The Toronto Raptors storybook season hit its first road bump this weekend, when they lost DeMar DeRozan to a torn tendon muscle that will keep him out for at least a month. After starting the season with a 13-2 record, the best in the NBA, the Raptors have lost their first two games without DeRozan, a home loss to the Mavericks (the game in which he was hurt) and an OT road loss to the Lakers, the start of a 3-game West Coast road trip.
You never want to lose one of your best players right before the start of a road trip, particularly when you are an Eastern team crossing the Mississippi. With a back-to-back against Sacramento and Utah coming up, the trip is manageable, but Toronto could just as easily be headed back home with an 0-3 record if they are not careful. Right now, they are still trying to figure out a new identity and rotation without their leading scorer.
Against the Lakers, Dwane Casey opted to start Greivis Vasquez and move Terrence Ross to SF. Of the three possible candidates to replace DeRozan in the starting line-up, Vasquez is the best all-around offensive player, a 6'6 combo guard who can run point, make 3's and take over the game as a scorer and a passer. The other options are Lou Williams, a pure scorer, and James Johnson, the most defensive-minded of the bunch.
Who ends up replacing DeRozan will come down to whether the Raptors think the offense or the defense is more of a priority without him. He was a two-way player, a super-athletic 6'7 wing who could be the focal point of the offense while matching up with multiple positions on defense. Toronto was one of the most balanced teams in the league, so taking him out of the mix means they will have to balance one side of the ball against the other.
The problem against the Lakers was the defense, as neither Ross nor Vasquez had much of a chance of defending Kobe Bryant, who turned back the clock with a triple-double - 31 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Ross is an elite athlete with good size (6'6 195), but with only a 6'7 wingspan, he doesn't have the length to contest the shot of a bigger wing like Kobe. He's best defensively as a SG, where he can defend smaller players.
The guy who had the most success defending Kobe was Johnson, a behemoth of a perimeter player at 6'9 250. Johnson was one of the most underrated FA signings in the league - a mammoth wing capable of playing high-level defense at PF, SF and SG and possibly even swinging to C or PG, depending on the match-up. He's also a sneaky-good ball-handler who can finish around the basket and crash the offensive glass.
The problem with starting Johnson as opposed to Vasquez or Williams (who is likely going to stay in his role as a 6th man) is what it does to Toronto's floor spacing, as Johnson is only shooting 17% from 3 this season. DeRozan isn't a lights-out shooter either but he's much more of a perimeter threat than Johnson. If you go Johnson and Johnson (Amir) upfront, that leaves Ross as the only three-point shooter other teams have to respect.
The Raptors lack of a perimeter stopper became obvious in last season's playoffs, when Joe Johnson absolutely bullied DeRozan and Ross in the post and Toronto didn't have another big-bodied wing on their bench they could trust to put on him. If they don't play Johnson a lot of minutes at SF, they are going to be at a huge disadvantage against guys like Rudy Gay and Gordon Hayward on this road trip, although Gay may not play.
If they do play Johnson more minutes, the obvious adjustment is to increase Patrick Patterson's playing time at PF. Patterson is a knock-down shooter and he often closes games because of his ability to spread out the other team, though he isn't as good a rebounder or defensive player as Amir Johnson. However, the presence of James Johnson should lessen Patterson's burden on that side of the floor and the two could work together in tandem.
The good news for Dwane Casey is that there are extra minutes available in his rotation for Amir Johnson, if he decides to minimize some of his playing time with the starters. He has been giving consistent minutes to either Tyler "Psycho T" Hansbrough or Chuck Hayes as the backup 5, but if Amir isn't closing games, he might as well take the minutes next to Patterson on the second unit in order to create a three-man big man rotation.
