A new era has been ushered in, in Toronto. And while it might be brief based on the structure of contracts, it’s what we’ve got.
Aron Baynes, Chris Boucher, and Alex Len. None of those players will oscillate between the wing and the frontcourt like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby will. So, they are the Raptors definitive ‘big’ men. Baynes, who profiles as something like a professional wrestler, looks like a great fit. This piece is basically just about Len and Boucher, but I wanted to use the term Triumvirate – you can find my piece on Baynes here. In the other two we have a ‘known’ in Chris Boucher, who will likely see an expanded role this year, and an unknown in Alex Len. Luckily, I’ve actually been quite high on Len for sometime (relatively high, okay) and I think there’s some tangible things he’ll do for the Raptors this year. So, let’s talk about expected roles and contributions:
Treboucher + Playing it safe
I’m not entirely sure if there’s a strong analogy to be made between strong paint defense and a castle preparing for siege. But, if there is, Boucher’s bombs from downtown are not only stylistically like a trebuchet, but offer similar utility. The shooting is a really big swing skill for Boucher, though. Professionally, Boucher has never eclipsed 32-percent from downtown, be it in the G-League or the NBA. He shot 34-percent on over 3 attempts per game with Oregon in college, but that’s a shorter line. While Boucher undoubtedly has the reckless abandon and quick trigger finger of a shooter, the numbers haven’t backed him up yet. As we’ve seen with a lot of players though, and maybe most notably with Danny Green in the Finals, the spacing you provide isn’t always in line with your 3-point percentage. There’s no biomechanical indications of an improved jumper from Boucher, he didn’t raise his pick up point and lock his elbow in. If Boucher is going to have a better year from downtown, it’s going to be because he hammered in reps over the offseason. The shooting is up in the air with him. You can probably expect a floor of around 30-percent and a ceiling of 37-percent, which would be wildly impressive.
Len is not modeled after any siege weapons. He’s never shown love to the 3-point shot despite having a rock steady shooting form to build from. He attempted over 250 threes in his year and a half with the Hawks (which included a random spike of 6 made threes against the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo) and did so at nearly 34-percent, but the Suns and the Kings had no interest in having him stretch the floor. If the Raptors were more invested in Len (he’s on a 1-year minimum) I might expect him to launch more often from downtown this year in the name of improvement, but I think it’s clear the Raptors will want him to plug in as a low usage, drop-back paint defender.
Change of Pace
Boucher’s role and minutes were limited last year, but even so he was far and away the Raptors best rim-running big. He didn’t have the finesse to navigate the short-roll like Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka, but my god he could punch a gap. Rim-running and punching gaps should be Boucher’s biggest contributions for the upcoming season. If Nick Nurse & co. are still looking for production from Kyle Lowry + bench units, I think it could be a fairly common occurrence to see Lowry get wide in the pick n’ roll before finding Boucher streaking down the lane with a pocket pass. Or, if a big man wants to try and hedge, but there’s no tag or rub on Boucher, maybe some alley-oops. Like last year, where he was the Raptors most efficient roller, he is the sole vertical threat on the roster for this upcoming season. For an opposing team that’s become accustomed to the slower and more physical brand of play that Baynes provides, Boucher’s length and speed will overwhelm at times.
There will no doubt be times this season where Len will catch a seam to the bucket and one of Lowry, Fred VanVleet, or Malachi Flynn will find him for a dunk. Additionally, Lowry makes better rim-runners of every big man he plays with – he helped immensely in Bismack Biyombo signing a 4-year 72M contract. However (comma) Len was between the 40th (Hawks) and 47th-percentile (Kings) as a roller last season and barely eclipsed the 54th in 2018-19. Some of these possessions came while playing with Trae Young, and say what you will about Young, but he can create a lot of high quality looks for his team. Len is a smart player, and he’ll find the pacing in some games, but it’s safe to expect middling returns from him as a roller. He’s one of the better players in the league when it comes to chasing the ball into the rim, though. So expect some opportunistic putbacks from him.
There is a famous video of Baynes tracking Steph Curry for most of a possession in 1-on-1 coverage and blocking his step-back 3 at the end. That’s not the norm for him, or any big man. Boucher isn’t going to be super sticky if he switches onto guards, but last year he made his presence felt by running hard and sticking his arms way up in the air to contest shots beyond-the-arc. His pick n’ roll defense leaves something to be desired. He takes awkward routes sometimes and gives up lanes at others. His court mapping is likely the least impressive of the Raptors big men, but his recovery speed and length is by far the best. And he has major pop as a help-side defender. His 92nd-percentile block rate is no joke, and he held opponents to less than 50-percent within 6-feet of the rim last year – those go-go-gadget arms can get to a lot of places. Any progression from last season to this one defensively would mean great things for Boucher. More efficient movement within the Raptors, erm, rapid defense makes his length all the more impressive and imposing.
Len is bringing a few concrete skills to the defensive end of the floor – rebounding, blocked shots, and good contests. He won’t hedge, he’s not good in a switch, and he fouls a bit too much. But, if you let him drop back he’ll defend the paint really well for you. Basically, he’s a 7’1″ guy and if you situate him near the rim, players are going to be vexed as to how they’re going to finish around him or over him. In his short stint in Sacramento last season he was extremely good as the last line of defense. The Raptors are a smart organization and should be able to put him in positions where his strengths shine through.
As I pointed out in the Baynes piece I wrote, the Raptors are navigating the space between this season and the next. That’s extremely evident with how they structured Baynes’, Boucher’s, and VanVleet’s contracts. They’ve patched together the frontcourt in a way that the team will still be good, and the shot-creators on the roster will be uniquely empowered to grow their games next to big men that want to help. The Raptors new frontcourt triumvirate isn’t one of the best in the league, but it’s intended function for this year will most likely be fulfilled.
Have a blessed day.