Against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Khem Birch was the only thing working early for the Toronto Raptors. In chronological order, he set a wide screen to free an open OG Anunoby jumper from the corner, perfectly defended both sides of the pick and roll and finished by challenging a floater, defended another pick and roll and gathered a poor lob, threw an outlet to Pascal Siakam for a dunk, held off a center for a rebound, and stripped a point guard attacking the rim. Oh yeah: that was all during the first four minutes of the game. If that’s a mouthful for you as a reader, imagine the devastation it wreaked on the Cavaliers as his opponents. Birch’s defense was the single biggest reason why Toronto’s 10-2 deficit so quickly became an insurmountable Raptor lead. And as the dust settled on Toronto’s comfortable 112-96 win, Birch’s fingerprints were revealed as omnipresent in the wreckage of the Cavaliers as ants on an unattended picnic. That was no coincidence.
“It’s good that it’s that way,” said Nick Nurse. “I just think that he’s doing a little bit of everything. He’s running, he’s rebounding, he’s blocking a couple shots here and there, screening and rolling, and tonight he was finishing.”
Birch’s “doing a little bit of everything” has quite often corresponded with Toronto playing winning basketball. In only Birch’s second game playing for Toronto, the Raptors topped the very good San Antonio Spurs by five, though they outscored the Spurs by eight with Birch on the floor. Only a few nights later, he went plus-14 in an 11-point win against the Brooklyn Nets. Then plus-15 (!) in a 17-point (!!) loss to the New York Knicks.
We may need to rethink our conception of Khem Birch. As long as he’s on the floor, Toronto has been outscoring their opponents by wide margins.
Explaining why that’s the case might be complex in some basketball markets, but it’s surely no stretch to those who’ve enjoyed the exploits of Kyle Lowry for the last decade. Those little things that made Lowry a champion — Birch has the same gene. I asked a week ago whether being a generalist or a specialist is the most straightforward path to improvement. Birch’s impact is an argument strongly in favour of generalism.
Against the Nets, Birch had two incredible passes as a pick-and-roll roller that opened open corner jumpers for Toronto. He’s done so much more since then. His abilities to screen, roll, catch the ball on the move, and finish unlocks Kyle Lowry’s passes over the top, leading to an impressive lob pass from Lowry to Birch against the Cavaliers that Lowry threw while Birch was still behind the free throw line.
“I like the little synergy those two have,” said Nurse of Lowry and Birch. “I think Khem’s quick into the screens, he’s quick out of them.”
Birch unlocks Fred VanVleet’s off-beat passes with a defender on his hip. That he can simultaneously defend both the guard and the big in the pick and roll allows Toronto’s defensive wizards in VanVleet, Anunoby, and Siakam to help, recover, switch, rotate, and force chaos. That he can screen so solidly off the ball unlocks Toronto’s hammer plays. That he can find cutting space unlocks Toronto’s driving game.
It’s also worth pointing out that even though Toronto is crushing opponents with Birch playing, he himself isn’t usually the one doing the crushing.
“This is the easiest 14 points I’ve ever had in my career,” said Birch to Sportscentre’s Kate Beirness after the game, attributing the ease of his success to Kyle Lowry.
To that point, Birch is a catalyst for Toronto’s success. He’s not going to create shots for bench groups, but he can help Toronto’s creators keep the ball whirring. He’s multiplicative, not additive.
Birch may not be the one doing the scoring or gathering the defensive stats when he’s on the floor, but quite often his actions are indirectly responsible for the good stuff that happens for the Raptors. The only place that shows up on the box score is the plus-minus column. And boy oh boy does it show up there.
So, some caveats first before the mind-blowing stats. This has been a puppy-soft schedule since Toronto acquired Birch, and he’s only played 213 minutes across eight games in a Raptors’ jersey. Small sample size and all that, but sample size matters for prediction. It doesn’t change the descriptive truth that the Raptors have pulverized opponents with Birch on the floor.
Not including Toronto’s win over the Cavaliers, Toronto has been 12.1 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Birch on the floor and 10.3 points per 100 possessions better on defense. Those are 98th-percentile and 97th, respectively, and the best marks for the Raptors on both sides of the ball. All in all, Birch’s combined on-off per 100 possessions of 22.4 points is second in the entire league.
Birch is even better alongside Toronto’s best. His ability to unlock the skill of his teammates is best employed alongside more talented teammates (duh); Toronto’s starting lineup of Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, and Birch have a point differential per 100 possessions of 34.7, a 100th percentile mark for the league.
With Birch on the court, the team is shooting better from deep, committing fewer turnovers, shooting better at the rim, assisting on more field goals, rebounding better, fouling less, drawing more free throws, and holding opponents to a lower percentage from the field. That’s the Reaganomics of basketball (except it works) in that his ability to unlock his teammates trickles down to affect virtually every area of the game.
All this to say, Birch may not just be a stopgap at the center position. He’s giving a whole lot more than that. He finished with an impressive stat line of 14 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 blocks, and 2 steals against the Cavaliers, but you can’t always count on numbers like that. You apparently can always count on Toronto playing better with him on the court.
That’s a keeper of a player. Birch may not finish with the numbers of a traditional starter, but when has that ever bothered a franchise that hitched its wagon to the star of Lowry and won big? There’s precedent in Toronto acknowledging the impact of Birch and adapting accordingly. I asked Nurse after the Cleveland game if Birch’s impact was reaching a point where Nurse can’t keep him off the floor. Nurse didn’t go that far, but he did say that what was initially a time share between Birch and Freddie Gillespie is increasingly becoming Birch playing normal starter minutes. That’s a start.
Expect his role to grow going forward.