The Toronto Raptors had a quiet offseason after finally breaking through and reaching the conference finals last season. There was just one big question about the team heading into media day: Who will start at power forward now that Luis Scola is gone?
Arguably the second-best team in the East has a hole at a key position and no ideal option with whom to fill it.
Dwane Casey didn’t offer a definitive answer. He said that the spot “is Jared Sullinger’s to lose” but he reserves the right to change his mind.
Casey says starting power forward job is Jared Sullinger's "to lose." Has to see how he meshes defensively with Valanciunas. PP lots of mins
— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) September 26, 2016
It’s hardly surprising that he’s leaning that way, but the fact that he can’t fully commit to naming a starter shows how tricky it will be for the Raptors to hide their inability to get a long term solution in free agency.
We’ve seen Toronto use a stopgap last season, so this is not new. Scola was not a starting-caliber player last season and was clearly the second best power forward on the roster.
He was only the starter because Dwane Casey wanted to keep a killer bench unit that included Patrick Patterson, together. The starting unit with Scola at power forward was actually outscored per 100 possessions last season while the bench was among the best in the league. It was one of Toronto’s best assets, and Patterson was a big reason why.
Even with Biyombo gone, that should still be the case next season. The three-man relief team of Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross and Patterson is still around, after all, and it worked beautifully together last season.
That’s what’s giving Casey once again pause when it comes to moving Patterson, a better player and a better fit next to Jonas Valanciunas, to a starting spot. The Raptors will try to start their second-best power forward there, once again, hoping that unit doesn’t get into too big a hole and make up the ground with the subs.
That plan worked last year, but it might be harder to pull off this upcoming season. Scola is a flawed player, especially on the defensive end, but Sullinger isn’t much better. We are talking about someone who struggled when he had to guard players in space even when he played center, so it’s hard to see him do better at power forward.
His lack of rim protection won’t be as damming as it was in Boston if he plays next to Valanciunas, but his lack of mobility will prevent him from being anything more than a marginal improvement over Scola on defense.
The Raptors needed more than that because there might be a drop-off in the other end. Scola didn’t exactly inspire fear into opponents’ hearts when he spotted up, so the concerns about spacing, while real, are not huge. He did make them pay for leaving him open to smother Toronto’s better weapons, however, something Sullinger can’t do.
Scola averaged 40 percent from beyond the arc last season and was especially deadly from the corners, shooting a scorching 46 percent. Sullinger, on the other hand, took just two corner threes last season and connected on just 28 percent of his above the break attempts.
It’s clear by that shot chart that after attempting to become a long-range threat in past years – Sullinger averaged three attempts per game over the two seasons before last — he focused instead on shooting mid-range jumpers. That’s a good weapon to have, but it’s only going to make Toronto’s attack less varied.
The Raptors took the second most mid-range jumpers in the league last season, and they will likely average more next year. They have built a powerful offense around that, but exchanging Scola threes for Sullinger twos might weaken the attack of the starters even further.
Sullinger might not be a good fit, but not everything is doom and gloom, of course. While the struggles early in the game that were familiar last season will likely continued, the Raptors do have other units which have both outside shooting and mobility at power forward. Just trotting Patterson out does the trick. They should also be able to put together some intriguing small lineups.
Provided he’s healthy, having DeMarre Carroll move up a spot is something that Toronto will likely do often this season after not using that option much last year. That would explain the lack of urgency to upgrade at power forward. Last season, the small lineups featuring Lowry, Cory Joseph, DeRozan, Caroll and Valanciunas outscored opponents by 20 points per 100 possessions. There’s clearly something there. Yet, it’s hard to fully buy in on small-ball as a cure for the Raptors’ power forward ailments.
That unit from above shared the floor for just 36 minutes during the regular season, largely because Carroll missed most of it. A similar lineup but with Norman Powell in Joseph’s place didn’t do quite as well in the playoffs. One with Terrence Ross in that spot hemorrhaged points in the few minutes it was on the court.
There’s no other small ball power forward option on the roster now that James Johnson is gone unless Bruno Caboclo has made a huge jump from summer league. The Raptors can go small, but at this point, they lack the type of go-to lineup they can actually rely on.
The lack of a good fit in the starting lineup and the questions surrounding the small-lineup options really do put a lot of pressure on Patterson, who might be asked to start at some point even to the detriment of bench units.
In an ideal world, he wouldn’t play 30 minutes a game, but he can do the things teams ask of modern power forwards. He just doesn’t do them at the level some others in the league do them. He prevents the hole at the position from being a fatal flaw, but clearly can’t make it a strength. There’s really not a perfect answer for Toronto’s predicament.
To be clear, the Raptors’ season is far from doomed. They faced some of these same questions last season and Scola’s surprising accuracy from outside combined with Patterson’s steady play were enough to assuage them.
That could happen again if Sullinger starts hitting those corners threes and the small lineups emerge as a reliable option. Even with these potential issues, they should be among the best teams in the conference once again. A second trip to the conference finals is not out of the question.
Yet, as long as the power forward positions remains a weakness it’s hard to see them beat the Cavaliers, much less win a championship. Toronto’s inability to find a permanent solution at that spot won’t prevent them from experiencing some success, but it’s definitely keeping it from reaching true contender status.