Last Tuesday, Kyle Lowry underwent successful surgery to remove loose bodies in his right wrist. The Raptors hope that by addressing this issue early, they can get him back and fully healthy in time before the start of the playoffs, where the team will need Lowry’s leadership and talents on the court.
The Raptors have gone 4-2 since Lowry has been sidelined, bolstered by the new acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, who have made immediate impacts since joining the team. However, those wins could very easily have resulted in losses, if not for the resilience of the Raptors to come back in the second half of those games. While the mental toughness is a welcomed sight to see, the void left by Lowry presents issues for the team both offensively and defensively.
I am not disregarding what DeMar DeRozan has done this year; offensively he has been tantalizing to watch, and a nightmare for the opposition to defend. Without Lowry, the Raptors will need to rely heavily on their other All-Star guard to carry the bulk of the scoring load.
But Lowry is arguably the Raptors’ best player. With his absence, the Raptors simply aren’t as effective running their high screens, which is the bread and butter of the offence. They lose their spacing; which Lowry creates with his efficiency from beyond the arc (41.7%), and with the departure of Terrence Ross, the Raptors don’t have someone who can create shots for themselves from three-point range.
That’s not to say the Raptors don’t have proficient three-point shooters. Ibaka, Patterson, Powell and Carroll are all capable of knocking down the long ball, but they are all spot-up shooters and rely on the flow of the offence to find their shots. With Lowry gone, so too is the ball movement in the offence, seen most notably in the loss to the Wizards in which the Raptors entered the 4th quarter with just three assists.
On the other end, he brings a defensive intensity and toughness that is needed to compete against other elite point guards in the league. Whether it be fighting around screens to create pressure on the ball, or getting into stance and switching on larger guards, Lowry provides a combination of defensive versatility and prowess that is not easily duplicated.
That versatility allows coach Dwane Casey to insert Lowry into different lineups, especially within the bench unit. In Lowry’s absence, the bench scoring has gone down from 31.8 points to 29.3 per game, while FG% has dropped from 43.8% to 40.7%. Casey has experimented with a variety of different rotations, however success has varied drastically from game to game.
The addition of Ibaka and Tucker presents its own issue, as both players continue to try to quickly acclimate themselves within the team and learn the new schemes. Miscommunication on the court should be expected, as both players work towards identifying their roles within the new dynamic.
But what is so precarious about this current situation for the Raptors is that they now live and die by DeRozan. The offense has turned into a stagnant cycle of isolation plays, where we see DeRozan either face-up, or work in the post to create shots for himself. He essentially becomes a blackhole in the offense, with the ball gravitating towards him on every offensive possession. In the four wins since the All-Star break, only 37.8% of the field goals made were assisted, compared to 45.6% in the two losses over the same span.
DeRozan has been able to find success this way, averaging 36.3 points on 54.7 FG% in those four wins, however in the two losses, those averages plummet to 17.5 points on 36.4 FG%. Aside from Ibaka, who has been very consistent for the Raptors on both ends, the rest of the team has failed to pick up the slack when DeRozan struggles to find his rhythm.
The loss of Lowry’s perimeter shooting will certainly become more pronounced, looking through the team’s remaining 19 games. They face the Miami Heat (who boast the 6th ranked three-point defence) and the Indiana Pacers (who match up very well defensively against the Raptors) each three times, respectively. The Raptors will need to find a way to space the floor to allow DeRozan to be effective.
Defensively, Casey’s continued distrust of Valanciunas has resorted to the Raptors playing a smaller lineup, an area that has been exploited throughout the year, and most recently in the loss to the Milwaukee Bucks this past Saturday. The Raptors had no answer to combat the size of Antetokounmpo, as he feasted on the smaller lineup.
While Valanciunas continues to be criminally underutilized, his struggles defensively remain an issue. More often than not, he is caught hedging too hard, allowing the ball handler to find the player cutting to the basket.
