On Sunday night, in the Toronto Raptors’ first game without Demar Derozan, coach Dwane Casey went with a starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas.
It wasn’t a great game for the Raptors.
The Raptors fell 129-122, in no part due to Kyle Lowry (29 points 9 assists, 10-28 FG) playing hero ball in the overtime frame because he wasn’t getting much help.
Vasquez played well offensively (19 points, five assists, 8-16FG) filling in for Derozan, but was a -7 while on the court.
Terrence Ross (20 pts, 8-12 FG, 4-7 3PT) hit some big shots late in the fourth quarter but scored six of his 20 points in garbage time. Despite playing a season-high 38 minutes, he was invisible for some stretches of the game.
While almost picking up a double-double, Jonas Valanciunas (9pts, 13 rebounds, 4-10FG) was awful. In what has become an on-going issue, JV missed a lot of shots around the basket opting not to finish strong. The Los Angeles Lakers sent out a combination of Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre to guard the paint, and Valanciunas could only muster nine points in the absence of the team’s leading scorer.
The bench played well, (Lou Williams with 19, Patrick Patterson 10, James Johnson 8) and will have to continue to do so without Derozan.
By the way, if you need a reminder of what happened to Demar Derozan, here you go. While driving to the basket in the third quarter of Friday night’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Derozan slipped and fell awkwardly. He left the game and didn’t return. On Saturday, it was revealed Derozan tore his adductor longus, a tendon in his groin area.
Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey is now facing a scenario where his best offensive player is out for an indefinite amount of time, although a USA Today report indicates Derozan could miss a month or less. Even with that estimate, the Raptors need to find a suitable replacement in the starting lineup for a period of anywhere between 15-20 games.
Derozan has been an iron man of sorts in his career so far. Coming into this season, the 25-year-old had only missed 11 games over five seasons. That’s 11 out of a total 410 games, an incredible streak of durability not often seen in a fast-paced, physically demanding league like the NBA.
Casey cannot simply replace Derozan’s offense in the starting lineup. So far this season, Derozan leads the Raptors in points per game (19.4), field goals attempted and made per game (16.2 & 6.4), free throws attempted and made per game (7.8 & 6.4) while playing the most minutes per game (33.6).
Finally, if it wasn’t clear that the team plays well with Derozan in the lineup, (fairly indicative by their 13-2 record before the loss to Dallas) the Raptors scored an average of 107.6 points per 100 possessions (2nd best in the NBA, once again, before Dallas) with Derozan as the focal point on offense.
So does Casey continue with Greivis Vasquez filling in for Derozan in the starting rotation? We’ll take a look at the four options Casey has:
Keep Greivis Vasquez as a starter
In this scenario, Greivis plays the traditional point guard position, while Lowry is used as a secondary ball-handler. Lowry can focus more on moving off the ball, finding lanes, and doing what he does best, scoring.
Dwane Casey chose to go with this lineup on Sunday night VS. the Lakers. With no dominant big man or wing player to defend against, this seemed a good option considering Vasquez and Lowry were used together, and played well last season.
Here are some stats compiled by TSN 1050’s Josh Lewenberg:
Last season, Vasquez started five games-two for Derozan and three for Lowry. He averaged 16.4 pts, 5.6 asts, 48% FG, 54% 3PT. When Vasquez and Lowry played together last season, the Raptors played some of their best basketball, going a team best +186 in 490 minutes. This carried over into the playoffs when they were +61 in 125 minutes.
Point and case, they have played very well together in the past.
With Greivis in the starting lineup, the Raptors have three guys who can knock down shots from deep. This will also stretch out defenses to allow for Greivis’ favoured drive and floater shot.
With both Vasquez and Lowry on the court, the focus, naturally, will be ball movement. You have two guys who can handle the rock, three, if you include Ross. This means more touches, more movement, and hopefully, better shot opportunities. This will fly in the face of the style the Raptors have been playing this season. The Raptors are in the bottom third of the league in both passes per possession and assists per game. They have usually scored by running a play in the half-court, or on the fast-break.
