Wright, VanVleet give Raptors unique edge over NBA’s winning teams

DeMar DeRozan had 35 points, Delon Wright set career highs with 25 points and 13 rebounds, and the Toronto Raptors beat the Chicago Bulls 124-115.

Wednesday night’s performance may have been especially strong, but the output from both Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet was hardly an aberration.

Wright had his best outing to date in the Toronto Raptors‘ 124-115 win over the Bulls in Chicago, posting career-highs in points (25) and rebounds (13), while tying a career-best with four steals. Wright shot 10-of-15 from the field, while VanVleet also shot the lights out, scoring 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting, his ninth double-digit scoring game of the season.

For Wright, it marks the latest in a string of eye-opening games. The third-year point guard has been unreal since returning from shoulder injury, making his presence known on both ends of the floor.

In his last seven games, Wright is averaging 12 points on 52.3 per cent shooting (53 from deep), to go along with 2.3 assists and 4.4 rebounds in 23 minutes per game. His defensive stats are even more impressive, averaging 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks in that span.

The two backup point guards have each carved out a substantial role coming off the bench for the 26-10 Raptors, who currently sit two and a half games behind the Boston Celtics for first place in the East and two games ahead of the third-place Cleveland Cavaliers.

2017-18 Games MPG PPG APG SPG BPG 3PM
Delon Wright 24 20.9 8.8 2.3 1.2 0.8 0.8
Fred VanVleet 36 17.8 6.3 2.9 0.8 0.2 0.9

Depth has been a very good friend to the Raptors this season, with a whopping 11 players averaging 17 minutes per game or higher, and starter-level talent off the bench is often a calling card for elite (or in the Raptors’ case, near-elite) teams.

But among winning teams this season, the way and degree to which both Wright and VanVleet are being utilized by head coach Dwane Casey is wholly unique.

Of NBA teams over .500 this season, only two others bring a pair of point guards off the bench for 15 minutes per game or more like the Raptors do — the Spurs (Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray) and Pelicans (Jameer Nelson and Ian Clark).

We’ll include the Celtics, too, with their bench tandem of Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart — he’s been an effective distributor and is averaging a career-best 4.8 assists per game this season. Smart really isn’t a point guard and is never on the floor without either Rozier or Kyrie Irving alongside him.

For context, VanVleet has nearly 81 minutes as the only point guard on the court for the Raptors, while Wright has spent just over 40 minutes as the only lead guard.

With Tony Parker out to begin the season, San Antonio started both Murray and Mills in his place, but the two remain as important pieces in the Spurs rotation since Parker resumed starting duties when he returned to the court in late November.

The Pelicans start Rajon Rondo at the point, with one-time PG Etwuan Moore now excelling at shooting guard. Off their bench, Nelson is the primary backup, with Clark seeing 15 minutes of action per game in a lesser role.

Using combined stats, here’s how the teams’ backup point guards stack up this season:

(Note: Spurs stats as of Parker’s Nov. 27 return)

MPG PPG APG SPG BPG
Raptors 38.7 15.1 5.2 2 1
Spurs 37.4 15.9 4.2 1.1 0.5
Pelicans 38.3 10.3 5.2 1.1 0.1
Celtics 53.8 19.1 6.9 2.2 0.6

A long-time trend in the NBA has been the use of multiple point guards on the floor at once, and the Raptors are no exception. Both Wright and VanVleet share the floor together often, combining for 144:42 of total playing time together this season. They also both see a ton of time on the court alongside Kyle Lowry, allowing Lowry to play off the ball and make his mark as a shooting threat on catch-and-shoot opportunities.

No matter the lineup, Wright and VanVleet are busy when on the court and have a combined usage rate of 35.3 per cent this season, more than the Spurs and Pelicans bench tandems, and slightly behind the Celtics duo.

Of course, their rising usage coincides with an extended cold spell from Norman Powell, giving Casey even more incentive to trot out effective lineups that feature at least two point guards on the floor at once.

Although he began the season in the starting lineup at small forward, Powell is a natural shooting guard — and besides, those minutes are being rightfully allotted to OG Anunoby and C.J. Miles. But since the beginning of December, Powell has been averaging just 5.3 points on 36.5 per cent shooting in 14 minutes, while getting to the line less than once per game. His playing time has been either erratic or non-existent. Aside from 17 minutes of action in the Raptors’ blowout win in Atlanta last week, he hasn’t seen more than 12:55 of court time in his last six games. On Wednesday night in Chicago, while Wright and VanVleet lit it up, Powell was a minus-12 in the two minutes and 56 seconds he was on the floor.

It remains to be seen how the rest of the season will play out — especially if Powell is able to find his form — but for now the Raptors’ three-headed point guard monster, and specifically the two PGs they bring off the bench, are providing a unique boost that nearly every other team doesn’t — or simply can’t.