The Raptors should start their small-ball lineup no matter the opponent

Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Siakam, and Anunoby are about to set the NBA on fire. Together.

It seemed counterintuitive for the Toronto Raptors to start OG Anunoby at center against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers, but that’s exactly what Nick Nurse did. He did that, of course, after saying pre-game that “I don’t think you can [play small] tonight. I mean, we’ll probably get forced into it at some point, but we’ll see.”

And then Toronto’s small lineup got annihilated, as the team lost the first four minutes 11-4 until Aron Baynes entered the game. The Raptors lost Norman Powell’s minutes by a game-low 26 points in a seven-point win. All the starters other than DeAndre’ Bembry finished with negative plus-minuses.

Yet Nurse made a good decision. The Sixers game, despite its seeming evidence against small ball, offered one more win for the Raptors when they started small. It comprised one more data point in an increasing pile that when Toronto starts small, the team’s rotations, identity, and winning chances crystallize.

First and foremost, starting OG Anunoby and Norman Powell together rather than Baynes allows the Raptors to play their five best players to start the game. Which is helpful. On the season, Toronto’s would-be starting lineup of Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, and Baynes have been outscored by 8 points in 114 points (net rating of -4.2). Losing your starter minutes puts a cap on a team’s winning chances. But with Norman Powell in Baynes’ place, Toronto has outscored opponents by 8 points in 38 minutes (net rating of 10.7). That’s the net rating gap between a team contending for a championship and one contending for a lottery pick.

Toronto switches better with a small starting group, and Siakam and Anunoby are solid at protecting the rim as help. That of course didn’t matter against Embiid, as he is so powerful and speedy that he could turn and finish before help even arrived. But in general, the small group has a higher defensive ceiling. That’s mostly because of their collective ability to read the requirements on the floor and respond far more quickly than with Baynes on the court. Help is what determines Toronto’s defensive identity, and Toronto helps much better with the small group.

The offense is cleaner, too. There’s more space, more driving lanes, more open shots. Nobody is getting in anybody else’s way.

I think we all just understand where to be on the court when someone’s driving and where to look for shots,” said Bembry of the success of the small unit. “We’re all spaced out. We all can stay behind the 3. That just opens up the floor a lot more for us.”

Siakam has more space on his drives, and there’s no one off of whom defenders can help. Watch Baynes’ primary defender when he started alongside Siakam; his defender would act as a second primary on Siakam, and there were no angles through which Siakam could squeeze. That becomes clear when you look at Siakam’s at-rim attempts with or without Baynes playing. With Baynes on the court, Siakam attempts only 29.9 percent of his shots at the rim. Without, it balloons to 41.7 percent. That’s the difference between appearing tentative and settling, with no driving lanes are available, and attacking relentlessly.

Put another way, Siakam and Baynes together have been outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions, while Siakam without Baynes has trounced opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions. Bringing Baynes off the bench makes sense if purely for the purpose of maximizing Siakam.

There are other ways that starting small benefits the Raptors. Namely, to the advantage of one Norman Powell. Outside of a downer against the Sixers, the man has been on a heater since his cold streak to start the season, and there are reasons to believe this is who he is. At first glance, it seems Powell has been dominant because he’s been starting, but The Starter Norm Narrative is perhaps overplayed. After all, he did average 16.0 points per game on elite efficiency while coming off the bench in half of his games last year. Powell’s actual increase in production correlates with his increase in opportunity, which Nurse has readily offered as explanation when asked. And the starters, all of whom are good-to-great shooters, with two elite-passing point guards, and a low-usage wing, give Powell the perfect blend of opportunity for a high usage without sacrificing threats across the floor. When Powell has played with all-bench groups, he hasn’t had the ability to lift them offensively. When he has played with shoot-first stars, he doesn’t get enough shots to impact the game. But the small ball group gives him the best chance to thrive.

Of course, the Raptors need to do what benefits their best players the most. So it makes sense to start small purely for the boost for players like Siakam and Powell. But in fact, starting small benefits the very players it seems to undermine in Baynes and Chris Boucher. Against the Sixers — when Embiid crushed the small Raptors beneath his mighty feet — Boucher (+32) and Baynes (+11) dominated their minutes off the bench and, to reduce the game to one factor, won the game for Toronto.

