NBA Position Battles: Should P.J. Tucker Start Over DeMarre Carroll for the Toronto Raptors?

The Raptors have been getting out to slow starts since the All-Star break and might need to shuffle up their starting five. Would they be better with Tucker in place of Carroll at small forward?

The Toronto Raptors have been one of the most efficient teams in the league since the All-Star break, despite being without All-Star Kyle Lowry, who has been sidelined due to a wrist injury.

Over that 14-game span, the Raps have had a net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) of 3.2. That is the second best mark in the Eastern Conference for that period, trailing only the red-hot Miami Heat at 9.6 (which leads the entire league).

Despite the strong overall efficiency and the solid 9-5 record they have managed to put up without arguably their best player, the Raptors have been one of the worst first-quarter teams in the league during that span. They have a -2.3 net rating in opening frames since the break, which ranks them 19th in the Association, trailing teams like the bottom-feeding Orlando Magic (who are 5-9 over that span and are playing for draft lottery ping pong balls at this point).

Toronto leads the league in double-digit comeback victories this season with 18, but if they want to stop going down early and making it so hard for themselves, coach Dwane Casey might want to consider a change to his starting lineup.

According to the numbers, that change should be shifting the newly-acquired P.J. Tucker in at small forward in place of DeMarre Carroll.

Carroll, the Raptors' big offseason acquisition two years ago, has not had a very memorable Raptors career. His tenure with the team has been marred by injury, but even when he's been on the floor, he's never quite lived up to his big contract.

Tucker, meanwhile, has only played 14 games in a Raptors jersey and is already becoming a legend in the city of Toronto. His combination of infinite hustle, clutch play, and outspokenness has made him a fan favorite up north very quickly.

The argument for making the switch doesn't lie in their raw numbers, however. If you look at each player's per-36-minute numbers since the break, they've been fairly even.

Carroll scores more than Tucker, but Tucker grabs more rebounds. Tucker gets more steals and deflections than Carroll, but Carroll blocks more shots. Both are good at not turning the ball over, and neither jumps out as being more efficient than the other, as Carroll's true shooting percentage of 49.8% barely edges out Tucker's 47.9% (and neither of those marks is all that strong to begin with).

Player PTS/36 FG% 3P% FT% REB/36 AST/36 STL/36 BLK/36 TOV/36
Carroll 10.1 37.3% 29.7% 71.4% 6.1 2.0 1.5 0.9 0.9
Tucker 7.7 40.3% 32.1% 58.3% 7.7 1.5 1.8 0.4 0.7

Where we start to see a difference is in their post-break on/off splits.

Situation Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Rtg
DeMarre Carroll on 110.2 109.8 0.4
DeMarre Carroll off 102.6 97.7 5.0
P.J. Tucker on 103.7 94.5 9.2
P.J. Tucker off 107.8 111.1 -3.3

When Carroll is on the floor, the Raptors are a more efficient offensive team than when he's off it, but the defense allows a whopping 12.1 more points per 100 possessions when he's in the game, as well. The offensive gains when he's on the floor are cancelled out by that defensive decline, as the Raptors outscore opponents by 4.6 more points per 100 possessions overall when Carroll is on the bench.

Tucker, on the other hand, has the opposite effect and to a greater extreme.

When Tucker is on the floor, the Raptors offense scores 4.1 fewer points per 100 possessions than when he's on the bench. That is certainly a knock on his case, but the differential in defensive efficiency more than makes up for it.

The Raptors have an elite defensive rating of 94.5 when Tucker is on the floor (better than the season-long clip of the first-place San Antonio Spurs, who lead the league with a mark of 101.0), as compared to the 111.1 rating they have when he's on the bench (almost as bad as the 30th-ranked Los Angeles Lakers, who have a mark of 111.2 on the year). Tucker's overall on/off differential in net rating of 12.5 is the largest on the team.

Tucker leads the Raptors in fourth-quarter minutes since the All-Star break (122), so he's already established as one of the team's closers, but there's a reason why he should also be the team's starting small forward.

If you compare the five-man lineup data between the other four regular starters (Cory Joseph, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas) with Carroll and the same group with Tucker in his place, the choice is obvious:

5-Man Lineup MIN Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Rtg
Including Carroll 164 105.5 112.2 -6.7
Including Tucker 38 103.1 97.0 6.1

Once again, the dropoff in offensive efficiency from Carroll to Tucker is worth it for the dramatic improvement in defensive efficiency. Since the break, when the regular starters are combined with Tucker instead of Carroll, the Raptors allow a gargantuan 15.2 fewer points per 100 possessions, performing like the league's best defense instead of as its worst.

The Raptors are in a heated race with the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards for the second and third seeds in the Eastern Conference, and the right to avoid the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round. While it makes sense to continue starting Carroll, the team's third-highest-paid player who still has two more years left on his contract, it's becoming clearer by the day that their trade-deadline acquisition with an expiring contract, Tucker, is their best option at small forward.

If they want to stop falling down early and having to mount these huge comebacks, all while they wait for their All-Star point guard to get healthy for a playoff run, the numbers suggest that they would be better served in shifting Tucker into the starting five.