Can the Raptors use Jonas Valanciunas at all against the Cavaliers?

Mar 31, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers forward Rakeem Christmas (25) at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Indiana 111-100. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 31, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers forward Rakeem Christmas (25) at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Indiana 111-100. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors we got to watch LeBron James and the Cavs remind the Raptors who’s boss. It was an emphatic blowout and revealed several strategic issues to watch going forward. In particular, are the Raptors going to be able to use Jonas Valanciunas at all.

Valanciunas started 80 games at center for Toronto during the regular season. However, he was rendered irrelevant in the first round by the speed and size of the Milwaukee Bucks and that series turned for Toronto when he was removed from the starting lineup in favor of Norman Powell — a wing who pushed DeMarre Carroll and Serge Ibaka up a position. In Game 1 against Cleveland, Valanciunas was back in the starting lineup. He played 20 minutes and finished with 6 points and 6 rebounds; Toronto was outscored by 21 during his time on the court.

Valanciunas is a 7-foot-tall and 255-pound giant who’s at his best banging bodies and with his back to the basket. While he’s a become a respectable post scorer, that may not be enough to justify keeping him on the court. Toronto doesn’t seem focused on using his size as an offensive mismatch against Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson and Valanciunas really only had two positive offensive plays in Game 1.

Early in the first quarter he caught the ball at the free throw line after running the pick-and-roll with Kyle Lowry and then attacked Kevin Love.

He also had this running hook shot against Tristan Thompson three minutes into the third quarter.

That was about all Valanciunas offered on the offensive end for the 20 minutes that he was in the game. The Raptors don’t necessarily need Valanciunas to put up big point totals but he’s a huge defensive liability against Cleveland.

About two minutes later in the third quarter, the Cavs put Valanciunas in the pick-and-roll and exploited his lack of foot speed.

Kyrie Irving somehow got Valanciunas to hedge on the wrong side of the screen. Thompson then sealed off Lowry with the screen and Irving basically walked into the paint and found a slashing LeBron James with a hand-off pass for an and-one. Not only did Valanciunas inexplicably hedge on the wrong side of the screen, but if you watch he also makes no effort to get back and protect the rim, which is why DeMar DeRozan was forced to come over to help and committed a bad foul.

Valanciunas has looked like this when defending the pick-and-roll against the Cavaliers all season. In fact, the first field goal the Cavaliers scored on the Raptors this season came from exploiting him on the pick-and-roll.

Irving comes around another screen from Thompson and Valanciunas doesn’t step-up to help defend him at all. Instead, he sinks way off of Irving and gives him a wide open mid-range jump shot. Valanciunas’ lack of mobility means that sagging off is probably the best defensive strategy here, rather than stepping up and letting Irving blow past him. But still, an open jumper is an open jumper.

Cleveland also has exploited him with pick-and-pops during the regular season.

James uses Channing Frye as the screen setter for the pick-and-pop and even though Patrick Patterson is there to help in the lane from the weak side. Valanciunas decides to sink towards the middle and leaves Frye wide open. The Cavaliers’ offense thrives on the manipulation of space and open space is exactly where Valanciunas is at his defensive worst.

Given the problems he presents for Toronto defensively, the only reasons to keep Valanciunas on the floor is if he can offset those weaknesses with a little scoring and a lot of work on the glass. The problem is Cleveland has Thompson and Kevin Love, two very good rebounders who are capable of dominating the backboard themselves. But both Love is a shooter who can pull Valanciunas away from the rim, same with Frye when he comes off the bench.

This was something we saw in the fourth quarter of their second game against each other back in November.

With Frye out on the perimeter, Irving gets by Norman Powell and there’s no presence in the paint to deter him from finishing at the rim because Valanciunas has to stick to Frye on the 3-point line. Valanciunas is able to impact the game from 15 feet and in. When he has to guard Frye, he’s pulled away from that area, which makes him somewhat useless.

These problems with Valanciunas’ game, and particularly the Cleveland matchup, have been discussed for awhile. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey even addressed it when talking to Zach Lowe back in January.

"“I tell Jonas (Valanciunas): ‘Oh, you want to play more? Then dominate. I don’t want to see fadeaways over 6-8 guys. Get to the rim. Get every offensive rebound. If not, you’re coming out.'”"

With an eye towards this Cleveland matchup, it’s clear that the Raptors front office recognized Valanciunas’ issues when they traded for Serge Ibaka before the trade deadline. Since then, the Raptors have been experimenting, and succeeding, with more small ball lineups that feature five guys who can shoot the 3-pointer, allowing them to space the floor and to keep up with defensive mismatches. Of the ten most frequently used lineups for the Raptors since trading for Ibaka, Valanciunas appears in just five of them. The highest net rating of those five lineups is 4.8. That is the fifth-highest net rating of all ten lineups, the four in front of it that are better feature big man combinations of Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, Ibaka and Carroll, Ibaka and Patrick Patterson, and Jakob Poeltl and Patterson.

Next: How James Harden and the Rockets picked the Spurs apart in Game 1

Unless he’s going to be pounding a smaller defender in the post or dominating the glass, Valanciunas doesn’t provide much value against Cleveland. It’s only one game and but the Raptors’ margin for error here is incredible thin and they can’t waste minutes playing at a disadvantage. It’s probably time to go small.