Every game of chess starts the same way. Eight pawns, shoulder to shoulder, with all the major pieces standing behind. As a game develops, sure, things change. Pieces become more or less valuable based on their positioning. There is momentum and flow. But everything starts the same way, every time.
That’s sort of how it feels to be the Toronto Raptors.
As has been the case for at least a few years, the Toronto Raptors have a set top-six. There’s been a solid core monopolizing the lion’s share of minutes. And though the core has changed with the exit of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, the deep sense of sameness yet remains. That’s reality when Kyle Lowry is the most important driver of winning for so long. We know that Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Aron Baynes will start games. Norman Powell will start some games, and he will surely close others in the place of OG Anunoby or even more likely, Baynes. But that’s the top six. Five of them won a championship together, and the other is the prize free agency center addition. This season will begin with a sense of sameness to each one previous, much like a game of chess.
There’s flexibility at the top. All six are flexible, dynamic defenders. Any of Lowry, VanVleet, and even Siakam can initiate the offense. Any of Baynes, Anunoby, and even Siakam can play center. Toronto will thus start both its best back-up point guard and center. And Powell is a shoot-first wing who can guard up or down a few inches. The major pieces remain the same.
But things change over the course of a season. There are more minutes to be filled. And with each game, the value of each player will shift. Incrementally, at times, and all in a rush at others. But who will play, beyond the major pieces? Who will fill the seventh and eighth spots in the rotation? Let’s break the options into tiers.
It’s finally his time. After earning a two-year, $13.5 M contract, the Raptors are now extremely invested in his future. And with Gasol and Ibaka gone, the Raptors don’t have established veterans ahead of him on the depth chart. Things are pointing Boucher. And for the on-court stuff, my case for Boucher minutes remains the same as it was last year. I wrote this then:
It’s easy to watch film of Boucher and, as in an opium dream, lose the thread between explicit and implicit. Chris Boucher is more virtual than real, more awash in possible than actual.
Such optimism remains valid. Boucher does a whole lot of excellent things. He’s an elite shot-blocker, and truly one of the best in the league at blocking perimeter looks. He is an explosive roller who can finish above the rim. He’s happy to stretch the floor, and though his three-point percentage isn’t elite, at 32.1 percent over his NBA career, he fires. That’s the important thing; he stretches the floor, and he can get hot in a hurry. That means he draws gravity behind the arc.
Boucher can also play either big spot, which gives him an extra pathway to minutes over fellow bench big Alex Len. With no obvious backup power forward behind Siakam, Boucher can get minutes there as well as at the center spot. He can inhale rebounds, protect the rim, and run in transition when deployed as center against the right opponents. Furthermore, He’s on a bigger contract than Len, which means the team is invested more in his success; for the first time in his career, he has an advantage in the off-the-floor fight for minutes.
If Boucher plays most of his minutes alongside Lowry, one of the best rick-and-roll orchestrators in the league, then his numbers should be spectacular. He’s a very good pick-and-roll big, particularly against opposing bench players. More importantly, he’s a high-value defender that forces problems from opposing offenses. He can be outmuscled or forced into fouls, but those possible weaknesses are less significant for a bottom-of-the-rotation guy. When deployed in specific doses against opposing bench and transitional groups, his ceiling as a defender is more important than his floor. And he could create problems for opponents. What more could you ask from a seventh or eighth man?
He may be a lightning rod amongst fans and writers, but Nick Nurse seems to favour McCaw in the rotation. He won the eighth-man minutes in the rotation last year when healthy, and there’s no real reason to expect that to change. Nurse has talked him up so far in the bubble, even if he’s not fully healthy.
“I wouldn’t say he’s fully all the way back, but he’s active and moving great and says he feels great,” says Nurse of McCaw. “He’s vibrant and ready to go. Says he feels great and looks pretty good to me.”
Last year, I explained why McCaw was favoured for minutes here. The same argument remains true. He is a high-floor defender. He’s switchable between wings and guards. He’s long and digs into opposing dribblers, and though he can die on screens, he fits well into schemes and doesn’t make many mistakes. That’s something that coaches value more than other qualities.
