We all know the Raptors bench has been great this season. But questions remain about how effective they will be when they don’t get to play against other rotations running ten deep, and have to deal with opposing stars playing against them. Dwane Casey has stated that the team intends to run ten deep in the playoffs. So, is he right? Will the bench hold up against playoff rotations? Let’s look into it.
First, let’s take a minute to review how great the bench unit has been this year. The most heavily used lineup of all-bench players is Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl. They have played 289 minutes together this season, good for 28th most of any lineup in the league. That’s more minutes than the most played lineup on 10 different teams. So we can be pretty confident we have a real sample to go off with this bench unit.
And in that sample, they’ve posted a +22.2 net rating. If that seems good, it’s because it’s insanely good. That’s the best mark of any lineup in the league with at least as many minutes as the bench unit. Expand out to lineups with at least 100 minutes played (117 different lineups) and they rank third.
So. Very, very good. Now, for the playoffs.
The issue comes from the context of those minutes. The all-bench unit predominantly plays at the start of the second and fourth quarters, when teams (including the Raptors, obviously) tend to rest their star players. From game to game that pattern can vary, but overall the units playing at the start of those two quarters will be facing inferior opposition.
So the concern is, what happens when teams tighten their rotations in the playoffs? When LeBron James plays 44 minutes each game, those easy minutes are not going to be so impactful as when there were 12 of them each game.
Meaning the question becomes, how effective can the bench unit be against lineups with stars in them?
Beasts of the East
Let’s focus the question. How have the Raptors’ bench players performed against Eastern Conference playoff teams this year, both playing against and away from the opposing team’s best players? To make that even simpler, I’m going to identify the nominal best player on each playoff team, and look at the net rating (point differential for the team per 100 possessions) for each bench player while playing against that best player, and while that best player sits.
First, though, here are the players I’ve identified as the stars of their teams.
Boston: Kyrie Irving
Cleveland: LeBron James
Philadelphia: Joel Embiid
Indiana: Victor Oladipo
Washington: Bradley Beal (John Wall hasn’t played against the Raptors)
Miami: Goran Dragic (Hassan Whiteside has an argument but Dragic got the All-Star nod)
Milwaukee: Giannis Antetokounmpo
With that out of the way, let’s look at how the full bench lineup has fared in those match-ups. Lineups tend to yield smaller samples even in the best of conditions, and with us restricting the samples to a few games against each team (if that, as not every lineup plays in every game), this will be even worse. Still, as a starting point, here are the splits for the five man unit described above.
Each of the tables I'll present show the opposing teams and star players along the top row, and the minutes played and net rating against that star in the first two rows, and the minutes played and net rating away from that star in the bottom two rows.
Kind of a jumble of extreme results in small samples, as you’d expect, with some teams where there is no sample at all. But if we aggregate all the minutes against the star players and all the minutes away from them, we get a very odd result for this lineup (in a very limited sample).
In 46 minutes playing away from Eastern Conference playoff team stars, the bench lineup has gotten blasted — mostly on the strength of struggling against Milwaukee’s bench unit — to the tune of a -47 net rating. Very odd for a lineup that has had a great deal of success overall.
But if we look at the minutes played against the star players (there are just as many, 45 minutes total), the bench net rating leaps up to +5.
Now, neither of these samples are big enough to be relied on by themselves, but we aren’t looking to judge how good the bench unit is. We are looking to see if there is any obvious impact in them playing against better opposition than they are used to. And there is certainly no evidence of that here. But those are teeny tiny samples, so let’s go hunting for bigger ones.
One At A Time
One of the reasons that sample is so small is because that bench unit, as much as it has been used, does not play every game. The Raptors have played 74 games, and that unit has appeared in only 31 of them.
So, we’ll make it dead simple. We’ll look at each individual member of the bench unit in the same way we looked at the unit as a whole. This will lead to five bigger samples, which will overlap a good deal (so should show similar trends). The sample will also include some time spent alongside the Raptors’ own stars, but the majority of the minutes will be what we are looking for: bench unit minutes.
Without further ado, here we go.
Fred VanVleet’s overall sample breaks down to 208 minutes played against opposing stars with a +14.6 net rating, and 211 minutes played against opposing benches with a +12.4 net rating. Amazingly enough, he actually sees a better mark against opposing stars than benches. Pencil him in as not a concern.
Wright’s overall sample breaks down into 185 minutes played against opposing stars with a +7.2 net rating, and 177 minutes played against opposing benches with a +12.0 net rating. So we do see a drop off here, but Wright is still winning his minutes handily. I’d call this a good thing.
C.J. Miles’ overall sample breaks down into 136 minutes played against opposing stars with a +7.2 net rating, and 139 minutes played against opposing benches with a +16.0 net rating. Just like Wright, he sees a drop off, but also still maintains a good margin.
Siakam’s overall sample breaks down into 212 minutes played against opposing stars with a +8.4 net rating, and 202 minutes played against opposing benches with a +12.7 net rating. Very similar to Wright’s numbers.
Poeltl’s overall sample breaks down into 175 minutes played against opposing stars with a +9.4 net rating, and 173 minutes played against opposing benches with a +12.4 net rating. Another breakdown very similar to Wright and Siakam.
One consistent pattern here, for the most part: yes, the bench does see a drop off in performance playing against the Eastern Conference playoff teams’ stars, but for the most part it’s not a very big drop off, and every bench player still posts a significant positive net rating in those situations.
Also, in examining the individual players’ trends, of the bench players the Raptors probably want to use VanVleet most against opposing starters based on his strong results regardless of competition. Also, they probably most want to avoid using Miles in those situations, judging by him having the greatest drop off in performance when facing quality competition.
And If It Fails?
If the bench unit does prove to struggle in the playoffs, the obvious answer is to increase the minutes for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and run out star plus bench units instead of the all-bench unit. The good news is, we have a decent sample of those lineups this year already, and when they do play, it is usually to match up against opposing teams that are using their stars in those minutes, so we don’t need to concern ourselves with the quality of competition in the sample.
And the results have been good. DeRozan, Siakam and Poeltl playing without Lowry have posted a +5 net rating on the year. While Lowry, Siakam and Poeltl playing without DeRozan have posted a +24 net rating on the year.
Ultimately, there appears to be no real reason to believe the bench unit will prove to be a weakness in the playoffs, and even if they were to drop off to the point of breaking even, that still buys time for DeRozan and Lowry to have fresher legs than their counterparts at the end of each game. And in the unlikely event they were to struggle even more, the Raptors appear to have an easy fix for that issue just by increasing their stars’ minutes like everyone else.
All stats per NBA.com.