Thursday, August 8, 2013

Optimizing the Starting Line-up (Sorry Demar)

Accurate depiction of our starting line-up (also, clowns are scary as fuck)

Bearing any drastic changes (major trade, injury), the starting five for the Toronto Raptors will be Kyle Lowry, Demar Derozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas.

I'm not a fan of +/- statistics (because they take in soooo much context; it's like picking up the entire bale of hay, and claiming that you've found the needle), but it's worth noting that the aforementioned lineup ranked 5th overall last season (min. 200 minutes played, or 4th for min. 300 minutes). In the 343 minutes that they played last season, they ranked an impressive +12.9 net rating (offensive rating-defensive rating). 

It's important to note that 343 minutes is an incredibly small sample, so any conclusions or observations drawn here should be taken with a big grain of salt.

A closer look at their net rating showed that this team excelled at defense, and was approximately average on offense. Consider the following table:

If the data is significant (which, odds are, it's not), the starting lineup is a tremendous on defense, while being mostly average on offense. I guess I can see why it's so effective on defense; their individual xRAPM (a fancy plus-minus stat) numbers look pretty good (per stats for the nba):

However, I am inclined to buy into it's offensive struggles (not struggles, but it's pretty mediocre). There is very little shooting in this lineup. There is almost no shooting in this lineup. Consider their shooting numbers (per hoopdata):

Right off the bat, there is one major issue; three-point shooting. Lowry's 3-point shooting is acceptable, but his three-pointers are often as a result of isolation plays (Lowry's assist percentage on 3's: 59%; league average: 82%). On the other hand, the wings just simply cannot shoot. Derozan has no 3-pointer to speak of (28.6% last season), and Rudy Gay is merely average (33% last season). 

Normally, you can alleviate a lack of shooting on the wing with bigs who can shoot (ie: when Miami puts Shane Battier at the four). However, our bigs cannot shoot jumpers, nor would you want them to. Valanciunas and Johnson are excellent offensive rebounders, and they are among the league's best at put-backs (read about Valanciunas, and Johnson here). You want them in the paint, not out on the elbow hoisting jumpers.

So what does this lack of shooting result in? Too many long-jumpers being taken by Demar Derozan and Rudy Gay. This is not a result that you want; the long-two is the least efficient shot in the NBA. Last season, Gay and Derozan combined to shoot a whooping 10 shots per game from 16-23 feet (the average NBA team only takes 18 per game as a team!).


How can we get more shooting into the lineup? Well, it's clear that we need to split up the duo of Rudy Gay and Demar Derozan. Their skillsets and capabilities are too similar. They are both ball-dominant wings who are best when they are slashing to the basket. One of them has got to go, and unfortunately, the best option is to bench Derozan.

First, consider that Gay is simply the better player. Since I've been digging the +/- stuff today, allow me to present their xRAPM's from last season:

The numbers show that Demar is worse at both offense and defense (unfortunately, the biggest take-away is that neither Gay, nor Derozan is very good).

In the interest of stoking the Derozan hate fest, also consider these WOWY (with or without you, I can't live...) numbers from RR's "DanH":

Player – ORTG impact from DD – DRTG impact from DD – Net RTG impact from DD
Amir: -2.9 / -6.6 / +3.7Lowry: -11.0 / -6.5 / -4.5JV: -3.3 / -4.0 / +0.7Gay: +0.5 / -1.5 / +2.1

Player – ORTG impact from Gay – DRTG impact from Gay – Net RTG impact from Gay
DD: +2.2 / -5.2 / +7.4
Amir: -1.2 / -5.6 / +4.3
Lowry: -2.3 / -8.3 / +6.0
JV: +8.7 / -9.4 / +18.0

Yeah, if one of them's got to go, it's definitely Demar (although I'd love it if Ujiri could jettison both of them). It's pretty clear that in addition to being the better player, Gay also benefits the starters more than Demar does (probably; like I said, small sample size).

Second, there are better back-ups for Demar than there are for Gay. The depth chart probably looks something like the following:

Now, you might be wondering: wait, if we need shooting, shouldn't we just toss Steve Novak into the line-up for Gay? Maybe have him replace Johnson (when he inevitably gets himself into foul trouble) for small ball? Wouldn't that solve the Raptors problems?

No it wouldn't. It would be plugging one leak and introducing another because Steve Novak is pretty awful on defense, and as I mentioned earlier, defense is the true strength of the starting 5.

The synergy data suggest that Novak might be a good defender (60% of his defensive assignments were isolation and spot-ups, and he ranked 25th and 119th respectively), but it seriously clashes with what the eye test tells us. In fact, his effectiveness in defending isolation may be due to the hubris of his opponents (Henry Abbot has you covered).

In reality, Novak might be more of a "puts some stuff on the table; takes more off the table" kind of player. He has almost no foot-speed to speak of, and his jumping ability is, erm, well it's not there. His xRAPM numbers suggest that his defense is downright atrocious:

The best move would be to replace Demar Derozan with Landry Fields in the starting lineup. There a number of reasons to make the switch.

