The following is a guest post from Jai Guruprasad
The Raptors’ bench rotation during the 2020/21 season was, frankly, a mess. Nick Nurse never truly seemed comfortable with certain guys for extended periods of time, and this led to constant fluctuations of minutes — injury after injury for guys like Flynn, Bembry, Watson, and Watanabe didn’t help either. However, towards the end of this season from hell, it seemed that some guys moved themselves into a more solidified role, while some definitely won’t be back next year. That will inform Toronto’s decisions as to who remains a Raptor into next season. This is Cut or Keep.
Chris Boucher: Keep
Bonjour! Chris Boucher, arguably the most pleasant surprise from this season, has a $7 million non-guarantee for next season. Given the production that Boucher provided off the bench this year, the Raptors wouldn’t hesitate for a second to bring back the Montreal native for next year. Boucher played roughly 11 more minutes per game this year than last year and bumped up his numbers across the board. 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds on 51/38/79 shooting splits is very valuable production off the bench at $7 million. He posted a 63.4 true shooting percentage, the second highest on the team behind only Paul Watson, who played significantly fewer minutes.
Nurse seemed to find a very nice solution to Boucher’s defensive flaws — his skinny frame and his love for blocking shots getting him into foul trouble being two major issues — by playing him at the four next to a more traditional big man. This should bode well going forward, as well as allow him to roam the back line for more blocks without having to be the primary defensive rebounder as well. Boucher has developed solid chemistry with the core group. He could also be a significant trade asset at next year’s deadline if needed, given the team’s lack of other midrange salaries. This might be a “sell high” candidate — either way, the Raptors will jump at the chance to keep him for such a low price.
Yuta Watanabe: Keep
Watanabe had his two-way deal converted to a standard NBA contract on April 19th and has been a bright spot in the rotation this season. His defense is awesome, and his effort is a joy to watch. Towards the end of the year he had the opportunity to showcase more of his offensive skill set. He seems to have more potential on offense than his numbers would indicate on the year, as shown when he dropped a career high 21 points against Orlando. His long arms are extremely useful on some sweet looking runners in the lane, which was a positive given for much of the year the majority of his scoring came from behind the arc. His lack of hesitation to shoot open threes was something that will hopefully carry forward next year. He finished the year shooting 40% from three but on a fairly small sample size.
Watanabe projects to be the backup small forward behind OG. The coaching staff will continue to urge him to take more shots and move away from the passive offensive game he showed throughout most of the year. He is a lock to be back at $1.8 million next year.
Aron Baynes and Rodney Hood: Cut Both
These two guys are pretty easy to group together. Neither of them should be back on the team next year. Baynes, who has $7.3 million non-guaranteed for next year, was nowhere near what was expected from the team and the fans. After shooting a much improved 35% from three-point land last year in Phoenix, Baynes shrunk the floor for the rest of the team – and most importantly Pascal Siakam – by shooting a very rough 26% this year. His inability to cut into space led to Siakam always driving into extra bodies in the paint. This was a large part of the Raptors opening the season 2-8 and then having to work extremely hard to get back to .500. Baynes only shot 59% on shots within three feet of the rim compared to the 75% that Ibaka shot last year. He almost completely disappeared once Birch and Gillespie arrived on the team, only to come into action when there was quite literally no other options due to all the injury management. Baynes seems like a great guy off the court, but this signing was a failure from day one.
Rodney Hood, who came as salary filler in the Powell – Trent trade, is set to earn $10.8 million for next year, though his contract is non-guaranteed. Hood was seen as a spark plug off the bench when he came over to the Raptors, but an unfortunate string of injuries has only seemed to continue. Where the two salaries of Baynes and Hood might help are potential trades. However, Hood’s guarantee date is before the draft which makes it difficult to keep him around unless the team knows for sure they can move him. Baynes has a much later guarantee date, and there may be a fit for him somewhere in the league as a low minutes backup big. The front office will no doubt call around the league to see what is available in return for Baynes. Still, it’s most likely that the Raptors politely move on from both players.
DeAndre’ Bembry: Keep
Bembry represents a small $1.9 million on the books for next year and is one of the more interesting non-guaranteed players to look at. Bembry experienced much of the minute fluctuations that others did, going from completely out of the rotation to playing heavy minutes when the team was thinned out from COVID and injuries. Nurse used him as a makeshift point guard during stretches without much of the roster, which resulted in static offensive possessions. He did fit in well as a tertiary playmaker when everyone was healthy and had the real starters with him on the floor. If he is back next year, I would expect the coaching staff to urge him to work on his three point shot, something that we’ve seen them help develop in other guys. He showed his ability inside the arc with 77 percent of his shots coming as two point attempts that he converted at a solid efficiency of 59 percent.
