Respect the Raptors' Bench Mob
A lot of a team’s success certainly relies on its starters, but it’s the supporting cast that can make or break teams when going through the rough stretch of the dog days in the NBA, and even in the thick of the playoffs. They play an integral role in helping propel a team’s chances of winning on a nightly basis. Usually there’s 1 or 2 players who come off the bench and can make a significant impact (hence the 6th Man award), but the truly great teams can go deep into their bench to not heavily rely on the success of the starters. Ideally, that’s what you want in a fully functioning team.
The Toronto Raptors have had the best bench in the NBA this season so far, and the fact that the majority of the players who contribute to this bench are 1st and 2nd year players, is very telling to not only the drafting from management (shoutout to Masai Ujiri & Bobby Webster), but also to coaching. And quite frankly, you need some luck too, because you can have all the talent in the world, and it won’t translate on the court to get you the results you’re looking for.
Fred Van Vleet, Jakob Poetl, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam are the key cogs that churn the 2nd unit for the Raptors. Including the starting 5 of Lowry, DeRozan, Valaciunas, Ibaka, and OG Anunoby, 11 players are averaging at least 6 points per game, which I’ve read has never been done before.
When Masai called for a “culture reset” after getting swept by the Cavaliers in 2017, I didn’t anticipate that it would have resulted in them having the depth that they do at bench. It’s hilarious to think of their depth, when in very recent memory, they had the ‘6 Man’ of the year with Lou Williams (which he has lived up to in his post-Toronto career – currently with the Clippers). Unfortunately, they were swept by the Wizards. The bench was decent, but not enough to get the Raptors to the next level.
What’s currently at hand is a unit that is not only young, but also mature enough to grasp the challenge of getting to that next level. When Lowry is down, you have two PGs who can get you 20 (FVV & Delon). When you need a shooter, CJ Miles can give you 3-4 threes a night (that’s not even an exaggeration either – the man can shoot). Jakob Poetl has proven nightly that not only is he a great rim protector, but the man’s offensive production is that which Raptors fans have been asking JV to be for years. I mean, JV has a 3-point shot now, and is noticeably quicker on his feet, so we’ll take that.
The biggest challenge that always proved to be the Raptors downfall, was the amount of minutes Lowry & DeRozan spent on a nightly basis. By the time the playoffs came around, they were groggy, consistently inconsistent, and visibly tired. It was a lot on their bodies, and they weren’t fresh. They’ve always had to carry the team on those latter stretches, and would run straight to the ground come the first week of May.
This year, they haven’t had that problem, but mainly because the team is so good and has been dominating teams so often, that they usually don’t play whole 4th quarters. That’s a testament as well to great bench play, because Dwane Casey has found significant footing with his approach to controlling his game. At times, he’ll pull the starters so the 2nd unit can give the team a jolt. The chemistry of the bench is infectious, and the guys enjoy playing with each other. They’re part of the reason why the Raptors are on pace to break their season-high wins record again, and why the possibility of basketball in June is actually a conversation (right now). The assist rate for the Raptors is the highest it’s ever been, because of years of watching ISO-ball-run rampant. It’s the method to their success that will only get better with time.
The significance of having a D-League team is also at play because the nucleus of the bench spent significant time there (and won the D-League championship). When you look at the Spurs, which is an organization that has set the bar for overall team success for the past 20 years, they pride themselves on developing their players into becoming key contributors on the next level. With that much experience and playing time, it only adds to a player’s confidence, and it translates when it comes to in-game action.
The Raptors 905 should be respected for the way in which they’ve been able to sculpt their players into becoming consistent performers when it matters. ‘Built not Bought’ is a phrase that rejects the notion that you have to buy your way to success, and through great drafting and coaching, that’s possible.
The Golden State Warriors are another model you can look at, given that they produced 3 all-stars through their draft and have had success with pivotal role players.
The end of season result is still to remain, but this Raptors team, with their upgraded and finely tuned bench, can give hope to the team and the fans of the team of future success, if not this year, then definitely sooner rather than later.