Raptors’ depth gives Nick Nurse the rotation challenge coaches dream of

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. (Frank Gunn/CP)

The story of the Toronto Raptors‘ season before the pandemic was how they thrived even while having nearly every member of their rotation missed at least 10 games and some many more.

Add in that this was a team trying to defend their NBA title after losing two starters to free agency — Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — and the Raptors were the little defending champion that could as they chugged to a 46-18 record, third-best in the NBA.

Doing it without Leonard and Green was one thing, but the Raptors’ injuries were like a game of whack-a-mole — a rotation player would get hurt, come back, only to have another one get banged up and slip out of the lineup.

Norman Powell was one of three starters — Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam were the others — that got hurt in the same game in Detroit on Dec. 18. The Raptors won that one and the next two also. The injury bug showed up early on when Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka both left the game against the New Orleans Pelicans in early November. The Raptors won that one to start a five-game west coast road trip and came home from the coast with a 3-2 mark, including a win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Centre thanks to big plays from rookie Terence Davis and journeyman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — just like everyone expected.

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As the wins kept mounting the injuries proved a blessing. Any NBA player worth his salt will tell you that the only thing separating them from the role they want and the pay cheque they deserve is opportunity.

Suddenly the Raptors were overflowing with it.

“There was such a big kind of slice of opportunity at the offensive end available [in the absence of Leonard and Green],” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse on a conference call Monday from Walt Disney World Resort where Toronto is preparing for the NBA restart. “… and certainly a big chunk of it went to Pascal, but [it] kind of got moved [to] a lot of guys.”

And at different times.

Lowry’s offensive production picked up as did Fred VanVleet’s and Powell’s — all of them have had significant increases in their usage rate this season — but so often it was because someone else was out of the lineup and they had to carry a bigger load.

“With guys out, it’s even more opportunity for other guys,” said VanVleet. “Me and Norm were joking about it, we never really had a full team all year, so when I was out, he got more looks. When he was out, I got more looks. It was just [more] basketball to go around when we had guys out. I think it was a good balance of we had guys working hard, getting better, more opportunity, and then picking up for each other due to the injuries.”

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It’s remarkable, when you look at it. Coming off a championship the Raptors boast four returning rotation players – Lowry, VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Powell – who have boosted their WinShares per 48 minutes significantly, year over year. Lowry, with the ball in his hands more, improved his from .144 to .173, while VanVleet jumped from .117 to .136; Anunoby from .70 to .130 and Powell from .102 to .157 — and that’s without including Ibaka, whose numbers have stayed relatively steady, year over year, but has never looked more comfortable and in-tune offensively.

It’s just one measure of many proving what the eyes tell you: The Raptors have a lot of different players having good years and who can impact games when the moment comes.

“I’ve said it many times: when I watch us this year compared to last year there’s so many guys — not one guy or two guys, there’s like a handful of guys — that when there’s a small opportunity there they take it, and it’s no hesitation and they take it and make a play,” said Nurse. “That’s much harder to guard and plan for, I think, when you’re playing and there’s so many ways that things can come at you when you’re an opposing team.”

But with the Raptors’ roster full and healthy for the first time this season, it will be fascinating to see how Nurse manages to find time for so many bodies willing and eager to shoulder bigger loads. Ibaka thrived in the minutes he got when starting centre Gasol was out for 24 games – how will they co-exist now that the big Spaniard has emerged from the hiatus leaner, fitter and clearly determined to put his injury-plagued pre-pandemic season behind him?

Will Powell get the closing lineup minutes he thrived in so readily now that Lowry and VanVleet are both healthy? Will Anunoby lose out if Nurse goes to a three-guard lineup? And what about the rookie Davis, who opened eyes filling in when the veteran Powell got hurt?

How do these things get sorted out when so many seem so deserving?

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“There’s a little bit of natural selection,” said VanVleet. “You’ve got to figure it out as time goes on. It’ll be a process. I don’t expect you to see us at our best right away, Aug. 1 [when the Raptors play their first seeding game against the Lakers] but hopefully we can build to that pretty quickly, and find our rotation, and find our rhythm.”

Nurse will have to be at his juggling, creative best to get the maximum out of a roster that can easily go 10 or 11 deep. It’s the kind of challenge coaches love to have. The Raptors play the first of three scrimmages beginning Friday as they ramp up the intensity in advance of the eight remaining regular-season games starting Aug. 1 and the playoffs, which begin Sept. 1.

“[It’s] a welcome one,” said Nurse. “I think it’ll be a while for that, too. I think coming up in these scrimmages, we’ll hold certain guys out of certain ones. I think everybody will probably take their turn of staying out, so I wouldn’t imagine we’ll have the full complement maybe ’til the first game against the Lakers.

“But yeah, it’ll be a good challenge. I certainly welcome it. I think we need that top eight to play together a little bit, you know, the top eight we envisioned at the start of the year has very, very few minutes together, if any at all.”

The Raptors won an NBA championship leaning on a starting lineup that had played 116 minutes together before the playoffs began, so they know better than most that chemistry can come together quickly. But they also know that a long playoff run creates opportunities for almost everyone.

VanVleet lived it. He went from an afterthought late in the Raptors’ second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, when he struggled with the Sixers’ big backcourt lineups, to being the pivotal figure in Toronto’s comeback from down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Raptors have a lot of different players they can use to unlock games – they relied on them by necessity throughout the first part of the regular season. But now that they’re all available, not all of them will get the chance.

Fortunately their success a year ago provides a formula to follow in that regard too:

“You’ve just got to be unselfish, and you’ve got to be win-first,” says VanVleet. “And we know we’ve got a pecking order, and follow that to a certain extent, and then get what the game takes you, so once you get in the playoffs, different series present different opportunities for guys.

“There’s no better example of that than last year. I think we all learned from that. And just allow ourselves to stay patient within the ups and downs of a couple days or a couple weeks or a couple months.”

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