More than any game related performance or story, the talk of the town this past week has been about what the Raptors rotation will look like when the season opens up against the Pacers on Halloween night. The spark for the discussion came earlier this week when Dwane Casey mentioned that he planned to use the last few pre-season games to pare down his rotation in preparation for the regular season, and that he’s planning on using a more traditional eight-man rotation that could expand to nine or possibly 10 on some nights.
Casey did add that a lot of his game to game decisions will be based on matchups (ie- Aaron Gray getting playing time against bigger centres), but if and when the Raptors coach does decide to cut down his rotation to eight or nine men, the hard part of having a deeper roster at his disposal will come into play, as Casey will surely have some tough calls to make.
Let’s examine some of those upcoming decisions.
Unless Jonas Valanciunas suddenly erases all of the positive steps he’s taken in the last few games, I think we can safely assume that he’ll be the opening night starter in the middle, and rightfully so. That sets the table for a likely starting five of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields, Andrea Bargnani and the aforementioned Valanciunas.
As much as I like to rag on Jose Calderon’s porous defence, and as much as John Lucas III looks like a viable backup point guard to Lowry once Calderon is traded, the fact remains that right now, Calderon is Lowry’s primary backup, and deservedly so. As I’ve mentioned many times this off-season and pre-season, Calderon is capable of having a big year as the veteran leader of what looks like a pretty solid second unit.
If you consider Calderon the Raptors’ unofficial sixth man heading into the season, that already leaves us with only two or three regular spots remaining in Casey’s eight to nine-man rotation, and this is where the tough decisions will have to be made.
Ideally, an eight-man rotation is made up of two point guards, three wings and three big men. Should Casey stick to this traditional script, that would likely leave rookie Terrence Ross and a so far impressive Alan Anderson fighting for minutes as the first wing off of the bench behind starters DeRozan and Fields. From a pure developmental standpoint and with an eye to the future, I obviously want and expect Ross to eventually win that role, but having said that, Anderson has been solid in his brief time as a Raptor, and might prove to be a surprisingly dependent option off of the bench.
With respect to the frontcourt rotation, Amir Johnson is going to be the first big off of the bench most nights because he can hold his own at either of the two big positions, where as Ed Davis isn’t big enough or strong enough to consistently bang with NBA centres. I maintain that Davis has the higher ceiling and could overtake Amir on the depth chart at some point this season, but as of right now, especially considering how much Dwane Casey loves him, I think Amir’s the guy.
So to summarize, an eight man rotation as I interpret it right now would consist of Lowry, DeRozan, Fields, Bargnani and Valanciuans starting, with Calderon, Johnson and one of Ross or Anderson the primary bench options. In a nine-man rotation, I assume that Calderon and one of the bench wings will be joined by both Johnson and Davis.
In the event that the Raptors are matching up against a two-point guard lineup (ie- the Knicks with Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton), Lucas will see some time in Toronto’s own two-PG combinations. In addition, Lucas should get the nod over Calderon when more of a defensive presence is needed at the point, and the undersized JL3 could also be called upon over any of the bench wing players when Casey simply needs someone to come in off the pine and create some instant offence to get the Raptors back in a game.
What we’re left with is a rotation that should vary from game to game, matchup to matchup and situation to situation, but a rotation that will usually consist of eight to 10 of the following players: Lowry, DeRozan, Fields, Bargnani, Valanciunas, Calderon, Johnson, Davis, Lucas, Ross and Anderson.
That leaves four players – Linas Kleiza, Dominic McGuire, Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy – on the outside looking in in terms of regular playing time. Of the four, I’d be the most concerned about my future with the Raptors if I was Kleiza. As mentioned, Gray will still see some time when the Raptors need a big body to bang in the post, and he’s proven to be a capable reserve big man in the past.
I’m also still high on Dominic McGuire’s potential as a defensive stopper when an opposing player gets hot (so long as that opposing player isn’t a centre) and as a high IQ player who knows his role. In fact, McGuire is a player I’ll be keeping an eye on throughout the season, as he’s a low risk option to throw out there who also possesses some intriguing upside that may still be untapped.
As a rookie, Acy is obviously still part of the future plan, but I’m going to assume the impressive depth on this roster likely means he’ll be spending some time in the D-League to hone his craft before seeing any regular minutes at the NBA level.
That leaves Kleiza in an awkward spot. He doesn’t seem good enough or consistent enough to crack the Raptors’ eight or nine-man rotation, he may very well be passed on the depth chart by McGuire (in addition to already being passed by Anderson), and he doesn’t really present any future potential to the franchise like Acy does.
Kleiza has a $4.6 million player option for next season. If he picks up the option, I would have to think that the amnesty provision would be heavily considered by Bryan Colangelo and co. The other option, of course, is that Kleiza realizes he’s been phased out in Toronto, and instead opts to become a free agent, though I doubt he’d see anywhere close to $4.6 million in that scenario.
Anyway, that’s my take on how this rotation might look on opening night, and how it might evolve as the season progresses. What’s yours?