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Rajakovic coming to realization he must adapt to flawed Raptors roster

Toronto Raptors Washington Wizards Precious Achiuwa Kyle Kuzma - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Nick Nurse may have been on to something, after all.

Famously, the former Raptors head coach deployed an ultra-aggressive style of defence. Some wondered whether the team was expending too much energy on that end of the floor, including folks inside of the front office. But without much shooting on the roster, Nurse believed that forcing turnovers at a high rate, crashing the offensive glass and generating as many possessions as possible gave them the best chance to win games. And he was right.

More and more, as his tenure wore on, his minute distribution came under fire. Was his reliance on the starters burning them out, while also stunting the growth of the young guys off the bench? Without much reliable depth at his disposal, he believed that a tight rotation gave them the best chance to win. And he was right.

Nurse wasn’t without his flaws as a coach, but he generally managed to get the most out of the personnel he was given, however flawed. Can the same be said for his successor?

Through 30 games, Darko Rajakovic’s Raptors are 12-18. It’s hard to know whether they are underachieving or if this is merely who they are. The head coach’s reluctance to tinker or adapt hasn’t made it any easier to pinpoint what this group is truly capable of, but perhaps that’s about to change.

After 10 losses in the span of 13 games, Saturday’s embarrassing defeat to Utah – a contest in which they coughed up a 17-point third-quarter lead – may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. On Wednesday, following a three-day break over Christmas, Rajakovic finally decided to shake up his struggling starting unit, replacing Dennis Schroder with Gary Trent Jr.

It was long overdue. While Nurse was all about experimentation – using the regular season to see what worked and what didn’t – Rajakovic has been far more patient, hoping that continuity in his lineups will breed chemistry. There is merit in both philosophies, to be sure, but at some point the sample size becomes too big to ignore.

The quintet of Schroder, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl had started 25 of the team’s first 29 games, and every game in which all five players were available. They’ve played 366 minutes together this season, second most of any five-man unit across the NBA, and have been outscored by 0.9 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark among five-man units that have logged at least 175 minutes together. They’ve been outscored by 24 points in 207 minutes over the past month.

Toronto’s three most-used lineups this season have each been a net negative. Shockingly, the new starting group with Trent in place of Schroder – the presumed starters going into training camp and arguably the five-best players on the team – had only logged eight minutes together ahead of Wednesday’s game.

There’s no perfect solution, which is one of the reasons it took Rajakovic this long to pull the trigger. For one, it’s not like anybody off the bench had earned a bigger role. Trent was the most likely candidate, based on track record and skillset more than anything else, but subbing him in would come at the expense of rebounding and rim protection (Poeltl) or ball-handling and playmaking (Schroder). Solving one problem to create another, a function of the roster construction.

“Sure, we can mix up rotations, [but] it's not like we have Steph Curry sitting on the bench and I'm keeping him off court,” said Rajakovic, pressed on the matter again following the loss to Utah over the weekend.

The best reason to try something new, when you’re more than a third of the way through the season and what you’ve been running out there hasn’t worked: why not?

Following Wednesday’s dominant 132-102 win in Washington, Rajakovic told reporters that he and the coaches had been contemplating the change for a while and decided this would be a good opportunity to enact it, coming off the short break. They also had to consider the ripple effect it would have on the entire rotation.

With Schroder coming off the bench and leading the second unit, backup point guard Malachi Flynn was on his way to being a healthy scratch for the first time this season before getting some garbage-time run at the end of the game. Chris Boucher, Otto Porter Jr. and sparingly-used forward Jalen McDaniels each played ahead of Precious Achiuwa, who was benched in the first half and only checked in once Poeltl picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter. On the night, Rajakovic used 12 different lineup combinations that had never played together before.

It’s just one game and the opponent was the five-win Washington Wizards, so you can go ahead and take the early returns with a grain of salt, but after two months of the same old, it was refreshing to see the Raptors embrace change. Some of it didn’t work, and that’s fine, it happens, but a lot of it looked good and made more sense.

While the new starters were outscored by eight points in 9.5 minutes, Trent hit three triples and gave that unit some much-needed floor spacing, and Schroder recorded 10 assists in 28 minutes off the bench to help stabilize the second group.

The added benefit for however long the change lasts – Rajakovic says it isn’t set in stone – is it should help answer a few burning questions that are important for evaluation purposes. Does the duo of Siakam and Barnes fit better with another shooter on the floor? And can Barnes initiate offence as the primary ball handler and playmaker without a traditional point guard to play off of – a role he didn’t look ready for last season and has played sparingly this year?

Again, with the degree of difficulty caveat in mind, the Raptors’ starters hit 10 of 25 three-point attempts, while the team recorded 43 assists – second most in franchise history – with Barnes and Siakam combining for 19 of them (as well as 42 points on 31 shots). Anunoby added 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting for good measure.

Still, the Raptors didn’t win the game because of the lineup change, at least not directly. They won because, for the first time in weeks, they did what they were built to do: defend at a high level and score in transition, where they outscored Washington 27-8. Granted, the former certainly could have helped spark the latter, but to the point Rajakovic made over the weekend, it doesn’t matter what the rotation looks like if the focus and effort isn’t there.

“The easiest thing is to change lineups,” the first-year head coach said on Saturday. “But are those just cosmetics, or are we addressing the real [issue]?”

The real issue is that encouraging, hard-fought performances like Wednesday’s have been few and far between. In retrospect, are we sure that last season’s team – which finished with a .500 record and ultimately cost Nurse his job – underperformed?

That’s not to say that Masai Ujiri and company should regret moving on from Nurse, assuming he was fired primarily for interpersonal reasons. After 10 years with the organization, five as the head coach, it was time for a new voice, a different direction; that’s understandable. But if Nurse was let go for basketball reasons, they completely misdiagnosed the problem.

Now, Rajakovic has the unenviable task of getting the most out of a flawed roster, while also trying to reinvent it. In many ways, he was brought in to be the anti-Nurse. By all accounts, he and the front office are on the same page in regards to philosophy and play style. They want to be more conservative defensively and free flowing on offence. They want to use a deep rotation, cutting the minutes of their starters and finding opportunities for guys like Flynn and Achiuwa.

The problem is they don’t have the personnel to play the way Rajakovic wants to play. Until and unless that changes he’ll need to adapt, and he’s gradually coming to that realization.