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What did the preseason teach us about Toronto’s bench?

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For the first time in a long time the Raptors will enter the season with their bench play a glaring question mark. How concerned should fans be?

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

For much of this current successful run in Raptors history, the formula for success has been this: Toronto’s starters play their opponents to a virtual standstill, setting the stage for the Raptors reserves to come in and lay waste to their opponent’s bench. It’s been a pretty good formula — Toronto has averaged 53.5 wins a year since the run began back in 2013.

Some years it was veteran-heavy groups led by guys like John Salmons, Patrick Patterson, and Corey Joseph that did the damage. Other years it was the kids; like in 2017-18 when Pascal Siakam, Jacob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright and elder statesman C.J. Miles blitzed the league to the tune of a +18.7 rating over 340 minutes.

Last year, the script flipped a little bit as the Toronto starters, usually Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Siakam and one of Jonas Valanciunas/Marc Gasol/Serge Ibaka dominated their opposition (the Valanciunas version of the group was one of the best in the league with a +21.3 Net Rating over 140 minutes).

Meanwhile, the Toronto bench struggled in comparison. Because of all the turnover, there weren’t any high-minute bench groups in the order of 2017-18, but over 72 minutes, a pair of line-ups led by Miles, Wright, VanVleet and Anunoby, with either Jonas or Serge finished a combined -21.7.

For those who got frustrated watching the bench get caved in time and time again after so many years of excellence, be prepared — because odds are it’s going to happen again.

The cost of Toronto’s all-in approach to last year is a bench unit that is as barren as any Raptor fans have seen since at least 2012-13, where Toronto’s chief reserves were Amir Johnson, Alan Anderson, Landry Fields, rookie-season Terrence Ross, and the immortal John Lucas III. And keep in mind, Amir started 38 games that year.

Depending on how you handicap the shooting guard race, and whether Nick Nurse decides to platoon his centres again, the Raptors are looking at their bench being led by one dependable veteran in Serge Ibaka, one hoping to become a dependable veteran in Norman Powell and… what exactly?

The bench is filled with guys who, reportedly, do one thing well, while lacking significantly in other areas. Bluntly, it’s guys who can shoot but are limited otherwise (Malcolm Miller, Matt Thomas), guys who can’t shoot, but have shown versatility in the past (Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson), and a couple of guys who might be able to do both, or, maybe neither (Terence Davis, Chris Boucher)???

If the preseason is any indicator, and if Nurse’s history of tinkering holds true, we know it’s going to be… odd? So, what did the preseason tell us about the other players most likely to be confined to bench minutes this season for Toronto.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson/Stanley Johnson

I’m putting these two together because their preseasons were a shared disappointment.

The plan going into the offseason was that one, or both, of the Raps major free agent acquisitions, would bring the defense they’re, rightfully, known for, and, most importantly, show a little more offensive ability when exposed to Nurse’s system.

Spoiler alert: they didn’t.

Now, it’s patently unfair to judge players new to a team by their results in preseason games where they played a total of [checks notes] 88 minutes, but when your mid-western nice coach calls you out for a lack of effort and you take a total of 21 shots in those 88 minutes, it’s fair to say you didn’t grab the opportunity in front of you.

Speaking of shots, Johnson’s completely abandoned him in the preseason as he went just 1-of-13. This was a gruesome exaggeration of a long-time issue for Johnson — he’s shot under 40 percent for his career — an unfathomable number for a player who has the athleticism to get to the tin the way he should be able to.

The weird thing is, he’s shot a very respectable 76 percent from the line in his career. Free throw percentage is considered the best predictor of longer-range shooting, and is undoubtedly part of the reason the Raps brain-trust believe they can get more out of Johnson than the Pistons and Pels did, yet, for some reason it’s never seemed to translate.

After a horrific first game, where he turned the ball over three times in seven minutes, Johnson settled down and played his usual conservative offensive game, while using his size and athleticism to at least be active in getting boards, steals and blocks. Of all the guys on the team, Johnson is the one with the most untapped upside, but his introduction to Toronto might be the kind of first impression that can’t be fixed.

