Toronto Raptors Starting Lineup Struggles: CJ Miles or Norman Powell?

The NBA offseason has acted as a giant filter. Teams heading into it look markedly different than the teams that have emerged. The Toronto Raptors did not have a major overhaul, though.

Masai Ujiri managed to retain Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka on a three-year $100 million deal, and a three-year $65 million contract, respectively.

The identity of the Raptors remains mostly intact, but the limbs of the team are a little bit mangled, to say the least.  The team is now without several key rotational players, sifted out by the great sieve that will henceforth be known as the 2017 NBA offseason.  Cory Joseph is gone. Patrick Patterson is gone. PJ Tucker is gone.

Wing depth

The team is particularly thin between the shooting guard and small forward positions, fielding only three legitimate candidates to fill two starting spots. Let us take a closer look at each of the candidates.  

DeMar DeRozan is the obvious starter at the two-guard. As for who should get the nod to start next to him, well, that’s a difficult question.

Daniel Hackett took a stab at it in a recent article, arguing that Powell should start.  Powell has had relative success in that role. Miles should come off the bench as he could provide much-needed veteran leadership there. Both points have a few holes to sew up.  Powell has only started about 33 percent of the games he’s played in, so no conclusive quantitative evidence suggests that Powell is better starting as opposed to coming off the bench.  Also, Toronto’s bench unit has had an anchor of Lowry or DeRozan.

With that in mind, the CJ Miles or Norman Powell debate is worth exploring.  I am not talking about just numbers like net rating, but also things that are largely unquantifiable like playing style.

Interestingly, both players are nearly identical regarding raw production, the biggest discrepancy being in the points per game column. Miles has put up just under 10 points per game for his career, while Powell averages just over seven. Despite strikingly similar numbers, they play decidedly different on the court.

The Specialist

Standing at six foot six, weighing 225 pounds, CJ Miles has the size of a quintessential wing player, making him quite versatile on both ends of the court.

Offensively, Miles possesses a skill that every wing player should strive to attain. Miles can shoot the lights out. He is excellent at moving without the ball, getting himself open for threes, and then knocking them down at a consistent rate. His lefty stroke has a high release that is also ridiculously quick, making his shot quite difficult to block.

Michael Redd meets Steph Curry is only a slight exaggeration.

Over the course of his career, Miles has shot roughly 36 percent from three. Over the last five years, Miles has shot approximately 38 percent from three. And just this last year, Miles shot over 40 percent from three, making this past season his best career year shooting the ball from distance.

Below are his three-point stats since 2012.

Year 3P 3PA 3P%
2012-2013 1.9 5.0 .384
2013-2014 1.6 4.1 .393
2014-2015 2.2 6.4 .345
2015-2016 2.2 6.0 .367
2016-2017 2.2 5.4 .413

Miles can use his threat from deep and quick first step to blow past defenders increasing his offensive versatility.

Defensively, Miles is best suited guarding shooting guards and small forwards. He is not known as a stopper, but he can cause trouble for the other team.  His versatility also allows him to defend the occasional power forward with a degree of effectiveness. Yaron Weitzman made this point a few years ago, writing about how moving Miles to the power forward position allowed the Pacers to play a pressure defense on the perimeter that forced plenty of turnovers.

If Miles were to slot in next to DeRozan on the Raptors starting lineup, he would bring some much needed three-point shooting. The squad currently consists of two consistent threats from deep, Lowry and Ibaka. His shooting would help the Raptors solve their spacing issues and free up Lowry and DeRozan to run isolation plays, which are their bread and butter.

Conversely, Miles could come off the bench and bring this same skill set plus veteran leadership. However, it is entirely possible that his efficiency slides if tasked with being the primary scorer on a bench unit. Miles has historically played a complementary role behind PG13.

The Jack-of-all-Trades

While Miles would predominately benefit the starting lineup via his shooting, Powell comes across as a player that can do a bit of everything. He has only played two years in the league, but he has already earned a reputation as a guy with a very diverse skillset.

He's only six foot four, but his agility and athleticism allow him to play bigger than his height.

He is excellent at shooting medium range jumpers, and an adequate handle lets him get to the rim pretty effectively. His explosiveness allows him to stretch out and finish over bigger defenders, similar to DeRozan. Perhaps most importantly, his playing style is exciting. He's just a fun guy to watch, and Toronto fans have come to appreciate what he can do off the bench and in critical moments.

Check out how crazy the Air Canada Centre gets whenever Powell makes a play. The video is from the playoffs, but Powell's energy is still apparent and contagious, which is an understated benefit that numbers just can't capture.

Powell, if inserted into the starting lineup, might be able to help the team with his all-around play and energy. Spacing issues could arise, but a lineup with Powell might be a little more sound overall.

The only real knock on Powell getting the gig is his playing style is similar to DeRozan's.  Powell is best suited as a sixth man.  That allows the team always to have a versatile wing on the floor.  If Powell continues to improve, he could be one of the best sixth men in the NBA.

The Other Option

Now, the above isn't to say that only Miles should start or that only Powell should come off the bench. Obviously, it'll be situational. Miles looks great on paper, as did DeMarre Carroll, but that could change so quickly come this fall. Powell could come into this season with a severely improved stroke and be the obvious candidate for the starting small forward position.

Both players are more than competent, and both are deserving. Miles has the experience, the stroke, and brings versatility to the Raptors, while Powell brings a bit of everything and a whole lot of energy. Realistically, only one of them will earn that starting small forward role.

There is a third option worth exploring that, given the way the league is trending, could feasibly help the Raptors win games.
Toronto could trot out a small-ball lineup featuring Lowry at the point, Powell, DeRozan, and Miles on the wings, and Ibaka at the center position.

Offensively, this lineup figures to be nearly dominant. The spacing improves significantly by surrounding DeRozan with four knockdown shooters. Their transition game also improves mightily. Going small should help the Raptors get out in lanes, and with four precision shooters, they should be deadly on the secondary break.

As chance would have it, the most efficient lineups that Toronto played last season by plus-minus all feature four or five guys that can extend the floor, giving credence to the small-ball doctrine.

Lineups +/-
Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Norman Powell, PJ Tucker, Patrick Patterson 14.0
Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet, DeMar DeRozan, PJ Tucker, Patrick Patterson 14.0
Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, DeMarre Carroll, Jakob Poeltl 12.5
Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, PJ Tucker, Patrick Patterson, Jakob Poeltl 12.0
Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, PJ Tucker, Serge Ibaka 11.0

Replace a couple of the players above with guys who are certifiably better, and it seems likely that Raptors should at least find some success with the small-ball lineup proposed above.

The Raptors should also be able to build on their propensity to force turnovers with Lowry, Powell, DeRozan, and Miles swarming the perimeter. The best part is that if anyone gets beat, the Raptors have a notoriously good shot blocker holding down the paint. Ibaka is currently ranked 10th best in the league for blocked shots, swatting away just over one-and-a-half shots per game. Should the Raptors go small, expect this number to rise significantly.

As for who should come off the bench in this hypothetical scenario, well, the Raptors have some young talent they could test out in Bruno Caboclo, OG Anunoby, and the recently acquired KJ McDaniels. At any rate, the Raptors, despite losing a lot of key players this offseason, still have a lot of options.  Only time will tell what the best solution is for the Toronto Raptors.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com.


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