Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

Scottie + bench is a bet on star power

How do these minutes pay off?

Fandom, basketball knowledge, they’re informed by proximity to the style of team you watch, or the type of coverage you take in. Warriors fans, I presume, are much quicker to identify or discuss the pros and cons of running split-action than many other fans, because they’ve seen so much of it. Raptors fans, over the past handful of years, have been discussing cutting edge defensive coverages more than other fans. Maybe you read a writer, follow a youtuber, listen to a podcast that has a specific focus on a certain part of the game. The point being: we see what’s in front of us, and that informs everything.

The phrase “Kyle Lowry plus bench” carries a lot of meaning for basketball fans in Toronto, and probably has little meaning anywhere else in the world. The reason? Lowry was an always underrated, always overlooked, but always tremendous basketball player. A Hall of Fame level talent, hiding amongst players often found on the outskirts of All-NBA selections. Lowry + anyone was a winning lineup. He had an unbelievable ability to transmogrify into a swelling, rising tide that lifted all boats, all the time. For that reason, he’s left an indelible mark on basketball fans in Canada.

It probably isn’t the case that Darko Rajakovic is thinking warmly of Lowry + bench units when he’s tossing Scottie Barnes out there with 4 bench players, but most fans are thinking of exactly that. This also isn’t necessarily a rite of passage for star players either. Sure, Pascal Siakam played minutes last season with no other starters — and to his credit, very nearly played them to a draw — but he only played 99 of those possessions across the whole 22-23 season. Barnes has already played 179 possessions with no other starters this season. That’s… a lot.

So, what do these lineups do well? Basically nothing. They don’t hit shots — 23% from three, 25% from mid-range, and 64% at the rim — they don’t get to the free throw line, they turn the ball over; and they don’t defend very well either. They rebound a decent chunk of their own misses, to be fair, as lineups with (mostly) Barnes, Chris Boucher, and Precious Achiuwa should, but they rebound their own misses to… miss again. Including the Cleveland game — where they lost their five and a half minutes by 4 points — the Scottie + bench lineups are sitting at a whopping -27.7 points per 100 possessions.

Now, if you take the exact same conditions, and move OG Anunoby from the ‘off the court’ pile, and put him on the court? Suddenly you have a very similar sample of possessions, only the Raptors (prior to the Cleveland game) have won those by a whopping +10.5 points per 100 possessions. A little bit of help (or a lot, OG seems like a lot of help) turns these destitute lineups into something great. Being able to win with all of Siakam, Poeltl, and Schroder off the floor is a big win. A win the Raptors should try to pencil in and make use of every game. Barnes and Anunoby can lead those minutes while the rest of the starters get a breather in, and on the other side of things, Siakam has led Anunoby and Barnes-less lineups to winning minutes as well. You’ve had an avenue to win minutes while your best players rest – that’s great.

(Pascal-OG-Scottie lineups also win a ton of minutes)

So, what is motivating Rajakovic to give lineups that have very little success, so much run? Well, we’re only 17 games into the season, and only 2 months removed from Rajakovic’s media day comments where he discussed the necessity of depth and a deeper rotation to get through the 82 game season. Also, similar to Dwane Casey’s rationale for Lowry + bench units, I suspect that Rajakovic is hoping that Barnes’ star power, that potential to be the swelling, rising tide, will be a kind of coaches cheat code – one that allows him to simplify his own rotations without surrendering too many points.

Barnes’ progression as an initiator (of any sort, be it a hub or as a live dribble creator) is what helps set the expectations for the Raptors future, and how they try to build going forward. Even though Barnes has been more passive than many would like in these minutes with the bench, this is at least a guaranteed way to get him usage, reps, possessions — however you’d like it framed — and maybe a way to gently encourage a very selfless player to shoulder more of the scoring load. So much of it is still up in the air. I suspect any player in their 3rd year would lose minutes when they’re surrounded by 4 bench players.

Even looking at Luka Doncic’s (1st team All-NBA) 3rd year in the league, he lost his minutes surrounded by bench players (-3.3 per 100 possessions). He lost those minutes by a lot less than Barnes to be fair, but he still lost them. Hell, even Lowry’s first big year in Toronto (13-14), he got shellacked in his Lowry + bench units (-12.2 points per 100 possessions).

These minutes are obviously, if won, supposed to be a testament to the star power of the player who carries them, but the other 80% of the players on the court are more important, truly. No man is an island. Coming into this season, there was a great deal of optimism for the Raptors bench, and their depth. Gary Trent Jr. hasn’t had a hot start to the season. While Malachi Flynn has had more minutes and room to make mistakes under Rajakovic, he hasn’t been an above average bench guard or anything like that. Boucher & Achiuwa have been hit or miss early on, swinging wildly from very impactful to very forgettable, and we’ve seen Gradey Dick, Jalen McDaniels, and Otto Porter Jr. slide in, but no one has really helped provide an answer (outside of Anunoby, a starter).

Odds are that these types of lineups continue losing minutes this season. It would be beyond Herculean for Barnes to turn these lineups around into winners. However, the question is: how important are these minutes to Barnes’ development and should that development be prioritized over winning minutes?

My thoughts? Let Barnes get more of these bench minutes next to Anunoby. Maybe someday Barnes will be able to carry a bench this way (few players ever do, truthfully), but I think it’s probably better for his development that he win minutes while surrounded by players who help him do that – at least one, and namely: OG Anunoby. After all, while it’s really impressive that some players can drag any type of lineup into respectability and eat minutes during the regular season, it’s more important for the best players to play really well next to other great players. That’s how you win championships.

I suppose we’ll see.

Have a blessed day.