With their full complement of players back from the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the Toronto Raptors have stormed back into the Eastern Conference playoff race with four straight wins.
Toronto is now just a game and a half behind the eighth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers with an 18-17 record that has them above .500 for the first time since the first week of November. They have done it by embracing positionless basketball and turning their lack of a true center into one of their biggest strengths.
The arrival of Scottie Barnes, the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, has enabled and facilitated this smooth transition. The 6’9 forward, who is still just 20 years old, has an NBA-ready body and a mature skillset that draws favorable comparisons to the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green.
Despite his age, Barnes has been unfazed by the bright lights of the league and is averaging 15.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 3.4 assists. His ability to grab a rebound then dribble up the court to create scoring opportunities for both himself and his teammates gives the Raptors a measure of unpredictability that keeps their opponents on their toes.
What makes head coach Nick Nurse’s attack even deadlier is that Barnes is joined in the front court by two other veterans with a somewhat similar frame and skillset. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, two holdovers from their 2019 NBA title-winning team, stand at 6’9 and 6’7, respectively, and round out what is arguably the most dynamic trio of forwards in the league today.
These three are almost flawlessly interchangeable on both ends of the court, though there is still much room for them to grow on offense. All three already possess the ability to attack off the dribble and a decent three-point shot, but an improvement in their efficiency, among other slight refinements in their offensive game, could lead to even greater possibilities for the Raptors.
Currently, Siakam is the most potent scorer among this group, having averaged over 21 points per game over the past two seasons. He has also continued to grow as a playmaker, handing out 4.3 assists per game this year following a career-best 4.5 average last year.
Meanwhile the 24-year-old Anunoby, who first established himself as a defensive-minded wing, has continued to work on his offensive repertoire. His scoring average has markedly increased in each season that he has played in from his measly 5.9 points per game during his first year. This year, the London-born forward is putting up a career-best 19.1 points a night together with 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
The playmaking ability of these three has reduced the burden of their starting guards Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr., leading to a noticeable improvement in their shooting percentages.
VanVleet, now the lead guard of this team following former team captain Kyle Lowry’s offseason departure, is in the midst of his best campaign yet with 21.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 6.7 assists–all of which are career-highs. His field goal percentage has jumped from 38.9% last year to 44.1% this season while his three-point shooting has climbed to 40.5% from 36.6%.
Trent is also having the year of his career–his first as a full-time starter–with 16.6 points per game. Like VanVleet, his shooting percentages have also seen an improvement even with the more sizable roles that they have had to take.
The results that this line-up has produced for Toronto, especially over their past three games where they were their starters, has been promising. This has been their most used five-man group and they have a net rating of +14.5.
With the decline in the number of dominant traditional big men in the current landscape of the NBA, the Raptors should be able to continue succeeding with these kinds of line-ups. When necessary, their athleticism and pesky defense will also help them bother these plodding centers, such as reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic and last year’s runner-up Joel Embiid.
Positionless basketball is here to stay and the possibilities are proving to be endless. Toronto has barely scratched the surface and it will be interesting to see how far this team can go over the next few months which could open the door to even more out-of-the-box ideas in the coming years.