Predicting the Raptors’ lineups this year

10 mins read
Photo from the Raptors official twitter account.

Media day and the ensuing days of coverage this week from the Toronto Raptors’ training camp has been the most refreshing Raptors content in a long time. It’s great to hear from the players, what it means for some of them to be back in Toronto, and what it means for some of them to be in Toronto for the first time. Lots of words have been thrown around in interviews. Length, versatility, defense, just to name a few. In the end, these words will be converted into lineups. With their turn to true positionless basketball and the loss of icon and floor general Kyle Lowry, Nick Nurse will have to become even more creative than he already has shown he can be when it comes to putting out five man units on the floor. So what will the Raptors’ rotation look like? 

Let’s start with the starting lineup. 

Prediction: VanVleet, Trent Jr., Anunoby, Siakam(Boucher), Birch

Siakam is set to miss a few weeks at the beginning of the season, with Boucher and Barnes being the most obvious fill-in players for him while he gets back to full health. I lean towards Boucher getting the nod here because of his knowledge of the system that Nurse likes to play and his familiarity with the other starters. But I wouldn’t count out Barnes having an awesome training camp and maybe showing some flashes in preseason games. Still, with Toronto’s offensive limitations, Boucher offers more on that end, so it will likely be his position to lose.

VanVleet was always a lock to start as the point guard. He is the full-on leader of this team now both on and off the court. Anunoby and Birch are locks to start at their respective positions as well. It’s fair to predict yet another step forward for Anunoby with Lowry now gone and more usage available. His usage jumped from 17 to 22 percent after the 2021 trade deadline, and I would expect it to stay at or near that latter level for this entire year. Birch showed flashes of what he can do with more freedom last year, and he was rewarded for it with the largest contract of his career. If he can figure out how to play effectively on the roll with VanVleet and the other ball handlers, that would benefit the offense immensely. Anunoby and Birch join VanVleet as the locks in the lineup.

The real debate here is Trent or Dragic starting in the backcourt next to VanVleet. I lean towards Trent here as I think he will benefit the most from playing with the starters rather than having a heavier workload in the second unit. He’s most effective as a shooter, and playing alongside Toronto’s best gives him his most reps in his most effective role; VanVleet and Siakam should draw lots of attention when they penetrate the paint and allow for open shots for Trent. Trent would also benefit greatly from playing with three borderline All-Defense level starters. 

Now for the bench unit.

Prediction: Flynn, Dragic, Barnes, Boucher(Watanabe), Achiuwa

Here’s where things get fun. Dragic and Flynn are on completely opposite sides of their career, s0 there is potential for some great mentoring. Dragic should be able to teach Flynn a lot of his middle-of-the-floor tricks and pass down on-the-fly advice to help Flynn grow. During his media day press conference, Dragic mentioned playing a similar role that Steve Nash did for him in his early years in Phoenix. Flynn would be the best recipient of that knowledge. Pick-and-roll manipulation should be a key area of teaching here just as a basic play starter for any point guard. Having Dragic next to him should also allow Flynn to work more off-ball and relocate around the floor for open threes.

The frontcourt will be a fun and wild time for better or for worse. Between the four players listed above, there are a few different permutations you can play around with. Barnes is going to provide contagious energy, something that it seems you count on every day and night. He’ll have a higher usage on the bench unit, and he’ll be able to work on his skills and try out whatever he so desires. Boucher was much better last year when playing the four next to a more traditional five, and that lets you play only one of Barnes or Watanabe (at least once Siakam gets back). He’ll offer some integral shooting and spacing to this group. Although Achiuwa isn’t the most traditional of big men, he should provide the rebounding and shot-blocking presence that allows Boucher to roam on the defensive end a bit more. This unit should be able to play an aggressive, switch-y style of defense, force turnovers and really push in transition. The offense is sure to be clunky, but if the versatility and length on defense can translate into transition points, it’s already a win for the team. 

Finally, the closing lineup.

Prediction: VanVleet, Dragic, Anunoby, Siakam, Birch

Now, this lineup is probably subject to the most change over the season. Based on who is playing well a certain night, opponents, and various other factors, the closing lineup can change a lot. However, I expect the most commonly used version of the closing lineup to be the starters with Dragic in for Trent. Dragic’s experience in late game situations as well as his pick-and-roll ability provides another level on offense that Trent Jr. doesn’t have at this point in his career. Dragic can create great shots for himself and others, and that’s rare on this Raptors’ team. This lineup still gives the Raptors flexibility on both offense and defense. VanVleet, Dragic, and Siakam are all solid options as ball handlers to run the offense, and it would be helpful to occasionally station VanVleet off-ball to leverage his shooting. On defense, there’s still a lot of length between Anunoby, Siakam, and Birch with an intense point of attack defender in VanVleet. 

Honourable mention lineup: 

The Ultra Switchy lineup: Siakam, Anunoby, Barnes, Achiuwa, Birch

Nick Nurse mentioned this potential lineup in his media day press conferences. It’s truly a tantalizing tease. Raptors’ twitter has been on this train since the offseason, recognizing the roster’s abundance of players listed at 6’9 with much larger wingspans. There are plenty of possible variations. You can throw one of VanVleet or Dragic in here if you want more ball handling. You can also throw Boucher in for Achiuwa or Birch if you want more shooting. Watanabe is another guy that can slide in here at a few different positions. The point being that the Raptors can throw out an absolutely ridiculous lineup of height and wingspan for small periods of game time. If anything it’ll confuse the hell out of other teams for a couple minutes and hopefully grind the pace to a halt, forcing opponents into the mud. It is one of the things I’m most excited for this year.  

Whatever your thoughts may have been on the offseason for the team, there is a level of excitement around the team that is freshening. The players seem happy, there’s a new influx of talent, and most importantly the team is back in Toronto. The new direction that Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster seem to have settled on for the team, while different and maybe frustrating for some, has upside. It allows for various permutations and combinations for Nurse to look at. He can leverage shooting, defense, length, or transition play in a variety of ways with this roster. Let’s all forget about blowing up the team or jumping into unnecessary trade machine ideas for now. Sit back and enjoy the new look Raptors. 

 

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