With Greivis Vasquez in the starting lineup, the Raptors are also losing a step on defense. According to ESPN, per 100 possessions so far this season, Vasquez has one of the worst defensive ratings on the team. In addition, Vasquez has admittedly struggled so far this season. His FG%, 3-PT% and APG are all down from last season.
Terrence Ross moves to shooting guard, James Johnson starts at small forward
James Johnson adds one major element to a Derozan-less starting lineup. Defense.
Johnson has shown an ability to guard several positions, and players of different and unique skill sets. At 6’9, 250 lbs., Johnson has proved agile enough to guard quicker guards, while strong enough to bang around with forwards who post-up. He is averaging just under a steal per game, and barely trails Valanciunas and Amir for the team lead in blocks per game.
Looking at some of the competition the Raptors will face over the next dozen games, Johnson is best equipped to guard the likes of: Lebron James, Rudy Gay (yes, the 2014 version of Rudy Gay needs to be properly guarded), Carmelo Anthony and Aaron Afflalo.
Offensively, the Raptors take a substantial hit with Johnson. As seen on Sunday night, opposing defenses will likely focus on other scoring threats when Johnson is on the court. Johnson is not a three-point threat (16.7%) so defenses can back off him and clog the lanes. They can also look to possibly double-team Lowry or Valanciunas or better monitor Ross’ off the ball movement. Any of these strategies may hurt the Raptors if they do not counter well.
However, Johnson has proved a capable scorer at times this season. Johnson has shown the ability to consistently beat defenders off the dribble and successfully get to the rim. His best game of the season was in a Nov. 13 loss to Chicago where Johnson put up 16 points on 7-9 shooting. His finish at the basket leaves a bit to be desired, but you’ll take his 56.7 FG%, even if it’s in a small sample size of 2.62 FGA per game.
3. Lou Williams starts at shooting guard, Terrence Ross remains at small forward
Want an easy way to make up for Derozan’s scoring? Insert Lou Williams.
He’s been fun to watch this season, averaging 22.6 points over a five game stretch ending with the Dallas loss on Friday. He even won an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award for those exploits. His 45% FG and 41% 3-PT averages have been incredible, and per 100 possessions, Williams barely trails Kyle Lowry as the Raptors’ most effective scorer.
There is no doubt Lou Williams would drastically impact scoring if he was starting, yet there are reasons to keep him right where he is, as a sixth man.
As we often saw during Rudy Gay’s brief stint with the Raptors, for better or worse, the play dies once the ball reaches the hands of Lou Williams. You can expect an isolation call against his defender, and most likely a step back jump shot or an occasional drive to the rim.
To be effective, Williams needs to be shooting, but for every shot he takes, that’s one less touch and shot from other effective offensive players like Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas or Terrence Ross.
The Raptors are most effective when Kyle Lowry is the floor general. Off the bench, Williams can excel as the lead scorer when there are weaker scoring options on the floor.
4. Matchup Starters based on opposing teams
This is the least likely option. Casey loves consistency. Since the Rudy Gay trade, Casey has thrown out the same starting rotation barring a few changes due to injuries. A consistent starting lineup breeds defensive cohesion, and knowing Casey’s style, he’ll stay away from constantly fiddling with the starting lineup.
Passing. Defense. Scoring. The one thing Casey has is options when determining who will fill in for Demar Derozan.
While starting out with Greivis Vasquez, I see him moving to James Johnson by Tuesday for the Rudy Gay assignment. He is the only one on the team capable of shutting down the tall, long, athletic type forward.
Looking ahead, that task will become even more difficult with Carmelo and Lebron coming to town. The defense James Johnson brings to the starting rotation will be paramount, but it also requires guys like Ross and Valanciunas to step up offensively. Amir Johnson also starts because of his defensive efficiency so you can’t have two non-scoring threats in the starting rotation if others struggle.
Even if Casey continues to go with Greivis as a starter, the Raptors will need contributions from every one of their players. Making up over 19 points a game wont be easy, but if the Raptors can survive this Derozan injury, it’ll further prove to themselves, and the league, that this is not a team that can be taken lightly.