“Best in the league.”
That’s the mantra the Toronto Raptors’ second unit repeats to each other prior to each game. And they make a good point.
Heading into the season, the biggest question surrounding the Toronto Raptors was whether or not their young and inexperienced bench was ready to contribute to another winning season. With the departures of veterans Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker, and Patrick Patterson, second- and third-year players like Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl would be thrust into new roles with more responsibility than ever before.
A credit to that group, Casey’s coaching staff, and the Raptors’ development system from the G League’s 905 to the big leagues, what was fairly perceived as the team’s biggest weakness has become arguably its greatest strength.
But it’s one that doesn’t have a long track record when it comes to past title contenders.
The standard in the NBA is to tighten rotations come playoff time, leaning on your best players to raise their game and help carry a team to success. It’s how the last few post-season appearances from the Raptors have played out, with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry seeing an uptick in playing time at the expense of those further down the depth chart.
Of course, this season — in countless ways — is different. The Raptors’ reserves have logged heavy minutes — both as a collective and individually — while being called upon during crucial stretches of big games throughout the season.
And they’ve had success as a result.
The “bench mob” – Wright, VanVleet, Siakam, Poeltl, and veteran C.J. Miles — have provided the Raptors with depth and their head coach with a balanced and versatile group of chess pieces that he’s been adept at utilizing. It gives the Raps flexibility and strong counters depending on matchups, and the all-out style the group plays with has wreaked havoc on opponents all season.
The Raptors bench is fast, energetic, bouncy, and relentless. It creates turnovers thanks to swarming-yet-disciplined defence, and takes advantage in transition, turning leads into bigger leads or lifting the team if the starters are under-performing.
Per NBA.com, this season the Raptors bench ranks first in the NBA in steals (four per game), second in blocks (3.1), and fourth in scoring (41.8 points per game). Its plus-minus rating of plus-3.9 is first by a wide margin, 1.5 higher than the second-place Houston Rockets, and more than double the third-place Golden State Warriors.
So, yeah, they’re good.
But will Casey, who has been consistent in his minute allocation and player rotations throughout the season, continue to lean on his bench once the post-season comes around? And will the Raptors continue to win off the collective backs of the deepest roster the team has had under Casey?
“We are going to find out,” the head coach told reporters following a win last month over the Washington Wizards — a potential first-round opponent — in which Raps’ reserves combined to score 50 points, including 20 from C.J. Miles, along with a three-block performance from backup centre Poeltl and a pair of steals from Siakam.
“Why change because of some [hypothetical] rulebook somewhere?,” he asked. “If you find it, please send it to me because I’ve been on some teams where you keep the same rotation.”
The reliance on the second unit has played a big factor in limiting the wear-and-tear to DeRozan and Lowry. Both are averaging roughly 33 minutes per game this season. For DeRozan, it’s the least amount of minutes he’s averaged since his rookie season, while Lowry hasn’t seen his total that low since he was platooning with Jose Calderon in his first season in Toronto.
On one hand, the reliance on the bench has helped open the door for the Raps’ all-stars to again log heavy minutes and take on a bigger workload — which you can expect to see. But it’s a bonus and not the reason why Casey utilizes so many players. That relative rest is a nice benefit of having a deep roster, but hardly the sole purpose of extending minutes down the bench.
Another factor could be the bench’s relative inexperience. Aside from Miles, who has 34 career playoff games (12 starts) under his belt, the rest of the unit has only dabbled in NBA playoff hoops. Wright has averaged seven minutes in his 18 post-season appearances, Poeltl played 26 total minutes in the playoffs last season, VanVleet played 29 in seven games, while Siakam appeared in just two games for a grand total of ten minutes.
Experience is a valuable attribute come playoff time, and one that the group doesn’t have. But look closer and it’s likely less of a worry. All of those players have stepped up in high-pressure situations and against intimidating opponents throughout the season, proving they are unafraid of the moment no matter how big.
Just last season, Siakam and VanVleet helped lift the Raptors 905 to the G League championship. VanVleet travelled between the NBA club and it’s minor-league affiliate, averaging 22 points and 11.5 assists in the two games he played during the best-of-three Finals series. As for Siakam? He was an unstoppable force on both ends of the floor, averaging 18 points, eight rebounds, 1.5 blocks and more than two steals per game. He was named Finals MVP for his performance.
It’s a different environment, sure, but that’s a positive sign of how they respond in do-or-die situations. And don’t think Casey isn’t well aware of that.
Look, nobody is more important to the Raptors than DeRozan and Lowry, but those coming off the Raptors’ bench will go a long way to defining their success, as has been the case all season long.
So will it work in the playoffs?
“We have to find out,” Casey said, “unless this group proves us wrong.”
That hasn’t happened yet this season, but the tension and weight of post-season basketball is itself a game-changer. Whether or not Casey keeps his regular-season rotations intact once the games really matter and whether or not the Raptors will find the same success because of it is one of the most intriguing questions facing the team.