The Rotation After Health

As players get close to returns from injury new questions pop up about the Raptors rotation? Who has claimed those spots and who is on the outside looking in?

It’s getting harder by the day to imagine the Raptors as a full team, with each passing injury forcing them to reinvent themselves on what seems like a daily basis.  The past week has felt more 905 than NBA Champion, but the Raptors continue to do enough to squeak out victories and remain competitive.

From top to bottom this group has been a joy to watch and follow.  The effort is there on a nightly basis, we have had the opportunity to witness greatness from the team’s top players, while also getting the surprise positive outburst from those who would generally not be in the rotation.

With a record of 25-13 the Raptors currently find themselves 4th in the Eastern Conference, right in the centre of a talented group of teams jockeying for seeding from 2-6.  Other teams in this group have certainly dealt with their own injury issues (most notably Victor Oladipo missing the entire season to date), but the Raptors have had more than their fair share.

Only Terence Davis (the undrafted rookie/phenom/chosen one) has appeared in all 38 of the Raptors game, with OG Anunoby (37 games) and Chris Boucher (35) trailing close behind.

From relatively minor injuries like Fred VanVleet missing 7 to Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, and Norman Powell having all missed 11 games to date.  Even Pat McCaw, a player now often contributing in earnest, has appeared in fewer games than Malcolm Miller.

To say they have been decimated by injuries may seem strong, but at best it hasn’t been far from that.

Now we begin to see some light at the end of the tunnel.  Norman Powell by accounts is close to a return, and despite a lack of public communication surrounding his timetable/injury it also appears as if Pascal Siakam is on the horizon (reportedly targeting a return in the next week.

Less is known about Gasol, but it sounds as if he could still be out for some time, and VanVleet will also continue to mend on the sidelines.

The return to health is obviously good news and comes at a time where the remaining healthy players are being overstretched, but it also will bring about potentially difficult decisions.  The replacement players from the deep bench have largely played admirably, and several have earned minutes that likely aren’t available.

So who makes the cut?  With health on the horizon (knock on wood), who has done enough to be a part of the rotation?  And who becomes an unfortunate sacrifice on the depth chart?

Clear Rotation Members: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka

There’s no need to go into the obvious.  These 7 make up the returning core from the championship run and are the tone setters for the entire team.  As long as they remain on the roster it is safe to say each will have a significant role on a game-to-game basis.

Early in the season an argument could be made for Ibaka to lose minutes, but through injury he has largely been a positive and has at points been a lone bright spot for extended stretches.

(As an aside, the Raptors development staff gets a lot of credit for the growth of young players like Siakam, Davis, VanVleet, and more, but the growth of Ibaka has also been incredible to watch.  When he first arrived from Orlando he was a black hole.  He is now regularly throwing passes that would have been unheard of from a young Serge, while raising his shot profile and continuing to provide plus defence.)

On the Outside, Looking In: Stanley Johnson, Oshae Brissett (2-way), Malcolm Miller, Dewan Hernandez, Shamorie Ponds (2-way)

Shamorie Ponds is the first obvious exclusion.  Even with the rash of injuries he has played just 11 minutes across 4 games (fun fact: Ponds has the highest EFG% on the team at 70 percent).  This times him with Hernandez for the fewest minutes and games played on the Raptors this year, so let’s cross both of them off this list for now.

Malcolm Miller and Stanley Johnson are in similar positions.  Even with the abundance of injuries both still failed to earn a place in the depth chart.  Stanley was even passed over often for two-way player Oshae Brissett, and asked for a game assignment with the Raptors905 to stay ready (good on him).

Oshae is likely the toughest omission of this group.  His energy and defence have been a difference maker at times, and his offence has looked far better in the limited NBA role than it has in the expanded opportunity with the 905.  That said, heavier minutes and the chance to stretch his game in Mississauga is exactly what he needs.

The Debateables:

The following group is already locked in:

PG: Lowry

SG: VanVleet, Powell

SF: Anunoby

PF: Siakam

C: Gasol, Ibaka

Terence Davis, Chris Boucher, Pat McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Matt Thomas and all done enough to continue playing, at least in situational roles, but even within this group there is a hierarchy.  Who makes the cut on nights where the Raptors shorten the rotation to 10?

Terence Davis

As mentioned earlier, Davis is the only Raptor to have appeared in all 38 games.  He has been a mainstay of the rotation, even if in part due to necessity and availability.  Some nights it has not been good.  Against Portland on Tuesday night Terence played a total of 8 minutes and Nurse remarked after the game that it was likely 5 too many.  Ouch.

And yet he followed it up with his first career start against Charlotte and dominated to the tune of 23 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, and a steal, while shooting 4-of-8 from deep and carrying the charge in overtime.

He also is second on the team in Net Rating at +12.8, behind only Malcolm Miller (just 5.5 minutes per game).  On some nights the minutes may be limited, and mistakes will be less tolerated with more options available, but I think it’s safe to say that Davis has done enough to keep playing.

Chris Boucher vs. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson:

On most nights there is likely only room for one of Boucher and RHJ when the Raptors have a fully healthy roster, and the two could see their minutes split on a situational basis.

Boucher alters the game.  He plays with a high level energy similar to Siakam, has good pick and roll feel with the guards (including a surprising chemistry with Terence Davis. Those two work well together), and has been a high level defender with a block percentage of 49.3(!!!).  Watching Boucher run out for blocks on 3 point shooters is truly mesmerizing.

While Boucher’s defensive rebounding is average among the Raptors bigs, his offensive rebounding brings a different dynamic.  With an offensive rebound percentage of 13.4, he single handedly provides the Raptors with additional scoring opportunities.

Rondae meanwhile has helped shut down the likes of Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, offering more wing defence and switching than Boucher.  In smaller lineups he has shown an ability to impact the game positively, but he requires shooting around him to be most successful.  Charlotte openly ignored him anywhere away from the rim and clogged the lanes/perimeter for shooters.

Pat McCaw vs. Matt Thomas:

Once again, if the Raptors shorten their rotation there is likely only space available for one of McCaw or Thomas to play minutes.  And it will be a weird decision on a nightly basis as to who gets this final spot of playing time.

We know at this point what Thomas provides.  Shooting.  On 2.7 attempts from 3 per game he is hitting them 47.4 percent of the time.  He is one of the world’s elite shot hitters, both on the move and in spot up situations.  Even without the ball in his hands he forces defenses to track him and cannot be left alone for a moment.

While he has been feisty on the boards, and the ball certainly doesn’t stick in his hands, there isn’t much else he offers.  He cannot create for himself and is a far from an average defender despite clear effort on that side of the ball.

McCaw is also far from flawless.  He has been far more productive of late and seems to be finding a grove of sorts.  His presence at point has allowed Lowry and/or Fred to be off-ball more frequently, and his shifty dribble has helped him get to the lane more frequently.  He is also shooting a respectable 34.9 percent from deep and has been more willing to take the shot when available.

But…there is also something just a little off about his game too often.  Despite finding more ways to contribute he is still a near team-worst net rating of -3.5.  Only Shamorie Ponds is worse.  And if you think this is altered by his early season struggles, over his last 10 games his net rating is even worse at -5.9.

Pat should be better with more talent around him and not playing against other team’s starting units.  And it’s obvious he has Nurse’s trust which goes a long way.

 

On most nights the rotation will be fluid, and with further injuries (hopefully nothing major) or nights off for rest there will be chances for everyone.  At the start of the season there were concerns about the Raptors depth.  The one good thing coming out of these injuries is the knowledge that they are deeper than once believed.

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