With the success the Raptors have found this year, and April rapidly approaching, pundits around the league have begun to discuss what this year’s Raptors will do in the playoffs, and common threads tend to tie together those pieces. There are discussions about the past playoff struggles of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and the hope that the reduced minutes this season has brought for both players will help to rectify those issues. The other thing that’s often asked, though, is whether a team that has such a dominant bench won’t see some fallback in the postseason, because that bench will end up facing less opposing bench units and more star players.
To some extent, how much a team can increase the minutes of their starters depends on the team. There definitely is some accuracy in the argument, as over the past three seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have both seen the minutes of their starters playing an extra 2-4 minutes per game, but many of those extra minutes come in the form of hybrid or transitional lineups, staggering the minutes of various players to try to buy rest for other guys as the game progresses. In fact, in each of those three playoff runs for the Cavaliers, they’ve had at least 9 players averaging 10+ minutes per game. So benches play a role, even for the most top-heavy of teams, and there is littles precedent for a bench as good as the Raptors.
In fact, looking through the data available on stats.nba.com, I was only able to find one previous example of a team with two entirely distinct lineups that each played 100+ minutes during the course of a season with a net rating higher than +10. The 2012-13 Los Angeles Clippers had their starting lineup, which only played in 21 games that season, with a net rating of +11.8, and their bench lineup consisting of five players who weren’t part of that starting group, played in 35 games with a net rating of +11. Those Clippers did struggle in the playoffs, losing in the first round to a tough Memphis Grizzlies team, but their bench wasn’t the root of those playoff struggles. That same bench group played 31 minutes in the playoffs and had a +29.8 net rating, so they remained solid despite facing stiffer competition.
Maybe the fact that those Clippers struggled because of their starters brings back some concerns about the past performances of the Raptors own starters, but this is a different group than years past in Toronto. The Raptors with this current core have never entered the playoffs with a starting lineup that was a net positive, let alone one that’s as good as this year’s group. That, combined with the extra rest they’re getting on a nightly basis thanks to the performance of the bench, should yield better results.
Every team that doesn’t live up to expectations in the postseason goes into the summer saying the right things, talking about addressing the problems at hand and becoming a better group the next year to make sure that they never face those disappointments again. Last summer, the Raptors were no different, with Masai Ujiri and Dwane Casey promising to address the offensive struggles and adapt to becoming a more modern team. Those promises didn’t fall flat, with DeMar DeRozan readily embracing a new, more pass-friendly offense, and the development program of the Raptors 905 paying off by delivering a group of ready to contribute young players for the bench.
As the season has progressed, opposing teams have also become more and more aware of the threat posed by the Raptors bench, and they’ve started keeping their star players in to start the second and fourth quarters to try to mitigate those minutes. Not many teams have had success, but it might yield benefits for Toronto, as these rotations have started to more closely mirror what they’ll see in the playoffs, and the bench gets to gain experience playing against tougher groups. Given the month the Raptors just had in February, the results so far have been promising for the Raptors.
It’s still entirely possible that the postseason won’t bring resounding success. The Eastern Conference is tougher than it’s been in a good few years, with young, hungry teams in Milwaukee and Philadelphia looking to make a splash, but this is the best team the Raptors have ever brought to the table by a significant margin, and it stands to reason that the bench will remain one of the catalysts for them in the playoffs. At the very least, despite the concerns raised by some, I wouldn’t expect them to suddenly become a weakness when the first round arrives.