The Toronto Raptors have a starting lineup problem, but it doesn’t sound like the team’s head coach has a viable fix.
The Dennis Schroder-OG Anunoby-Scottie Barnes-Pascal Siakam-Jakob Poeltl five-some has played 332 minutes so far this season, the second-most of any five-man group in the entire NBA. The results have not been good.
The team fell behind by at least 10 points for the eighth straight game during Wednesday’s home loss against Denver, is 22nd of 30 sides in first-quarter net rating, 20th in third-quarter net rating (those are the quarters where the starters tend to play the most) and Poeltl has looked completely lost in recent games.
The starters have not clicked, despite impressive assist numbers, and have been shockingly poor defensively, considering the personnel.
Of the 23 five-man groups to play at least 130 minutes together this season, only five had a worse net rating than Toronto’s starters.
It gets worse if you dig into Toronto’s most commonly used four-man groups. Of the 11 foursomes that have played at least 90 minutes together, eight have a negative net rating.
Poeltl has been a part of seven of those eight negative groups, three with other starters, four with starters plus Gary Trent Jr.
The only three decent four-man Raptors groups have featured Siakam and Schroder in each of them. Barnes, Anunoby and Trent have been in two of the other three.
So, what can they do?
The Raps could go smaller with a lot more shooting and spacing by swapping out Poeltl for Trent.
They could switch Poeltl for Precious Achiuwa, who, while undersized, can rebound and switch on defence. Achiuwa also is a threat from beyond the arc, as his 35% shooting on three-pointers over his past five games can attest.
Another option is starting Trent and letting Schroder excel in the role he has been best at during his long NBA career, as a top sixth man and backup point guard.
Head coach Darko Rajakovic has poured cold water on that option this season, saying Barnes isn’t ready to handle the ball as much as a starting point guard, but there are some merits to it. It would continue the ascension of Barnes to potential superstar status. It would plug in a better shooter than Schroder in Trent (though a worse defender), give the starters a bit more size and likely elevate the bench group as well as the starters.
To this corner, the Trent-for-Schroder swap makes the most sense. Again, Schroder has a track record of being an excellent reserve, but has tailed off as a starter following a great first few weeks this season.
Meanwhile, Trent has averaged 18.1 points as a starter in his career vs. 9.1 as a reserve and about twice as many steals per game.
While his field-goal shooting numbers have stayed consistent whether as a starter or coming off the bench as a Raptor, Trent has been much better from the free-throw line when he starts and above league average from three vs. slightly below.
He also has tended to be far more aggressive on both ends of the floor when he starts.
Despite all the evidence that the starters aren’t a fit, Rajakovic again showed a hesitance to make a change when asked about it Wednesday after the Denver loss.
“We are considering it, we are talking about it. It’s something that’s there. I don’t think necessarily that it’s just like starting the game because we started subbing out very, very quickly. But it is something that we (are talking about),” Rajakovic began.
“But also, not starting any of those guys, it’s a ripple effect what it does for the rest of the team and who is gonna be playing, whose not gonna be playing. And if you do that it might be shrinking the rotation to eight players or seven players. And I’m not sure that we want to go that route.”
He might not have a choice, though.
The goal is to win games and the starters aren’t helping on that front. Winning is even more important this year because the Raptors dealt this year’s first-round pick (unless they select in the Top 6) to San Antonio in a deal for Poeltl that has blown up in Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and Co.’s face.
Poeltl looked like the missing piece after being reacquired last season, but that was with pick-and-roll maestro Fred VanVleet pairing beautifully with him. Schroder has different strengths and weaknesses than VanVleet and Toronto has not found a useful partner to mesh with Poeltl.
He also has been shockingly bad defensively, considering his pedigree as a standout defender.
Even though Barnes has made a remarkable and nearly historic leap as a shooter this season, the fact that Siakam is one of the NBA’s worst outside shooters and Schroder’s inconsistency also makes Poeltl’s presence with the other four starters troublesome.
“I think Jakob is a very, very good basketball player. Obviously the last couple of games he did not play to his level. And I really, really believe that he’s gonna turn it around very quickly,” Rajakovic said. “I think he’s better than he’s performing right now. And I’m gonna talk to him and I’m gonna do everything I can in my power to help him to turn the corner be the Jakob that we know.”
One of those moves might be attaching Poeltl to backup point guard Malachi Flynn.
Flynn was one of the best pick-and-roll players in the NCAA and that trait was a major reason why Toronto drafted him in the first round.
On paper, it makes sense that he would pair decently with Poeltl. They’ve played only 76 minutes together this season, according to NBA.com, and haven’t fared well in that time, but it’s worth exploring more.
Ideally, Rajakovic would have a more smartly built roster to work with, giving him more options, but until a trade is made, he has to work with what he’s got. It’s time to get creative.