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Five Things I Dig and Don’t Dig About the Toronto Raptors

This week on Five Things we chat Return of the Bench, moments of intimacy, and Malachi Flynn's passing.

Apologies for the two-week delay of Five Things.

Two computers kaput in one week! Talk about injury luck.

But I'm back. We're back. Winning is back. Everyone's back. Except Otto Porter Jr.. He's not going to be back (swift recovery, OPJ!).

A long one this week, so we're down to Four Things!

Let's roll.

*All data is prior to Thursday night's game against Charlotte

1. The Bench Identity Crisis

Ye Gods! The bench.

What an absolute welcomed turn of events.

None too soon either.

Much has already been made of the minutes played by the Raptors core thus far into the mediocre season. Pascal (1st), Freddy (4th), and O.G. (5th) average the most minutes in the League. With less wins than one would hope to show for it.

In fact, if you align minutes played with wins and losses, you'll see that more minutes played by the core starters has no direct correlation to winning.

Minutes played in Wins

Minutes played in Losses

There are many factors contributing to the difference in minutes distribution - including blowouts in either direction - inhibiting any deeper analysis. Still, we can at least assume that simply playing the core 5 more than anyone else in the NBA is not, alone, a successful recipe.

It's not basic algebra of more bench minutes = more winning either. Raptor replacements have been putrid. There's no significant gain in minutes played by the bench in wins (other than for Thaddeus Young +5 minutes and Christian Koloko +2 minutes).

Up until three games ago, it seemed like the bench was all but zombie brains. Confidence a feint whisper of an idea. Against Indiana, New York, and Milwaukee, the Raptors bench contributed a collective total of 7, 15, and 7 points respectively. Their inefficacy entirely the reason for the Raptors losses.

After that 3-game mess, it seemed - at least emotionally so - the only answer was to shut this experiment down or swiftly trade a core player for multiple impactful players before this whole season goes nuclear.

That was six days ago.

Much of the Raptors bench woes, in my humble opinion, have been exacerbated by a compounding effect of injuries and Nick Nurse's distrust of the majority of his players.

Many have, rightfully so, argued that the Raptors' failures this year are a result of poor roster construction. Management has reaped what it sowed, as the argument goes, by not acquiring a "real" center, a "real" shooter, or a "real" backup point guard. I am not entirely in agreement, but I accept the thesis.

Agree or disagree, the margin for failure is much thinner with their approach. With Otto and Precious being integral to Toronto's depth - and the executives' novel "vision" of this team - their injuries revealed Toronto's vulnerabilities harshly. Spike that with Nick's refusal to A. rely upon a consistent rotation and B. (inherently tied to A) trust most of his players and you have an undeveloped, unconfident, undependable depth chart.

Recently, Zach Lowe and Adam Mares of DNVR Sports were discussing Nikola Jokić's absurd on/off differential and how the Nuggets' bench craters with him off the floor. Mares highlighted Denver's lack of bench identity as a fundamental problem.

In response to Zach wondering about that, Mares responded saying,

"You need an identity and this is the biggest thing, to me, with Denver's second unit. The second unit has consisted of any number of 8-9 guys. Stagger Jamal, stagger, Porter...I think Denver needs to commit an identity there...You need to find a lineup that works for [Hyland]. And, I actually think that that second unit needs to have a lot of hustle, defence around Bones and spread the court. Against Memphis...it worked...at least for one game...Commit to an identity and commit to a group..."

Zach concurs,

"I like it. Identity is the key word. They need something to hang their hat on. Think back to some of the great bench units. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrel. Didn't work in the playoffs, but did enough to keep the Clippers afloat."

The same goes for Toronto. Nurse was experimental to start. In-game and out. An endless number of rotations - only starters; no starters; different staggering of starters; different point guards playing different quarters (#2); different centres; DNPs for guys one night who games prior played 20 minutes plus - all of which never really stuck. Hell, I even offered several (#4) of my own suggestions.

Experimentation isn't bad. Especially, early. Nor is plugging and playing guys based on matchups. It's gotten to a point, though, where the inconsistency is so profound and the distrust - getting yanked or not getting additional minutes the next quarter or next game - so fraught, players are challenged to find confidence and a collective coherence.

I get the struggles. Pulling a guy or striking his minutes is sometimes necessary or can send a probative message, but overdo it and you prevent guys from working through mistakes, learning from them, and, over time, finding rhythm. Short-term costs for long-term gains.

(This, by the way, is a good example of "identity").

I'm not suggesting there is some great bench rotation yet to be unearthed - though Precious + Boucher as the Bash Brothers (as I like to call them) is a start - but I do think, whatever the combination, they need extended runs to achieve confidence and comfort levels with themselves and their teammates.

2. The Bench Resurrection?

*Of course, as soon as I write this, Nurse messes with the rotations last night. The starters were hot, so he ran with them late in the 1st Q. The following point still stands.

In the last three games - versus Portland and Charlotte twice - the bench has played wondrously. To which, I say, is a result of what I just ranted about.

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