The 2021-22 Raptors have marched out a lot of different looks this season. Emerging skillsets on young stars, opposing defensive schemes, and injuries forced that diversity, but the roster construction dictated that, that diversity was still housed under a binding framework: length.
Chris Boucher is length, weaponized. And it’s to his credit that over the past two years he’s done it in a lot of different ways. Last year, he was an inconsistent defender and an absolute heat pump on offense. The 3-point shot came around in a big way, he was Kyle Lowry’s favorite pick n’ roll partner, and while the team toiled away in Tampa, he used it as a springboard to his first substantial season in an NBA rotation. I wrote in depth about what’s changed for Boucher back in January and how selflessly he adapted to a less glamorous role for the better of the team. Since then, I spent a lot of time pleading in my written and audio work for the Raptors to keep Boucher at the deadline if they had any designs on winning. We’re a couple months removed, the Raptors are hunting a top-6 seed, and Boucher is still just as important to the Raptors success.
What drives this success? Meaningful improvements from Boucher on the defensive end, and a scheme that fits his strengths perfectly. It’s perfectly fine to have reservations about the Raptors defensive scheme, it’s not infallible, but there’s no doubt that Boucher has found a home in it.
His biggest struggles defensively in his career to this point were largely in 3 separate scenarios: pick n’ roll defense, over-eager gamble situations, and rebounding battles against more physically punishing bigs. The Raptors roster building helped mitigate some of these shortfalls. The defensive rebounding isn’t fixed whatsoever and Boucher isn’t solving that, but it’s at least a team wide problem. The pick n’ roll defense is in a significantly better place because the Raptors switch more often, they blitz more often and they’re for more aggressive on average. It’s rare to see Boucher trying to thread the middle between two players in drop defense, or keeping up from the level of the screen. And lastly, those over eager proclivities are now a feature of his defensive game instead of a hindrance because of the Raptors embrace of the ongoing possession war.
So, Boucher gets to gamble for steals, make sweeping back line rotations to defend the rim, and he’s made modest improvements when it comes to guarding wings and guards in space. Aided, of course, by a Raptors scheme that wants to send help. Boucher is a defender who wants to lean on teammates and relishes the trust they give him. He is a collaborator at heart.
The Raptors turn teams over at a much higher clip when he’s on the floor, and they allow less points. Last year, the Raptors were worse defensively with Boucher on the floor. This year they defend better with his presence, and that’s the result of his hard work to improve being coupled with contextual changes in playstyle. It’s a huge bonus. He still makes mistakes on defense (who doesn’t?), and even some bad ones, but the easy-to-parrot: “he has no idea what he’s doing out there” comments that are often made about his defense are, to this writer, dated.
Offensively, he’s still not prioritized. It’s not that the player from last season is gone on that end, it’s moreso that the Raptors have little interest in servicing that player. Simply put, they won’t invest a large number of pick n’ roll possessions into him. They value him as a spacer when he has his shot going, and an offensive rebounder for every other occasion.
This switch in role probably isn’t ideal for Boucher’s box score numbers. It isn’t good for his highlight package either. But, he’s a team player and everyone around him is benefiting from this change in role. Positioning Boucher as a corner shooter who, when not actively shooting, blasts off towards potential offensive rebounds like a rocket is far more impactful when he buys into it. It may have taken him a little while – the start of his season was rough for many reasons – but at this point he’s throwing himself at every offensive opportunity possible. He eyes more diverse cuts, he times them better, and he greases the wheels of every offensive action he’s a part of. He’s shooting a career best at the rim, he’s making over half his shots from the corners, and the team grabs way more offensive rebounds when he’s on the floor. He’s a part of the ‘Funk Fest Quartet’ and many of its variations.
In a team that’s trying like hell to provide as many developmental possessions to the likes of Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby, while also servicing the stardom of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and the hired gun aspirations of Gary Trent Jr. – Boucher becomes whatever the Raptors need on a possession-to-possession basis. The Raptors adopted a defense that helped paper over his shortcomings, and then asked him to paper over others on the offensive end. The result is a tremendously useful and impactful bench big, who can start in a pinch.
No matter what happens with the Raptors big man rotation, I hope that Boucher’s minutes remain a focal point. I hope the team, Nick Nurse, the front office, whoever – recognizes Boucher’s integral role in some of the Raptors most absurd, most dominant, most Raptors-y lineups.
Boucher is as much a part of this teams success story as many other players on the roster. In fact, he might even be able to claim that he is the most devout follower of the Raptors new ethos. The Raptors – through possession hunting, length, and many other length-adjace feats – have championed a unique brand of basketball, and while players like Siakam, Anunoby, and Barnes fit a lot of what the Raptors put in the tagline – they’re all trying to be stars. In the NBA, stars chart their own course to some degree, no matter what. Boucher is a rotation player who was caught in the shuffle, started succeeding in it, and at it’s most base level. The Raptors attempts at a new and forward thinking brand of basketball wasn’t just to unlock stars. They did it to unlock role players, too. Chris Boucher is the 2021-22 Raptors.
Have a blessed day.