The Raptors have a wing problem, and his name is Jonas Valanciunas.
Look, like it or not, just about everything to do with the Toronto Raptors this season has to be seen through the lens of Valanciunas. For a team with no immediate ambitions beyond internal evaluation and developing Valanciunas, that’s the way things are going to play out for the foreseeable future.
So why does the wing position affect the post-bound Valanciunas? Field goal attempts, that’s why. Last year in an appearance on Prime Time Sports, Dwane Casey laid the basement for Valanciunas’s development at Chicago’s All-Star centre Joakim Noah. The implication being that while Toronto would be happy with a stellar defensive and rebounding force like Noah, they have higher hopes for Valanciunas and his future. The only real area where there is even room for Valanciunas to improve upon Noah’s output is on offense, but in order to goose Valanciunas’s offense he is going to need touches. Standing in the way are two high-usage wings, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay.
This isn’t a conversation about the much publicized lack of efficiency that this wing tandem offers – you can do a quick Google search for about 10, 000 of those articles. This is purely a numbers game between what the Raptors have, what they need and what they want. What the Raptors have are two wing players that, last year, took a combined 32.2 of the team’s 80.4 shots per game after Gay was traded to Toronto (good for 40% of the team’s total field goal attempts per game). These guys are big money players who are paid to be offensive forces (paid, coincidentally, 40% of the team’s payroll). If you are going to pay players that much money you had better get them to do what they are paid to do or else your simply throwing money away in a league where money allocation is key due to the salary cap and luxury tax implications.
Now, during that same post-trade stretch, Valanciunas shot just 5.9 shots per game. For a rookie still getting his feet wet at the NBA level, that’s fine. However, the Raptors want more from him this season, and that means they are going to have to find shots for him, which is something they’ve had a terrible time doing so far in preseason. Despite playing nearly the same number of minutes per game as he played post-trade last season, Valanciunas is averaging fewer shots per game (5.2), and that’s with DeRozan and Gay playing a fraction of their typical playing time in the run-up to the regular season.
Basically, when the starting five is in the game the primary offensive focus is getting DeRozan and Gay their shots, with Kyle Lowry staying aggressive and choosing his opportunities based on the defensive schemes they’re facing. When the bench comes in – and Valanciunas has logged lots of minutes with the bench crew – Valanciunas has to deal with the fact that basically no one in that unit knows how to throw an entry pass or find him in pick-and-roll situations. In theory it would make sense to have Valanciunas log minutes with the reserve crew and let him ply his offensive trade against second-string centres, but if he doesn’t have the support system around him with the bench unit to get him the ball in his spots then such an arrangement isn’t going to do much for him during the regular season.
That’s the quagmire. Valanciunas needs the skill of the starters to get him touches and keep the offense humming (because most of the bench is borderline awful). However, when the starters are in the game the priority is to feed DeRozan and Gay, which limits the opportunities for Valanciunas to feature himself on offense.
That’s why it stands to reason that Masai Ujiri will probably ship out one of his high-priced starting wings this season. At some point he simply needs to free up shots for Valanciunas so that he can develop into the kind of two-way force that the team expects him to be rather than just the Lithuanian version of Noah that Casey so snidely dismissed a year ago. Yes, the team’s offensive efficiency would probably improve by allocating more shots to Valanciunas (and Lowry), and there is no doubt that the financial savings that could come from redistributing DeRozan’s or Gay’s salary would the cap situation, but given what this team’s priorities are right now, pushing Valanciunas to expand his game at the offensive end would be the primary motivation behind re-imagining Toronto’s wing situation.
Of course, Toronto has more than just those two wings on their roster. They also have two diametrically-opposed bench wings that are vying for the limited minutes available behind DeRozan and Gay in Landry Fields and Terrence Ross. Fields has been steadily improving throughout the preseason and is the more dependable option between the two. Ross is erratic and more often than not simply bad, but, as he showed in Monday night’s game against the Knicks, he can have spurts of production that hint at the kind of talent he has waiting to be tapped. Since Dwane Casey should almost always keep one of DeRozan or Gay on the court at all times, he’ll have to make some hard decisions about who should be flaking them when their partner goes to the bench.
In Fields’s favour is the fact that he is far more of a facilitator than a scorer. He shifts defenses with his passing, his off-ball cuts and his ability to take his man off of the dribble. If he is playing alongside DeRozan or Gay he won’t need shots to have an impact on the game, and his defense is fairly fundamentally sound (although not at the level expected when he arrived in Toronto last year).
Technically, Fields should have the primary backup spot sewn up. Right now Ross is trading on his potential to impact games rather than his ability to consistently do it. He is billed as a three-point shooter but it took an absurd 6-13 shooting night from behind the arc Monday to get Ross’s three-point percentage over 30% in the preseason, and that’s after a rookie season that saw him shoot just 33% from distance. Ross is terrifically athletic, but he rarely utilizes that athleticism is areas other than dunking and his ball-handling and passing skills are virtually non-existent.
Still, Ross has tons of room to grow whereas Fields is seen more or less as a finished product. If the Raptors could get Ross to start playing with more consistency then he’d be a stellar addition to their rotation and would probably hasten a trade of either DeRozan or Gay. However, the league is littered with former lottery pick swingmen who are barely hanging on to their NBA lives because they never found the consistency needed to stick with an NBA club. At this point one has to wonder if Ross is definitely better than Wes Johnson, Xavier Henry, Terrence Williams or Gerald Green, because if he’s not then not only is he not worth gifting consistent minutes to it might be worth exploring his trade market now before the league sours on him like they did the aforementioned also-rans.
Then there is the question of who is better for Valanciunas. If Casey decides to run Valanciunas out with the reserve crew, then Fields is a much better option to maximize Valanciunas than Ross is. If the second-unit crew featured Valanciunas, Tyler Hansbrough, a pick-your-poison backup point guard and one of DeRozan or Gay, you’d probably much rather have the consistency of Fields over the potential of Ross in order to maximize a scoring tandem of Valanciunas and DeRozan/Gay. Yes, the team would like to develop Ross, too, but not at the expense of developing Valanciunas. Everything this season revolves around their marquee seven-footer and that means that roster and rotation decisions will be dictated by his play. If that means one of DeRozan or Gay has to go, so be it. If that means that another promising youngster has to get marginalized, so be it. If Valanciunas is going to be the team’s future then it has to set him up for success in the present, and that means changes are in store if they’ll get Valanciunas even one step closer to the stardom the team so dearly hopes he reaches.