The centre position isn’t what it was in the NBA, everyone can acknowledge that.
Where once upon a time a dominant low-post presence was the foundation piece for a contending team, it’s more of a nice-to-have now, and there aren’t many teams that do.
But lacking a quality big man of any description causes its own set of problems. The Raptors saw it first-hand a season ago when they lost both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka in free agency and hoped they could replace their championship-tested centre tandem with, um, Aron Baynes and Alex Len.
It didn’t work, which isn’t the only reason the Raptors tumbled from setting a franchise-record for winning percentage in 2019-20 to the draft lottery in 2020-21, but it was one of them.
It wasn’t like the Raptors spent their off-season desperately trying to fill that gap. Part of their strategy in filling the roster out with a collection of six-foot-nine wings with long arms was an acknowledgement of the need to use a committee approach to take care of traditional big man duties like rim protection and rebounding.
But it’s good to have big players who are more accustomed to playing big and who can do it while running the floor, pushing the break, screening well and maybe stepping out and hitting the odd jumper too.
There are hopes that the combination of Khem Birch -- who showed some promise in 19 games with Toronto at the end of the season after he was bought out by the Orlando Magic -- and Precious Achiuwa -- the prize jewel in the sign-and-trade that facilitated Kyle Lowry moving on to the Miami Heat -- will give Raptors head coach Nick Nurse just enough of what he needs, even in an era of ‘positionless’ basketball.
Birch missing the first two weeks of training camp and three of five pre-season games after contracting COVID-19 threw a bit of wrench into things.
The Raptors' 107-92 win over the visiting Rockets was the first time Nurse had Birch and Achiuwa available to him as the Raptors improved to 2-2 in exhibition play.
“I thought it looked good, thought it looked improved,” said Nurse after the game. “It should enable both of them to play six, seven minutes really hard, and the next guy can come in.
“Khem, it was really his first live action at all so he was a little bit out of sorts. He had a great look out to the corner and chucked in the seats, missed a couple of free throws. Legs were pretty wobbly for him but we’ll get him in shape, get him out there again (Tuesday against Washington) but obviously, it should be a decent combination.”
For now, he sees them almost interchangeably, with them sharing the bulk of the 48 minutes in a platoon of sorts.
For his part, Birch was optimistic that he would get back to game speed in short order after being laid up for two weeks with his wife and daughter who all tested positive for the virus in late September despite being fully vaccinated.
“Who knows? I can probably feel good after tonight’s game or tomorrow,” said Birch, who said losing his sense of smell and a general fatigue were his primary symptoms from COVID-19. “I usually get in shape quick… right now I’m just gonna go out and play as hard as I can, not worry about the box score, just worry about getting the W. Talking about the role, I haven’t really talked about it yet. I don’t think I’m gonna start. I think we’re gonna take things slowly. It doesn’t matter if I come off the bench or start, it doesn’t matter. As long as we win, I don’t care.”
Achiuwa started for the fourth straight game, a role that might have been Birch’s after he signed a three-year contract for $20 million in the off-season.
But Achiuwa showed why he might be more than simply a placeholder there. He scored three quick hoops early, including a tough finish on a pick-and-roll in combination with Fred VanVleet and making quick work of Rockets veteran big man Daniel Theis when the Raptors spread the floor and let Achiuwa work in the paint.
He also flashed a number of grab-n-go rebounds to lead the Raptors out in transition on more than one occasion, displaying some nice control in the open floor.
“That’s the way I’ve played since middle school, high school and college as well,” said Achiuwa, who can use his speed and agility to get defences on their back foot as soon as he turns up the floor. “It’s just something I’m comfortable doing. As long as I’m taking care of the ball, making the right plays, making the right reads and not turning the ball over it puts us in a good position.”
Birch looked understandably rusty in his first stint of relief, picking two quick fouls in the post on Rockets rookie big Alperen Sengun, but his second stint was much better.
The Raptors led 28-19 at the end of the first quarter but began to crack the game open in the second. Birch was part of it. He put the ball on the floor and made his way into the paint before pitching out to rookie Delano Banton for an open three. A moment later he put it on the floor again and scored on a nice leaner. Another paint touch earned him a trip to the foul line.
Along the way, the Raptors pushed their lead to 48-30 on their way to a 57-38 halftime lead. The game was never close after that.
Achiuwa wasn’t going to go unnoticed either. He helped the Raptors keep their momentum going in the second half by scoring on a one-man fastbreak early in the third quarter, earning a trip to the foul line a minute later and then stepping out for a three -- something he and Birch are working to add to their respective repertoires.
Achiuwa finished with 17 points and five rebounds in his 19 minutes while Birch added a field goal and a pair of assists in his 17 minutes as he works his way into form.
But it’s the defensive malleability that Nurse is most excited about, something he didn’t have from his bigs last season.
“You probably saw Precious switching out onto all their guards and just really, really being aggressive with them and there was no issue (keeping them) there out front with him and Khem can do the same,” said Nurse. “Khem’s got really good feet. That’s the biggest thing: you can get out of coverage and get into some of the one through five switching and you saw some of the lineups tonight.”
Ultimately the Raptors season likely won’t hinge on what happens with their centre position -- to the extent there even is such a thing anymore. But the combination of Achiuwa and Birch should at least give the Raptors some options and flexibility, which is more than they could say a season ago.
• OG Anunoby continued his red-hot pre-season as he finished with 17 points in 17 minutes while connecting on three triples in five attempts.
• With the Raptors pre-season schedule ending on a home-and-road back-to-back Nurse chose to stagger his lineups a little bit with his short slate of veterans. Goran Dragic got the night off against the Rockets but was scheduled to suit up on the road against the Wizards Tuesday night. Conversely, VanVleet and Anunoby did play against the Rockets but will be saving their legs against Washington, who the Raptors open the regular season against at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 20.
• There are six players in camp who are non-guaranteed contracts. Of those Nurse said Yuta Watanabe was almost certain to have his option for the 2021-22 season picked up. Nurse said he would use the final two exhibition games to get looks at the other five: Ishmael Wainright, Isaac Bonga, Sam Dekker, Freddie Gillespie and Reggie Perry. Of those Dekker, Wainright and Perry have had the most limited looks, totalling 13 minutes between them before Monday night. Wainright came on and hit a pair of quick threes in his 15 minutes; Dekker was scoreless in his 12 minutes, while Perry counted one field goal in his eight minutes. Gillespie was the odd man out with Birch back in the rotation Monday, not seeing action until late in the fourth quarter. If playing time is an indicator Bonga -- yet another rangy big with long reach -- got 11 first-half minutes and made some crisp plays in them, with Nurse making special note or them after the game.
• Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes, taken fourth overall, has looked exceptionally good in the early going, showing his ability to affect the game as a defender, passer and transition threat. He finished with 10 points, four rebounds, three steals and a block in 26 minutes. Meanwhile, the Rockets are pinning the hopes for their rebuild on Jalen Green, taken second overall. He has a fan in Nurse: “I do know enough to know, he’s really, really good. He can really score the ball like, like a special, special, special scorer. There’s not a lot that look like him at that age.” Green's got more to give, surely. He finished with five points on six shots in 25 minutes.
• Drake, the Raptors Global Ambassador made his first visit to Scotiabank Arena since the pandemic started. He arrived at his courtside seat at halftime.