving defense. Even though this lineup lacks the shooting of Thomas, it would probably still be the best offensive unit lineup the Raptors can currently muster.

Beyond offense, this fivesome is probably among the best defensive lineups Toronto can throw on the court, too. Against Charlotte, Anunoby was an absolute defensive monster in every situation. He’s a full-blown wing stopper who can switch onto smalls, protect the rim, and shut down almost anyone in isolation. Terence Davis had one of the most impactful defensive plays of the game, making a potential Terry Rozier game-winner a near-impossibility with his stifling defense. He has been a great individual defender this season. Boucher and Ibaka are the team’s best shot-blockers. And Lowry is a mensa-level genius on that end, capable of doing 10 things at once. There’s no individual in this group that an offense could target, no weak link. The Raptors could play simple or funky defenses, including straight-up man, switch-heavy schemes, or occasionally some zones. They could even resort back to trapping and rotation because there’s so much length and maneuverability at the wing and forward spots. No matter what scheme this group ran, it would force tons of turnovers on the defensive end. Thomas would add to this group’s shooting ability, certainly, but he would represent an isolation target on the defensive end. He’d take away from Toronto’s defensive stinginess, ability to force turnovers, and proclivity to get out on the fast-break.

In fact, getting out in transition would potentially be this group’s greatest strength. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors play in transition a huge amount when any of the five of Lowry, Davis, Anunoby, Boucher, or Ibaka is on the floor.

Because they haven’t played a single second together, we can only surmise how much this entire group would play in transition, but it would probably be a whole heck of a lot.

A subtle but positive side-effect of this grouping is that it would force everyone to play in his best position. Lowry is clearly the team’s best point guard. He would be this group’s consistent on-ball initiator, rather than playing off-ball, as he does often alongside Fred VanVleet, for example. Anunoby has been much more effective as a small forward than a power forward. Per Cleaning the Glass, when Anunoby plays small forward, the Raptors have outscored opponents by +6.0 points per 100 possessions in 1568 possessions, versus power forward, when the Raptors have only outscored opponents by +2.1 points per 100 possessions in 623 possessions. Chris Boucher is occasionally too thin to man the center spot, where he can be out-muscled for rebounds and sometimes on post-ups by the biggest bigs. As Nick Nurse has said multiple times this season, Boucher is best as a power forward, and Ibaka’s presence would allow him that luxury. This lineup would shift every player into his most comfortable position.

We’re looking at a group that projects to be great in the half-court, due to its combination of shooting, driving, and versatility. It wouldn’t need to play in the half-court all that often, because it has such a good collection of turnover-creators and transition-runners. Furthermore, it would be deadly on the defensive end. So why hasn’t it played a lot? Well, for one, Pat McCaw has to sit in order for this group to play, and Nick Nurse has played him 31.1 minutes per game over the last 10 games. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson would also have to sit, and he’s been a staple of many of Toronto’s lineups. Another reason why this proposed group hasn’t played is because Nurse likes to run Lowry with four bench players as much as possible, while still giving the starters plenty of run together. So transitional units like this — with Lowry, Davis (maybe), Anunoby, and Ibaka as starters, and Boucher as a bench player — don’t have many opportunities to play together.

Regardless, this lineup projects to be fantastic together. Nurse doesn’t actually play lineup roulette and throw random groups onto the floor without cause, even though it can sometimes appear that way. He and his staff have tons of analytical research that go into each lineup decision. I expect Nurse to eventually settle on this group as one that deserves a shot together. And when they do get on the floor, I expect them to be extremely potent.

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