Raptors’ Nurse considering ultra-modern, positionless lineup

The Detroit Pistons scored at the buzzer to come away with a 106-104 win against the Toronto Raptors in Dwane Casey's first game against his former team.

TORONTO — Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has utilized nearly 200 different lineups over the first fifth of his first season as an NBA head coach. Some are out there much more often than others. Most haven’t even totalled a minute on the floor. But there’s one he’s yet to get to, one he thinks about a lot. It’s one he’s just waiting for the right moment to use.

Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka. No point guard. No designated floor-runner. No positions at all, really. Just five big, athletic dudes playing basketball.

“I’m hoping to get to an even more versatile lineup,” Nurse said before his Raptors fell in agonizing fashion, 106-104, to the Detroit Pistons. “And you’ll say, ‘Who’s bringing the ball up the floor?’ And I’ll say, ‘Oh, well, maybe Pascal. Or maybe Kawhi. Maybe OG.’”

It doesn’t matter, does it? A lineup like that would be as flexible as any the Raptors could deploy. What roles everybody plays would be decided instinctually, on the fly, in the heat of the moment. Who brings the ball up the floor? Well, who came down with the defensive rebound?

If Siakam brought the ball up the floor, Green and Anunoby could space the offence from beyond the three-point arc while Leonard or Ibaka posted up. If Leonard was on the ball, Ibaka could set a screen for him while Siakam and Anunoby both cut into the paint and Green faded to the corner. If Anunoby was carrying the ball, well, he might just try to go end to end.

All five can shoot. All five can create. All five can defend multiple positions. Playing together, they’re going to create all kinds of problems.

That’s why the NBA’s been moving in this direction for years. Why try to fit your personnel into rigid lineup archetypes from decades ago? Why not try to build a roster of pure athletes — versatile, positionless specimen who can do it all — throw them on the floor together and let them figure it out? And, in turn, challenge your opposition to figure them out.

Easier said than done. Players capable of thriving in that system are so coveted because they’re so uncommon. Players like Zion Williamson — the 6-7, 290-lb. teenager currently causing seismic events with Duke — don’t just arrive with the mail.

But in Leonard, Siakam, and Anunoby, the Raptors believe they have three pretty good ones. And you’re going to see them playing together without a traditional point guard before long.

“We’re trying to give less and less guys numbers, to be honest with you,” Nurse said. “It used to be every single time you got the rebound, you hand it to the point guard. Or you outlet it to the point guard. Or everybody cleared out and waited until the point guard brought the ball up the floor. But now, you’re going to see a game tonight where two guys who are pretty big and pretty athletic are going to be racing it up the floor.”

Those two guys would be Siakam for the Raptors and Blake Griffin for the Pistons. They’re each models of the type of athlete NBA teams are obsessed with today. They’re physically imposing. They shoot, they ball-handle. They run the floor or work off the ball. They guard practically anyone. They give their coaches options.

And they were matched up with one another in the early-going Wednesday. Griffin’s bigger and more experienced than Siakam, which are primary reasons why he generally got the better of their exchanges. That forced Nurse to use Leonard and Anunoby on Griffin later in the game, which turned out to be a prudent decision. After scoring 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the first half, Griffin had 10 on 5-of-11 in the second.

“They worked hard and battled him — I give them a lot of credit,” Nurse said after the game. “[Griffin] made a few really good, tough shots.”

And in the fourth quarter, as the Raptors managed a late lead like a toddler handles a full glass of milk, Nurse got a little itchy and pulled a card out of his pocket, providing a quick glimpse of the lineup versatility he craves.

Leonard, Anunoby, and Siakam were all on the floor at once, playing any sequence of the two through four positions you’d prefer. Kyle Lowry was the point guard. Jonas Valanciunas was the centre. They were only on the court for the final four and a half minutes of the game. But the 11.1 net rating they played to was no doubt nice to see, small sample or not.

So was the great defence Leonard and Anunoby played on Griffin in the final minutes. Plus Siakam’s monumental block of Glenn Robinson with only a second remaining. And the way Lowry operated with the unit, scoring a key bucket and grabbing two rebounds.

That last part’s important, because the Raptors are still going to want to have Lowry on the floor in critical moments, playing with that trio. Nurse may run out his versatile, wings-only lineup someday soon. But it’ll be in the heart of the game. Lowry’s starting and closing roles aren’t going anywhere.

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And, the way Nurse sees it, the more capable floor-runners you can put around Lowry, the better the point guard will be. You’ve already seen Siakam and Leonard running the floor plenty with Lowry on the court. And rather than resenting the seizure of that role, Lowry’s finding ways to operate outside of it.

“It’s two things. One, I think he enjoys it,” Nurse said. “I think he enjoys running out ahead and spacing the floor. And, two, I think it saves him a little wear and tear. Sometimes, bringing the ball up and running the team for 40 minutes a night over the course of a season is a physical and mental challenge. I’m not saying he’s taking a break when he’s off the ball. But I think that’s some of the success we’ve had playing Fred [VanVleet] and him together in the past.”

Right, VanVleet. There’s another capable floor-runner with vision, creativity, and a good shot who you’d be perfectly happy to throw on the court in late-game situations. Not to mention Delon Wright, who fits a similar profile. Then there’s the big men — Valanciunas and Greg Monroe — who still have their roles to play. And the sharp-shooting C.J. Miles. And on and on and on.

The Raptors are regarded as one of the NBA’s deepest teams for good reason. They can mix and match up and down the roster, offering a variety of different looks with several different lineups. Or, when the day finally comes and Nurse gets to run out his positionless unit, they can offer all those looks in just one.

It’s a new world — a new NBA. One growing more and more versatile, less and less defined by positions. Everyone’s adapting. During a run-through at Wednesday morning’s shootaround, Lowry referred to Siakam as a power forward. Nurse turned his head.

“I was like, ‘Geez, I haven’t heard the term power forward in years,’” Nurse said. “It’s changing right before our eyes. And it’s changing fast.”

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