Here's what a post DeRozan Raptors team would look like in that scenario:
PG - Lowry
SG - Ross
SF - James Johnson
PF - Amir Johnson
C - Jonas
PG/SG - Vasquez
SG - Williams
PF - Patterson
You could soak up most of the remaining minutes by playing Ross as a backup SF and Amir Johnson as a backup C. Any leftovers could go to some combination of Landry Fields, Hansbrough and Hayes, who shouldn't kill you out there but probably shouldn't be taking much PT from any of Toronto's Top 8 guys. That's a rotation that should be able to minimize their defensive issues while still scoring a ton of points on offense.
If you look at the box score against the Lakers, scoring points shouldn't be too much of a problem even with DeRozan gone, although LA does have a historically bad defense. Four guys got the majority of the shots - Lowry (28), Williams (17), Vasquez (16) and Ross (12) - while Jonas (10) and Amir (5) mostly feasted on the offensive glass. Among those six guys, the Raptors have more than enough firepower to win NBA games.
The guy I really want to see more of over the next month is Ross, who has been DeRozan's understudy since coming into the league three years ago. As a result, he has been consigned to role player status, with 6 FGA's as a rookie and 9 FGA's over the last two years. DeRozan, in contrast, has been at 15, 18 and 16 in that span, which is what you would expect from the older player and is why most people think he's the Raptors best perimeter player.
However, if you break down the numbers closely, you will notice that the two wing players shot the same percentage last season (42%) before diverging this year with Ross shooting 45% and DeRozan shooting 39%. In and of itself, that doesn't necessarily mean anything, since Ross plays off DeRozan and Lowry while DeRozan creates most of his own offense. It does make you wonder, though, what would happen if their roles reversed.
After all, Ross was actually drafted higher than DeRozan coming out of college. Of the two, he's every bit as fast and athletic and he's a much better shooter. With his ball-handling continuing to improve, he may be ready for a bigger role in the offense. As long as DeRozan was holding the ball, though, there was only so much Ross could do, especially when he was also playing next to ball-dominant PG's like Lowry, Vasquez and Williams.
When he has gotten the green light to shoot the ball, good things have happened, most notably when he scored 51 points against the Clippers last season. While that game was a fluke, it wasn't for the reason that most people thought. DeRozan rolled his ankle in the 2Q and missed the rest of the game, which allowed Ross to take 25+ FGA's. If he had stayed healthy, that wouldn't have happened and he has been remarkably healthy since coming into the league.
DeRozan is a hard worker who is well respected inside the Toronto locker room and is starting to climb up the ranks of the NBA hierarchy after making his first All-Star team last season and playing in the World Championships this summer for Team USA. But while he puts up good per-game numbers, eventually his efficiency statistics were going to be a problem - he is averaging 19 points, 4 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 39% shooting.
In fact, DeRozan is one of the least efficient players in Toronto's rotation, with JJ (57%) Jonas (56%), Amir (56%), Ross (45%), Lowry (44%) and Lou Williams (43%) all comfortably ahead of him. That's partly because DeRozan takes a lot more tough shots at the end of the shot clock, but what kind of sense does it make to let the least efficient player on the team throw up the most shots? One way or another, the center could not hold.
The Raptors schedule gets tougher after a fairly easy first month that featured a lot of home games, so it's unlikely they would have kept up their pace even if DeRozan had stayed healthy. Without him, though, they could end up being a much more efficient offensive team, which should be able to make up for most of the loss on the defensive end, where they won't be quite as big and athletic on the wings without a 6'7 220 guy who plays 35+ minutes.
In some ways, this is a repeat of the Rudy Gay situation last year, when Toronto lost another ball-dominant uber-athletic wing in the middle of the season. That type of player can be really good in a situation like Sacramento, where there aren't a ton of other options on offense and he can soak up a lot of possessions semi-efficiently. However, on a team with as many offensive weapons as the Raptors, that type of ball-holding is unnecessary.
Here's the bottom line - if the question is how is Toronto going to replace a guy who takes 16 FGA's and shoots them at a 39% clip, it kind of answers itself.