The Runner Sports

What Should The Raptors Do With Jonas Valanciunas?

Toronto Raptors general manager, Masai Ujiri, has pulled off some franchise-changing trades throughout his tenure. He traded Rudy Gay, Andrea Bargnani, and Demarre Carroll when all seemed impossible to move. He took a team that was hovering around .500 and made them perennial Eastern Conference contenders. But the one player he has been reluctant to move has been Jonas Valanciunas.

Starting with when he was drafted 5th overall in 2011 when fans couldn’t even pronounce his name, the Raptors have been hearing all sorts of offers for JV. In 2013, they “quickly” turned down a trade offer from the Oklahoma City Thunder, centered around James Harden and Jonas (according to Real GM). Maybe the Raps didn’t think that Harden could play with DeMar DeRozan, or didn’t think Harden would emerge as a star. But looking back, it would have been a steal.

In 2015, ESPN’s Zach Lowe said that the Rockets called Toronto about a Dwight Howard for JV trade, and Masai hung up the phone. These are just a few examples, and the most glaring ones, of trades that the Raptors have turned down for him. Clearly, Ujiri values the size, post play, and skill set of Valanciunas.

What people should realize is Masai isn’t wrong to value JV. The guy can post people up, shoots free throws very well for a 7-footer, and has developed from a disaster on defense to not-great. Even though he won’t become the hub of any great offense, he can still contribute to a good team.

The Dilemma

So what should Toronto do? They’ve apparently been trying to trade him for about six months, but are struggling to find a viable trade partner that will give them the value they’re looking for. The feeling is that they should hang onto him, and consider having him come off the bench. Here is what CBS Sports’ James Herbert thought about JV on the bench.

Raptors fans are tired of Dwane Casey trying to force the offense to run through him in the 1st quarter, only to see him sitting on the bench for much of the second half. The problem is that JV is slow as molasses on defense, and cannot switch onto any wing or guard for any serious stretch of time.

JV was part of four of the Raptors’ five most used lineups last season, with mixed results. The surprise realization when looking at the numbers was that in 148 minutes that he played with DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Carroll and Patrick Patterson, the Raptors outscored teams by 29.7 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball Reference). Translation:

But diving a little deeper, the defensive struggles are clear. The team was 5 points better on defense per 100 possessions with Valanciunas on the bench compared to on the court. That’s a significant difference over the course of the season, especially considering Lucas Nogueira is ready for more minutes. He may be the go-to option when the Raptors need some defense.

The team also, incredibly, did a worse job rebounding with Valanciunas on the court than with him on the bench. He did grab 9.5 rebounds per game, but the rebounding percentage of the team went down when he was on the court.

The Raps may opt to go small and put JV with the bench unit for most of his minutes. The big man has started all but six regular season games in his NBA career, so he doesn’t have a whole lot of experience coming off the bench. That isn’t necessarily a problem. Many big men who play in the post are transitioning to bench roles these days, and they have the ability to feast down there.

JV is still a big body who can score down low against almost anyone. His ability to hit free throws (78% for his career) is a real asset, especially late in games. When he is on the court as the only big man, chances are that the Raps won’t have any complete liabilities at the line. Teams can’t foul intentionally against Valanciunas, because he’ll knock them down.

It remains to be seen how much his defense will improve this season. He’s still only 25 years old, and improvement is not out of the question. The issue is, the Raptors have two stars in their primes, and need JV to take the next step sooner rather than later. Serge Ibaka, Nogueira, and Pascal Siakam are all decent-to-good defensive players, and that may be enough to cut into Jonas’ minutes.

Don’t be surprised if JV is the guy taking the jump at the start of Game 1 this season. At the same time, his minutes may be reduced if he can’t keep up on D.

Right now, it’s crickets on the trade market for him, but things change over the season, and he could very well be moved before the deadline in February. For now, the Raps are going to figure out the best way to use him to try to keep pace with the elite of the Eastern Conference.