Khem Birch’s Ball-Catching Hands End Baynes-Boucher Era

Khem Birch has allowed the Raptors to do normal basketball things.

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John Raoux/AP

I can’t recall a more glaring problem that went unaddressed for this long than the tale of the Raptors center position. Usually obvious problems are quickly addressed because you can’t go along explaining them to people. If you got a giant zit on your nose it’s going to be obvious to others that you got a giant zit on your nose. So you address it somehow, maybe some zit cream, or maybe you turn your camera off on Zoom calls. Whatever works, as long as nobody has to suffer watching your giant zit.

The Raptors this season haven’t just kept the camera on, they’ve moved it right up close to the zit and managed to fix the focus so its crystal clear. This is not about Aron Baynes and the 50 games he played, 31 of which he started. It’s about the decision to prolong the Baynes-Boucher experience that just hasn’t been questioned enough. I’m not sure if Masai Ujiri glanced at the tank from the start or whether this was a misread on a brazen level of incompetence at the position. Ujiri has not had a good season – he missed out on Giannis, mishandled the Ibaka/Gasol potential extensions, could not find suitable replacements in time, lost out on free agents, and ended up settling for Baynes. That is terrible.

Terrible, but forgivable. Mistakes happen and then there’s also the championship glow – thank you for that, probably saved many of us therapists hours later in life. The issue was that once it became clear that the situation was untenable, nothing was done. It was quickly evident that Baynes wasn’t going to replicate his Boston days. Most fans were OK with that. After all, we weren’t asking much of the position. Just basics: rebound, catch the ball, dunk the ball, maybe hit a jumper if it tickles your fancy.

But no, his Boston days weren’t just past him, they were long behind him. The situation snowballed where Baynes transformed into Rafael Araujo seemingly before our eyes. And on some night’s that was a disservice to Araujo, and I recall very little about Araujo except literally closing my eyes when he had the ball.

OK, that’s bad, but still forgivable because it’s just one man having a bad season. And sometimes signings go bad. Maybe Baynes looked forward to living in Toronto to extend the international experience and wound up in Tampa Bay smelling farts at Denny’s. I get it, people have bad years, GMs make bad bets sometimes and Ujiri is no different. He’s built an impressive core of young talent but you win some and you lose some. Sunk cost.

The unforgivable part is this: when it became obvious that not only was Baynes not producing individually (and that Chris Boucher was physically overmatched) but that the larger center play was capping the ceiling of the team well below what it could be, the Raptors did nothing. I had written about how every Raptors problem if scrutinized deep enough will eventually lead to the weak center position being a significant problem.  A problem that remained unaddressed to the point where even  Alize Johnson didn’t get a look. And it is at this point where the low-key tank argument picks up steam, but of which I have no desire to explore beyond this: if there’s a season to tank and get the least amount of scrutiny, it’s this one.

Overall, it is a straight-up F grade so far for Ujiri this season, both for his actions in the off-season and inactions since. This season did not need to be so shitty if only the Raptors had addressed the glaring weakness from the start, and this is not a matter of hindsight being 20/20. Despite all this Ujiri has escaped criticism mostly because, much like Bryan Colangelo in his latter years, the Raptors influence the media enough that it’s Plata O Plomo.

But as I said, the championship glow feels good. So thank you for that. Please stick around and try again next year.

Onto Khem Birch.

Khem Birch is not a great player but also a Godsend. He’s arguably an average to below-average center that does basic things on the floor that his teammates expect him to do at the times they expect him to do it. However, if you look at the impact of having someone on the floor who does the basics right, it is both sad and stunning.

Look at these two plays. Those are basic screen ‘n rolls and I can count on one hand how many times a play like that has worked this season.

We’re in the mode of being amazed by basic, simple center duties. Like, getting a rebound without punching the ball, or catching a pass without a game of volleyball breaking out. Or just stepping out to effectively defend more than three feet from the basket. These are small individual things that are relied upon to create the options an offense generates. And offenses are an opportunity generation system. When that system is limited by a constraint whose requirement is to be a little above average, and that constraint is well below average, the whole thing falls apart. Your true offensive potential is limited by your weakest resource, not your most glamorous.

That constraint is elevated with Birch enough that it’s opening up opportunities to run all kinds of actions. On defense his mobility alone results in the Raptors not having to help as much, he’s boxing out his man allowing others to get ahead in transition. He’s a passing option on offense – that’s right, he’s a passing option which means you can pass him the ball and he can pass to someone else to keep the flow going, while repositioning to a better place. Those are the types of things he’s doing and it’s liberating to watch OG Anunoby, Malachi Flynn, and Pascal Siakam react to having another viable option to interplay with.  I am not amazed by Khem Birch but I am amazed by the impact he’s had on how coordinated the Raptors look.

Nobody is expecting Birch to come in and rescue the season, nor do we expect him or Freddie Gillespie to provide enough cover for the Raptors to make a meaningful difference even if they make the play-in or post-season. It’s just a relief to see the Raptors have balance on the court which allows them to do basketball things that they weren’t able to do before.

I haven’t critiqued Chris Boucher as much because anyone who slanders him does not give enough weight to the physical toll of playing people well above your weight class night in and night out, especially in a compressed season. He has had poor nights like against Atlanta, but the vast majority of the time he is playing well beyond the expectations that any of us had of him in pre-season. He’s top 5 in blocks, shooting 38% from three, averaging career highs across the board including doubling his scoring from 6.6 to 13.5 pts, while playing 55 of 56 games in this infectious season. All this in his first season as a rotation player.

I don’t know what else you can ask of him. Now that he has someone whose physicality matches the resume in the frontcourt with him, he’s allowed to play positions that he’s more used to, not that it detracts him from the paint. Birch’s presence must be both a relief and motivator for Boucher, who needed a boost more than anyone.

Boucher and Baynes will go down in Raptors lore as an experiment gone too far. It is not their fault that we asked them to step in for Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, while somehow expecting the offense or defense not to take significant hits. Baynes tried, he got slightly better as the season went along and kept his head high during tough times. Boucher got airlifted by opposing big men half a dozen times a game and came back the next day striving harder. He had nights where he dominated play surprising the opposing teams commentator’s into shock. However, given the overall center duties required of a team which plays the Raptors style, they collectively never had a chance.

Raptors history has little known stretches which seem like eras: Young Guns, Bash Brothers, 13 Games, Bosh-JO, the list goes on. In that little list we can now safely place the Boucher-Baynes era. Print the t-shirts, we survived it.

2 Comments

  1. […] With the Raptors being the second-worst rebounding team in the NBA, the play of their new supporting big men has potentially been the most pleasant surprise during this past stretch. It took only three games of Aron Baynes being annexed from the lineup before the Raptors were able to grab a season-high 54 rebounds, and much of it is down to the fact that Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie are mobile bigs that are actually capable of catching the ball with their hands. […]

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