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Building a Bench

It’s no secret that once again this season, one of the big areas of strength for the Toronto Raptors has been their reserve units. Despite the departures of staples like Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph, and no longer having the edge that PJ Tucker brought to the team late in the season last year, the kids have stepped up and fulfilled their roles with apparent ease, often running opponents off the court in early second and fourth quarters often with no starters accompanying them. It’s an understatement to say this was unexpected, with many writers(including myself) expressing concerns during the offseason about how the bench would adapt without those veteran presences, and with CJ Miles as the only journeyman left among the team’s reserves.

To make things more interesting, Delon Wright, expected to be one of the brightest spots in that young bench, has missed the last six games with a shoulder injury, and stands to be out a few more weeks yet. Wright had shown signs of brilliance during the early season, but also struggled for stretches, and his numbers didn’t blow anyone out of the water. Fred Van Vleet has had to step up and fill the minutes Kyle Lowry sits in his absence, and has been nothing short of brilliant. The Raptors this season have four primary ballhandlers, in Lowry, Wright, Van Vleet and DeMar DeRozan. Of the four, only Van Vleet has played significant minutes without one of the other three accompanying him, and the team has been great in those minutes with him running the show. Lorenzo Brown and, more often of late, Norman Powell have of late been filling the role of secondary ball handler beside Van Vleet in the all-bench groups, and Powell seems to have found his comfort again back with the bench, looking better and playing more in the flow of the offense.

However, the team has been running an eleven or twelve man rotation in the majority of these games, and with a crowded bench frontcourt with Pascal Siakam, Lucas Nogueira and Jakob Poeltl all playing quality minutes along with the depth at the guard spots, it’s hard to figure out how to pare down the number of players in the rotation, something the team may need to do as we go down the stretch of the season towards the playoffs. Once you reach the postseason, it’s in a team’s best interest to maximize the minutes of their stars and slim down the number of players getting play to just those who stand the best chance of winning the minutes they are out there for.

To start building a more singular bench unit, we’d need to go to the staples, and along with Van Vleet, who seems to have solidified his role as a central figure in the second unit, you’d have to include CJ Miles, who’s shooting has been key for the Raptors this season. With Serge Ibaka as the definite starter at the power forward position and OG Anunoby seeming to have locked down the other starting forward spot, that leaves Pascal Siakam as the man beside Miles. Siakam has grown leaps and bounds this season in terms of both confidence and capability handling the ball, scoring in transition getting ahead of the defense on a nightly basis as well as showing the ability to take a defender off the drive, to go with his improved outside shooting and defensive quickness.

Now, the problem here is that leaves us with Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, and Lucas Nogueira, and only two spots left in that particular lineup. Each of these players has definable strengths and deserves minutes in the NBA. This isn’t an attempt to criticize any of these players, as they all have bright futures ahead of them. Interestingly, the threesome of Van Vleet, Miles and Siakam hasn’t played a significant number of minutes with any particular fourth, with just four 4-man lineups over 20 minutes, and none of them having a negative net rating. Powell would clock on at the best net rating at +19.1, with Wright at +16.7, Poeltl at +12.9, and Bebe at +4.3. All of those sample sizes are tiny though, with Bebe’s 36 minutes being the most, and must be taken with a massive amount of skepticism because of that.

It’s my belief that Wright is going to have a solid career as a starting point guard in this league, and that he’s closer to being that player than he showed early in this season. He needs to work on his outside shooting, but he excels running the pick and roll, especially when playing beside former college teammate Jakob Poeltl, and his length can cause fits for opposing guards on defense, especially combined with his seemingly tireless work effort.

On the other hand, Norman Powell came into the season as the de facto starter at small forward for the Raptors, and an injury forced him out of the lineup. In his absence, OG Anunoby stepped up and earned the coach’s confidence to hold down that spot, at least for now. Powell is a terror on the dribble and a decent enough catch and shoot guy from outside. His smaller frame for a wing he makes up for with a huge wingspan and quickness, and when he’s engaged he can be great there. As a rookie he was a huge part of the Raptors playoff series victory over Paul George and the Indiana Pacers, and last season his move to the starting lineup with Jonas Valanciunas going to the bench gave the team a small look that was a big part of them beating Milwaukee. On the other hand, he can sometimes get tunnel vision going to the basket, and hasn’t quite mastered the change of pace, preferring to go full speed nearly all the time, and if he can learn to slow down sometimes it will allow his drives to become yet more dangerous for the defense.

There really is no wrong answer between Powell and Wright, I think, because both have earned there time in the NBA, but if it came down to one of them being the bench constant and the other as injury insurance, I think I’d lean towards Powell at this moment. There is the possibility that the team will need him to step back into a starting role later in the season if Anunoby shows his youth, and if that’s the case, he needs to keep getting playing time to remain at the ready and keep developing his tools. Wright would then likely step back into more bench minutes, but all this also depends on Wright’s recovery from injury, as for the moment this spot would belong to Norm by default, with Delon out.

That leaves us with the question of the center position. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Jakob Poeltl’s game, but Bebe has also had a strong season and brings a shooting presence that Poeltl simply doesn’t have. As with Powell and Wright, this is a case of two right answers, and it really does come down to preference. Do you prefer the stable hand of Poeltl, the player where you know what you’ll get every night, and who brings a strong offensive rebounding presence and solid, though unspectacular, defensive presence, or the enigmatic Nogueira who brings explosiveness in both his game and output, with tremendous athleticism showing in both his blocked shots and dunks, punctuated by his three-point shooting?

On the balance, I’d lean towards Jakob here, but mostly because the data seems to back up that he works well with the other staples. When paired with both Fred Van Vleet and Pascal Siakam, Poeltl has played 78 minutes thus far this season, and that group boasts a +31 net rating in those minutes while grabbing 57.9% of all available rebounds.

So that leaves us with a primary bench unit of Fred Van Vleet, Norman Powell, CJ Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl. All of this is mostly a moot intellectual exercise at this point of course, with Dwane Casey seemingly committed to the larger rotation for the time being. But should he look to shorten the bench at some point this year, especially with the playoffs in mind for a franchise that has to be focused on finding sustainable success once we get past the regular season, that’s the direction that I would recommend, at least based on what we currently know.

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