Raptors' Valanciunas May Benefit from Long-Term Bench Role, Like Bucks' Monroe
Valanciunas, who was recently removed as a starter to better match up with Monroe for the Toronto-Milwaukee first-round series, has thrived coming off the bench.
Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Greg Monroe was starting to cook. With the Toronto Raptors leading Game 3 by 15 points in the first quarter and threatening to run away with things, the Milwaukee Bucks turned to their sixth man and asked him to create. Monroe hit a hook shot over Serge Ibaka, then another, and then another, all within the span of two-and-a-half minutes, helping the Bucks pull back to within six.
A lot can go into a short run in basketball. A gaffe here or there, some variance in the quality of shot-making, or a bad matchup. In this case, the Raptors bet it was the latter—the hulking Monroe was proving effective against Toronto's new, smaller starting lineup, and so while it took nearly five minutes, in came Jonas Valanciunas to settle things down.
Given Valanciunas' history with the team, his strengths and weaknesses, and the reason he's now coming off the bench in general, calling on him to settle things down at the defensive end was a rare yet entirely defensible decision. Struggle though he might in the pick-and-roll, hedging on the sideline, or dealing with faster, stretchier players, Valanciunas uses his frame well inside and can bang with the behemoths of the league.
Monroe wouldn't score again in the half. In the third quarter, Valanciunas got the call after less than two minutes of Monroe. Valanciunas would finish a plus-15 in his 21 minutes, scoring eight points with seven rebounds and two blocks. In Game 4, he scored 12 points with five rebounds in 22 minutes. More importantly looking ahead to Game 6, Valanciunas is winning his minutes opposite Monroe, whose shooting percentage drops from 60 to 50 with Valanciunas opposite him. Further, Monroe's rebounding percentage drops five percentage points and his turnover rate increases, too. The Raptors have outscored the Bucks by 14 points in the 65 minutes the two centers have gone head-to-head and been outscored by 18 in Monroe's other 52 minutes, per NBA.com.
That Valanciunas Is being used to neutralize an opposing scorer isn't the only unfamiliar thing about his role in this series. Ahead of Game 4, head coach Dwane Casey informed Valanciunas he'd be moving to the bench, something he'd only done eight times prior in his career, and zero since his rookie season unless he was just coming back from injury. Valanciunas is a productive player within the confines of his role on the Raptors, but the quick, long, rangy Bucks are among the worst possible matchups for him, and so starting smaller with Ibaka at center was a logical move, if a difficult one to suggest.
"As long as we win, it's fine," Valanciunas says. "It's part of the game, you know. Coaches change the plan and you've got to follow the plan. It's nothing personal; it's for the team.
Valanciunas has responded with his two best games of the postseason, and he figures to continue to come off the bench unless Monroe shifts into the starting lineup. The Bucks may consider that for Game 6 in order to steal some minutes with Monroe against the smaller Toronto unit, and if they do, Valanciunas figures to enter the game quickly in response. He's essentially a Monroe shadow now, working to deny position at the elbow for Monroe to initiate the team's corner offense, or to bang with him inside.
"He's done an unbelievable job," Kyle Lowry says. "A guy that's been starting his whole career, coming off the bench in the playoffs, in the series, he could pout. But he's been taking it, and he's been literally performing and producing and being what we need him to be."
While the change in role is going swimmingly so far, there was no assurance that it would. Valanciunas always speaks in team-firsts, but a role change of this magnitude, especially one that has the appearance of a demotion (even though his minutes haven't changed), can be uncomfortable.
"It's tough for a guy that's started every game that he's been physically ready for and able to play," Casey says. "And to understand this is the playoffs, it wasn't anything he did wrong but just the matchup that he had with Monroe. I thought he came in and did an excellent job. He had the proper attitude, proper disposition and he was a pro."
The transition, too, may not be straightforward. Some players admit to preferring to start or preferring to come off the bench, and there are a number of reasons a player may prefer either position. It likely comes down to familiarity and comfort. Once the ball's in, Valanciunas says, everything else is the same.
Across the circle from Valanciunas is someone with experience making that change in Monroe. Signed by the Bucks for the 2015-16 season, Monroe started 67 games, coming off the bench for a 12-game spell in the middle of the season. This year, the Bucks entered camp set on Monroe being a bench piece, and while his overall numbers are down, Monroe's responded with a season worthy of low-ballot Sixth Man of the Year consideration.
He may have felt differently at the time, but in retrospect, Monroe sees little difference between the roles.
"It didn't take long. It's still playing the same game," Monroe says. "I don't know why people are making a big deal out of it. Once I get on the court, everything's basically the same. It's no difference. It's not that much of an adjustment, really."
That Monroe has had so much success with this change poses an interesting long-term question about Valanciunas. Hulking, ground-bound centers often struggle defending against modern NBA offenses that spread the floor and attack rapidly in the pick-and-roll, and the Bucks aren't the first team to experiment with this move. Enes Kanter has come off the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder over the last two seasons, helping maximize his offensive role while minimizing some (not all) of his defensive deficiencies. Al Jefferson has made that move over the last two years. Nikola Vucevic tried it out for a stretch of the season, as did Jahlil Okafor. These players have a lot in common in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Monroe has also played perhaps his best defensive season, and some of that may be owing to lining up with lesser competition in bench-heavy units.
"You can see the flow of the game. That's all I can tell you," Monroe says. "The preparation is the same, team's personnels are the same, you go through stuff the same way. The only thing is, at the beginning of the game, you kinda see the flow. That's the only thing."
It's still far too early to project what the Raptors may do this offseason, but depending on how things shake down, Valanciunas may be best utilized in that kind of role next year, too. The Raptors will want to retain Lowry, Ibaka, and one of Patrick Patterson or P.J. Tucker, and that will put them in a luxury tax crunch that could see them shop Valanciunas for salary relief. If he remains, though, the Raptors may prefer to move forward with Ibaka as a de facto center, allowing their defense to play more freely, juicing spacing, and letting Valanciunas work as the fulcrum of the second unit, something they toyed with at times in the preseason and late in the year. Coming off the bench should theoretically afford Valanciunas more touches, getting the most out of his offense while limiting the degree to which his defense poses a problem.
(Looking ahead in a much more short-term sense, Valanciunas would probably move back into the starting lineup against the Cleveland Cavaliers next round, as he's a better matchup opposite Tristan Thompson than he is against Cleveland units with Channing Frye or Kevin Love at the five.)
For now, he's at least tethered to Monroe, as a starter or off the bench. That Valanciunas is helping swing a series back Toronto's way in part thanks to his defense is a step in the right direction and a potential glimpse into his future with the team.