Toronto Raptors: Young bench has disaster potential

TORONTO, ON - MAY 05: Kyle Lowry
TORONTO, ON - MAY 05: Kyle Lowry /

The Toronto Raptors lost Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson, leaving them with unproven youths. If they can’t step up the bench will collapse.

The best thing about youth is that they’re malleable. Young players in the NBA come with a template based on what they were before and what they project to be, but they’re still unsculpted molds of clay.  

Even when sculpted in a specific fashion, they need to be fired in the kiln that is the court. Fire your clay too hot for too long, it cracks, crumbles and bursts.

Masai Ujiri, a paragon of continuity, has steadily shaved the Toronto Raptors‘ bench of veterans for years, all of it in favour of profitable trades, starting pieces and tax relief. Beneficial things short and long term yes, but for every Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez lost, a Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet is gained.

Keep chipping those older parts off and what you have left is a bench filled with young bloods with little to no NBA experience, primed for implosion. This off-season the Raps lost even more veterans off the bench, in Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker and plus-minus sweetheart Patrick Patterson. And when the adults are away the kids will play.

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A squad filled with rookies and youngsters is perfect for a rebuilding club, because some lessons can only be learned on the court. But the Raptors aren’t a rebuilding team.

The Dinos are coming into the 2017-18 season straight off back-to-back 50 win seasons, looking to do it again. It takes a lot of games and a lot of lumps to learn the hard knocks of the NBA, and the Raptors don’t necessarily have time for that.

Second units are usually an older bunch, because they’re cheap and because veterans carry uncanny knowledge of the ebbs of the season and games. The Raptors’ bench mob expected to play significant minutes this year are Powell, Delon Wright, Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam and Lucas Nogueira (and possibly Jakob Poeltl).

Not exactly grizzled veterans who can steady a game on the edge of falling apart. We’ve seen Powell make enormous contributions throughout his first two seasons, but for the rest of the bench their past is checkered or non-existent.

Ever since Bebe Nogueira entered the NBA in 2014, he’s been the same player – a jumpy big who’s an allergic rebounder. He’s only recovered 12.7 percent of rebounds when he’s on the floor and actually brings down the team’s rebounding percentage, due to his lanky frame getting jostled out of position. He also looks like the perfect defensive centre, but he’s proven undisciplined for years.

The same defensive problem plagues Siakam. His frame is amazing, 7 foot 3 wingspan attached to a 6 foot 9 body, combined with the athleticism of a small forward, is an ideal power forward in the NBA today.

However, the team played better without Siakam on the floor, consistently, both defensively and offensively. And now he’s asked to make a serious contribution to wins.

He’s great running in the open floor and has defensive potential, but that’s it. The handle he flashed during Las Vegas Summer League is experimental.

Toronto Raptors
TORONTO, ON – APRIL 12: Delon Wright /

Wright, is a gifted passer through drive anf kicks, but it may go to waste because there’s nary a 3-point shooter off the bench. If the Raptors’ bench doesn’t hit fast and early, the offence will struggle.

Dwane Casey says Bruno Caboclo is one of the best shooters on the team – that remains to be seen. The four-year (yes he’s been a raptor for four years) Raptor indubitably brings length to the court as well, but he’s never been able to contribute anything to the roster.

He’s a career 33 percent 3-point shooter in the G-league; that’s not sniper material. Not really the Brazilian Kevin Durant everyone was hoping for either.

Powell shot 35 percent last year, but that was only on 2.3 attempts per game. Siakam is a non-shooter, Poeltl is a non-shooter and Wright is reluctant to release the ball, unless it’s to another player.

Nogueira thinks he’s a shooter, so possessions that should look like this with players surrounding the guards…

…will now start as a steady diet of this:

See, although the Toronto Raptors were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference the past two seasons, their starting lineup had a negative net rating. Over the last two seasons, the Drakes were outscored by 5.9 points per 100 possessions in the first six minutes of the first quarter.  The bench saved them through Caseys’ patented remedy – the Lowry plus the bench lineup.

The Jurassic 5 were a lethal lineup for the Raptors (+/- of last year and the year before that), but none of the players that helped make it so stellar are still around. CoJo, Tucker, Terrence Ross, Bismack Biyombo and especially Patterson all brought offence and defence in rare combination, which led to the Kyle Lowry +bench lineup being one of the best in the league.

Big men that can shoot and defend are hard to come by and the Raptors are officially bankrupt of them. Patterson was the Tito to Lowry’s Michael and the Raptors outscored their opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions (better than that of last year’s Warriors) over the 2,182 minutes total they played together.

Patterson is switchy and can shoot the 3. Although he was streaky from deep, he was still able to keep the ball moving if his shot was off.

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Ross wasn’t a marksman, but he could get hot, and CoJo could channel his Spursian form from time to time. No iteration of those exceptional lineups exist anymore; the Lowry + bench lineup depended on Patterson and he live in Oklahoma now.

Who’s going to be the trigger happy 3-point shooter now? Who is going to be that switchy defender that also shoots 3’s and who’s going to be that witty ball mover who greases the wheels when they get jammed? The new bench players either do one of two things — shoot or defend — and it’s almost exclusively the latter.

The defence could be a shining point though. Much like the Bucks’ entire team the Raptors’ bench has length and tenacity out the wazoo.

With Powell and Wright as the vanguard, they’ll be able to stifle any sort of bench guard play. One punishing and one pestering, they’re switchable due to their mismatch size for their respective positions.

Siakam, if he can maintain some discipline, should be able to switch just as frequently to maintain the defences’ integrity. It’s hard not to fall in love with the length of BeBe and Caboclo, but a realization of their potential this season is a dream scenario.

And truly  the second unit’s defensive potential is dream worthy. However, that’s all it remains as now, a dream, with the bench offence is poised for a nightmare.

If you’re wondering about DeMar DeRozan plus bench lineups, stop. They’re horrible and they’ve always been horrible.

DeRozan’s playstyle has never been conducive to lesser players, because he’s not necessarily looking to get them involved and his defence rarely draws more than one defender. He’s a mid-range master, but that means guitar solos in the form of one-on-one play, not Spursian symphonies.

This all means the Toronto Raptors could end up relying on playing the cards in their hand against opponents with minimal use of their deck this season. There are very few knowns in the Raptors’ roster beyond the starting five and if the bench can’t perform, then the entire squad suffers in cascade.

The less trust you have in the bench the more you run the starters, meaning the more you run down your starters. The benefit is great short-term (having better players on the court for longer periods of time is hardly a bad thing).

However, at the end of games and the end of the season that means starters getting gassed Exhibit A: John Wall throughout the Celtics-Wizards series.

Next: Raptors sign Norman Powell to contract extension

There are obvious problems of experience, longevity and offense, but the benefit of youth is growth. The defence has serious monstrous potential, but potential must eventually be realized.

This year is a trial by fire for the Raptors’ youth. You can sculpt and mold players forever, yet playing time is really what tempers them. Either they withstand the flames, refined, reinvigorate, or melt and burst under the extreme heat, searing the Raptors’ record in disappointment.