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Toronto Raptors

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse to continue evaluating the centre position with small-ball possibilities

When Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka both left for teams in Los Angeles in free agency, the Toronto Raptors frontcourt became a glaring weakness with voids that needed to be filled.

Head coach Nick Nurse knew it wasn't going to be easy to replace those consistent presences and talented veterans but the Raptors front office did their best, signing a pair of bigs in Aron Baynes and Alex Len while also re-signing Canadian centre Chris Boucher to fill out their depth chart.

Through the first seven games of the season, the Baynes-Len-Boucher centre rotation has been a work-in-progress. While Boucher is making good use of his uptick in minutes this season, posting career-highs across the board with 12.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game, the same cannot be said for Baynes and Len and the team's interior numbers showcase that.

Take a look at some comparisons of Toronto's team stats through seven games compared to last season.

Raptors interior numbers compared to last season
Category 2020-21 Raptors League Rank 2019-20 Raptors League Rank
RPG 42.9 T-21st 45.4 11th
Opp. RPG 49.6 27th 46.1 24th
Opp. 2nd Chance PTS/G 14.0 26th 13.5 22nd

A lot of the Raptors struggles are coming on the glass, ranking in the bottom 10 for rebounds per game and bottom five in both opponent rebounds per game and second-chance points allowed per game.

It's hard not to place some of that blame on Baynes and Len, who are averaging just 5.7 and 2.2 rebounds per game, respectively. Both All-Star forward Pascal Siakam and two-way wing OG Anunoby have done a better job on the glass than Toronto's other two centres not named Chris Boucher and in Wednesday's loss, we saw head coach Nick Nurse revert back to the small-ball lineup we saw in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics, closing the game with Anunoby at centre.

Anunoby at centre gives the Raptors a different type of versatility and speed, allowing them to play at a faster pace without giving up too much frontcourt physicality because of OG's ability to defend 1-through-5. It's a viable option against teams with bigs that don't continuously try and punish you in the paint but against teams with more beef up front, we may see Nurse also try and use more Boucher than the other two centres on the depth chart.

After the loss, Nurse hinted at that possibility after showing some praise for how things went with the small-ball lineup of Anunoby at the five.

In last year's playoffs, in a small sample size of 37 minutes on the floor together, the small-ball lineup with Anunoby at centre had a net rating of 5.6 and an impressive defensive rating of 83.3. While the lineup's offensive struggles of only 88.9 points per 100 possessions isn't pretty, that had more to do with Toronto's scorers going cold than it did a lack of production because of the lineup on the floor.

Starting the season 1-6, the second-worst record in the NBA, there is still plenty of jigsaw-puzzling to be done with the lineup and rotations. In fact, according to NBA stats, through the first seven games of the season, the only lineup that Nurse has used for over 20 minutes together is the Kyle Lowry-Fred VanVleet-Anunoby-Siakam-Baynes starting unit.

Look for Toronto's head coach to use more of that small-ball lineup we saw with Anunoby at centre and more of the wiry and energetic Boucher to give his team the much-needed boost it needs on the glass.

The next opportunity to test things out comes against the Sacramento Kings on Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern Time on TSN.

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