PART 2 in a 5-part series on the five key questions about the Raptors heading into training camp.
You need stars to win in the NBA. That’s just a fact. But lesser known and certainly lesser believed is the importance of solid depth on a team with playoff aspirations.
Yes, the rotation definitely tightens up once a team gets deep into a playoff run but if the Raptors didn’t have Fred VanVleet, Norm Powell and Serge Ibaka playing solid minutes coming off the bench in that 2019 championship run, they don’t win.
Those three along with OG Anunoby (before his appendix burst as the playoffs started) carried the bulk of the minutes when the starters got a breather during the regular season.
Since then, finding a reliable bench that can hold a lead or even expand on one has been tough to find in Toronto.
Part of that was out of necessity. You can’t spend a lot on your bench in a league with even a soft salary cap. As the starters contracts go up, there is less left to shell out for the bench players.
Then there’s the lack of infusion from the draft if the team is often picking at the end of the first round where talent isn’t quite so readily apparent. A few poor drafts and that value that a good young player can bring to a team the way VanVleet and Siakam did just isn’t there anymore.
In short, for a combination of those reasons and one other significant one that I will get to shortly here, the Raptors have not had a lot of contributions from its collective bench of late.
That has a very good chance of changing this summer.
On paper the options new head coach Darko Rajakovic has to round out his roster after he settles on five starters, is probably as good as it has been since those heady days of Toronto’s bench mob.
But unlike that group which was a product of good drafting and some long and hard summer work as a collective, this year’s group is a combination of the fruits of some inner development, a key trade that is ripe to bear fruit, some good drafting and some opportunistic, albeit low budget free agent spending.
First review the options Nick Nurse had to pull from a year ago. There was Precious Achiuwa, a young and learning power forward/forward coming off a solid playoff showing against Philadelphia along with Chris Boucher, a player coming into his own after some early struggles in his career.
Then there was rookie Christian Koloko, free agent signees Juancho Hernangomez and Otto Porter Jr. as well as youngsters Dalano Banton, Jeff Dowtin Jr, Malachi Flynn, and Justin Champagnie. He also had Thad Young and Khem Birch coming off the bench.
Birch and Porter Jr, through injury, were non-factors for almost all of the season.
Champagnie didn’t survive the year as he was waived just before his contract would have been guaranteed.
Flynn had a few brief cameos where he looked like he might be solidifying some minutes for himself only to have injury stall his momentum and then opportunity never really present itself again. Koloko struggled with foul trouble most of the year and basically was a non-factor in the second half of the year. Banton had some injury woes and never really found his footing.
Dowtin had some impact late in the year but as a two-way player spent most of the year with the Raptors 905 as did Ron Harper Jr.
It left Achiuwa, Boucher and Young and later Gary Trent Jr. who would get bumped from the starting five with the arrival of Jakob Poeltl to carry the bench load. It wasn’t enough.
Leap ahead to this year’s options and there’s a very real possibility for some impact from the Toronto bench.
In addition to the return of Achiuwa, Boucher and Young who have been Toronto’s most consistent sources of bench production, the Raptors have added more experience to its bench.
Porter Jr, limited to just two games with that broken toe, is presumably healed and will be joined by Garrett Temple and his 13 years of experience in the league as well as Jalen McDaniels who has four seasons in the NBA under his belt.
Add in the return of guards Dowtin, Harper Jr. and Flynn and young big man Koloko and you have the makeup for a deep bench that will provide Rajakovic with plenty of options. Plus one of Trent or Dennis Schroder could be powering the second group.
Under Nurse the Raptors had been reluctant to use their bench. Young players like Banton or Champagnie would show something in a game or two and then not be heard from again for weeks.
Rajakovic, with his stacked resume of player development successes, is expected to have a very different approach than his predecessor in that regard.
Most likely to benefit from that is the Raptors’ 13th overall draft pick Gradey Dick and possibly undrafted free agent Markquis Nowell. It’s Dick though who fills a need this roster doesn’t have and based on Rajakovic’s history will see his fair share of playing time if he can bring that three-point shot he had so much success with in Kansas to the NBA.
Dick though is much more than just a stand-in-the-corner shooter. He’s a heady offensive player who moves into open spaces creating opportunities for himself and the offence he’s playing in. A coach like Rajakovic can bring a new-to-the-league player like Dick along quickly.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Dick playing some key minutes before his rookie campaign is over.
There won’t even be room on the roster for all those bench options mentioned, but for the first time in a few years, the Toronto bench is looking like it can be an area of strength.