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Raptors are at the forefront of how NBA teams change their starting five

Nick Nurse understands why players would want to be in the Toronto Raptors starting lineup.

From the first games of youth basketball, the “starting five” is one of the easiest ways to determine the best players, a sign of status. Your teammates stand and form a tunnel. You run down the middle, slapping hands of the supporting cast.

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“I would want to start,” said Nurse, the Raptors’ coach. “I want to run out there in front of 20,000 people and get my name announced. I get it. I get that.”

What the Raptors are trying defies long-standing NBA conventions. It’s an idea that could take hold in Los Angeles, too. While the Clippers and Lakers, like most teams, have altered their starting lineups based on need in the instance of injuries and suspensions, the Raptors have been determined to use multiple starters.

Instead of a traditional starting five, Toronto has seven players it uses to open games, depending on matchups and planned rest for All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard, who is coming off a quadriceps injury from last season and has a sore left ankle.

“It’s us trying to be more versatile,” Nurse said before his team used its fifth different starting lineup in 10 games.

The general thinking is this: When Toronto plays a team with a formidable center, the Raptors will start 7-foot Jonas Valanciunas, and when the Raptors face a team with a more mobile big man, they’ll turn to 6-10 Serge Ibaka. Nurse can also insert O.G. Anunoby for Leonard or shooting guard Danny Green.

“We’ve got maybe eight starters and we’re giving them a chance to start every once in a while,” Nurse said.

It has worked so far. The Raptors (10-1) have the best record in the Eastern Conference through Tuesday and their two main starting lineups — Kyle Lowry, Green, Pascal Siakam, Leonard and Ibaka, or the one with Valanciunas at center — are two of the three best first-quarter lineups this season.

Center Jonas Valanciunas, left, and guard Danny Green give the Raptors flexibility with their starting lineup.
Center Jonas Valanciunas, left, and guard Danny Green give the Raptors flexibility with their starting lineup. (Jonathan Hayward / Canadian Press via AP)

But even with the success, it has not been the smoothest road to go down.

“I wouldn’t call it hard, but it’s not easy, either. They’ve been really unselfish and pretty good about it,” Nurse said. “But, it doesn’t mean I haven’t had a lot of meetings in my office with certain guys.”

Valanciunas, who has come off the bench as much this season (six games) as he had in the previous six seasons, said the switching hasn’t been an issue for him.

“That’s the strength of this team,” Valanciunas said. “We’re looking at the big picture. We don’t want to score 25 [points] or average 30 [points]. We want to win. We do what’s good for the team. It doesn’t matter how many minutes you play, how many points you score.

“What matters is the end result, if you win the game.”

Doc Rivers’ Clippers have the roster to mix and match starting lineups on a game-by-game basis, with little differentiating their third-best player from their eighth. Still, he’d rather have a lineup versatile enough that could compete with big and small opponents.

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“I think everyone would prefer to have a starting five every night,” Rivers said. “But I don’t mind the way we’re doing it, either.”

When the Clippers need energy up front, Montrezl Harrell could get a start. If the team needs a more offense-minded player in the backcourt, it could be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander instead of Patrick Beverley or Avery Bradley.

The Lakers have options too, with Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma moving in and out of the starting lineup if coach Luke Walton wants to platoon players. He recently started LeBron James along with fellow forwards Brandon Ingram and Kuzma, as well as center JaVale McGee and point guard Lonzo Ball.

Toronto is not the first team to approach starting lineups this way — one executive pointed to Don Nelson’s Dallas teams that would routinely use more than 20 different starting lineups a season. But the Raptors’ approach to the season does have others around the league curious.

“It does say something about your team when you can do that — and it’s a positive statement,” Rivers said. “If you have a group of guys, eight or nine even, and they’re willing to do that, it tells you that the team is together. It’s a solid statement. When you see Toronto do it, no one is complaining. That’s a great testimony to the spirit and chemistry of their basketball team.”

In a perfect world, a player would know his role. His name and college would get announced before every game. The spotlight would shine on him. But winning, at least in the Raptors’ locker room, trumps that ideal.

“You end up learning how to play with everyone on the court. Last year, we had two different teams,” Siakam said of a starting five and reserves. “This year, anyone can play with anyone. That’s cool.

“I’m sure it’s hard, but guys understand that we have a bigger goal ahead of us. …We all want to win.”

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