Saturday, October 18, 2014

Deep in the Heart of Toronto

Follow me @Ghost_Raptors

zgall1 asked me if I had an opinion regarding Grantland wrote about the Raptors today. It was baiting, to be clear, because of course I would have an opinion on a trivially rhetorical question about wing depth even though the author summarizes his argument as "not even really a problem, per se. More of a slight issue."  I had hope that maybe Zach Lowe had taken (another) deep dive on the official professional basketball team of Degrassi High alumni, but alas, the task was farmed out to Jared Dubin.

But, it's fitting that the B team wrote this one in the wake of emerging, existential narratives around the league. In the midwest, the Cavs are re-patrioting LeBron James and introducing a new super team while Derrick Rose puts the pieces of his lower body back together; On the plains, an underachieving Thunder team ponders extended time without their superstar; In the southwest, the Spurs are trying to shake off the infestation of cobwebs to co-author a back-to-back on the back of Kawhi Leonard as the Rockets and Mavericks declare a blood rivalry over the transfer of Chandler Parsons; On the Pacific coast, the Warriors are testing whether advanced pop-a-shot can vault a team to the highest echelons while the LA Clippers trade old racists for new hope.

The Raptors? They need to find minutes for Terrence Ross. The Raptors are to the NBA what the Filet 'o Fish is to McDonalds. You usually forget it's on the menu and even when you do spare it a thought, you remember this is what it is.

I suppose we should respect the click bait of "too deep?" in the same way we do for "is this puppy too cute?" But if we're going to talk about the perils of "too much depth" we should define what that means. And before we add on the qualifier, we are demanded to take on depth itself.

Depth, especially in a salary cap universe, is a consequence of opportunity costs. Excellent teams, like the just-ended Heat dynasty, front-loaded the talents of their roster with three dudes whose names I can't recall right now -- one of them spelled "Dwayne" funny. The Heat's opportunity cost was that they had to trade away draft picks and squeeze out the rest of the roster to accommodate this arrangement and many pundits point to that squeeze as their eventual downfall (downfall = not three-peating) when Wade's body couldn't keep up and LeBron was forced to play all-the-minutes per game. So, in this and other front-loaded rosters, the dregs clogging up the end of the bench equate to a dangerous imbalance.

On the other hand, teams lauded for depth, like the '11'-'12 Nuggets and this year's Raptors, take the compliment from the back hand. "Deep" teams have good players in multiple positions, past the first five, but implicitly lack the superstar, the anointed saviour/alpha dog/ball-in-his-hands fourth quarter hero. Those Nuggets were considered deep, in part, because they had jettisoned the anti-depth Carmelo Anthony for a handful of position players. That they finished 38-28 in a strike shortened season before succumbing to the star-heavy Lakers in seven playoff games speaks to both the laurels and caveats to a "depth" label.

So, that's what it means to have depth. Let's add the qualifier back on.

"Too much depth" is a problem of both efficiency and perception. To play (to win basketball games) efficiently requires a head coach to recognize which players are contributing the most to winning and play those players as much as possible. This feat seems easy when you employ a LeBron James or Kevin Durant and, hey, for the most part it is. Find superstar, win games, lather, rinse, repeat. But we now know that both those guys felt either overused or have been afflicted with injuries that hint at playing too much basketball. Maybe those are coincidences and they're complaining but we can probably agree that even for the top tier of players, there is a limit. On top of fuel, there are issues of match-ups, fouls and injuries. I know I'm getting fairly reductive in trying to prove to you that even good teams need to play more than five guys so I'll yield. But keeping players that have the ability to contribute to winning on the bench because you are playing other players is clearly cutting into the team's efficiency.

The other side is perception: players are perceived to be motivated by ego factors that cause disruption when players with things to contribute are not put in the game. Kyle Lowry's career drive seems to be based on that notion. The fall-out of a minutes dispute can, say insiders, invite the poison locker room/selfish narratives that can derail a team from putting it together. I use the word "perception" because I believe players and coaches and narrative writers when they retroactively explain poor performance with the dreaded "chemistry problems" label. And when I don't feel up to believing them I still believe they believe it.

If you've stuck around for this unsolicited semiotics lesson then I guess I owe it to you to at least, tangentially talk about the Toronto Raptors.

It was truly fantastic that GV, Patterson and Lowry are back. Lou Williams >>> John Salmons. James Johnson's neck tattoo >>> your neck tattoo. This team is certainly packing depth. And it feels squishy in my brain to essentially argue the Raptors are thinner than you think.

First, I take some issue with Dubin's assertion that the ideal starting backcourt includes both Toronto's point guards. It's true that some of the best performing lineups included this configuration but let's put on our sample size hat on to say that the the two-PG lineup with the most minutes (Lowry-Vasquez-DeRozan-Johnson-Valanciunas) (per 82games) had 62ish beautiful minutes together, in points-per possession. They were fantastic on both ends but I'm not ready to declare it a revelation. A lineup where DeRozan is swapped out for Terrence Ross, out there for 56 minutes last season, was equally as potent offensively but worse defensively. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But okay, we are going to deploy a two-PG lineup now and then, yes and for sure. Moving GV off the ball unleashes his deadly spot up shooting when he's able to line up on the top left arc or take hand-offs around the free throw line. It also frees him from the rigours of running an offence that doesn't tolerate too many behind the back passes and tempts him to go get lost in the paint. And taking the ball out of Kyle's hands for a while allows him better positions from which to attack the basket. But this team only employs two NBA point guards and they will both play as primary ball handler a lot, if healthy. Lowry will play a few fewer minutes to keep him safe and fuelled and GV will come up from his 21/game. I hate declarations of "championship teams always do x" but all long-time Raptors observers remember that all the "good" teams featured an overqualified backup point guard to ensure steadiness at the position for 48 minutes every night. Yes, there were advantages (and terrible perils) of putting TJ Ford and Jose on the floor together, but the biggest relief was that one of them would be in the game at all times.

A bigger issue than point guards, to which Dubin only brushed upon, was that DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross are not terribly complementary players. He is probably spot on with their minutes allotment. Both are naturally shooting guards though DeRozan's game is attack while Ross (we hope) continues to develop a three-and-d profile. Ideally, Terrence Ross would be Tracy McGrady's size and use that length to lock down power/small forwards but again, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Pre-season game winners aside, let's take a step back with Lou Williams. John Salmons played 21 minutes a game last season and was never entitled to spot back-up PG minutes like Sweet Lou is (although, *ugh* to that). He missed 65 combined games in the past two seasons and shot 40% from the field last year. I expect him to handle those Salmons minutes professionally but not to have a #FreeLou campaign.

Yes, James Johnson will play at both the 3 and the 4. And yes, there will be a need for him there the ideal three-man big rotation is perilous unless JV transforms (defensively and conditioning-wise) into a minutes eater -- I'm skeptical.

This post is pushing seven million words so I'll mention one last thing: Those '13-'14 Raps were the healthiest team in the NBA. Employing young'uns helps but health is largely a product of luck. Luck runs out and when it does we'll be seeing our old friends Psycho T and Chucky Hayes. Them the breaks.

Will this Raptor team hurt its efficiency by leaving live wires tagged to the bench? Maybe, but it's more likely to afflict Patrick Patterson than Lou Williams or even GV.

Will the glut of guards create a minutes crunch that leads to anger, despair and Kyle Lowry running over Dwane Casey with his car? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


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