On the offensive end, McCaw is improving as an initiator. He can be tentative at time, but that also means that he fits into his lane and doesn’t commit too many turnovers. Again: something coaches love. He’s not a great shooter, but he’ll hit the open ones — he hit 40.4 percent of his wide-open triples last year. He’s particularly effective from the corner, which slots well into modern NBA offenses.
McCaw can be over-exposed when he’s not alongside premier initiators. When asked to create for himself and others, he sometimes isn’t up to the task. But when played alongside Siakam or Lowry, he can fit in, keep the ball moving, and hit the open ones. And he does all that without making too many mistakes on either end. It’s sort of the opposite of the things a guy like Boucher offers, but it’s often what coaches want from the end of the bench. And McCaw does all that while playing either point or wing. Like it or not, he has the inside track on rotation minutes in Toronto.
There aren’t ten better shooters in the NBA than Matt Thomas. I mean, the guy hit 48.5 percent of his triples last year. And his numbers are basically the same no matter what the circumstances are. Whether he’s open or guarded, catching or pulling up off the dribble, shooting from the corner or above the break, the truth remains: he hits his shots. It’s pretty insane.
Thomas has spectacular footwork behind the arc. He runs hard off the ball, and he is great at pump-and-go one-dribble triples to create space. He reads screens well, has a quick release. It’s the full shooting package. He had a low usage rate last year, but he could easily push his attempts up to seven or eight a game if he got the minutes alongside those who could create for him.
Nurse, by the way, is a fan of Thomas’ shooting: “I’m just like you, my eyes light up just like yours do when I see him come in there and start banging shots.”
On top of the shooting, Thomas has shown some nifty pocket passes in the pick-and-roll, and some ability to create for himself while attacking rotations. He’s never going to be a lead guard, but he can run secondary or tertiary pick-and-rolls to great effect.
Nurse also said, though, that the guy who wins the consistent rotation spots is going to be a defender.
“You’ve got to understand you’ve got to play both ends, right,” he said when asked about Matt Thomas playing more consistent minutes this year. “They’ve got to play at the other end too. And that’s the whole player is really the person that really wins that job.”
Thomas has made strides as a defender. He’s a solid team defender, and he competes. He’s actually a plus rebounder for his position, which resulted in some comical numbers last year.
According to on-off stats, Matt Thomas’ single greatest skill is …….
When he played last year, Toronto snatched 5.3% more O boards (94th percentile) and held opponents to 3.3% fewer O boards (92nd). All per @cleantheglass
— Louis Zatzman (@LouisZatzman) December 9, 2020
Whether that’s enough for him to be considered a two-way player is a decision only Nurse and his staff can make. To me, Thomas’ shooting alone means he should win consistent rotation minutes at the guard spot behind Lowry, VanVleet, and Powell. His shooting is probably the highest-level single skill possessed by any Raptor. Perhaps Lowry’s charge-taking, but it’s a debate. Regardless, Nurse has a clear preference for low-mistake, high-defensive-floor players. That’s not who Thomas is. He has to overcome his player type in order to top McCaw and Terence Davis for rotation minutes. But don’t count him out. He could legitimately improve Toronto’s half-court offense next year when he’s on the court. That’s not usually true about a bench player.
Davis offers a ton on the floor, but there’s more to whether Davis gets minutes — or even is on the Raptors — than his basketball game. I’m waiting to see how his court proceedings go before I analyze his game further.
The Dark Horses
The argument for Paul Watson is tempting, if unlikely. I made the case for him here, and the general point is that he emerged as a high-efficiency scorer in the G League last year while retaining solid defense. If he can hit 40 percent of his triples, like he did with the Raptors 905, he could easily steal some minutes and keep them. He’s long and strong and moves his feet well on defense. Plus he showed some juice off the bounce; he’s more capable of attacking rotations and creating for himself and others than previous wings Toronto has groomed in the G League, like Malcolm Miller.
And it’s not just fans and pundits who see Watson’s path to minutes. When asked about Watson, Pascal Siakam said “I think he has a good chance this year to crack the rotation and be a part of the team.”
