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Raptors reluctant to shake up struggling starting unit

OG Anunoby Pascal Siakam Scottie Barnes Dennis Schroder Toronto Raptors OG Anunoby Pascal Siakam Scottie Barnes Dennis Schroder - Getty Images

TORONTO – The biggest problem with the Raptors is that there isn’t just one problem.

They can’t shoot, which isn’t shocking when you consider the roster construction. Recently, they can’t seem to defend, which is far more surprising given the personnel. Their starting lineup, which doesn’t lack for talent, hasn’t meshed well, while their bench isn’t deep or reliable enough to make up for it.

Put it all together and you’ve got a 9-14 team that has dropped four straight games and six of its last seven, a team slowly coming to the realization that there isn’t one obvious or easily identifiable solution to what ails them.

That’s the challenge for first-year head coach Darko Rajakovic, who has the unenviable task of making these pieces fit together, at least until he’s provided with better-fitting pieces. Where do you start?

“We had a really good meeting this morning and a really good film session focusing on the basic stuff that we are not taking control of right now,” Rajakovic said Tuesday, with his team coming off a 136-130 loss in New York the night before. “Transition defence was No. 1. No. 2 is how we guard the ball. No. 3 is how we’re trusting our gaps and shifts and how we're closing out to the three-point line. No. 4 is pick and roll coverage… And the last one is finishing positions and preventing teams from getting second-chance points and opportunities.”

In other words, it’s a long list.

“Four losses in a row is not what we want,” he continued. “Everybody's eager to change the course of this momentum we have right now.”

The Raptors are desperately searching for answers, a way to turn their fortunes around and save their season, but perhaps they’re not desperate enough. Among their ongoing concerns is how the starters have performed, particularly to open each half.

Rajakovic, who settled on the first unit of Dennis Schroder, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl early in training camp, has been reluctant to tinker with it – those five players have started together in each of the 19 games they’ve all been available for. At some point, though, that group may force his hand.

They’ve been outscored in six of the past seven games, with the exception coming in the lone win over that stretch – they were plus-six in 21 minutes against Phoenix, a game Toronto won by seven points. In the other six games, all losses, the starting lineup was minus-44 in 90 minutes. The Raptors lost those contests by a combined 46 points.

“We’re talking about it,” Rajakovic said, asked if he would be open to making a change. “It’s not something that’s completely off the table but I would like to give it another game or two for our guys to try to figure it out.”

In fairness, there isn’t a clear alternative available at the moment. For one, it’s not like anybody off the bench has consistently pushed for more minutes or a bigger role. Gary Trent Jr. would seem to be the most likely candidate, but that’s based on track record and skill set more than his body of work this season (he’s shooting 38 per cent – the lowest mark since his rookie year in Portland). If nothing else, Trent could give that group some much-needed floor spacing and another player capable of creating his own shot (and, theoretically, knocking it down). But who comes out?

Obviously, it’s not going to be Barnes, or Siakam or Anunoby, as long as they’re on the roster, which leaves Poeltl and Schroder. Going small, with Trent in place of Poeltl, has its advantages on the offensive end but would come at the expense of rebounding and rim protection, and may not sit well with Masai Ujiri, who gave up a first-round pick for the big man at last year’s trade deadline, signed him to an $80 million deal over the summer and has referred to him as a top-10 centre.

The other option would mean starting games without a traditional point guard on the floor. It’s a question of whether Rajakovic feels that Barnes is capable of being a primary ball handler and creator at this stage of his career, or least sharing those duties with Siakam, and given how sparingly they’ve used him in that role this season, we may already have the answer. Even when he’s leading those bench units, he can still defer to a traditional point guard in Malachi Flynn.

Then there’s Rajakovic’s relationship with Schroder, who he coached when he was an assistant in Oklahoma City during the 2018-19 season. Dating back to the start of camp, he’s made it clear that he views Schroder as a starting NBA point guard, and for what it’s worth, the 11-year vet hasn’t done anything to prove him wrong. While he’s tailed off a bit since his hot start, he’s looked like an adequate short-term replacement for Fred VanVleet.

“When we lost games earlier in the season people said it was the bench, now they’re saying it’s the starters,” said Schroder, who’s averaging 15.3 points and a team-high 7.0 assists in his first season with the Raptors. “We’ve just gotta be better as a team. We lose as a team and we win as a team. Right now it’s a tough stretch. I didn’t play well. So everybody’s just gotta look in the mirror and be better.”

Even if there isn’t an obvious change to make, the best reason for trying something new is: why not? What do they have to lose? The Raptors’ starting lineup has played 270 minutes together this season, second most of any five-man unit, so the sample size is not small. That unit, with Trent in place of Schroder – arguably the team’s five-best players – has only logged five minutes together.

Over this recent seven-game stretch, the starters are scoring 104.4 points per 100 possessions, fewer than San Antonio’s league-worst offensive rating. With only one proven three-point shooting threat (Anunoby) on the floor – two if you believe Barnes’ improved jumper is for real – you can see how spacing would be problematic.

Far more concerning is the steep drop off defensively. That quintet has given up 120.5 points per 100 possessions over the past seven games, which would be the 28th-ranked mark on the season, ahead of only Charlotte and Washington. For a unit that includes an All-NBA defender in Anunoby, one of the league leaders in stocks (steals + blocks) in Barnes and a proven rim protector in Poeltl, as well as the versatility of Siakam, that’s a lot tougher to justify.

“We can talk about the schemes and all that, but we've just got to give a little bit more,” Siakam said. “Whatever we think we're giving, we’ve got to give even more.”

At some point in the not-so-distant future – the Feb. 8 trade deadline is less than two months away – the front office may take matters into their own hands. Rajakovic could ride it out with his current rotation and hope that they’re able to turn things around in a hurry. But if he is going to make a change, he’ll want at least a few weeks to implement and evaluate it. They’re running out of time to find a solution internally.