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Death to all-bench units, revisited

Now that the team’s back to health, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan need to have their minutes staggered.

The Toronto Raptors played a great first quarter on Monday, opening up a 32-23 lead on the road against the Chicago Bulls. Luis Scola inexplicably went 6-of-6, as he does, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry used dribble-penetration to set teammates up for easy buckets, and Jonas Valanciunas got some good minutes in off the bench. For a team that’s struggled early often – something they’ve done much better with lately – and was working a player back into the starting lineup and another back into the rotation, it was as clean a start as they could have hoped.

After playing the entire first quarter, Lowry, DeRozan, and Scola all hit the bench to start the second. Valanciunas, too, headed to the bench, and DeMarre Carroll remained there. The lineup that started the second quarter wasn’t technically an all-bench group since Bismack Biyombo started the game, but it was the team’s “second unit” for functional and descriptive purposes, and it will be the team’s second unit once Valanciunas re-enters the starting lineup later this week.

In a shock to nobody who’s been watching the Raptors (or the NBA in general) this season, the Raptors bench-heavy lineup struggled. In 5:23 of action, the Bulls went on a 17-6 run, not only erasing the Raptors’ early lead but taking one of their own. The Raptors shot 3-of-10 from the floor, didn’t get to the line, got out-rebounded 7-3, and allowed Chicago to shoot 7-of-12 with three free-throw attempts, all of them successful Aaron Brooks and-ones. The poor stretch started with the Bulls going on a 14-6 run, after which head coach Dwane Casey called a timeout but opted not to make a substitution. The Raptors then had a shot blocked, missed a three, and surrendered the third Brooks and-one before Casey finally gave in an brought Lowry back into the game. This, against a Bulls unit that was also bench-heavy (Taj Gibson played the entire stretch and Derrick Rose played a minute).

It’s worth noting that the Raptors lost by seven and were outscored by 11 in this stretch. The result was that Casey opted to make sure Lowry or DeRozan were on the court the rest of the game, with the team playing to a plus-12 in Lowry’s 40 minutes (minus-19 in the eight minutes he sat) and to a plus-eight in DeRozan’s 36 minutes (minus-15 in the 12 minutes he sat).

Playing those two such heavy minutes isn’t an ideal strategy over 82 games. Both are in the top-five in the NBA for total minutes played and in the top-ten for minutes per game (DeRozan’s at 36.6, Lowry at 35.7), and part of that is due to the team dealing with injuries and failing to close out winnable games early. The hope is that with a return to health and some of the second-unit players having found a groove, Casey will be able to ease up on his two start backcourt players, trimming their minutes into the low-30s.

That’s not going to be possible when the bench plays as poorly as they did Monday.

Zarar covered their poor play earlier, but to iterate, Ross, Patterson, and Joseph turned in their worst performance as a group so far this season. Ross missed a few open looks but generally played within himself and made a few plays on defense, and his play was least discouraging of the three, especially given how well he’s been playing lately. Patterson, though, had maybe his worst offensive outing, a 3-of-13 performance wrought with poor decision making and ineffective defense. Joseph hasn’t looked quite right on offense for a week or two now but usually brings top-tier defense to account for that, defense that was absent entirely on Monday. The good news is, it’s unlikely the bench ever plays quite this poorly again – this is three players playing low-percentile games and being used somewhat sub-optimally. They should play better, and that will allow Casey to get his key guys a bit more rest most nights.

The bad news, unfortunately, is that Casey is going to have his hands full juggling rotations so that one of Lowry or DeRozan is almost always on the floor. As steady as Joseph’s been and as good as Ross and Patterson can be when they’re on, the second unit has struggled without help from one of the team’s stars, a reality for all but the deepest reserve groups league-wide. Back on Nov. 11, I wrote an article called “Death to all-bench units” that looked at some research from Nylon Calculus and suggested Casey should try to keep one of his stars on the floor at all times, even against opposing bench units. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

All coaches go to all-bench units at times. Casey seems a proponent of the “hockey change” in non-blowout situations, and the Raptors averaged 3.42 minutes per game with no starters on the floor last year, per data from the excellent Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus. While that may seem like a lot or a little depending on your basketball worldview, it’s almost exactly the league average (3.41). Partnow also found that the start of the second quarter and the end of the third-start of the fourth are the times where teams average the fewest starters, and even in games classified as “close,” teams only averaged 1.6 starters in the final minute of the third.

But 1.6 is a fary cry from zero, and the Raptors may have punted an opportunity to grow or at least hold their lead. Lineups with zero starters are outscored by 3.07 points per-48 minutes on average, more than 1.5 points per-48 worse than lineups with even a single starter. To get really specific using Partnow’s data, when a home team has one starter and a visiting team has none, the home team outscores the visiting team by 2.7 points per-48 minutes. That effect is tiny over 95 seconds but it speaks to the general strategy of matching an all-bench unit with one that contains some of your better players.

The injuries to Valanciunas and Carroll made doing so more or less a necessity, though at the cost of the heavy workloads. On the season, the Raptors have played just 146 minutes with both potential All-Stars on the bench, and the results have been disastrous, per data from NBAWowy.com. (Note that their per-possession numbers may differ some from NBA.com or Basketball-Reference, as each site calculates possessions differently. The point will remain mostly the same.)

bench

All-bench units – defined by me as those not including any of Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Scola, or Valanciunas – have played 59 minutes on the season (based on my own sorting of lineup data), and they’ve been outscored by 22.7 points per-100 possessions (PPC). Casey hasn’t used them a ton and a fair portion of those minutes have come in garbage time, but they’ve been woefully ineffective when called upon. The “second unit” as defined from Monday’s game has been outscored by 28.4 PPC in 15 minutes together.

Avoiding all-bench units isn’t exactly simple, but it’s not painfully difficult, either. Instead of resting both Lowry and DeRozan together to start the second, for example, Casey could do what he often does for the third and fourth – send DeRozan to the bench late in the first, then bring him back in to open the second while Lowry rests for a few minutes. If Casey does find himself with the need to rest both, he can’t do so for more than two minutes at a time, and he’ll need to make sure Joseph is accompanied by a playmaking big in Valanciunas or Scola.

Speaking of Scola, I still maintain that he and Patterson eventually need to switch places, even with Patterson’s poor showing Monday. Patterson is a more natural two-way fit alongside Valanciunas, and just as important, Scola could really help the second unit offensively – in 35 minutes that Scola’s played while DeRozan and Lowry sat, the Raptors’ offense has been terrific (124.2 PPC). A lot of those minutes came alongside Patterson with Scola as the center, but it’s worth getting a look at how the offense would function with a Scola-Biyombo frontcourt off the bench (there’s a large, mediocre sample of them with the starters but less so off the bench). The concern here is that you’re punishing strong performance for Scola, who’s been one of the team’s best first-quarter players, and you risk Patterson getting exposed against starters (his effective field-goal percentage drops 17.2 percentage points against opposing lineups with four or five starters, per Nylon Calculus). Still, this might be the long-term move that helps the bench and maybe even helps the starters, should they fail to find chemistry with everyone back to health.

In any case, the short stints without any de facto starters need to be a thing of the past. It simply contributes too much to an already great burden on Lowry and DeRozan.

Perhaps it’s too early to begin worrying about this. Valanciunas and Carroll remain somewhat limited, Casey’s trying to rediscover chemistry all over the rotation, and it was just one game. It warrants watching over the rest of the week, especially if the games are as close as expected.

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