Raptors Weekly: Lowry’s role, hitting the roll guy, Jonas expectations

Welcome to the Raptors Weekly column! I’m going to put this out every weekend to check in on the team. Patreon contributors will get early access to the story, then it will be posted free for everyone on my Medium page. Hit me up on Twitter if there’s a specific subject you would like to see on this column. Thanks as always to the contributors!

It’s never quite certain which Raptors team will appear on any given night. Will they be the shutdown defensive unit that competed with pride during the West coast swing? Or will they be the undisciplined and unmotivated side that manifested over their three-game home stretch?

They were bad on defense this week, even though we know how good they can be. They allowed a Wizards team without John Wall to score 107, gave up 69 very un-nice second-half points to the Bulls, then yielded 118 to the Pelicans despite below-average performances from Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.

Each one came with its own excuse. Against Washington: The first home game after a long road trip is a trap game. Against Chicago: They took their foot off the gas pedal after leading by 23 early in the game. Against New Orleans: They were sloppy in transition.

Most of this falls upon the starting lineup. They start slow and expect the bench to supply energy, when it really should be the other way around. The first unit should set the tone and generate momentum for the substitutes to work with. But instead it feels very much like five disconnected players who are more focused on getting their shots than on generating stops.

It all came to a head in that dispiriting loss to Washington. The first unit got jumped 25–8 by a shorthanded Wizards side, before the bench exhausted themselves trying to claw back into it for the next two quarters. They finally got the lead down to three, but Dwane Casey reintroduced the starters and they got shelled yet again.

Click-thirsty bloggers been ready to change the starting lineup. Among the hot takes: The Ibaka-Valanciunas frontcourt doesn’t work, Norman Powell should go to the bench.

Casey isn’t quite there just yet, and neither am I.

I just think it’s too soon. The Raptors are clearly in an experimental stage where they want to see what works and what doesn’t as they revamp their style of play. Everyone should be given some time to adapt, especially those who have been in the system for the longest. There’s no need to rush with any key decisions, especially since the roster isn’t exactly interchangeable.

Let’s say you want to demote Valanciunas, who has been mostly serviceable around some standout stinkers. Do you really want to undercut his confidence that quickly, especially after all the trade rumors and the benching in the playoffs? Don’t you want to give him a chance to fail (as Casey did against Washington) early in the season in hopes that he can put it together by the end? Is replacing Valanciunas with Pascal Siakam or Jakob Poeltl even worth it? Can a bench unit predicated on activity and defense accommodate the plodding Valanciunas as their anchor?

Or let’s say you want to demote Powell, presumably for Miles. Does it really make sense to remove the most active defender when lethargy is the biggest issue plaguing the starting unit? Do we really need another shoot-first player in that group? What type of message does it send to Powell if he gets his job pulled within a month after we started a broken DeMarre Carroll for two years?

Casey is showing more appetite for innovation than ever before (not a high bar, admittedly) and is trying to empower his players instead of undercutting their confidence. He’s keeping this struggling starting unit together, but he’s constantly shuffling lineups to manage the middle of the game. He’s even juggling an impossible 12-man rotation to give everyone a chance.

“We have no choice. We have 12 guys who are playing equally. Nobody has really stepped up ahead of anybody else. There’s going to come a time where we narrow it down but right now we gotta see what we got,” Casey said Tuesday.

There’s still another six months left in the season. Casey knows it’s a long year and he’s giving them a chance to turn it around. Your starting five typically consists of your five best players, and they’re out there. There’s definitely something to be said for chemistry over talent, but let’s first give them some time to see if they can build some. Until something proves to be fundamentally broken, I agree with Casey’s approach.

Let Lowry be Lowry

Getting ejected for arguing a call in the Washington loss, then ducking reporters and leaving his teammates to answer for him, was the lowest point of Lowry’s substandard season. That was a lapse in leadership and his stunt was made even more frustrating by his struggles.

Lowry never commented on the ejection, but he did offer an explanation as to why he was struggling on offense. He pointed out that the new scheme hasn’t allowed him to hold the ball and make decisions off the dribble, which is generally what Lowry is best at. Instead, he’s just trying to get everyone else into their spots, then trying to slot in where he fits best.

“Last couple of years, coach would give me the game for the first five, six, seven minutes of the game. I could feel out the game and get passes off and get everyone involved, and now it’s like everyone has to be involved from the jump,” Lowry said.

