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The Khem Birch Corollary

Khem Birch is solid. We know that, of course. Even the last few weeks haven't done anything to disprove it.

You can find a French translation of the following article here.

The following is a fact about Khem Birch: he is solid. It is known, proved, signed, sealed, and delivered. For all his limitations, he helps settle things down. For all his injuries, he is among the most effortful players on the court. Birch has been, is, and always is going to be solid. It’s been his reputation for long before he became a Toronto Raptors — even when he wasn’t yet in the NBA. Yet the last few weeks have seemed to whittle away much of the leeway he had earned. His limitations became more prevalent. Yet even during what may well have been his lowest stretch since joining the squad, Birch has contributed to winning Raptors basketball.

Birch has averaged just 2.9 points per game since returning from injury in early February. That’s only marginally lower than his season average of 4.6 points a game; he is the second-lowest scorer in the league among players who’ve started 15 or more games. Birch is not a dangerous finisher around the rim, with little vertical lift. He is, among centers, below average both in frequency of shots around the rim and efficiency in scoring on them. His pet shot is a five-ish-foot push shot, which is a fun little counter but hardly a serious threat if it’s a player’s best way to score. There was talk of him adding the 3-point shot to his game last season, but he has attempted only eight on the year, making none. He no longer thinks about attempting triples in games. No matter where he touches the ball on the court, he doesn’t bend defenses in any way or force rotations.

The last few weeks have exacerbated qualms about his offensive contributions. He’s been missing his push shots. Since the All-Star break, he has shot 39.3 percent on shots from within 10 feet. That’s a bottom-10 mark over the same time period. He’s looked less mobile and less athletic.

His knee is bothering him. Tests haven’t showed anything structurally wrong with his knee, but he missed 10 straight games in January, and he’s been dealing with the soreness since. It’s required 24/7 monitoring and treatment. Furthermore, he’s broken his nose and lost a tooth all from contact in games. It’s been a literally painful stretch for Birch, and those ailments have impacted his game, making his wounds metaphorically painful, as well.

Yet somehow they haven’t lessened his impact. In an eight-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in early March, Birch won his minutes by 20 points. He scored a lowly five points, but he attacked the offensive glass, kept the ball moving whenever he touched it, and was Toronto’s best defensive presence inside. Scoring isn’t everything on the basketball court.

“I really like what he brings us whether he’s scoring or not,” explained Nick Nurse.

Similarly, in a crucial win over the Phoenix Suns, Birch helped stabilize a reeling Raptors squad. They led much of the game, but the Suns came storming back to tie the game with just under five minutes remaining. Enter Birch. The Suns scored only 10 points to close the game yet committed four turnovers. His activity was important to those turnovers, as he helped blitz ball-handlers and put pressure on passes.

“I think he’s clearly the best guy at [closing games with his defense],” said Nick Nurse after his performance against the Suns. “He’s got some experience in it.”

That confidence means a lot to Birch. He’s a smart guy. Self-aware. He knows that this last stretch of games has been subpar for him. He knows he’s had trouble scoring. That Nurse has kept him in the starting lineup and kept him playing meaningful minutes means everything to the Montreal native.

Honestly, I feel like with any other team I probably wouldn’t even be playing right now,” Birch admitted after the Suns’ game. “The fact that they just have that type of confidence in me despite all the injuries I’ve had, all the setbacks, and I’m still getting minutes tells a lot about how they feel about me, and it gives me a lot of confidence to keep going despite my injury.”

He’s earned that confidence. He finds ways to impact the game — setting screens or rebounding with the vim and vigour of a trampling rhinoceros. His on/off points per 100 possessions is the third best on the team behind only Gary Trent jr. and Pascal Siakam. The Raptors have enough players who can create their own shots. Birch is getting minutes because he supports them, helps them do it. There’s value to that.

Still, Birch probably should not be the Raptors’ starting center. That’s not because he hasn’t earned the minutes — Precious Achiuwa has simply done more to earn them. There’s no shame in being outplayed. Birch even said he’s happy for Achiuwa’s success and recognizes he’ll be the starter at some point. Achiuwa even got the nod against the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers. Still, Birch was fantastic against the Nuggets, even throwing down a lob in transition that few could have caught. Sometimes solid can bleed into spectacular. The starting point is moot, regardless: the Raptors will almost certainly return to their center-free starting lineup when OG Anunoby returns to health. 

But in the meantime, Birch remains beneficial. Even as he drags his bum knee around the court, wrestling with centers often several inches taller, he finds ways to usually win his minutes. Even though the last several weeks served partially to undermine his reputation, they also bolstered his case for minutes — the Raptors keep outscoring opponents during them, regardless of Birch’s own performances. Push shots may be his only consistent way of scoring, and he may be missing his push shots, but the Raptors somehow score anyway when he’s on the court. There’s a word to describe performances like that: solid. But we’ve always known that.