Jonas Valanciunas: Days in Toronto May be Numbered

Jan 31, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) during opening game ceremonies prior to an NBA game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 31, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) during opening game ceremonies prior to an NBA game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports /

Jonas Valanciunas is the most divisive player in the history of the Raptors franchise.  He creates a philosophical split, not because he’s good or bad at basketball, but because of what he’s good at on the court.

Jonas Valanciunas is the most divisive player in the history of the Toronto Raptors franchise. His minutes, role, touches and opportunities are always brought into question, from his first year to this very day.

Valanciunas is an offensive big man through and through. Dwane Casey is a (so called) defensive coach, so you do the math.

JV is still developing, it’s just that the skill set he’s developing is based around scoring instead of what a traditional centre does, i.e. defend. He creates a philosophical split, not because he’s good or bad at basketball, but because of what he’s good at on the court.

Valanciunas is reputed as a low post big man and he is, but he’s really a prolific pick and roll finisher – 20 percent of all of his scoring comes off the roll and he’s quite good at it too. He’s a top 85th percentile finishing off the pick and roll, per

The 24-year old good at finishing the play even though the Raptors are more concerned about him setting the screen than anything else. JV is one of the league leaders in screen assists in part, because he’s a great screener and in part, because he doesn’t receive the ball after set screens. He sure rolls, but that doesn’t always means he gets buttered:

If Kyle Lowry sees JV he’ll feed him, only if he’s open. DeMar DeRozan will only hit JV if he’s completely out of options and CoJo is trying to conquer the mid range. Admittedly DeRozan is a tough shot maker, a shooting guard of Kobe Bryant and Jamal Crawford‘s ilk – passing isn’t his forte.

That leaves JV in the paint with nothing to do other than feebly raise his hands for a pass that may never come. With Lowry out, those hands are starting to look very similar to the ones you see with JV on the block.

Truth be told, Valanciunas’ post game is a sapling that hasn’t fully taken root yet. Just as you can tell what type of tree the sapling will be by looking at the leaves, you can see the type of post play JV wants to impose.

His huge ent-like frame gives him ample space to make his moves. Unafraid of contact, Valanciunas keeps a quaint repertoire of moves. The post fade, face up jumper, post and driving hook are all within his bag of tricks on the left block.

Unfortunately Jonas “ent” Valanciunas moves like one; slow, methodical movements that aren’t so predictable due to his variation, but reactable because he wades through molasses every time he attempts a move:

You can afford to be slow in the post, because everything happens between one and three dribble – surprising your opponent and beating someone by a half step is all it takes in close quarters. Jv isn’t dynamite within the post but he’s not a slouch, scoring 0.87 point per possession even though it accounts for 23.4 percent of his offensive game is decent.

However, Valanciunas’ lead feet don’t translate to the other side of the floor and that’s where the issue rests. This is the small ball era of the NBA, skill dominates will, and the most skilled players are shorter, faster and shoot three’s.

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JV is a very large man and large men who don’t move very quickly, making him a liability defensively. There’s a reason for Serge Ibaka finishes fourth quarters instead of him, as he provides flexibility.

Both offensively and defensively, Ibaka is able to give the Raptors a different look. Specifically on defence, he has more utility than a Swiss army knife.

In the fourth quarter, teams love to go small with tons of shooting around to optimize the floor space. Being able to switch out or being mobile enough to cover the guard and get back is invaluable to winning basketball.  When Ibaka is playing the 5 the Raptors can effectively switch anything, especially on the pick and roll.

Ibaka isn’t necessarily going to keep the speediest guards in front of him every time, but he makes it a challenge. You can’t just beat Ibaka off the dribble because he’ll track you on the way to the rim, and his length and his athleticism allows him to lay back but still get a decent contest off.

Valanciunas doesn’t switch. Ever. That’s not a thing for him. If it happens it’s a mistake. JV is brutal in the pick and roll and always will be.

