As in ballet, flexibility is mandatory for success in the modern NBA.
Consider the last three champions. Last year’s Los Angeles Lakers could morph between a three-headed hydra featuring Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis, and LeBron James, or size down and defend in space, moving Davis to the center spot and James to power forward.
The 2018-19 Toronto Raptors similarly juggled between a behemoth lineup featuring Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol playing together and a sleek, five-out look with Leonard at power forward.
And the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors often used the incredible flexibility of their two superstars, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, to invert the floor with their point guard setting screens and their big initiating from the top of the arc.
Being flexible is vital, either to bend to fit disparate situations, or to force opponents to react to your own advantages.
Fortunately for the current Raptors, they will be able to bend in whatever way is needed, for they boast a flexible roster.
Despite losing two key cogs in Gasol and Ibaka, the Raptors should have plenty of ammunition in the chamber to retain on-court flexibility. Partially because of the team’s internal development system, and partially because of a key external addition in Aron Baynes, the Raptors shouldn’t see too much drop-off this season. They’ll be able to shapeshift to suit any reality.
Here are five key lineups that will help define both Toronto’s appearance and approach, as well as the team’s overall success.
Much like last year, Toronto’s presumptive starting lineup will feature a five-out attack. This year, Toronto will start Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Siakam, and Aron Baynes.
We haven’t seen the group yet, due to Lowry taking off the first few pre-season games, but it will be dynamic. Whereas last season, Gasol’s range forced opposing centers away from the hoop, this year Baynes will do that job, massaging extra driving lanes for Siakam and VanVleet.
Last year, Gasol and Ibaka both shot a stunning 38.5 per cent from deep. Baynes hit only 35.1 per cent, but that’s still enough to draw defenders out of the paint. And Baynes is actually much more likely to launch from deep than his predecessors. He attempted 4.0 triples per game last year, more than either Gasol or Ibaka, and in fewer minutes besides. He knows his role; set bone-crunching screens and shoot when open. He doesn’t always need to be too open, either.
That gun-slinger mentality is actually a good thing for Toronto.
Defences often don’t play results as much as they play likelihoods of events even occurring. And in the playoffs, Gasol’s jumper abandoned him, both in terms of frequency and accuracy. As he struggled, he turned down open looks and defenders stopped guarding him behind the arc.
Gasol ended up attempting only 2.5 triples per game in the playoffs, connecting on a paltry 18.5 per cent. The end result was clogged lanes and the disappearance of any advantages Toronto’s offence created.
Thus, while Baynes may not have a stroke as aesthetically appealing as Gasol or Ibaka, he could actually space the floor a little better. So expect Toronto’s starting lineup to play plenty of minutes together and mimic the five-out attack that was Toronto’s bread and butter last season.
The Raptors were not an effective pick-and-roll team last season.
Their average points per possession when the roller finished such plays was 1.02, second-lowest in the league. When the ball-handler finished pick-and-rolls plays, Toronto scored closer to league average, at 12th, but handlers for Toronto finished pick-and-rolls with the fourth-lowest frequency in the league.
One explanation for those numbers was the skill-set provided by Toronto’s centres. Neither Gasol nor Ibaka often roll all the way to the basket. Gasol prefers to short roll into the center of the floor and facilitate for cutters and shooters around the perimeter while Ibaka prefers to pop into the center of the floor and hit mid-range jumpers.
Both are effective plays in a vacuum, but Gasol and Ibaka’s similar spatial tendencies meant that Toronto didn’t create enough open layups in the pick-and-roll. The defence wasn’t forced to collapse. Thus, neither handler nor roller for Toronto scored efficiently, something that’s problematic seeing as how the pick-and-roll is a staple food of modern NBA offensive diets.
This season should be better. Baynes scored 1.14 points per possession when finishing as a roll man in 2019-20 and fellow newcomer Alex Len managed 1.04 points per possession. Additionally, returner Chris Boucher, in fewer attempts per game, reached 1.15. All three marks are higher than those reached by Gasol (0.90) or Ibaka (1.00).
