Finding the Right Mix

RON TURENNE / NBAE/GETTY IMAGESThe Toronto Raptors have won 2 in a row, after a sluggish loss to the Denver Nuggets, that followed an 11-game winning streak, meaning the team has won 13 of 14, and is playing some of the best basketball this franchise has ever seen. Fuelled by undoubtably the second best backcourt in the NBA in fantasy-god Kyle Lowry and increasingly reliable scoring swingman DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors are simply balling. Sure, facing the relatively weaker opponents doesn’t hurt – but the Raptors, who have taken their fair share of losses against these same teams earlier this season, are starting to impose their will on the association. The league is aware of what Toronto can bring to the table – to support the scoring punch provided by Lowry and DeRozan, the Raptors boast a relatively deep lineup featuring the likes of JV, Terrence Ross, Luis Scola, Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo who have all proven to share the load defensively and have timely contributions on offense that have helped the Raptors seal victory after victory this past month.
And while giving Dwane Casey coach of the month seemed fitting, as Raptors fans, we may wish to dig a little deeper into Dwane Casey’s bag of tricks to see how these past 14 games were won. Who were the big-time scorers and contributors? What were the lineups that worked? We all know Lowry and DeRozan were the obvious stat-stuffers – but with an injured DeMarre Carroll (and now James Johnson), Dwane Casey’s lineup usage has been interesting to say the least.
Casey has resorted to a more staggered rotation as compared to earlier in the year, with more of an even distribution of Lowry and DeRozan minutes and more specifically, playing different combinations of bench lineups to complement each Lowry and DeRozan seperately. That is, rather than substituting both Lowry and DeRozan off simultaneously for a wholesale lineup change featuring only bench players, Casey has divied up some bench minutes with Lowry on the floor, and some bench minutes with DeMar on the floor. The result has been more balanced play across the lineup and less of a dropoff once the starting lineup starts getting rest (earlier, a big concern for the Raptors who feature a pretty weak bench as a standalone unit).
When analyzing the past 14 games in which the Raptors have won 13, leading to a second place standing in the Eastern Conference, a coach of month award for Dwane Casey, and co-player of the month awards for Lowry and DeRozan, the “best” 5-man lineup would probably surprise most fans.
The best performing lineup, on a net rating basis, in the past 14 games (minimum 10 minutes) is the lineup featuring Lowry and Joseph in the backcourt, alongside Patterson, Ross and Valanciunas in the front court. The unit is yielding the highest offensive rating at 131.9 (points scored per 100 possessions) and best defensive rating at 95.3 (points allowed per 100 possessions) by far, for a net rating that is matched by none. Dwane Casey has actually used the lineup less than lineups featuring both Lowry and DeRozan, which surprisingly have yielded much lower net ratings for the Raptors in the past 14 games.

Mind you, this data is a bit skewed given James Johnson has missed the past couple of games, but the margin of seperation isn’t even close. What is telling from these numbers is that rather than overplaying DeMar in second and third quarters of games, Dwane Casey is better off inserting Joseph, Patterson, and Ross into the game, and removing DeRozan, Scola and Norman Powell/James Johnson. Since this means Lowry would get extended minutes in the second quarter, he should then replace Lowry with DeMar (the second best performing lineup) to close out first halves and potentially close out third quarters as well. This way, Lowry and DeMar’s minutes are managed well, while still allowing Casey to optimally manage the team’s overall performance offensively and defensively.
Some of the great X-factors for the team have been Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo, both steady forces on defense, and efficient options on offense (yes, Biyombo has actually been efficient). These guys are not volume scorers, don’t require a ton of touches, and are playing sound defensively as you would expect from them. Joseph has averaged 48% from the field for just over 9 points per game, to go along with just over 3 assists and a couple of boards. Biyombo has shot over 55% from the field, and most importantly has owned the glass off the bench averaging over 6 rebounds a game in under 20 minutes of playing time.
Terrence Ross has also added a strong punch off the bench (a factor in both of those top lineups), averaging over 10 points per game on over 50% from the field and 40% from 3. If Terrence Ross can continue to average those numbers off of the bench, the Raptors will be extremely tough to stop, especially if Casey figures out that these lineups are lethal.
For Dwane Casey though, not only will minutes management be crucial for winning regular season games as the playoff seeding race rightens up in the East, management of Lowry and DeRozan’s minutes will likely make or break his Raptors’ chances in the first and potentially second round of the NBA playoffs. Regardless of how good the bench unit can be, keeping Lowry and DeRozan fresh to be able shoulder the scoring load in the playoffs will be absolutely essential. Just another challenge to add to list for Dwane Casey.
Follow @raptorsrepublicFollow @ShyamBaskaranFinding the Right Mix originated on Raptors Republic: ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog.


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