First, take a look at our bench; there is no "creativity" on that lineup. I'm as big on smarter-offensive schemes as the next guy, but a lineup of Augustin-Ross-Fields-Novak-Hansbrough will not fly. I'm sorry. Nobody on that lineup can "create offense". Replacing Fields with Demar Derozan will add a viable (but not great) offensive option for that lineup. 

Second, Fields is simply a better fit. Fields was hampered by a nerve issue in his shooting arm which severely limited his ability to shoot. This injury has reportedly been fixed by surgery, and if Fields is able to return to his pre-injury form (~55 TS%), he should be a very effective floor-stretcher. One last thing on this point; even with his terrible injury, Fields was still the better offensive player last season:

Another added bonus of replacing Derozan with Fields is that it potentially frees up more touches for Jonas Valanciunas. Derozan's usage rate was 24% last season meaning he used 24% of all Raptors offensive plays last season. Conversely, Fields only used 13%. This extra 11% can be redistributed among the starters (hopefully to Valanciunas).

Lastly, DD's void in the starting lineup's offense can be replaced by the skills of other players in the starting five. Demar's offensive usage broke down like the following:
As I suggested earlier, Gay and Derozan's skillsets overlap. Gay can take over the role of "shit the offense isn't working, 5 seconds left in the shotclock, time to run iso for someone". He excelled in this role last season, as he was 29th in the NBA in isolation plays last season. He can also run the pick and roll, and leave the other pick and rolls to Kyle Lowry. The spot-up shots can be redistributed to Gay or Fields (hopefully Fields from 3). 

Replacing Derozan with Fields appears to be the best option for the Toronto Raptors. The starting five is very strong defensively, and xRAPM numbers suggest that it will be even stronger with Fields instead of Derozan. When healthy, Fields's ability to shoot the three pointer will alleviate spacing issues in the starting lineup. Replacing Demar's with Fields will also free up more shots for other players like Valanciunas (24.1 vs 13.0% USG%). Demar also happens to be a better fit for the bench crew, as the bench lacks scoring and shot-creation. Lastly, Demar's offensive contributions can largely be replaced by the other starters.

Sorry Demar. Looks like the best option for the Raptors is to marginalize your role. Don't worry; Colangelo gave you 40 million reasons to be happy. Thanks, Bryan Colangelo (you fucking incompetent piece of shit).


As per usual, many thanks to Hoopdata, Basketball-Reference, synergy sports and NBA stats. Without your stat monkeys, we shitty bloggers could never try to peddle our weak shit with any confidence.


  1. If Casey convinces Demar to come off the bench i'll be very impressed. It comes down to: Demar learning to shoot three vs Fields playing like his old self.

    1. Why does casey need to convince demar of anything? It's casey's team and demar should do what casey wants. Demar has been given the job for 4 straight years and he's been given so many touches. The raptors don't owe him anything.

      I'm not confident about demar learning to shoot the three. He's been trying to learn it for 4 years (that's always been a knock against him) and he has never shot better than 30%.

    2. it'll be interesting to see what they come up with. Geez can't wait for season to start.

    3. Lol the starting lineup is set in stone. DD will start. I don't doubt it.

      I can't wait for the season either. There is absolutely no Raptors news. It's killing me. I'm running out of things to write about.

    4. yeah I actually want to watch some Raptors games from last season hahaha any suggestions?


      there's a list of games from last season.

      I'd recommend that feb 8th game against the Pacers. I can really see the Raptors and Pacers developing a rivalry next season.

  2. :P

  3. If I understand Henry Abbot's article correctly, he's saying that Novak's ineptitude on defence somehow induces players into taking stupid (low percentage) shots. While this is not necessarily a "skill" per se, it’s still a valuable defensive trait.

    1. I agree. However there are two things about this. One, some numbers like him, but others don't. It could be that his own man isn't scoring very efficiently against him (taking bad shots), but that he's a liability to a team's defense (perhaps demonstrated by his xRAPM.

      The second problem is I doubt his skill of goading defenders into shooting bad shots is repeatable. Eventually, the scouting report on him will come out, and players will stop trying so hard to attack him on offense.

  4. Not sure I agree with you about Johnson and Val shooting elbow jumpers, I think that Amir is an underrated midrange shooter. And as for Val he should play more in the block, but he definitely needs to be able to have at least a decent mid range touch to reach his potential, he already bangs free throws why not give him the green light from 18 ft in? But as usual really enjoyed the article and your use of advanced statistics

    1. Thanks for reading Jeremy,

      Your comment about Amir got me wondering, so I looked up his shooting stats. They can be found here:

      What's particularly interesting is that he doesn't really shoot from "mid-range" (10-15 feet; 0.3 Attempts per game), but rather he shoots a lot from 16-23 feet. He wasn't very successful on these shots, sinking only 0.6 shots per game on 37% shooting. However, he was assisted on 90+% on these shots, which suggests that these shots were by design. If so, Casey either needs to rethink his offensive scheme for Johnson, or he's just desperate for floor spacing. Either way, it's not really working that well.

      Then again, Johnson is a really hard worker and his jumper has improved every year. Perhaps it's a bit much to expect improvement in his 9th NBA season, but I am optimistic that he can become a better shooter from 16-23 feet. It would resolve a lot of issues that I mentioned in this article.