Last year, the Toronto Raptors were able to rotate their centers to great success. Could they do it once more this season?
Basketball is a game of matchups, now more than ever. Teams look to create an advantage wherever possible, mixing and matching lineups looking for the best combination for the right occasion. The Toronto Raptors are no different, and last season utilized the rotation of their centers to great effect.
Initially, the Raptors rotated their lineup with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas on the roster. Everything was match-up dependent. Ibaka and Valanciunas are completely different players – Ibaka is the more mobile and athletic center while Valanciunas is a ground-bound center who sets a strong screen and knows how to finish. Ibaka was the defensive favourite while Valanciunas was more offensive. Yin and Yang.
It was a short-lived experiment, due to Valanciunas going down with an injury before being traded for Marc Gasol in February, but the results were promising. The Raptors were able to pick and choose depending on the match-up.
Ibaka can be considered somewhat of an undersized center, despite being 6-foot-10. He’s strong and a solid rebounder, but has struggled in the past against larger, more traditional centers who play predominantly in the paint.
Whereas Valanciunas was more of a match against someone like DeAndre Jordan or Rudy Gobert, Ibaka could be deployed against someone like Al Horford – who had given Valanciunas all sorts of problems in the last few years.
Once the Raptors traded for Marc Gasol, the plan to rotate the centers was a little more sporadic. A lot of that could be pinned to the Raptors trying to get Gasol acclimated to playing with the starters as quickly as possible. Gasol only played in 26 regular-season games for the Raptors and the playoffs were bearing down on the team fast.
Ibaka could already play alongside the bench and the starters, something he showed on a regular basis during one of the most impressive seasons in his career. Gasol would need to be comfortable with the Raptors offense and playing alongside the starters would be the easiest way to mold him in.
Can the Raptors do it again?
The ability to switch centers creates a fluid lineup, one that can shift on a whim. Gasol and Ibaka and both very different players, and the Raptors should really look to take advantage of their differences.
Both give the Raptors completely different strengths and weaknesses, much like Ibaka and Valanciunas. But Gasol, unlike his Lithuanian counterpart, is a one-time Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best passing big men of all-time.
Gasol can be a scorer, facilitator, primary interior defender, and secondary help defender. Despite being 34 years old, he proved that he still has the goods this postseason, especially as a defender. He can play inside the paint and outside the paint, evident by the fact he shot 42-percent from three for the Raptors in the regular season and a comfortable 38-percent in the postseason.
Ibaka is much more a streaky shooter from three but found his niche as a midrange shooter this past season. He’s much more than just a rim-running center but has been able to add that to his game, especially when paired with Kyle Lowry in the pick-and-roll.
The Raptors would be smart to rotate Gasol and Ibaka dependent on what they need. If they play against a team that deploys their center out on the perimeter often, like the Milwaukee Bucks and Brook Lopez, then playing Ibaka might prove to be more beneficial. He’s agile enough to guard out on the perimeter and work back inside if needed. as well as being able to switch onto other players if necessary.
Gasol, however, was a lot more successful against the likes of Joel Embiid and Nikola Vucevic, as well as shutting down DeMarcus Cousins in the NBA Finals. Gasol would also figure to feature in the offense a lot more, such is his capability as a passer.
Both Ibaka and Gasol are quality starters, that’s the difference between them and most center combinations in the league. The drop between Gasol and Ibaka is minimal, which means the risk of leaving one out and starting the other is barely visible
When the timing is right, the Raptors could definitely consider rotating their starters. Gasol will likely be the starter to begin the season, but Nick Nurse always has a trick up his sleeve.