As the Toronto Raptors work their way through the pre-season and head Coach Dwane Casey continues to test a myriad of lineup combinations, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Casey has viable alternatives. It’s a great thing for the team, a great thing for the coach and it will keep the players fighting to prove they are worthy of court time.
The roster upgrades this season looked good on paper before the team hit the court but now that the pre-season is moving along, the permutations and combinations that Casey can use are not just slots on a depth chart scribbled on a white board in the coach’s office. Through the course of the pre-season when players have been healthy, Casey has taken the opportunity to shake up the rotation and try different units.
With Kyle Lowry back and healthy after missing the first thee pre-season games, he has played as advertised. He is tough and gritty at both ends of the floor and does a great job in what is becoming a lost art in basketball: starting the break with the pass. Lowry doesn’t have gummy hands and unlike some modern day point guards, who like to run the ball up the court on the dribble, he actually uses the pass to advance the ball to an open teammate in a better position. What a novel concept, huh? Just ask Landry Fields how much that is appreciated. Playing Lowry with fellow point men John Lucas III and Jose Calderon is a combination that Casey has not been afraid to use either.
Lucas and Calderon in particular have worked well together. Lucas, who seems to be akin to a T.J. Ford reincarnate with more of a scoring mentality and a better jump shot, is the primary ball handler in this situation. Like Lowry, Lucas also pushes the ball on the dribble and with the pass. Calderon then becomes the shooting guard and while reluctant to pull the trigger at times, this role is more clearly defined for him — shoot when you get a good look. Looking ahead to when Casey implements his zone defence, don’t be surprised to see him go with two smaller guards instead of worrying about the man-to-man matchups with bigger guards. Toronto fans should get a good look at this combination because a trade for Calderon and his expiring contract appears to be imminent.
But Casey’s mix-and-match strategy isn’t limited to the backcourt; there are also alternatives in the front court.
The combination of perimeter players with Fields, DeMar DeRozan, Alan Anderson and rookie Terrence Ross can be added to any mixture of big men. Add players like Linas Kleiza and Dominic McGuire, who can play either the small forward or the power forward position, and Casey’s flexibility increases even further.
The one thing that has not been lost in all of this mishmash of combinations is the identity that Casey established last season. With a defensive mindset and a culture of effort, Casey hopes that if all players are healthy he can find at least a few productive combinations on which to hang his hat. By the looks of it, newcomers Jonas Valanciunas, Lowry, Fields and McGuire understand the level at which they have to compete.
The pre-season has already demonstrated some of the potential versatility Casey has at his disposal. For example, Toronto closed out a pre-season game against Washington with a defensive group that featured Ed Davis, Lowry, Fields, Valanciunas and Lucas.
Casey has maintained that he will most likely employ an eight-to-10 man rotation, but the last few spots will be interchangeable depending on matchups or what is needed in any given situation.
“Depending on matchups for us, they just have to be ready to step in and perform,” Casey said when addressing the versatility of the back end of his rotation following a pre-season win over the New York Knicks in Montreal Friday night.
There were periods in last year’s lockout-shortened season where Casey lamented not having the horses to get the job done properly. While there are no big name superstars, the Raptors are hoping they go to battle with a serviceable group of players where the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
Perhaps the sentiments of the fans and the organization can be best expressed by the coach himself as the pre-season winds down and he looks to fine tune his rotation.
“It’s pre-season and we still have a lot of kinks to get out,” he said. “I don’t want to get too excited but I like what I see.”