The 1 move Darko Rajakovic can make to turn Raptors into a playoff team

RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, Toronto Raptors
RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, Toronto Raptors / Cole Burston/GettyImages

The chances of the Toronto Raptors making the playoffs this season are incredibly slim.

They have been for a while, ever since the Raptors stumbled out of the gates and have continued stumbling ever-since. They currently sit at 23-28, 15 games below .500 and in 12th-place in the Eastern Conference. They don't have the look of a playoff team, especially not when you consider that their best player, Scottie Barnes, is out indefinitely after fracturing his hand.

And yet, hope is not entirely extinguished. The Raptors are in 12th, yes, but only 3.5 games back of the Atlanta Hawks in 10th; as a reminder, the Top 10 teams in each conference make the postseason, and then seeds 7-10 play a quick single-elimination bracket called the "Play-In Tournament" between the end of the regular season and the start of the seven-game playoffs.

That's the goal for the Raptors; make it to 10th place, then fight out of the bottom of the Play-In bracket to seize the eighth seed. That's the goal, at least, if they are maximizing winning; it's an easy case to make that the Raptors should try to lose as much as possible and hope to keep their Top-6-protected first-round pick.

Assuming this team still wants to win, then, how do they get there? OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam aren't walking through the door; Scotte Barnes isn't playing anytime soon. The Raptors were a bad team even with those players. What's the secret to making a late push for the postseason?

The secret to the Raptors making the playoffs

Digging into the lineup data reveals the answer, and it's one that head coach Darko Rajakovic may have already discovered: play RJ Barrett at power forward.

At least, that's the start of the answer. The 6'6" Barrett came into the league as a shooting guard, and he certainly has that skillset with his ball-handling and playmaking abilities. Yet he is also strong and a good rebounder, and in a modern NBA where power forwards are generally just taller wings, he has proven able to hold up at the 4, both in New York and now in Toronto.

What Barrett does not bring is rim protection, however, which is why the "key" to the Raptors' success is a two-parter. Rajakovic needs to play RJ Barrett at power forward, but specifically next to Jakob Poeltl at center.

In the Raptors' Sunday night win over the Charlotte Hornets, their first game since Scottie Barnes' injury, Rajakovic started Barrett at the 4, but he didn't glue his minutes to Poeltl. The results were basic but stark: in 10.6 minutes with Poeltl and Barrett on the floor together, the Raptors outscored the Hornets by five points; in 20.6 minutes with Kelly Olynyk and Barrett sharing the court, the Raptors were outscored by seven points.

That's a tiny sample size, against one opponent, but that divergence is born out when you look at a longer set of data. Per Cleaning the Glass, when RJ Barrett plays power forward and Jakob Poeltl play center without any of the team's unavailable players (i.e. no Dennis Schroder) the Raptors are outscoring opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions, with a scorching offense and a passable defense. For a team that has a -3.2 point differential on the season, a solidly possible lineup is one to lean into.

If you swap Kelly Olynyk in for Poeltl, however, the Raptors are being blasted by 17.9 points per 100 possessions in a similar number of possessions. The move only works if Barrett has the rim protection of Poeltl behind him; the Raptors can't survive with Barrett and Olynyk trying to wall off the paint.

One tiny sample size to continue watching: in a mere 10 possessions with Barrett and two-way center Jontay Porter at the 4 and 5, the Raptors have outscored opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions. That's the smallest of sample sizes, but Porter brings some size and shot-blocking to the floor when he checks in, and if Olynyk continues to struggle he could see more of a role moving forward.

It's a long shot, but it's not an impossibility. The Raptors still get to play the Brooklyn Nets twice; the Atlanta Hawks are reeling and playing without their All-Star in Trae Young. Immanuel Quickley is cooking, RJ Barrett is having the best shooting season of his career, and the Raptors have some young players catching their groove in Gradey Dick and Porter.

If the Raptors want to make the playoffs, they should start with this move: pair RJ Barrett and Jakob Poeltl in the rotation with RJ at the 4, surround them with shooting and defense, and push for that final postseason berth.

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