VICTORIA — As the Toronto Raptors have moved on from their championship era, there have been rightful questions about the ceiling of the team in the last few seasons
Could a roster that relied on Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet (and, to a lesser extent so far, O.G. Anunoby) compete with the beasts of the East, where MVP candidates lead quality teams with championship aspirations?
The jury remains out, though with Siakam establishing himself as an all-NBA player, VanVleet becoming an all-star and plenty of upside for Anunoby and especially Scottie Barnes still to be realized, concerns about the ceiling have been put aside, it seems.
At the very least, most would agree, the Raptors’ core is very good. Barnes’ development could make them that much better still. Who knows, maybe they can become great.
We’ll see. It will take some time before there’s a definitive answer, which is why the Raptors ultimately opted to stand pat in the off-season, rather than go ‘all-in’ to trade for some of the high-end talent that was on the market.
But while that plays out, the Raptors opted to shore up another area that proved to be a significant weakness the past two seasons: upgrading the team’s floor.
In a departure from years past, the quality of the Raptors bench was suboptimal last season.
There was a reason VanVleet and Siakam tied for the NBA lead in minutes per game, Barnes was eighth and led all rookies, Gary Trent Jr. was 14th and Anunoby would have been fifth had he played enough games to qualify: Raptors head coach Nick Nurse didn’t trust his bench.
That likely won’t be the case this season. If the Raptors have another seven-game stretch like they did in late January and early February last season where Nurse played Siakam and VanVleet 43 and 42 minutes a game, respectively, and virtually ignored his second unit, something will have gone horribly wrong. The Raptors did win all seven of the games, but it’s not a method that’s sustainable.
“I do feel better about our depth,” Nurse said Tuesday as the Raptors started a four-day training camp in Victoria.
The Raptors’ highest profile free agent signing, Otto Porter, projects as the kind of quality veteran who can sit comfortably in the middle of the rotation, soaking minutes whereever and whenever necessary.
Thaddeus Young, acquired at the trade deadline by Toronto, was signed to a two-year deal that will carry him through his 16th and 17th season. He offers some similar qualities.
Even Juancho Hernangomez, a low-profile addition made late in the off-season, is the kind of deep-shooting big that can often thrive as part of a strong second unit.
And we haven’t even touched on the youngsters that are part of the Raptors’ development plan – Dalano Banton, Justin Champagnie, and Malachi Flynn also will theoretically be pushing for minutes.
“[We’re] super deep, super deep,” Young said. “We have a lot of young guys that can play basketball, some guys on training-camp deals, you know, those guys can play as well. So, you know, just about finding the right combination, the right guys who can, you know, play in the right roles, and fulfil the right spots, and just going out there and continuously helping with the growth of the guys that’s on the team.”
The benefits of a quality bench don’t have to be proven to anyone in the organization, Nurse included. It wasn’t that long ago (2017-18) that the likes of Siakam and VanVleet were joined by then-Raptors youngsters Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and veteran CJ Miles in the ‘bench mob’ – a devastating five-man unit that routinely took over games and helped Toronto to a then-team record 58 wins.
No one is projecting that the Raptors are going to the route of having a set five-man bench unit this season, but competition for minutes outside of the ‘core four’ will be intense, which should give Nurse plenty of options beyond running out his starters for league-leading minutes totals.
Porter, in particular, should provide options, given the 10-year veteran’s ability to fit into a variety of lineups, as he showed last season when he both started and came off the bench for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
‘I think that the addition of Otto is a big one,” said Nurse. “He’s a multi-faceted player. Multi-positional-type guy that we like. He is legit 6-8 and can shoot the ball — Otto’s a really good just basketball player. He does the right things; he’s in the right spots. The ball gets swung around and kicked to him, he makes the three … I mean that’s pretty valuable but he just, you can just see the composure and experience and the pace with which he plays … (It) all fits in really good so yeah, he’s good he’s a good player.
If there is one player whose minutes the Raptors are determined to dial down, it’s VanVleet. The seven-year veteran was a different player after the all-star break as he struggled with a knee problem and eventually had to shut down during Toronto’s first-round loss to the Philadelphia 76ers with a bruised hip.
It’s easier said than done, Nurse acknowledges.
“I hope we can get it done. I think the hard part about it, too, is when we all sit down in chairs in an office, it seems easy,’ he said. “… It’s not the same as when the ball’s up and you’re in a tough game. And you know, it’s a one-point game, and you got three minutes to go, and you’re saying, ‘Oh, jeez (VanVleet is) at 38 minutes and if we don’t take him out, now he’s gonna go to 41’.
“(But) we’re on the road. And it’s a one-point game in Miami … that’s kind of the real life. That’s different than never all standing here without the heat of the battle or sitting in our offices without the heat of the battle. But the point (cutting back on VanVleet’s minutes) has been brought to my attention.”
The Raptors will be doing it by committee, as the one obvious path to trimming back VanVleet’s minutes — acquiring a proven point guard to back him up — was a path Toronto didn’t go down. Instead, it will likely play out with Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes initiating the offence more and giving VanVleet more reps off the ball – where he excels as a catch-and-shoot three-point threat – and more games off or more time on the bench.
But even minor adjustments to the starters’ minutes should have a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup. How it takes shape is hardly set in stone and will inevitably evolve as the season wears on and injuries and rest force the issue.
“What I’m hoping is the six through 10 guys are capable enough to replace the starters, and those other guys are capable when we need them. And we’re gonna need them,” said Nurse. “That to me is real depth. It’s modern depth. There just seem to be a lot more guys that hit the floor and need to produce in more situations than in the olden days. It’s not just getting to eight or nine. It’s getting to 13 or 14 and those guys making sure they’re ready. Because they will get their chance.”