One of the truisms of basketball is that in the playoffs depth matters less. Rotations get shorter, star players sop up more minutes, the lack of back-to-backs means that veteran legs don’t get so weary.
Applied to the Toronto Raptors that truism means that Dwane Casey is going to have to trim the number of players that see the floor come post-season. It means the scrambling of minutes for Norman Powell, or Malcolm Miller, or maybe even Nigel Hayes, is a shell game in which there is no ball underneath the cup, and your twenty-dollar bill is gone forever.
But what if that’s wrong?
That the Raptors success has been predicated, to a large degree, by their depth is now accepted as another basketball truism. Looking at teams with players who have averaged 18-plus minutes in at least half their team’s games gives you a list three names long: the Raptors, their spiritual forefathers in San Antonio, both with ten; and the Sacramento Kings who lead the way with eleven. Which is less a matter of the Kings having depth, than Vlade Divac channeling JR Smith and tossing a bowl of Italian Wedding at the wall to see what sticks.
The Raps’ reserves aren’t just sucking up minutes either. Ten (sure, including Hayes) of the league’s top 50 plus-minus players are Raptors — and six of those are bench guys. Given that Toronto basketball players don’t make up 20 percent of the entire league, that’s good.
But still, the Raptors aren’t really going to go ten deep every night in the post-season (and maybe even eleven or twelve if things get odd). Right?
After all, Plus-Minus is very much a raw counting stat, which the Raps back-ups can inflate by beating up on, admittedly, inferior benches.
So, what about Real Plus-Minus? It’s a “rate” stat that takes into account quality of opponent (among other things). By that measure things are less rosy. Raptors occupy only 10 of the top 115 spots on the list (I see you Long Weekend!). Still, last time I checked, I’m pretty sure the Raps didn’t make up almost 10 percent of the league either.
Clearly, the Raps have a lot of good players. Just as clearly, tradition says Toronto is going to have to give up that advantage come April. Aside from the annoying (and chilling) potential to be true, some predict the Raps will face-plant in the post-season because they simply don’t have “it.” (In related news, fuck you Paul Pierce.) The reason most NBA analysts cite for why the Raps may under-perform to their record is that they simply can’t use all those good players in the post-season the way they do now.
But, again, why?
Dwane Casey has done a masterful job of mixing and matching line-ups. Every significant member of the team has played crunch-time minutes and has succeeded in them. We know that almost any mixture of Toronto’s large core can hold their own against pretty much anyone for ten-odd minute stretches.
We know the bench and the starters play different styles — adding an extra wrinkle in trying to both attack and defend Toronto.
We know that the Raps starters haven’t suffered at all from reduced minutes. There is no argument for “rust” out-stripping “rest.”
Now, I know the question is: “How far do the numbers of Jakob Poeltl, and Fred VanVleet fall if they go against LeBron James for 90 percent of their minutes rather than 40 percent?”
That’s a fair question. It’s easy to see why the Raps vaunted bench would be less productive facing Al Horford, and Kyrie Irving than Daniel Theis and Terry Rozier. But, what about a tiring Horford and Irving?
If LeBron has to chase back after Pascal Siakam for 22 minutes a game, or cede easy baskets, another question pops up: How much does that eat into the King’s legs in the last five minutes? And if LeBron is invincible to fatigue, what about Kevin Love? Is 38-minutes-a-night Love going to be short on a late, key, three?
What about the boost the Raps get by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry almost never having those weary legs? Would you rather face DeMar conserving energy for a 40-minute appearance, or 48 minutes of combined attacking basketball from him and Delon Wright?
The sheer pace at which the Raps bench plays is unsustainable. If Toronto stays with the egalitarian system, Casey could literally run opponents’ starters off the floor.
If the Raps have the guts to go against conventional wisdom by continuing to rely on their depth — and they’ve hinted they will — the team will either reap the advantage of opponent’s fatigue, or get those bench-on-bench stretches they’ve thrived on all season.
In a basketball world where all the rules of how to win are being rewritten (go small, shoot threes, reduce post-ups), maybe Toronto can add a new chapter to this modern book of wisdom: the more good basketball players you can throw at the court, even in the vaunted playoffs, the better your chances of winning will be.