I strongly recommend reading the whole piece.
It was only one year ago when Valanciunas led the Raptors to an excruciating seven-game series win over the Pacers as part of the deepest playoff run in franchise history. Valanciunas grabbed 19 rebounds in Game 1, followed by a herculian 23-point, 15-rebound effort in a must-win Game 2.
Every Raptors fan was screaming for more of the big Lithuanian: more minutes, more touches, more shots, more of the swaggering “I-don’t-know-any-better-to-be-afraid” confidence that the two shook stars lacked.
Valanciunas looked like the budding star to carry the Raptors into the future, the type of dominant interior presence that this franchise has never had in over two decades of existance.
That same man is unrecognizable only a year later.
This isn’t the first time he was benched, but this was the first time he was distinctly disconnected with the team, that he wasn’t necessary, that he wasn’t wanted, and that he was actively hurting the team.
“You know what’s in my head?” Valanciunas said loudly to Kyle Lowry in front of reporters. “I’m trying to give it everything. You see what they do to me?”
This frustration had been building all season. Valanciunas had his moments — big numbers against Chicago and Detroit, big heart against Boogie Cousins — but he has largely been a hinderance. His plodding style sticks out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of how the team plays without him.
There’s a noticeable drag, both emotionally and physically, when he is on the floor. He makes reads too late, he’s in the wrong spots, he’s too slow in transition, he’s clogging the paint, and he’s squeezing the ball too tight and making uncharacteristic errors around the basket.
What’s worse is that he knows it, his teammates know it, the fans are catching on, and even his hard-headed coach is losing his patience. Valanciunas is dragging everyone down.
But Casey’s thinking should be this: If the matchup is right, play Valanciunas. If not, keep him on the bench. It should be that simple, but given his history and his contract, he continues to receive a consistent role. The coaching staff needs to eventually get to a point where they can go away from Valanciunas and have it be okay.
There’s going to be issues whether Valanciunas starts or if he comes off the bench. His lack of footspeed is already weighing down the first unit (although these issues go beyond Valanciunas) and his deliberate nature would not work with a second unit that prides itself on swarming defense and frenetic athleticism.
Personally, I don’t even mind if Valanciunas continues to start so long as he’s used properly. Golden State starts with Zaza Pachulia, Boston goes with Aryan Baynes, San Antonio opts for Pau Gasol in the starting lineup. It’s not uncommon for teams to start with a traditional look, before feeling out the opponent and adjusting accordingly.
The issue isn’t that Casey benched Valanciunas in the Pacers and Knicks games. The issue arises when Casey returns to Valanciunas in games where he clearly shouldn’t play like the first meeting against Washington.