Even Nick Nurse seemed to join the buzz:
“He looked great in some of our minicamp stuff we did before getting here this summer,” he said of Watson. “Went out to see him two times out working out when he was working out with Pascal. Worked really hard. You could noticeably see an uptick in improvement, just in, again, mindset, the way he’s moving out there, the confidence that he has attacking, and all those kind of things. So yeah, looks good. I would say he’s maybe off to a little bit of a slow start here in training camp, but today he was really good in particular. He had a little bit of a breakout day today, so that’s good to see.”
Watson is a fan favourite after his bubble performance. He’s a big wing with plenty of extras to his game and few weaknesses. There are plenty of ways a guy like that could break into the rotation in the long-term. Plus, there aren’t a lot of guys his size on the roster; if Watson could play some power forward, that would help his hunt for time. Most importantly, he needs his jumper to carry over, or he could easily fall victim to the numbers crunch in favour of a guy like Matt Thomas.
My man! Flynn has the chance to be something special. It’ll probably take some time, and he needs to add to his game. I covered that in great detail here. Most importantly, and like most rookies, he needs to add some strength. Still, he already enters camp as one of Toronto’s best pick-and-roll orchestrators. But it’s most likely that he has a lot of work to go before he’s a consistent rotation piece.
Welcome to 2020-21’s Raptor Agent of Chaos. It’s a long and proud tradition, most recently embodied by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. And Bismack Biyombo before him. And James Johnson, and Reggie Evans, and … well, you get the picture.
Bembry will do just fine in the role. He’s a physical wing with absurdly high block and steal rates for his position. Last year, per Cleaning the Glass, opponents committed 3.0 percent more turnovers when he was in the game, a 97th-percentile rate, superior even to Toronto’s own Hollis-Jefferson (1.6 percent higher). He throws deft passes, particularly lobs. He’s a banger.
Those are the positives. Bembry isn’t much of a shooter. He isn’t an on-ball defender the caliber of Hollis-Jefferson, which won Hollis-Jefferson his consistent rotation spot last year. It’s unlikely that Bembry offers enough all-around play to win a consistent rotation spot. But Nurse likes his defenders, and he especially likes his defenders who produce chaos. Bembry certainly does that. There will be times when he sparks runs, but it’s likely those times are confined to only a handful of games this upcoming year.
The hope for the Toronto Raptors with regards to Len is that his skills have been wasted while failing to win opportunity while playing with multiple losing organizations. A similar assumption was true of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson last year, and he broke into the rotation in a big way last year. It was less true of Stanley Johnson. So there’s a mix of possibilities.
Len is of course his own man. But signs point towards him having something that he didn’t get a chance to show in Phoenix, Atlanta, or Sacramento. He’s a big, athletic center, who can play above the rim as a roll threat. He can clean up the glass, and he’s a very good rim protector. He’s flashed a jumper here and there, but it seems like Nurse doesn’t believe in the skill.
“I’m not sure on the shooting part quite yet,” said Nurse. “I would say that my initial thought is we probably want him underneath the basket in the dunker, rolling hard on screens, being a force on the offensive boards. He’s a big target, we’ve never really had the pick and roll lob threat … just throwing it up at the rim, the guy’s at the rim, finishing it off, I see that.”
Because of Len’s size, he’ll be used often as the backup center against behemoths too large for Boucher. The Joel Embiids of the world. But those centers are few and far in between. Against most centers in the league, Boucher will be able to hold his own just fine, and he offers other skills that the traditional Len doesn’t have. On some nights, Len will be asked to serve. And he’ll be solid in those occasions. But most likely, he’ll be a break-in-case-of-emergency big.
Johnson broke out in a big way in Toronto’s final regular season game of the year. He scored 23 points and dished six assists. It was Watson-ian. But it’s unlikely that Johnson can transition such a game into consistent long-term growth.
He shot 29.2 percent from deep last year and too often put his head down and drove into traffic. His defense was scattershot.
Still, Johnson showed promise as a point guard. He’s massive and can see passes that most guards can’t. If he has a future, it’s at the guard position. His jumper needs to come along. As does his decision-making. But crazier things have happened.