That success off the bench has been a trend.

Baynes is at his best as a bench big. His lack of neither elite mobility nor awareness disallows him from fitting in Toronto’s manic hellfire defense that they run with Anunoby, Siakam, VanVleet, and Lowry. Boucher, too, for all his spectacular ability, has made some slow reads that limits the defensive ceiling of that group. And those four are such fantastic team and individual defenders that using someone alongside of them who limits their utility makes no sense. The Raptors should be stonewalling opponents when those four are on the court. Baynes doesn’t allow that to happen. Thus far, Powell has been a solid defender when starting in the small group.

But Baynes and Boucher are more than capable of playing solid defense against opposing bench groups. Few teams are able to field elite weapons at every position on the court in their bench or transitional units, and Baynes cannot be exploited so easily. In fact, Baynes and Boucher together have annihilated opponents by 44.2 points per 100 possessions, albeit in few minutes. (That number was an already outrageous 28.0 before their curb-stomping of the Sixers.) They have, in fact, been the single best two-player lineup in the NBA. Such numbers won’t sustain, of course, but they do speak to Toronto’s ability to maximize Baynes off the bench.

Boucher has long been successful this season off the bench. Nurse likes to bring him off the bench because of his energy levels; when he enters the game, it provides Toronto a lift, which is mighty effect. It’s similar to having a relief pitcher who can toss a 100-mph fastball. And Boucher is effective as a center, but it still makes some sense to play him alongside another big, particularly for defensive purposes.

It definitely helps a little bit to have somebody stronger to take the big guy, and I can kind of clean up a little bit, rebound, help out off my man,” explained Boucher. “It definitely helps me out.”

Boucher can be exploited on the defensive glass when he leaps to contest shots, so it is important to have a glass-eater alongside him. When Boucher has played center, Toronto has allowed a huge offensive rebounding rate of 29.3, to opponents, which undermines all the work they accomplished with good defense. When Boucher and Baynes have played together, opponents have only grabbed 19.6 percent of available offensive rebounds. That’s the difference, in a game of 100 possessions, of 10 fewer for opponents due to the improved rebounding.

I think the biggest thing is they have both played better individually,” said Nurse of the effectiveness of Boucher and Baynes together. “And that helps. For whatever reason. Maybe it’s a second-string center, or Chris playing at the four has helped him a little bit, which I think is really good for us, because again, it’s just unfair to make him play against someone he’s giving up 100 pounds to sometimes. It is.

Getting him used to that and making them play together a little bit, it’s been probably a bonus we weren’t expecting. I also think it’s gonna pay some long-term dividends too because again, Chris has proven to be worthy of being on the court, and if we can find him another position to be out there, that gives him a chance to give him that chance to play out there. I think maybe he’s a better shot-blocker out there from the 4 than he is from the 5, and that’s one of his elite skills.”

Playing Baynes off the bench was meant to maximize the starters, yet they were pasted against Philadelphia. But the side effect, the “bonus we weren’t expecting” of the play of Boucher and Baynes together, won Toronto the game. Thus starting small has crystallized the team’s rotation options. It’s rare to find a rotation choice that benefits practically every player on the team. Yet in benching Baynes, there is seemingly no downside, at least when it comes to performance.

It is concerning that Anunoby and Siakam will have to bang with opposing bigs for such extensive minutes this season. Anunoby, built like a tree with drip, can probably survive unscathed. The more lithe Siakam could be at risk of injury. Thus starting big could protect Toronto’s stars. But what would you be saving them for? We know what the Raptors look like starting big: a sub-.500 team. It’s possible they would miss the playoffs if they don’t maximize the minutes of their stars. We don’t yet know how successful the small lineup can be. But it’s been dominant in just a few games.

There would be nothing for the Raptors to save their stars for if they lost every first quarter. More important, then, that the Raptors make the best of what they have. That is best accomplished by starting their small ball group.

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