Finding the Toronto Raptors death lineup is easier than you think

Toronto Raptors - Kawhi Leonard (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Kawhi Leonard (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images) /

Every team now has some version of a “Death Lineup.” As the Toronto Raptors compete for an NBA championship, what does their version look like?

It’s the most feared lineup in sports, “The Death Lineup.” An undersized lineup on Golden State which dominates both sides of the ball. The NBA is a copycat league and now every team has implemented their own version. The Toronto Raptors are no different, and as they attempt to compete for an NBA title, they’ll search for their own “Death Lineup.”

Having former MVPs Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant gives the Warriors a stark advantage over pretty much everyone. However,  they were NBA champions before Durant got there. Steve Kerr took over as the head coach of the Warriors in 2014-15, and the Warriors, who had been a middle-of-the-pack playoff team prior to Kerr’s arrival, started winning a lot of games.

A big reason for their regular season success under Kerr was the adoption of “small ball”. Small ball involves replacing a traditional big man, and at times, two traditional big-men, with perimeter oriented players who can shoot from distance, handle and pass the ball, and defend multiple positions.

The Warriors were given a unique opportunity to fully embrace a small ball lineup since they had such historically great outside shooting that would make up for any size mismatches that occurred on the floor.

In 2014-15, the Warriors typical starters were Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Andrew Bogut. This lineup was typical in those days.  Each starter looked like and possessed the skills usually demanded of the positions they were playing.

This was true for all except one; Draymond Green.

Green was unusually mobile for a power forward, and instead of a back-to-the-basket post game, he moved around the floor, making plays for his teammates.  He was also a defensive powerhouse, able to guard smaller players because of his quickness, and taller players because of his strength and physicality. Kerr’s experiment started with using Green as a center, which isn’t a shocking proposition in today’s NBA, but five years ago, putting a 6’7 tall player at center was almost unthinkable.

The other Warriors weapon was Andre Iguodala, a former All-Star and All-NBA Defensive Team member who could be brought off the bench to replace Bogut. This completed what would later be coined the “death lineup”, consisting of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, and Green.

After the departure of Harrison Barnes, former league MVP Kevin Durant filled his role, making the death lineup considerably more dominant (And also renamed to the “Hampton’s five”).

What makes the death lineup so effective is its versatility on both ends of the floor.

On offense, having five players who are extremely mobile and unselfish allows for swift ball and player movement that leads to defensive mistakes by opposing teams.  Since Curry, Thompson, and Durant are all above average three-point shooters, those defensive mistakes often lead to easy baskets.

Defensively, each player is able to guard more than one position, so switching becomes less of a problem when the Warriors are on defense.

More than anything, the death lineup consists of five smart basketball players that are each very skilled in their own way.

The Toronto Raptors’ version of the death lineup

When Serge Ibaka was traded to Toronto for Terrence Ross, the Raptors acquired the best power forward the franchise had employed since Chris Bosh, and he changed the way the Raptors played.

They now had a rim protector to put alongside Jonas Valanciunas, and those two frontcourt starters often had size advantages over opponents. This traditional pairing of two big-men along with the franchise’s star guards was classic Dwane Casey.

He believed in old-school, hard-nosed defensive-minded basketball, and although the Raptors were successful in turning this philosophy into regular season wins, their playoff failures spoke louder.

Nick Nurse’s style is much more modern and innovative. He made that clear from the onset.  He moved Valanciunas to the bench and shifted Ibaka to the center position.  Sound familiar?

He then inserted Pascal Siakam, a break-out stud this season, into the starting lineup.

Nurse is experimenting with endless lineup combinations this year, but in truth, a Raptors death lineup only has a few possible combinations. Kyle Lowry and Danny Green are a lock in the backcourt.  They are both excellent three-point shooters and defenders.  Serge Ibaka is a lock at center since he possesses the ability to guard both smaller players and traditional big men, which is something that Pascal Siakam cannot do.

Then there’s Kawhi Leonard.

The only question left to answer is whether the fifth and final spot belongs to Pascal Siakam or to someone else. Prior to this season, many thought the spot would be given to OG Anunoby, however, his jump shot still isn’t something you can trust, so for the time being, Anunoby will have to shoot his way into this conversation.

You could make a case for Fred VanVleet (who would take the place of Danny Green), but playing two small point guards in your backcourt can get you in a lot of trouble if an opponent has tall wings that can shoot.

Lastly, you could argue that C.J. Miles could play the power forward position in the death lineup, but although he possesses the shooting skill, defensively, he’s a liability.

Therefore, the Raptors’ death lineup is, in fact, their starters (Lowry, Green, Leonard, Siakam, Ibaka).

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This lineup (like that of the Warriors) is elite on both ends of the floor, and it allows for very versatile play. It remains to be seen whether or not the Raptors will end this season with their goal of a championship, but having a legitimate death lineup puts them well on their way.