The Toronto Raptors roster is taking shape for the 2016-17 NBA season.
Having already locked in Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to three-year deals, the team freed up much-needed cap space by trading DeMarre Carroll to the Brooklyn Nets, and then swapping Cory Joseph for Indiana Pacers forward C.J. Miles in a sign-and-trade deal. Miles is reportedly set to ink a three-year $25-million contract with the Raptors — good value for a player who stands to both fill a clear need and play a significant role for the Raps next season and beyond.
There are still holes in the roster, and questions surrounding the depth chart and lineup options, so don’t expect the Raps to be done quite yet. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the current depth chart:
Point Guard: Kyle Lowry*, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
Small Forward: C.J. Miles*, Bruno Caboclo, OG Anunoby
Power Forward: Serge Ibaka*, Pascal Siakam
Centre: Jonas Valanciunas*, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
The growing trend on coaching staffs and around NBA front offices is to throw out traditional positions listed above. More and more, teams are assessing their rosters based on three loose positions: guards, wings, and bigs.
At this point, the Raptors have a clear starter and primary ball-handler in Lowry, but it’s the development of the two players behind him on the depth chart that allowed Masai Ujiri to send Joseph to the Pacers.
Wright is a capable backup point guard and will get a promotion this season — and the opportunity to prove Ujiri & Co. right. VanVleet has really impressed in his role going back and forth between the Raptors 905 and the big club last season and is as reliable a third-string PG as you’ll find for a second-year pro.
DeRozan is the natural choice as Lowry’s backcourt mate given, you know, he’s made three-straight all-star teams in that role, as the team has found more success than ever in that span. But Powell clearly needs more playing time and responsibility this coming season — something he’s ready for. He could get that reviving his role off the bench or (and this is a tempting notion) he could start alongside DeRozan. Powell may be undersized to play the small forward, but his ability to defend larger players could make this work. DeRozan is bigger, and may seem like a more natural fit at the three should Powell join the starting lineup, but his defensive liabilities will be better masked guarding opposing twos.
DeRozan will enter the season as the Raptors’ most important player. Alongside a combination of Lowry, Miles, Ibaka, and Powell, the Raptors all-star will be surrounded by three-point shooters. Expect him to take on a bigger playmaking role where he’s asked to drive, draw a secondary defender, and kick it out to an open shooter.
The addition of Miles gives head coach Dwane Casey flexibility in terms of how he utilizes his chess pieces, and his 3-and-D status makes him a good fit at small forward. He shoots over 50 per cent from the right corner three, and look for the Raptors offence to put him in the corner on catch-and-shoot opportunities often. Although he’s just 6-foot-6, Miles has considerable experience playing small ball at power forward, something we’ll likely see when matchups allow it.
Those three — DeRozan, Powell, Miles — will carry the load on the wing, but injury and rest could open up opportunity for Caboclo to see playing time and a defined role off the bench this season. Rookie Anunoby, who is expected to be sidelined with injury until after the regular season begins, will also get a chance to prove himself, albeit in limited minutes for now.
Here’s where things get really interesting, and where it stands to reason that the Raptors aren’t done with their roster yet.
First things first: Ibaka should be starting at centre. He’s big enough to hold his own down low against other centres, can defend space with the best of ’em, and, as is practically necessary in today’s NBA, can stretch the floor beyond the three-point arc.
But as the roster is currently constructed, the most logical place to start Ibaka is at the four, alongside Valanciunas or even second-year big Poeltl. That’s because it’s the only real option.
Expect that to change.
Siakam started at power forward during the beginning of his rookie season, but he was only a stop-gap option until Jared Sullinger was healthy (good times!) and is today best-suited as an energy big off the bench, like Jerome Williams was. Caboclo and Anunoby could play the four, too, and Miles has spent significant minutes there in small-ball lineups in the past. But none are options to start at the position.
So if the logical move is to start Ibaka at the five, then the Raptors’ next task is to find a starting power forward. Valanciunas was being shopped heavily before the draft, and I’d be surprised if we didn’t hear his name come up again in trade rumours as the Raps look to not only shed more salary to pursue another veteran free agent of starting calibre, or simply to clear up the depth chart and create more playing time and a better-defined role for Poeltl, who should surprise people this year.
Sorting out the frontcourt rotation becomes priority No. 1 for the Raptors as the off-season continues.
Of course, who starts is somewhat moot given that the most important thing is who finishes. A crunch-time small-ball lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Powell, Miles, and Ibaka seems tailor-made for the way the league is going.