With less than two weeks left before the start of the 2014-1015 NBA regular season, the Toronto Raptors rotation appears set. Any tweaks Head Coach Dwane Casey might make to what should be a 9 or 10 man group of regulars is down to some very fine distinctions.
Point Guard: Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez
Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan, Lou Williams
Small Forward: Terrence Ross, James Johnson, Landry Fields, Bruno Caboclo
Power Forward: Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough
Center: Jonas Valanciunas, Chuck Hayes, Lucas Nogueira
Training camp tryouts: guard Will Cherry, forward Jordan Hamilton and center Greg Stiemsma
Last year’s franchise record setting starting lineup is back and unless someone gets hurt, they’ll be the starters for every game this season. Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Amir Johnson and Valanciunas led the Raptors to the best record in the entire Eastern Conference (41-22) after the seven-player trade with Sacramento in December and their 29 wins as a starting unit was a franchise record for a single season. There are no decisions to be made here.
The backup spots are a little less clear, but only slightly. There are players who can win jobs and minutes, however, it’s unlikely Casey is going to change his rotation based on preseason games alone.
The battle for the backup guard spots was over before it began. Cherry has a camp invite, but even if he sticks, it will be as a 15th man. Vasquez was re-signed to a $13 million 2-year deal to back up Lowry and the 9-year veteran Williams was specifically acquired to bring some scoring off the bench. Both Williams and Vasquez are used to playing well over 20 minutes per game and their impact on the court suggests they should play more, but Lowry and DeRozan are both big minute players and unless Casey gets creative with some three guard lineups, the backup minutes at guard will be low and inconsistent.
Fortunately for Vasquez and Williams, Casey had a lot of success with two point guard lineups last season and more of the same should be expected. Plus at 6’6 Vasquez can guard a lot of the wings in this league, so Casey has options, but perhaps the biggest benefit of all this depth will be to cruise through injury situations and to keep his starters minutes more manageable.
If the backup guards prove to be as effective as expected, the big loser in terms of minutes is likely to be James Johnson.
After getting beaten up by Joe Johnson in the playoffs, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri would look to add a big mobile athletic forward that can cover a power small forward. James Johnson is just such a player. This is his second tour with the Raptors and the 27-year-old shows the signs of maturity that come from bouncing around the league and losing one’s spot in the rotation after periods of being pretty effective. The small forward backup role is Johnson’s to lose and he can earn himself more minutes at power forward in small lineups with responsible defense.
Fields can cover both wing spots and is a responsible defender, but his shooting touch has been lost to a nerve issue in his shooting arm that just will not go away. He remains a nice depth player because of his basketball I.Q. and willingness to defer on offense, but unless he can re-invent his game, he’ll be a 12th man on the Raptors.
Caboclo just turned 19-years-old and it will be the franchise’s story of the season if he can crack the rotation on merit, but no one is selling that possibility too hard just yet. Elastic-man long arms and a decent three-point touch suggest the potential is there to surprise, but on a veteran team, Caboclo is expected to play more in the D-League than the NBA this year. However, don’t sleep on the rookie either – pay attention to what he does with any opportunities.
The surprise coming out of camp could be Jordan Hamilton. Because of the Raptors depth at this position, the training camp invite was given no chance at a job before preseason began, but since then, Hamilton has been showing that maybe he deserves to stick anyway. The kid can score and hasn’t looked out-of-place – for a guy striving to grab the 15th spot on the roster.
Backup Big Men
Patrick Patterson re-signed for 3-years and $18 million this summer and will be the first big off the bench. The 25-year-old looks and acts like he’s closer to 30 and he thrived in the role Casey gave him last season. A stretch-four than can guard in the post as well as on the perimeter, Patterson believes he could steal the starting job and that isn’t an unreasonable goal – really tough to accomplish, but reasonable.
Casey could easily decide to run with just three big men in a 9-man rotation and no one could seriously argue with him. Amir Johnson is this team’s next best center, however, Toronto has a wealth of big men, so Casey has some very solid options.
Last season Patterson and Hansbrough played well together even if it left the center position a little undersized. There are few players that are more active in the paint and willing to fight for position than what Hansbrough brings every night. Fortunately, there are also few teams that can put a decent 7-footer on the floor as a backup center, so the 6’9 Hansbrough is not at as big a disadvantage guarding the basket as he would be in the starting unit.
Hansbrough has some serious competition, however. The veteran Chuck Hayes is at an even bigger height disadvantage than Hansbrough, but he is smart, quick and able to show and recover better than most big men. At 6’6, Hayes does not provide any rim protection or much of an offensive threat, but he comes well prepared and will outwork almost anyone.
The rookie Bebe Nogueira has that long lanky look of many centers in today’s NBA. Fast with quick ups and the ability to become a true rim protector on defense and a rim rocker at the other end – that is if he can figure out the NBA game after a couple of years as a reserve in Spain. Currently sidelined with a groin strain, the Raptors are still waiting to find out what this kid can do. If he can play effective defense, he can win the backup center job – hands down, but that’s a big if.
Stiemsma has played for three NBA teams in three years and proven he can play defense at this level – offense, not so much. He has the potential to fill the role Aaron Gray once held on the Raptors as a spot duty center that can block shots, play defense and foul hard when the team is getting beat up in the paint. Except for the rim protection, Hayes fills much the same role, but the attraction of Stiemsma as a third string center is real.
Starters: Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Amir Johnson, Valanciunas
Second Unit: Vasquez, Williams, James Johnson, Patterson, Hansbrough
The starters are set, the second unit is ready to go and there is enough depth to cover injuries. Plus there are just enough question marks to create a little intrigue over battles for minutes and the impact the two rookies could have during the season.
Based on how Ujiri likes to develop young players, both Caboclo and Nogueira will get a fair shake to earn a spot in the rotation at some point during the season. The question then becomes, will either of them be ready and what does Ujiri do about it if they are?
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.
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