With Baynes and Boucher monopolizing the majority of the minutes when Toronto opts to field a traditional centre, Toronto will have 48 minutes of dedicated rollers for the first time since the days of Jonas Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, and Lucas Nogueira.
Furthermore, Baynes, especially, will help Toronto’s ball-handlers score in pick-and-rolls. He sets fortress-like screens that open acres of space for his guards. As a result, Baynes averaged more screen assists last season, at 3.0 per game, than either Gasol (2.0) or Ibaka (2.4). Toronto’s guards can use that extra space to create for themselves or others.
Finding pick-and-roll success will be vital for Toronto. VanVleet was an inefficient scorer inside the arc last season. In fact, he shot only 37.1 per cent on drives, which was the second-lowest in the whole league among the 47 players who drove 10 or more times per game. So having a centre who creates more space with screens and attracts more defensive attention while rumbling to the hoop can only help Toronto’s guards score.
Toronto’s best pick-and-roll group will probably feature Lowry, one of the best orchestrators in the league, alongside Baynes, with off-ball marksmen like Matt Thomas, Norman Powell, and Anunoby stretching defences to their breaking point. VanVleet could either run those pick-and-rolls or spot up in the corner; he’s both an initiator and one of the league’s best catch-and-shoot shooters.
The Raptors have a variety of lineups that could offer deadly pick-and-roll attacks. That’s flexibility.
Small ball has become something of a trend in the NBA since the Warriors first rose to dominance, but there are few NBA teams who actually boast the personnel to thrive when downsizing.
As with barbecue sauce in pulled pork, the key ingredient for small ball is a wing who can guard bigs on one end and shoot, pass, and drive on the other. Those players are rare, but the Raptors are lucky enough to roster one such gem in Anunoby.
The stoic Raptors forward played some spot centre minutes last season and though his dalliance with the position was largely one of necessity, both he and the Raptors performed fairly well in those situations.
The bellwether moment came on Mar. 1 when Anunoby started at centre across from Denver’s All-NBA five-man Nikola Jokic. Anunoby put up a monster line of 32 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and seven steals.
Though the Raptors lost, Anunoby showed that he was strong enough to bang with anybody. And because of his length and quickness, he was able to frequently overplay Jokic in the high post and tip away errant entry passes. His disruption ability is elite, allowing him to pick the pick pocket when guarding opposing stars, no matter the size differential.
Then, in the playoffs, Toronto turned to its Anunoby-at-centre group to close multiple games against the Boston Celtics. The best iteration of the lineup saw Lowry, VanVleet, Powell and Siakam on the floor with Anunoby, a look that offered as much shooting and ball-handling as the Raptors could squeeze out. All five are switchable defenders and capable of initiating the offence, too. The group was incredibly effective, outscoring opponents by 5.7 points per 100 possessions.
This season, head coach Nick Nurse has said repeatedly that the Raptors will use Anunoby as a centre far more often. This same five-some could be Toronto’s best lineup in 2020-21, used most often in the clutch moments of the biggest games.
Anunoby should be even better as a centre this season. His defence and shooting remain spectacular, and if his improvement as a ball-handler is to be believed he should be able to attack opposing bigs off the dribble with even more consistency.
That behind-the-back dribble was smooth and effortless. Anunoby’s two-way skills will unlock some of Toronto’s best lineups this year, perhaps best exemplified by this small-ball group.
There aren’t many teams that can put a bigger lineup on the floor than Lowry, Anunoby, Siakam, Boucher, and Baynes.
The purpose of massive lineups is to muck things up defensively. Last season, the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Lakers managed to finish as three of the best eight defences by starting lineups with size on the floor across the positional spectrum. It’s hard for offences to score when every defender is several inches taller than the opposing player.
Toronto could take that principle to its logical conclusion. In this gargantuan lineup, the Raptors boast four players who can guard centres (Anunoby, Siakam, Boucher and Baynes) and three who can defend guards (Lowry, Anunoby and Siakam). And with Lowry serving as one of the most efficient guard rim protectors in the league, both through the principles of verticality and charge-taking, this group somehow features five players who can protect the rim. Could any other team match that?
