Can benches win NBA titles?
It’s hard to say but looking back at past NBA Champs, even recent ones like last year’s Celtics, show that you do need some help after your top 5 guys.
Of course many teams go overboard and essentially have an entire team that is interchangeable, in essence, one big bench.
After a promising recruitment campaign last off-season that saw Toronto with its deepest team in years, things unraveled by year’s end causing many to believe the Raptors took on the latter role.
On some nights Carlos Delfino was no more effective than Jason Kapono or Jamario Moon, and I can’t even imagine the frustration this caused for Sam Mitchell. Even the point guard spot, where two of Toronto’s top players made their mark, became a source of angst. For Mitchell it must have been like fantasy football when you’re trying to decide on your third-string wide-out for the week; you’ve got a number of mediocre options to choose from, and you just hope you pick the right one.
This year however, the concern might be the complete opposite, lack of depth.
While over the off-season I’ve voiced my concern about proven depth at the 1, Howland has been quite content to only ride into battle with the current 13. And with the training camp roster announced recently, 13 it will be.
We’ve already discussed many of these 13 this summer, so let’s now take a look at the remaining few, the bench crew that could see themselves playing 15 to 20 minutes a night, or not at all.
Roko Ukic: Roko of course was a second-round draft choice by Rob Babcock during the Joey Graham and Charlie Villanueva draft. Many thought he’d be a first rounder but luckily for Toronto, he fell to into their "talons" after the first round expired. However his overseas play has hardly inspired Ricky Rubio-esque levels of hype and really, this is one of the big question marks for Toronto after "can JO stay healthy," and "can JO and Bosh be effective on the court at the same time?"
His shooting was borderline atrocious in the Olympics and while he did a good job leading his team at the 1, there may be a good deal of adjustment before he’s ready to play 20 minutes a game behind Jose.
Enter Will Solomon.
Solomon played briefly in the NBA and the hope then is that if Roko stumbles, Solomon can keep the ship on course while Jose takes a breather.
Kris Humphries: You gotta feel for Hump. Here’s a guy who at times the past two seasons looked like a legitimate top back-up option for Chris Bosh at the 4 or a good mismatch option at the 5 against smaller lineups. He’s rugged, under-rated as an individual defender, and at times, can be an offensive force. Yet since his arrival in Toronto, he’s been stuck behind other players and hasn’t really been able to show his stuff on a consistent basis. His first year he was stuck behind Andrea who came off the bench almost always before him, then last year, even with Andrea as a starter, he was at times stuck behind Rasho or forgotten as Sam Mitchell liked to go small playing Delfino, Parker and sometimes even Moon together in crunch time.
With Andrea back on the bench, and Nathan Jawai as the new project, is it a foregone conclusion that Humphries once again finds it tough to get minutes? I think this will depend solely on Andrea’s play. If Andrea proves to have some mettle down low based on an off-season of big man camps and bulking up, we might not see much of Hump. However if Andrea struggles, or still can’t seem to be an effective rebounder, I think we’ll see lots of Kris behind both Jermaine and CB4. Jawai is probably going to need a good season or two before he’s ready to really help out this club and so this could be a break-through season for the Hump.
Unfortunately while I’d like to see more of Hump, the situation I don’t want is him starting alongside CB4…which if you think about it, is quite possible of JO goes down…
Joey Graham: From Hump’s inconsistent play we turn to the most consistently inconsistent of them all, Joey Graham. Joey’s last chance in my mind was last year and while he did play sporadically, (and at last sometimes was used at the 4 in smaller lineups), he was unable to break through the glut of swingmen on Toronto’s roster. In fact, the same issues most fans had with Joey in his first year, were the same ones they had last season as well.
So will this year be any different? Could Joey be a true X factor? Well, we can always hope, but I think at this point that’s sort of like hoping that the police solve the "who shot Biggie and Pac" murders.
Look, I believe that Joey works his hardest in the off-season to improve. In fact yesterday on RaptorsTV I listened to him speak to Paul Johnson during the Raptors’ golf tourney on Friday about his off-season regimen. Yes, he had a good summer league stint by most accounts, and yes with a trimmed down bench this is his best shot at breaking through yet. However if Jamario Moon gets pushed to the bench and Jason Kapono starts, that’s another similar player in front of him in terms of playing time. And with Hassan Adams now on board, a player who does the exact things Joey was basically drafted to do, it doesn’t look promising.
Hassan Adams: Of the three players previously mentioned, I believe that Roko is indeed the biggest X Factor of the bunch. If he can show leadership at the 1, play solid defense and limit Jose to 35 minutes a game or so, then it bodes well for the entire team. However after Roko, I think Adams is the next biggest X factor of this bunch.
Right now the team has Anthony Parker, Jason Kapono, Jamario Moon and Joey Graham all able to fill out the 2-3 spots. While Parker can both score and defend, the other three are fairly one-dimensional in scope. (And you could argue that Joey has no dimensions whatsoever.) That means that this team is probably going to need Hassan Adams to play a significant role this year.
Let’s say that AP and Kap-One are the starters, that leaves really Moon to sub in for one or the other. After that, do you go with Joey? Until he shows me something I’d say probably not, which means I expect Adams to play 10 to 12 minutes a game…and that’s not counting foul trouble, which if Kapono starts, he could find himself in more often than not.
The key for Adams is for him to play that Eddie House type of roll. Not in terms of a shooter, but just playing his role in whatever time he gets. That means being a defender first and foremost, and a rebounding presence from wherever he is on the court. If he can knock down a few open shots, even better, but he needs to play D or risk joining Joey on the pine.
In fact looking at Moon, Adams and Graham, Toronto has a chance to be a VERY good rebounding team this year. We already know that O’Neal and Bosh can average double figures in boards. Well Moon had the highest rebounding rate per minute at his position last year, and Adams had exorbitant rebounding numbers for his size and amout of PT both with the Nets, and in college with Arizona. And while Joey has yet to prove anything in the NBA, in college he was a fantastic rebounder and has the tools to do the same in the L. Add in Humphries and hopefully a stronger, and better-prepared Bargnani, and suddenly we could be looking at a major change in the team’s approach. We’ll be getting into this idea a bit more as we approach the start of the season but it’s hard not to be excited about these possibilities.
As a final thought to things, on Monday, RaptorsHQ will be attending the Raptors’ annual media day. One of the questions that will be on our minds when speaking to both new and old players is just how much better a rebounding and defending team can this be? Whereas last year featured a more offensive bunch, a bench of Graham, Adams, and potentially Moon, makes for a nice defensive contrast to the likes of Bargnani and Kapono.
So to conclude, is there a big X Factor among this motley bench crew?
I think the biggest is still Andrea (assuming he doesn’t start) although solid minutes from Graham, Adams, Humphries and of course Roko, will go a long way in determining this team’s fate this year. If these four and select others can give Sam Mitchell solid minutes, it means being able to give Toronto’s 3 stars more rest thereby saving them for the playoffs. At times in the last two seasons CB4 has looked a bit gassed and therefore after a busy summer of Olympic play, it would be in everyone’s best interest to have him a bit more fresh for when April and May roll around.
It’s not Vince heading to graduation, but with a shorter bench this year and fewer proven options on the pine, the last thing Raptors’ fans want to see is a big 3 running on empty with a playoff series win on the line.