How Nick Nurse can take advantage of Raptors’ roster versatility

Eric Smith and Michael Grange report from Vancouver where the Toronto Raptors are transitioning on offence and defence under new head coach Nick Nurse.

When Nick Nurse was first formally introduced to the media as the Toronto Raptors’ new head coach, he said he was going to experiment with his roster right up until the start of the post-season.

“We want to try some ideas and some things and try to put our guys in different positions, try some different combinations, et cetera, to prepare us for the playoffs, which is what matters.”

And this was before Nurse knew he was going to be coaching Kawhi Leonard.

Now that he is coaching Leonard, however, Nurse’s ability to mix and match different pieces in his lineup has magnified exponentially, and he should have a much easier time to tinker with different combinations.

“I think our team’s very versatile,” Nurse said Monday during Raptors media day. “I think we’ll be able to move a lot of people around, which in this day and age in basketball a lot of teams are playing a lot of different lineups and we’re going to be able to do the same.”

As Nurse says, this Raptors team has a lot of flexible parts, and it’s not just because of Leonard.

Toronto boasts one of the most malleable rosters, and on Saturday we’ll get our first glimpse at how Nurse intends to use his varied pieces during the club’s first exhibition game in Vancouver.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

Here are the lineups we’d like to see Nurse test out as the pre-season chugs along.

Likely Starting Five

Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas

This is the unit most expect to see starting the season.

Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas remain in the same roles as last season, then you plug in Leonard to replace OG Anunoby at the three and Danny Green at DeMar DeRozan’s old two-guard spot.

And if you are surprised by Green slotting in as a starter, don’t be — he’s been San Antonio’s starting shooting guard for the past six seasons.

This is a lineup that offers a good mixture of shooting ability, defensive stopping power and post play. It also features the five highest-paid guys on the Raptors’ payroll this season, a real contributing factor as to why this will likely be the starting five.

This isn’t to say this is a bad unit by any stretch, but as things stand now, it probably isn’t the team’s best, either.

Lockdown Unit

Delon Wright, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam

With the additions of Leonard and Green, the Raptors should be improved on the defensive end. Leonard is a two-time defensive player of the year and Green has been named on an all-defence team before.

Boasting two players with those kinds of accolades helps a lot, but they only improve what was already a top-five defence in the league.

The Raptors’ excellent 103.4 defensive rating last season was greatly spurred on by Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Anunoby. These three were the team’s most versatile defenders last season, capable of guarding at least three positions each.

By adding Green and Leonard, who can also guard many different positions, to this existing trio, the Raptors will have a defensive lineup that switches with impunity and can cause all sorts of havoc.

The big weakness here is the lack of rim protection, but is it really needed when you have a full five-man unit that should be able to blow up the pick-and-roll with ease and create turnovers?

Floor-stretching Fun

Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, C.J. Miles, Serge Ibaka

Three-point shooting has been one of the big weaknesses that has sunk the Raptors time and again over the years, but this season the team actually boasts an impressive array of marksmen who should be able to stretch the floor.

The lineup you see above could also have players swapped for Leonard and, to a lesser extent, Anunoby, but this speaks to the number of outside threats on the team.

The most intriguing aspect of a potential floor-stretching, three-point bombing unit would be the tandem of Green and C.J. Miles on the floor at the same time. This is a pair that, for their career, shoots over 41 per cent from the corners, so having those two camped on opposite sides is a terrifying proposition.

Big Boys

Delon Wright, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas

We fully acknowledge the likelihood of seeing this lineup take the floor is probably slim, but boy would it be fun to see.

In a complete reversal of how the league is going, playing gigantic could have its advantages. This is a lineup that could punish opponents who go small because it has the post presence, length, strength and just enough shooting and versatility defensively to make it work in short spurts.

Where’s the harm in giving it a shot at least a few times here and there?

The Closers

Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam

We mentioned that the team’s likely starting five probably isn’t its best one, and that’s because this unit likely is.

There’s an argument to be made that a team’s best players should also be its starters, but there’s more to it than that when it comes to who starts the game.

Who finishes it shouldn’t be a debate, however. It should always be your best guys in tight situations. This lineup best embodies that because it has the strongest combination of everything the Raptors want to do.

It has strong ball-handling and decision-making with Lowry running point, exceptional spacing with Green, Leonard and Anunoby all able to take and make threes and defensive versatility with those three wings we just mentioned alongside Siakam at the five, who can also act as a dangerous rim-runner and pick-and-roll finisher alongside Lowry.

Like the lockdown unit, this one lacks traditional rim protection, but it has so many pluses on both sides of the ball that it should completely dwarf the need for strong shot-blocking.

This is the Raptors’ best five-man lineup, and should be one that Nurse leans on a fair bit.

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