Yet the Raptors wouldn’t sacrifice switchability with this lineup. Though Baynes is strictly a centre, Boucher is long and quick enough to hang with most power forwards and even some wings. Additionally, Siakam is one of the most mobile defenders in the league – he actually led the NBA in contesting three-point shots last season and was third in blocking them. Meanwhile, Lowry and Anunoby can switch across the spectrum.
The offence shouldn’t struggle either, though it wouldn’t be this group’s main appeal. The giant lineup may sacrifice initiation chops, with only Lowry and Siakam profiling as elite in that area, but it would make up for any deficiency with its defence. As far as shooting goes, all five are happy to fire away from deep. All attempted at least 100 triples last year, and the combined average between the five was a solid 35.8 per cent. And if all else fails, someone will have an advantage in the post.
It’s not unlikely that the Raptors try this group. Last season, Gasol and Ibaka shared the court for 89 possessions, during which the Raptors outscored opponents by 45 points. That was actually the highest per-minute margin among any two rotation Raptors. Translation: The Raptors like to play big, and they have found incredible success doing it.
New bench mob
The Raptors have a happy history of bench groups overwhelming opponents. The formula has long remained the same: Play with energy, force turnovers, run in transition, and bomb away from deep -- and, of course, play Lowry alongside those bench players.
As a result of the formula’s success, Toronto was first in net rating with one starter playing alongside four bench players in 2019-20 and 2017-18, fifth in 2016-17, second in 2015-16, and fifth in 2014-15. Lowry has been the consistent factor.
And that should remain true this season. Toronto has a plethora of exciting bench players to use alongside Lowry, all of whom embody the frenetic energy required for Toronto’s bench success.
Perhaps the most exciting iteration of this group will be Lowry alongside Malachi Flynn, Matt Thomas, Powell, and Boucher. (Although any of Terence Davis, Patrick McCaw, Paul Watson, DeAndre’ Bembry and Alex Len will see time here and there in bench groups as well. And for more positional balance, Siakam or even Anunoby could slot in as the lone starter, replacing Lowry.)
Thomas is one of the deadliest shooters in the league, and signs point towards him having a consistent role in the rotation this year. He’s a good rebounder for his position, his defence has been solid so far and his ability to create space with or without the ball allows others to thrive whenever he’s on the court. Thomas firing a triple is about the best outcome an offence can create.
Thomas and Flynn have had wonderful chemistry so far in the pre-season. Each have thrown incredible passes to the other, perhaps none more impressive than this Flynn wraparound pass to Thomas in transition.
Flynn has been as steady as they come so far, scoring 26 points with seven assists in 40 minutes through two pre-season games. His strengths have carried over from college, where he was one of the top pick-and-roll players in NCAA basketball last year. Flynn’s maturity and feel with the ball in his hands would allow Lowry to play off-ball, where his cutting and screening unlock the chaos and improvisation that make for good offence.
Furthermore, Powell and Boucher are both elite transition options. Powell (1.22 points per possession) and Boucher (1.46 points per possession) were both among the more efficient transition scorers in the league last season. They sprint the floor, stay in their lanes, and finish with authority. With Thomas spacing the floor, Lowry and Flynn will have easy times picking out the fastest passes to paydirt.
Defensively, Toronto’s bench units will often be undersized. However, Boucher is such a good shot-blocker that he can clean up messes. He has too often left his feet in the pre-season but he has a solid track record that indicates he’ll return to being a solid defender when it counts.
Furthermore, Toronto’s bench group should create plenty of transition opportunities. Lowry and Powell had above-average block and steal rates for their positions last season and Flynn was an elite ball-stealer in college — he’s collected four steals already in the pre-season.
So while Toronto’s bench defence wouldn’t be tops in the league, they would probably do enough to sow chaos.
The goal of a bench mob is to provide energy when the starters lack it, making up a deficit or taking a close game and blowing it open via the home-run ball. More often than not, this group would take care of business.