The Toronto Raptors played sixty-four games before the 2019-20 NBA season was suspended, and barring something unprecedented happening in the bubble, it’s clear which players head coach Nick Nurse trusts.
The top seven players in a healthy version of the Raptors rotation are without question: Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell. Coincidentally, all seven were members of last year’s championship team.
Unfortunately, due to significant injuries hitting each of the aforementioned players (aside from Anunoby) at different points in the season, those seven have only played in 17 games together this season, the most recent being a 130-114 win against the Atlanta Hawks on January 28th, back when life was simple. The Raptors went 12-5 in those games.
It’s slightly ironic that Nick Nurse is almost certainly going to win the Coach of the Year Award in large part due to how he has managed significant injuries to each of his six best players, creating hybrid bench-starter lineups that work, mix-and-matching his bench players to put them in the right positions to succeed (including a healthy amount of zone defense), all while not leaning too heavily on his core guys. Nurse has used a total of 15 different players this season, not as garbage-time filler but as actual rotation pieces at different times throughout the injury-riddle season — remember that Oshae Brissett stretch? One of his best attributes as a coach is his ability to make unorthodox lineups work by asking players to play a specific role.
I say it’s ironic because that is likely not going to matter much in the playoffs, not if the Raptors want to win a championship. Nurse tried to find a reliable eighth-man all season, to no avail. We know who Nick Nurse trusts, and it’s only seven players. The Raptors will only go as far as their top seven players take them.
The drop-off after the top seven rotation players is significant. That’s less an indictment of bench players like Terrance Davis II, Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, or Chris Boucher — all of whom are good players having nice seasons that would get regular minutes on less deep teams — and more of a compliment to what is probably the best top seven in the league.
The Raptors top seven rivals any in the league, not in terms of superstar talent but in terms of positional depth and their complementary skill sets. It’s a top seven with plenty of ball-handling, where every player can shoot the three (all are shooting above 35 percent this season on more than 3.3 attempts), and it’s filled with high-IQ players who can at the very least make the right read with the ball. Importantly, it’s also a top seven in which every player is at least a league-average defender, if not better. These qualities are all crucial to the Raptors’ identity: a read-and-react style with five shooters on the floor that depends on fast, smart reads and a No. 2 ranked defense that constantly switches coverages and can go an entire 48-minutes without playing a weak-link for opposing offenses to target.
I have seen people make the case that the Raptors injury-riddled season has prepared them for the playoffs, considering the chance of injury and/or COVID-19 is high. But I’m going the other way: The Raptors have a real shot at repeating as champions, but only if the top seven players in their rotation stay healthy when it matters most.
What happened in the regular season in terms of Nurse mix-and-matching his bench players won’t matter in the playoffs. What matters is that the Raptors keep their seven best players healthy, because those seven know how to win, have the confidence, chemistry, and IQ required to do so, and are all two-way players that come without any serious holes in their games.
As I said, this is not an indictment on the Raptors’ bench players (eight through 15). Each and every one of those players brings something special to the game, and there will inevitably be plenty of talk about Davis vs. McCaw in the coming weeks. But each bench player also comes with a question mark — a weakness or hole in their game for opposing teams to exploit — whether it’s Davis’ shaky defense; McCaw and Hollis-Jefferson being afraid to shoot the three-ball; or Boucher and Matt Thomas being undersized for their positions. It’s not only that they all come with a question mark on at least one side of the floor, it’s also that Nurse’s read-and-react system depends on high IQ players making the right reads quickly and constantly switching up the defensive coverages, and the top seven is flat-out better at those things than the less-experienced players eight through 15.
Give credit to Nurse for giving guys room to grow while working around the weaknesses of his bench players throughout the regular season, but the playoffs are a different beast: each and every weakness will be exploited to the maximum by good opponents, especially throughout a seven-game series. Think back to game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in 2019: Nurse only played seven players, including just 15 minutes for VanVleet.
Of course, different players can do different things and each series can absolutely become matchup-dependant. But the best version of this Raptors team includes their best seven players peaking together at the right time.
On a recent episode of “The Lowe Post” with Melika Andrews, Zach Lowe talked about the Los Angeles Lakers’ margin for error after losing Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. He said:
”There was a lot of snickering about ‘oh, they don’t need Avery Bradley, they’re fine.’ And what I kept saying was: that may be true if everybody remains healthy. Sure you can fill the Avery Bradley void… but their margin for error — whether it’s injury, COVID, whatever — got a little bit smaller.”
There’s no team that the margin for error argument applies to more than the Raptors. The Raptors might have the best top seven in the league, but they don’t have the superstar talent to fall back on, so their depth and on-court chemistry are increasingly important. If they stay healthy, they have a chance.
As Eric Koreen wrote ahead of the 2019-20 trade deadline: “The [Raptors] have coalesced into a whole that is far more than the sum of its parts. It’s true: that tends to matter less in the playoffs than in the regular season, but there is an abundance of belief among the Raptors that they could be the exception to the rule.”
The Raptors will go as far as their top seven players take them. Their margin for error is small, but the Raptors could be the exception to the rule.