I hated the Rudy Gay trade for the Raptors when it happened, and to a lesser degree still do. To me, there was no sense in bringing in what I strongly felt was a negative player, destroying their cap situation, and losing a young, improving asset in Ed Davis.
That said, the early returns have put me on my heels.
Toronto’s most used lineup on the season is the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan-Rudy Gay-Jonas Valanciunas-Amir Johnson unit that has already played more minutes than their second and third most used lineups combined.
On paper, it looks pretty ugly. DeRozan and Gay are redundant, high usage, inefficient wings, who will take touches away from Lowry. Valanciunas and Johnson are both still very raw, and will crowd the paint. Combine that with the space killing outside shooting of Gay and DeRozan and you have the…fourth best lineup in the league?
For this unit it all starts on the defensive end where their 85.9 defensive rating would lead the league by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions. They would also be second best in the league forcing turnovers. They score at a horrific rate, but that doesn’t matter with the insanely stingy D.
The back line of Johnson and Valanciunas anchors everything: they make a 31.9 points per 100 possessions allowed on court off court difference post trade deadline. Both are nearly seven feet, but incredibly mobile. This mobility allows for a huge amount of versatility in defending various play types.
In the first clip, the Pistons have the ball out of bounds on the baseline and the Raptors go to a kind of matchup zone; Dwane Casey trusts this unit to make decisions and switch. Johnson immediately jumps out on Brandon Knight on the perimeter and when he is beat, Valanciunas steps up to the edge of the lane and forces a tough contested leaning floater.
The second clip shows a couple of things. First, on the high pick and roll, Johnson hedges hard, stopping penetration from Jose Calderon. Then as he’s recovering back to Greg Monroe on the roll, notice Valanciunas’ slight shift over to shut off Monroe for the few beats before Johnson fully recovers. On the second Johnson defended pick and roll, he jumps out too aggressively, but what do you know, Valanciunas is waiting for Knight at the rim. Rudy Gay then rotates off of Jose Calderon and into the paint, which is length allows him to do.
In the third clip, we see the Wizards put the still learning Valanciunas in a pick and roll. He stays too long on John Wall, trying to cut off his driving lanes and meanwhile Emeka Okafor opens himself up on a pop to the baseline. Without hesitating, Johnson switches onto Okafor and stops and contests the jumper. Valanciunas knows the switch Johnson has made and immediately goes to Nene. Big men chemistry on defense is often a beauty to watch.
They’ve fallen into a pattern covering the pick and roll. Johnson will hard hedge, jumping out at a perpendicular angle to the ball-handler’s path while the big Lithuanian will execute a soft show, not jumping out beyond the screener, but not hastily sinking back into the lane. This strategy takes advantage of Johnson’s agility and energy and is a large part of this unit’s high turnover rate. Valanciunas’ length comes into play, to either contest the open midrange jumper or disrupt the dribble if the ball-handler chooses to drive and be a safety net in the paint if Johnson is outflanked by the ball-handler.
For all his deficiencies on offense, Gay is long, athletic, and comes from the grit and grind system of Memphis, the second best defensive team in the league. He isn’t always the most savvy defender, but can wreak havoc with quickness. He constricts spacing on the defensive end, earning back some of what his 29% three point shooting does to an offense. In the first clip, he prevents a corner three with a hard closeout and then disrupts the baseline exchange his man and Nene. In the second clip, he helps towards the middle of the floor on a curl play, only to lithely spring back into position and steal a pass to his man.
Kyle Lowry’s freelancing can hurt at times, but it pays dividends as well, in the form of live ball turnovers; this lineup would rank 4th in the NBA in points off of turnovers. The back line of Valanciunas and Amir is one he can trust, making his unpredictable exploits even more dangerous.
Whether or not the Raptors can translate this lineup’s defensive success is the big question. If they can keep it up to a degree (over a full season this exact level of defensive play is not possible) and improve slightly on offense, Toronto’s starters could entrench themselves as one of the most formidable units in the league.
Statistical support for this article provided by NBA.com