This is one of the harder choices to make because we don’t know which direction the team is leaning towards in terms of future-oriented moves. Bembry is only 26 years old, but the team could opt to go ultra young with their draft picks. Or with his connectivity skills more valuable than his individual scoring and creation skills, they could opt to use his roster spot on a higher-reward and younger player. Ultimately, I’m leaning towards bringing him back due to a combination of tertiary playmaking ability, knowledge of the system, and good vibes.
Paul Watson: Keep
Raptors Twitter rejoice! Paul Watson, who signed a two-year deal just before the season started, has $1.7 million non-guaranteed on the books for next year. Watson had some bad injury luck and lost some opportunities as a result, but he showed real promise as a rotation piece. He shot a blistering 47% from three on 2.4 attempts per game, which was very helpful during his 11 minutes per game. His 30-point breakout game in April was one of the more fun performances of the year and gave us a brief glimpse of his ability to get hot from outside. His physical tools and shooting are there, but the limited minutes and injury issues make it very difficult to evaluate Watson at a high level. We have seen former Raptor development projects like Alize Johnson and Oshae Brisset flourish this year in other places after the Raptors let them go, and neither had the level of consistent offensive success in the big leagues that Watson has shown. If Watson is your 10th or 11th man off the bench for ten minutes a game, I think you’re happy. The team will likely keep him for one more year and see if they can’t hone his game and find out what value he offers in more minutes from time to time.
Freddie Gillespie: Keep
Gillespie, Miley Cyrus cover’s aside, has also shown promise in his short time as a Raptor. He’s not scared to go up and block shots against some of the biggest dunkers in the game. His unusual path to the NBA also emphasizes his work ethic and willingness to improve. He provides the big body the Raptors needed around the rim but will definitely continue to be a development project. Obviously, he is prone to some rookie mistakes – we’ve seen Lowry and VanVleet teaching him how to roll to the rim better – but he has shown the ability to execute Nurse’s not-so-simple defensive schemes. In his short time with the club, he had high highs and low lows, but the former matters much more for an undrafted rookie on his first NBA team. At $1.5 million next year, the Raptors will be sure to bring him back into the development system and likely get some time with the 905 as well.
Jalen Harris: Keep
Jalen Harris, Mr. We The North, had a very up-and-down rookie year. Harris will be a restricted free agent this summer after his two-way contract expires, which more or less functions similarly to a “cut or keep” guy. It would be quite easy for the team to bring him back for more time in the development system, whether it is a second two-way deal or a minimum standard contract. In normal conditions, he would have spent much more time with the 905 system and then had various call ups to the team. But he showed some promise in the brief stint he had in the G League Bubble and showed some juice in the final two weeks of the season on the Raptors. His 31 point game vs Dallas gave cause for celebration towards the end of a mostly miserable season. He can clearly score, handle the ball in the PnR, and is willing to work on defense. His jumper looks great, and his moves to get into his shot are incredibly advanced for his level of experience. It will be interesting to see him develop and hone his skills more in the 905 and Raptor system.
Using the players that should stay on the roster (and assuming – bear with me here – the re-signings of Trent and Birch with the departure of Kyle Lowry and Stanley Johnson), the roster for next year would look like this:
Guards: VanVleet, Flynn, Harris
Wings/Forwards: Siakam, Anunoby, Trent, Watanabe, Bembry, Watson
Bigs: Boucher, Birch, Gillespie
That’s already 12 of your 17 players – unless Harris is on another two-way deal. The Raptors also have three draft picks, one whom we can assume will get pretty significant minutes. They will have some cap space to spend if Lowry walks for nothing and they maneuver their re-signings smartly. There are likely to be some tight calls on back-end rotation pieces that are more replaceable. Everything hinges on Lowry’s decision and the subsequent direction that the front office chooses. Most importantly, they’ll have to pivot quickly no matter which direction they go.
The growth of these players plus free agency and talented draft additions should help to solidify next year’s rotation. It is important to remember that many of these players were put into positions that they shouldn’t have been in this year, at least for stretches — playing starter-level minutes because of COVID and various injuries. They no doubt looked better when the team was fully healthy and they could come off the bench and share minutes with more confident and accomplished players. Continuity and a return to a roaring crowd at Scotiabank Arena will help, no doubt. Hopefully we even get to see some Rico Hines and other assorted L.A. gym runs from the team on Instagram. A bench that the team can rely on is an important development moving forwards and will help the team get back to winning ways. Deciding which guys to cut and which to keep is the first step towards building that bench.