“I think the way we’re moving the ball, the ball’s not in my hands as much,” he added.

The tracking data backs up everything Lowry is saying. He’s getting roughly the same amount of frontcourt touches (28.5) as Ibaka (24.4) and Powell (21.0) while playing far more minutes. It’s a sharp change from previous seasons where Lowry averaged roughly 70 frontcourt touches per game, which ranked 12th in the league.

Now he’s 93rd! He’s behind Austin Rivers!

Lowry will eventually adjust to his reduced role, and he’s already showing progress in that regard, but it doesn’t make sense to make him the sixth-highest paid player in the league then take the ball out of his hands. With or without the system change, Lowry needs more touches.

One way to feature Lowry would be to reunite him with the bench lineup to start the second and fourth quarter. This would mean Fred VanVleet loses his minutes, and a higher workload for Lowry, but it could potentially solve two problems. The bench badly needs another creator (VanVleet tries but he doesn’t influence the defense enough to create open shots for others) and Lowry thrives in an athletic lineup that loves to run.

The main concern would be his minutes and workload. VanVleet is soaking up 12 minutes a night which has directly translated to a reduction of six minutes from Lowry.

Hitting the roll guy

Toronto’s offense was rolling against Chicago and New Orleans, scoring 119 and 122 points respectively in their two wins.

Involving the bigs was a key factor in their performances. Ibaka and Valanciuas consistently found the ball in space off the high screen which forced rotations and opened the floor for everyone else. Credit Lowry and DeRozan for making the right passes, and credit the bigs for making decisive moves.

“We’re №1 in the league when we hit the roll guy, and we’re like 28th when we don’t,” Casey said Wednesday. “So it’s incumbent on us to hit the roll guy and let him make plays. That’s how we gotta attack, more so than just hitting the post and expecting Lucas, JV and Jakob to go to work.”

Working the ball into the middle of the floor will help balance the offense, especially when teams aggressively trap the ball handler. They need to establish a credible counter when teams swarm their guards and keep them from getting to the paint. Finding the open man is an easy way to achieve that, especially since the Raptors generally have very good finishers.

But it’s also incumbent on the bigs to be in the right positions and for them to make the right decisions. Valanciunas is slow to make reads which allows the defense to reset. Ibaka doesn’t roll to the basket often enough (to be fair, he’s often asked to space the floor) and really hates passing. Bebe Nogueira has the opposite problem and passes too much without ever thinking to shoot.

Realistic expectations for Jonas

Valanciunas was the whipping boy in the Wizards loss. His clueless pick-and-roll defense was comically bad and it single-handedly sparked a devastating 12–2 run for Washington that closed out the game.

He got ripped for two days straight. The conversation around Valanciunas is where DeRozan was two years ago, which is to say that it’s always toxic since both sides are so entrenched that it becomes a point of defending an identity (Hi, JVHIVE) rather than a discussion of ideas. But even his biggest backers couldn’t endorse his obvious and egregious errors.

I’ll be the first one to say that Valanciunas is responsible for his own performance, and I’m the furthest thing from a fan of his game, but even I thought the reaction went too far.

It was obvious in the moment that Casey was making the wrong bet. Showing faith is one thing, but a hopeless gamble like that hurts everyone. The entire comeback was mounted on the basis of defense and hustle and there’s three years worth of evidence that Marcin Gortat is a bad match-up. Valanciunas was set up to fail.

The main job of a coach is to put players in a position to succeed, to accentuate their strengths, and to mask their weaknesses. Casey did the exact opposite with Valanciunas and so the conversation focused on his shortcomings.

Anger and annoyance left no room for nuance, which is that Valanciunas can be very useful if used properly. His physicality came in handy in the Utah game (he neutralized Rudy Gobert) and in the New Orleans game (Boogie shot 8–24 with seven turnovers and accused Valanciunas of flopping). If we’re realistic about his talents, and use him accordingly, Valanciunas can be an asset and not a liability.

Valanciunas is a platoon player, and he’s been that way his entire career. You need a big body to soak up space in the paint and grab rebounds? Go to Valanciunas. You need pick-and-roll defense and generally above-average basketball IQ plays? Keep Valanciunas on the bench.

It would be best for everyone involved — for both his fans and his detractors — to just accept what Valanciunas is. All this fighting just makes everything worse.