Even the casual fan has to admit that the Toronto Raptors are legitimate title contenders this year. They sit second in the Atlantic Division, and after Tuesday’s thumping of the Boston Celtics, they’ve made a statement that they might be the team to beat coming out of the East.
Their success this season has been an overall team effort led by their All-Star back court of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Last year’s mid-season acquisition Serge Ibaka has finally settled in offensively as well to match his stalwart defensive presence, providing the Raps with a dimension they previously lacked. And centre Jonas Valanciunas has taken his play to another level over the last ten games leading into the Celtics match, averaging 15.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
As strong as the starting unit has been in going toe-to-toe with the league’s elite, the Raptors bench has been one of the biggest reasons for the team’s success so far this season. During Toronto’s recent three-game winning streak, the Raptors second unit crushed the opposition, averaging 54.6 bench points per game and 54.9 percent shooting from the field. As good as the second unit’s offense has been during this stretch, its defensive showing has been even better. It limited the Portland, Memphis and Boston second units to a combined 31.7 points per game and a dismal 34.9 percent shooting percentage from the field. This small sample size has been characteristic of how the Raptors bench has neutralized opponents over most of the season.
What makes this dominance all the more surprising is that the Raps don’t have the typical second unit that most contending NBA teams possess. The first difference is that Toronto’s bench is extremely young.
On a team that is already eighth youngest in the league at an average of 25.1 years old, the bench is even younger at 24.6 years of age. A look around the league prior to the trade deadline shows that the teams with similar age profiles on their benches are all rebuilding squads. For example, the Brooklyn Nets’ bench averages 24.6 years old, the Phoenix Suns’ second unit 25.0, the New York Knicks 25.6, the Orlando Magic 25.7 and the Los Angeles Lakers 26.0 years old. This makes total sense as rebuilding teams have little reason to carry high-priced veterans on their rosters, especially coming off the bench. Yet in going young, the Raptors have turned their second unit into a key weapon on a team that looks poised for a deep playoff run.
The other major difference between the Raptors second unit and those of the league’s other elite teams is how it was constructed. Over the past three-plus years, Toronto’s bench has been grown mostly organically, assembled mainly from meticulous drafting, complemented by a couple of under-the-radar trades and a largely anonymous free agent signings.
It began in the 2014 offseason when the Raptors acquired Lucas Nogueira as part of the Lou Williams trade from Atlanta. A year later, Masai Ujiri selected Delon Wright with the 20th overall pick of the draft, then traded guard Greivis Vasquez to Milwaukee for the Bucks second round selection, Norman Powell (drafted 46th overall) and a 2017 first round pick. Ujiri pulled off yet another masterstroke, selecting forwards Jakob Poeltl (9th overall) and Pascal Siakam (27th) in the draft, then signed undrafted guard Fred VanVleet immediately after. And that other spare 2017 pick, in a convoluted bit of trade machinations, it was used by Toronto to nab OG Anunoby last summer.
The fact that this group was brought together in the same relative timeframe and at similar ages meant that the core of this second unit developed together. During the 2015 Summer League season, Lucas, Delon and Norman played alongside one another for the full campaign. While Powell established himself as a top prospect, averaging an eye-popping 18.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game and earning All-Tournament First Team status, all three players developed their games as they learned to play with one another.
In the following Summer League season, the 2016 rookies — Poeltl, Siakam, and VanVleet, were added to the Powell-Wright tandem. All five played meaningful minutes and made significant progress in their individual development while nurturing a collective chemistry that has been on display all of this season.
The potential of this young emerging core was so obvious to Ujiri last year that he pulled the trigger on two deals in 2017 that he knew would be offset by the budding youngsters. In February, he sacrificed Terrence Ross to acquire savvy veteran Ibaka. And in July, he traded native son and fan favorite Cory Joseph for sharpshooter C.J. Miles. To many, the acquisitions of Ibaka and Miles have been the chess pieces the Raps have long been missing, transforming the squad from middle of the pack to one of the NBA’s elite teams.
Instilling so much change was not all smooth sailing. The Raptors stumbled out of the gate this season with a mediocre 7-5 record. Their play in the early going was decidedly inconsistent and uninspired. All this changed, however, when Powell went down with an injured right hip against Boston on November 12th. This pushed rookie Anunoby into the starting lineup, which provided the first unit with the energy and tenacity that was missing, while fine-tuning the balance on the second unit. The two combinations synced instantly afterwards, with the team winning eight of their next ten games. The Raptors haven’t looked back since.
During this ten-game stretch, the second unit completely outplayed its opponents, outscoring rival benches by an average of 7.7 points per game, twinned with a 50.8 shooting percentage from the field — well above the league average. The bench also played lockdown defense, holding opponents to 42.7 percent shooting from the field. Moreover, in nine of those ten games, the second unit had a better plus-minus than the opposition.
Simply put, the second unit plays sound basketball on both ends of the floor. Unlike the Houstons and the Golden States, the Raps don’t have players with all-star pedigrees coming off the bench. There is no Andre Iguodala or reigning Sixth-Man of the Year Eric Gordon. What they do have is a collective group of young players who are willing to grind, give up their bodies, make the extra pass and, perhaps most importantly, share the burden game in and game out. In fact, in their last five games the second unit has featured five different leading bench scorers: Miles against Boston (20 points), Wright versus Memphis (15 points), VanVleet in the Portland game (16 points), both Poeltl and Powell against Washington (8 points each) and finally Poeltl versus Minnesota (12 points).
The second unit is a completely communal effort. Despite its unquestioned success this season, its highest scorer is Miles averaging 10 points per game. That doesn’t even rank him in the league’s top 20 bench scorers.
Defensively the Raps bench continues to shut down opponents. Wright can take on point guards, shooting guards and small forwards with his length and quickness. VanVleet’s quick feet, active hands and pitbull-like mentality more than offset his small size, and he regularly sets the second unit’s defensive tone. Miles and Powell are decent wing defenders who always put in a shift, while Siakam and Poeltl are athletic bigs who move well and match-up effectively against most switches. Finally, Nogueira is always a willing contributor when Casey needs more rim protection in the interior.
Tuesday’s decisive win against the division-leading Celtics was another example of the Raps second unit coming in and shutting down the opponent.
Based on the budding success of the second unit, the Raptors may be re-defining the blueprint for how NBA teams build their benches. For now, it is a stunning example of how Ujiri has re-shaped the squad’s culture since his arrival. This edition of the Raptors is likely the best in club history, and the second unit has been a huge part of this success. There is no reason why this won’t continue for the rest of the season and the playoff run. And given its youth and energy, the sky is the limit for this talented and determined group.