Raptors will have to wait until next season to deploy perfect starting lineup

Scottie Barnes, Immanuel Quickley, Jakob Poeltl, Toronto Raptors
Scottie Barnes, Immanuel Quickley, Jakob Poeltl, Toronto Raptors / Mark Blinch/GettyImages

The Toronto Raptors completely overhauled their roster over the last 14 months, saying goodbye to Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, among others, and adding proven veterans in Jakob Poeltl, Kelly Olynyk and Bruce Brown alongside talented young players such as Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett, Gradey Dick and Ochai Agbaji.

That means establishing a long-term starting lineup involves a fair amount of guesswork, as the players who will hold up each position have relatively little playing time together. Add in significant injuries to key players, and the available information on how the team's best long-term players fit together is essentially nonexistent.

With less than a week to go until the end of the regular season, it now seems a foregone conclusion that Scottie Barnes and Jakob Poeltl will miss the remainder of the regular season. Head coach Darko Rajakovic said before Sunday's win over the Washington Wizards that both are "ramping up" and that he has no "expectations that they're gonna come back or not." With the Raptors long eliminated from postseason contention and all but locked into the sixth slot in the draft lottery, it would be a massive surprise for Barnes and Poeltl to return to the court in the next seven days.

That means Toronto will not have had their starting power forward and center on the court since March 1st, and neither since March 3rd. When you add in a two-week absence for Immanuel Quickley and an even longer one for RJ Barrett during March, both contributing in large part to the team's 15-game losing streak, you get a team that just hasn't had its best lineups on the floor.

Who will start for the Raptors next season?

Heading into next season, who is expected to start in Game 1? Part of that calculus certainly depends on the team's moves this offseason and whether or not they add any significant additions. Adding a clear-cut starter will force the rest of the lineup to reconfigure around that player, and if they trade a presumed starter to another team that hole will need to be filled.

Looking at the current roster, one obvious option for a starting lineup stands out. It draws from the team's best players while also keeping the team's gaze focused on the future and long-term growth of the team. It has shooting, it has defense, and it has shot creation.

The problem? It only played four minutes total this season.

The lineup features former New York Knicks Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett alongside holdover frontcourt players Jakob Poeltl and Scottie Barnes. Rookie Gradey Dick is the fifth addition, a movement shooter with size who can slide in as the fifth option and grow his game alongside other stars.

The Raptors' best starting 5

That group -- Quickley, Dick, Barrett, Barnes and Poeltl -- appeared in just one game together, playing four minutes and outscoring the opponent 14-2. That +12 is by itself one of the 10 most productive lineups for a team mired in a lost season, and on a per-minute basis, it's the second-best 5-man group of the entire season.

It's obviously a small sample size, and as such is more productive than it would be over a larger sample size. That group would not win a 48-minute basketball game 168-24. Yet the theory of the lineup is there and supports it continuing to be successful. Quickley, Barnes and Barrett are all capable of creating shots from the perimeter, no one is a complete turnstile on defense, and Quickley and Gradey Dick provide plenty of spacing.

That group has an excellent shot at starting next season, especially if the team moves on from Gary Trent Jr. and Bruce Brown, the other candidates to nab that final starting spot away from Gradey Dick. It also has an excellent shot to continue starting, as the Raptors hope Barnes develops into a true No. 1 option, Quickley turns into a strong No. 2 option, and Gradey Dick becomes one of the league's best 3-and-D players (or more).

The Raptors would have more confidence in the group if they had seen it together for more than four minutes, but perhaps that sliver of a sample is enough to give it a try on Opening Night next season. If not, that group may force its way onto the court sooner rather than later.

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