Other times he comes in too aggressively as the help defender, leaving his man open for a shot.
Valanciunas does not possesses the lateral quickness to effectively hedge the ball handler, but it seems that is what Casey is asking of him in his defensive scheme. Perhaps it’s so Lowry and DeRozan won’t have to fight around screens so aggressively, thereby slowing down their fatigue. Maybe Valanciunas is simply just not a good defender, but I am under the belief that this is more of a problem with him fitting within Casey’s defensive scheme, as opposed to his sub-par defensive abilities.
Take the Raptors’ opening defensive possession of that same Milwaukee game. Malcolm Brogdon dribbles the ball to the hash-mark, where Thon Maker screens DeMarre Carroll off-ball. Valanciunas makes the correct read and promptly hedges Antetokounmpo, preventing the easy pass and allowing Carroll to recover.
Maker then sets another screen, this time on DeRozan.
The screen allows Kris Middleton to move freely to Cory Joseph and set yet another screen. DeRozan hedges Brogdon, staying above the screen to prevent him from turning the corner and driving to the basket.
However, this leaves Middleton wide open on the roll. Brogdon swings it to Maker, and Valanciunas (who has been covering Maker during this time) again makes the correct read to step up on the shooter.
What results from the play is a quick, decisive pass from Maker, threading the ball to the cutting Middleton, who is free to score the easy layup as DeRozan recovers late.
It is clear that Casey wants his team to hedge the defender and not allow easy penetration into the paint. This is done so to prevent Valanciunas from having to guard one-on-one in the paint, where his lack of mobility results in easy baskets for the opposition.
But the Raptors don’t have the current makeup to be successful with this scheme. DeRozan is equally as unreliable of a defender as Valanciunas, but he has the benefit of playing alongside Lowry in the backcourt, who can switch on to bigger guards and defend them well. Without Lowry, the Raptors will continue to get exposed defensively like they did against the Bucks.
If the Raptors want to be successful down the stretch of the season, they will need to find some way to integrate Valanciunas into an appropriate lineup. Casey prefers to go small, with Ibaka at the five and Tucker/Patterson at the four to close out games. For the sake of continuity, why not just take Valanciunas out of the starting five and insert him into a bench lineup where his defensive short-comings may not be as easily exposed?
His confidence is already shot with the repeated 4th quarter benching. Why not put him in a position where he has a chance to succeed, with a longer leash, as opposed to keeping him in the starting lineup and pulling him out on the first signs of failure? He is too valuable to the team to continually be underutilized in this way. He is easily a starting center on any other team, yet he drops farther and farther down the rotation amongst Casey and his staff.
Why not employ a new starting lineup of Joseph, DeRozan, Carroll, Tucker and Ibaka? Casey continues to push the message of starting well defensively and having defence translate to offence, so why not put your most versatile and effective defensive lineup out to start games?
A bench unit of Van Vleet, Wright, Powell, Patterson and Valanciunas should fair very well against opposing bench lineups. You have a pass-first point guard in Van Vleet, an additional ball-handler in Wright, some spacing in Powell and Patterson, and an offensive and rebounding threat in Valanciunas. Wright, Powell and Patterson are all adept defenders and possess the length to cover the passing lanes on screen and rolls, and against a weaker defensive lineup Valanciunas’ offensive skill set can shine brightly.
Upon Lowry’s return, the design of the lineup should change accordingly. Maybe we will finally see the lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Ibaka and Valanciunas that Raptors fans have dreamt of since the arrival of Ibaka. But for now, in Lowry’s absence, the Raptors need to make changes to their rotation to remain competitive.
This is especially important because the Raptors need Ibaka and Tucker to get familiarized with the rest of the team as quickly as possible to prepare for the playoffs. This constant carousel of lineups that Casey sends out on the floor certainly doesn’t help that process. Adjustments need to be made, and as the criticisms of Casey’s adamant approach towards in-game situations rises, it is time to see Casey answer some of these criticisms.