Unlike many seasons in the past, the Raptors' starting lineup has been set in stone since training camp opened. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will start in the backcourt, with Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas up front. The bench? That's another story altogether. With the preseason finally behind us, here's my take on how Dwane Casey might dole out the bench minutes early on. I've ranked players based on how likely they are to be a part of the rotation. Remember, this is what I think will happen. There's certainly room for disagreement and I'll note where I would change things if, Whoopi-Goldberg-in-Eddie style, I became the Raptors' head coach.
Guaranteed rotation guys
Terrence Ross is like a low-quality diamond, the kind you'd buy at a jewellery kiosk in the middle of some random strip mall. In the right light that diamond sparkles, but that right light doesn't come around too often. That's the Terrence Ross experience in a nutshell: he's sometimes brilliant but mostly dull.
Still, Ross showed more than enough in the preseason to guarantee he'll be the primary backup to DeRozan and Gay on the wing. He's prone to occasional scoring outbursts (27 points in 25 minutes against the Knicks) and has a beautiful stroke that seems like it should belong to a player who shot better than 33% from three last year. There are worse things in the world than having a hyper-athletic swingman coming off your bench for 20 minutes a night and if Ross develops quickly he could emerge as a replacement for Gay or DeRozan if Masai Ujiri trades one of his high-priced starters.
If Terrence Ross is a cheap diamond, Tyler Hansbrough is a robot designed to destroy all that is beautiful about basketball. His game is all arms, legs, elbows and awkward, wide-eyed stares. There are things to like here: Hansbrough was an elite offensive rebounder last year, is a stout post defender and was a part of several great defensive units in Indiana.
Watching Hansbrough on offence is, well...it's painful. He's one of the worst big man passers in the league and his repertoire of post moves is positively anti-Olajuwonian. Most post touches end with a hard-to-watch hook shot that Hansbrough often throws through his opponent's arms. I might be inclined to give some of Hansbrough's minutes to Quincy Acy (more on him later), but it's likely that Psycho T will be the first big off the bench for at least the first few weeks of the season. Basketball romantics, avert your eyes.
It's hard to separate Fields from the outlandish contract Bryan Colangelo gave him in the summer of 2012 as part of a possibly insane push to get Steve Nash, but let's try. With a hitch in his shot that reminds me of the great Anthony Mason, Fields's three-point shooting has decayed from excellent to nonexistent in just three seasons. It's truly remarkable and we should all give up on the thought of Fields-as-shooter.
With that out of the way, let's focus on the positives. Fields is a good rebounder, passer and clever off-ball cutter. He won't kill you defensively and he rarely tries to do more than he's capable of. He's not worth the $6.25 million the Raptors are paying him this year but as an eighth or ninth man he'll suffice. The Raptors bench, everybody!
This one's a bit of a guess considering Novak has barely played in the preseason. Still, on a team lacking deep shooting it's hard to see one of the league's premier spot-up shooters rotting on the bench. The Knicks' defense didn't fall apart last year when Novak was on the court and the threat of him shooting will often be just as important as the times he actually shoots it. I expect Dwane Casey will trust Novak more than Austin Daye in the shooter-off-the-bench role.
The point guard cluster-you-know-what
One of these three guys is going to play in almost every game. Don't ask me which one.
Coming out of camp it seemed like Augustin was the likely backup to Lowry, if only because he is a proven commodity surrounded by complete unknowns. After an abysmal preseason, that may have changed. Last season the Pacers were better on both sides of the ball when Augustin was on the bench and he hasn't shown much to indicate things will be different this year. He's undersized, slow, can't penetrate and struggles to create shots for himself and others. Normally he wouldn't have a chance at seeing consistent minutes, but Casey doesn't have much else to work with...
The darling of summer league has struggled when exposed to real NBA competition. His jumper is sketchy but he has done a reasonable job distributing the ball. He's younger and more athletic than Augustin and I'd like to see him get first crack at backup duty if only because he's a bit of an unknown. I know what I'm getting with Augustin and that's not a good thing. Still, there is one other point guard on the roster who's a bit of a wildcard.
Dwane Casey loves this guy. Here he is talking about Stone in the National Post on Oct. 17.
"He can guard multiple positions," Casey, the Raptors coach, said. "He can guard point guards, [shooting guards, small forwards] and probably small [power forwards]. I said last night that he reminds me of a young Nate McMillan, that long, lanky body that can defend. He's showed that he can play."
At 6'6" Stone is certainly long but, with only 207 regular season NBA minutes under his belt it's impossible to say whether he can be a backup point guard or whether that's even the right position for him. I can see where Casey's coming from, especially considering his other options. I expect Raptors fans will hear from Stone at some point this season, though probably not early on.
Prediction: Augustin opens the season as the presumptive backup. I'd like to see Buycks get first crack at it, but one thing is for sure: This will be a fluid situation throughout the season.
Stay loose, just in case
I can see Daye getting minutes as a stretch 4 when/if Novak is injured, but that's about it. His lack of strength is truly amazing — Kelly Olynyk looked like Wilt Chamberlain against him during a preseason game. Given that Daye's salary is only $2 million over the next two seasons (with the second season only partially guaranteed), there's no reason to fret over his presence. He probably won't do much of anything this season and that's no big deal.
Acy is firmly entrenched behind Valanciunas, Johnson and Hansbrough and isn't likely to see many minutes this year. I think that's a shame. In limited preseason action Acy has looked very good. He's active like Hansbrough but is much more athletic and a better finisher around the rim. He's shown flashes of a developing jumper and, importantly for me, plays a style less likely to induce seizures than Hansbrough does.
Per 82games.com the Raptors were much better on both offense and defense when Acy was on the floor last season. That was only in 342 minutes, so the usual qualifications about sample size apply, but I don't see why Acy can't eat into Hansbrough's minutes as the season goes along. Given the team's horrendous track record with second round picks it's nice to see one that deserves to be on an NBA court. As always, Acy gets bonus points for a great beard and awesome staredowns after dunks.
Don't bother wearing anything under your warm-ups
To the chagrin of many fans, Gray stole minutes from Valanciunas at times last season. Those days are over and Gray should only be dusted off when Valanciunas and Hansbrough/Acy are in serious foul trouble. He seems like a good locker room guy but his value on the court is very limited at this point. Gray is an expiring contract at $2.7 million and his most important contribution this year could be as trade filler if Ujiri pulls the trigger on a big move.
Two of Augustin/Buycks/Stone
I mentioned these guys earlier, but whoever wins out as Lowry's backup will leave the other two far, far behind.
The bottom line
I expect the bench rotation to feature Ross, Fields and Hansbrough as the first three off the bench, with the mystery point guard close behind them. Novak will get his fair share of looks and the rest will be fighting for time. Acy, Stone and Buycks are probably the most intriguing bench options but that's a function of the unknown as much as anything. The bench is probably going to be bad and Casey is going to have to be creative with his lineups to make sure he always has at least two starters in the game. If the injury bug strikes the starting lineup, it'll be time to cue up some Kansas games and start dreaming big.