Valanciunas vs. Ibaka: Inside the Raptors’ centre conundrum

Khris Middleton scored a season-high 24 points as the Bucks took down the Raptors 101-94.

The Serge Ibaka trade, among many other things, appeared to be a great opportunity for Jonas Valanciunas.

While Ibaka came to the Raptors expecting to log some minutes at centre while his new team went small (with either Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, or PJ Tucker at the four) his spot in the starting lineup alongside Valanciunas was, on paper, going to help open up JV’s game by stretching the floor and creating space for the Lithuanian big man down low, while also helping to cover up any defensive lapses covering the pick and roll. A win win scenario.

Only it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, Ibaka has logged a good chunk of his minutes at the five while Valanciunas watches from the sideline. And the numbers say the Raps are better off that way.

After Saturday’s loss in Milwaukee, stat head John Schuhmann broke down the Raptors’ performance with Ibaka at centre vs. power forward and the results, while unsurprising to those who’ve seen the club in action with their newest star playing different roles, are potentially troubling:

Those numbers tell a pretty clear story: Toronto is far more effective when Ibaka mans the middle, as opposed to lining up beside one of the three ‘traditional’ centres on the Raps roster. And Jonas Valanciunas is rapidly losing ground on his role.

With Kyle Lowry out of the picture we knew that the team would need consistent scoring help beyond DeMar DeRozan, and it seemed like a great opportunity to increase Valanciunas’ usage and showcase his ability to get buckets— it’s not like we haven’t seen Valanciunas successfully take on a bigger scoring role when asked to in the past.

Yet instead his production has dropped dramatically.

With a critically important piece out (Lowry), the loss of your best shooter off the bench (Terrence Ross), and two new meaningful pieces added to the lineup (Ibaka and Tucker), Casey and his staff are left reevaluating their rotations on the fly. On this “new look” Raptors team, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the spacing isn’t there for JV to be effective as he has been in the past. And it’s a tough spot for everyone.

The coaching staff surely doesn’t want to throw their starting centre, a player who has been a major focus of their player development plan, under the bus. But they’re playing better of late when he isn’t on the floor.

In Friday’s win in Washington, one of the bigger victories of late in Raptorland and facing a Wizards team with a big bruising centre (Marcin Gortat, traditionally an important type of player for Valanciunas to matchup against), the 24-year old played just 13 minutes— one minute more than his season low. He posted two points, three rebounds, and three fouls in that span while Ibaka manned the middle and dropped 14 and eight with two blocks in 33 minutes.

Valanciunas bounced back slightly early on during Saturday’s game in Milwaukee, playing some solid first-half minutes and dropping 13 and seven on the night. But by the fourth quarter, with a floor-spacing centre in Spencer Hawes killing the Raps from deep, Valanciunas was non-existent.

Since Ibaka joined the team, he has been exactly as advertised, helping the Raptors climb from 9th to 3rd in the NBA in opponent points per game and from 18th to 9th in defensive rating in their last five heading into this past weekend. He’s also helped in the scoring department, averaging more than 17 points to go along with 7.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 2.2 made threes while playing just over 35 minutes per game in the six games he’s appeared in a Raptors uniform.

During that same span, Valanciunas is averaging nine points and 6.5 rebounds in just 19 minutes per game, as the Raptors went 4-2 in that stretch.

How important is it for the Raptors to focus on acclimating their young big man to the new climate? How much emphasis should be placed on getting Valanciunas floor time, let alone touches? Or should we all accept the new reality that his importance to this team is dwindling? Is this merely an adjustment period? Or cause for bigger concern?

Looking past this season, how much will this affect the Raptors’ long-term plans at centre? What does it mean that the Raps best option at the pivot right now will be a (pricey) free agent this summer, while their current centre, who has been flat-out relegated, is still under contract for three more years and just under $50 million in cap space?

These are all questions the coaching staff and front office face as the playoffs draw closer and closer.

Prime Time Sports
Leo Rautins: "People forget how young the Raptors are."
Originally aired March 06 2017

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