Making a murderer out of Toronto’s bench groups

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At the start of the second quarter in the Toronto Raptors’ win over the Washington Wizards, a strange lineup ambled onto the floor. Scottie Barnes was the lone starter, flanked by reserves Dalano Banton, Svi Mykhailiuk, Yuta Watanabe, and Chris Boucher. To that point, the five had never played a single second together. And without a traditional point guard or center, it was a strange sight indeed.

Then — even as Barnes, the lone starter, hardly touched the ball! — the group went on a tear. Mykhailiuk hit a pull-up triple. Boucher drove and flipped in a reverse layup. Watanabe handled in the pick and roll and threw a dart to a rolling Boucher after manipulating the defenders, probing, setting up the pass with craft. Banton drove the baseline, wrapped around the net, threw a bounce pass to a cutting Barnes for an easy dunk. Banton drove the baseline, wrapped around the net, threw a wraparound pass to Watanabe in the corner for a splashed triple. Barnes isolated, drew a double team, hit Banton for a triple.

Timeout Washington.

Surviving minutes with your best players off the court is always critical to victory in the NBA. The Raptors have seen a variety of iterations of survival, from the Bench Mob of yore, with Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam (now the team’s current stars) obliterating foes, to Lowry and (insert names here) forcing timeouts for years because of runs in transition. This season, Toronto has spent the vast majority of its non-starter minutes with two, three, or four starters on the floor. There have been plenty of iterations of that, with VanVleet and Barnes propping up bench guys, or VanVleet and Anunoby, or Siakam and Anunoby. (Side note: Holy hell VanVleet has played a lot of minutes.)

But mostly, the Raptors have been beaten badly when their five starters are off the floor. Their starters actually have a net rating of 4.0 through the season, but Toronto’s teamwide mark on the year is -0.2. Translation: if this team is going to keep winning games, it has to find ways to win when one or more starters get some rest.

Having a healthy complement of bench players is critical there. Watanabe is back from a long stay on the injured list with a calf strain, and his defensive versatility, shooting, and off-the-bounce flair makes him one of Toronto’s most beneficial players. Khem Birch ought to return soon, and his screening and rim protection are critical. Boucher hasn’t been injured, but his ability to rediscover his identity is just as important as the return of other players.

“I watch a lot of film,” said Boucher about finding his way out of his funk. “A lot of people are upset with my play, which I understand, but I do a lot of mental work into figuring out what it is, and like I said, eventually you find it, eventually you know what you have to do and that is what’s going on right now. I’m realizing what role I have here, take what I can get and do the best with it.

I can do a lot of different stuff. I can set screens and roll, cut, slip screens. There’s a lot of stuff I can do [that] I kind of forgot trying to figure out where my three was.” 

Boucher introduced meditation as a pregame ritual before the Washington game, and his play likely guaranteed meditation will remain one of his pregame rituals going forward. His abilities to play off the bounce, score as a roller, and attack the offensive glass are all crucial for a team without a lot of offense on the bench. Far more important than his shooting.

The lineup of Barnes and the bench ended up winning its nine minutes over the game by 10 points. It’s not likely that Nick Nurse continues deploying four bench players alongside one lone starter, and it’s even less likely that the one starter is Barnes. But it did work brilliantly on one night, and it’s at least a card up the sleeve going forward. More likely is that the Raptors separate their four stars (when OG Anunoby returns) into pairs to prop up those minutes. They did the same last year to great effect when four stars were available.  

So how to divide the four stars? VanVleet is a true point guard and playing like one of the best in the league, so he’ll fit alongside any of the three wings in Siakam, Anunoby, or Barnes. Indeed, the Raptors have a positive net rating with VanVleet and Siakam on, Anunoby and Barnes off, VanVleet and Anunoby on, Siakam and Barnes off, and VanVleet and Barnes on, Siakam and Anunoby off. The most important question then is which two wings work best together? 

Though Siakam and Barnes have not had a great net rating together without VanVleet to this point, there’s plenty of reason to believe they’re starting to put it together. They’re the two best non-VanVleet playmakers on the team with elite assist percentages. They’d need to play alongside shooters to open up space for their drives and post-ups, so they’d fit well alongside Mykhailiuk and Watanabe, who are both shooters who can put the ball on the ground and attack rotations. Birch would be the cement that binds the unit together on both ends.

VanVleet and Anunoby would be equally complemented by the same group, but so too would Boucher fit well — his ability as a roller is excellent alongside a pick-and-roll guard like VanVleet. Banton could offer pace and punch in some lineups, although his minutes will probably be drastically reduced when Anunoby return. If offense becomes an issue, Gary Trent jr. can cycle through the bench units as an upgrade on Mykhailiuk or even alongside him, if the team wants to supercharge the spacing. There are plenty of options. 

Toronto is both a deep and shallow team. It’s deep in that there’s a huge number of talented players. But it’s shallow in that few of those talents overlap; the team doesn’t have a deep stable of shooters, self-creators, creators for teammates, or players who can pressure the rim. That means that any real amount of roster imbalance — injuries to a few players, for example — can throw the product on the floor out of whack. Building coherent rotations is tough, especially on a team that’s so young (because you can’t expect consistency from young players). So even rotations that ought to work won’t on many nights. 

But the framework for success is there on this team. Win minutes when the starters are on the floor and buy rest for the stars with defensive units that can pack some punch with pace. The Raptors have the personnel to make it work for 48 minutes. They did so against the Wizards, and they’re eventually to get a near-All-Star caliber player back in Anunoby, which has huge trickle-down positives across the rotation. The Bench Mob won’t ride again this season, but the Raptors are starting to show glimmers that they can at least make do with what they got. 

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