He has the length to disrupt passing lanes and that’s it. JV needs to leave space for pull-ups or he’s blown by:

If you’re a point guard with some craft, points against JV aren’t an issue. The floater, pull up and step back are all in play with him as the back line defender.

Even attacking Valanciunas is an excellent option. He is one of the league’s worst defenders at the rim, yielding a 61.8 field goal percentage at the rim, which is worse that Lucas Nogueria at 60.4 percent – and he is coming off the bench.

JV’s defensive woes wouldn’t be such a large deal if he were getting the points back on the other end. For all of Big Science’s gifts offensively, the Raptors don’t really use him on that side of the floor.

Valanciunas’ usage rate has fallen below 20 percent this year and that’s by design. The offence is purposefully guard-oriented to exploit Lowry’s and DeRozan’s strengths, thus JV’s offense is left flapping in the wind.

Even with Lowry out with his wrist injury, the Dino’s aren’t looking for JV to produce offence for them, he’s averaging a mediocre 11.3 points and 7.4 rebounds. Casey is focusing his efforts on getting the Serge Protector and other guards on the roster going before Valanciunas.

Casey’s unwavering reliance on perimeter play and his obvious penchant for defensive flexibility leaves Valanciunas in an enigmatic position. The Raptors have four expiring contracts this offseason and they’re already peering at the tax.

This year, Lowry, Ibaka, Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker all come off the books and people are going to be looking to get paid. If the Raptors are looking to re-sign Lowry after the most successful three-year spurt of his career, it could cost them up to $200 million over the next five years.

Jonas Valanciunas
Feb 8, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Toronto Raptors forward Patrick Patterson (54) high fives guard Kyle Lowry (7) during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Toronto won 103-89. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports /

Ibaka could leave over the summer, but Masai Ujiri doesn’t make trades without contingency. The Raps will have Ibaka’s bird rights and can offer him whatever they please.

Ibaka is making $12 million this year, although he’s likely a $20 million or more player. Just factoring Lowry and Ibaka alone is an additional $36 million allocated to two players already existing on the squad.

Don’t forget Patterson is only making $6 million right now and power forwards who can shoot and defend are in high demand even if it’s for a bench role. A steady raise in 2Pat’s salary could push him into eight figures.

That’s just three of the four expirings the Drakes have to deal with and their bill has ballooned from $108 million to roughly $154 million dollars plus the luxury tax. No matter how delicious the playoff revenue and atmosphere is, MLSE will not eat that amount for a non-contending team.

Valanciunas’ contract looks very attractive as a salary dump – $12 million off the books is millions more off the luxury tax and it’s not like the Raptors are really using or developing him.

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I’d expect the Raptors to test the trade market during the offseason, but it’s unclear what they’d get. The reality is that in the current NBA, a big that is great on offence but can’t hold their weight on defence is much more corrosive to a team than he is helpful. There’s a reason that guys like Greg Monroe, Enes Kanter, Jahlil Okafor and Nikola Vucevic aren’t exactly in demand anymore.

The Nets and 76ers were looking for first rounders for their big men and nobody even came close to making a trade for them, so where does Valanciunas’ price point lie? He is less talented than Brook Lopez but is younger, so he provides upside and is older than Okafor with better rebounding, but not as an explosive offensive player.

Boogie Cousins fetched a  heavily-protected first rounder plus Buddy Hield in the Kings’ trade to the Pelicans and Vlade Divac was universally panned for the trade. There are other confounding elements to the deal, but it puts into perspective how nebulous the price of a big man is nowadays.

If an opportunity does present itself to move JV for a decent return, Ujiri will make the trade. We’ve seen him in action before, but it’s also possible the opportunity never presents itself and there’s never a worthwhile deal on the board.

Next: Raptors Reload, Then Forced to Rebound

Does trading JV for a heavily protected first rounder or a bunch of seconds sound appetizing to you? Because it can’t sound appetizing to Ujiri. He’s going need to make some tough decisions surrounding JV this offseason and while the team is booming, the tax is looming. The Raptors rarely use Valanciunas anyways – trading him for relief and picks only makes sense.