Meanwhile, Hollis-Jefferson was just underused. The four-year vet only played 37 preseason minutes. Some of this can be chalked up to a groin injury that kept him out of the team’s final pre-season game, and will make him unavailable tonight.

In his limited time Jefferson was a little less than advertised. When he wasn’t shooting jumpers, he was highly efficient, and he led all the main bench players in preseason rebound and assist rates, while being near the top in steal percentage. But, he was expected to do more than be better than a bunch of guys new to the NBA, he also was pretty much terrified to shoot the ball, and teams gave him plenty of space, cramping spacing on the offensive end.

Of all the bench options, Hollis-Jefferson has the most proven upside. He can’t shoot, but he can do everything else at an at least average level. He can also comfortably defend four positions, while playing three on offense (though you’d need a shooter at the four or the five, if RHJ is going to be your nominal three), and has by far the most NBA experience.

It seems unfathomable that Nurse has already decided that Hollis-Jefferson isn’t worth playing, but the preseason did no favours to the former Net, and if a few of the players lower on this list start hot, RHJ might need to wait for an injury to get the type of minutes predicted for him when he first signed.

Patrick McCaw

McCaw was an interesting case this preseason, he finished with the second most minutes on the team amongst the possible bench pieces — and that was with being forced to sit with a sore knee that will keep him out of the opener.

McCaw continued to bring his obviously flawed skill-set to the court in the preseason. He can be a tenacious on-ball defender, as anyone who remember watching him hound Justise Winslow into a 4-of-13 shooting performance last March. As a point guard he’s steady, making low-risk plays and generally protecting the basketball. In the preseason, McCaw stayed on course, wracking up five steals and dishing out five assists to two turnovers. But he didn’t create much offense, and continued a career-long struggle with making the shots he does take.

Nurse seems to value this skill-set though. For a coach with such an offensive rep, Nurse’s Toronto tenure heavily suggests that he may care more about the defensive side of the ball – as far as how he views a player’s reliability. Which is why, especially if VanVleet is playing big minutes with the starters, that McCaw’s caretaker PG skill-set, and commitment to defending will likely see him get more minutes than his on-court counting numbers suggest is deserved.

Terence Davis

Let’s move to the Raptors next great undrafted hope. To listen to the hype you’d think that Davis was a first-round calibre prospect who Toronto grabbed for nothing. In reality, draft mocks saw Davis as a middle-second round guy, and his performance in preseason shows why there is both upside and reason to pump the breaks.

First off, the positive. Davis showed flashes of legit NBA ball-handling skills, generating 12 assists, while also being active defensively, grabbing 16 boards and four steals in his 70 minutes.

Most importantly, to a bench unit that could be starved for offense, Davis can, and will, create his own shot — the Ole Miss product got up roughly 17 shots on a per-36 minute basis in the silly season.

The problem is Davis hasn’t shown himself to be particularly adept at making those shots — even playing largely against fellow deep bench units. He shot under 40 percent for the preseason, and just 23 percent from three and 67 percent from the line. His college numbers don’t make you scream “fluke” either — he shot 34 percent from the shorter three-point line and a mediocre 72 percent from the free-throw stripe — which as we discussed is a pretty good predictor of long-range shooting prowess.

To be fair, Davis put up a more robust 37 and 77 in his senior season – but he wouldn’t be the first blah shooter to flash signs of more in a small sample, and then revert to his larger sample performance in the pros. Davis also turned over the ball 11 times, a hideous number, but one to be expected for a combo-guard dealing with NBA calibre athletes for the first time.

The realistic best-case scenario for Davis might look something like a smaller, worse-shooting, but more multi-faceted version of Terrence Ross’ rookie season. Although keep in mind that Ross was two full years younger as a rookie. Nevertheless, the fact that Davis might give the Raps an inefficient, but relative high-usage offense player who cares to try on defense is a huge win. Nurse seems to really like what he does on the court.

Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if by December Davis is largely out of the rotation. If that happens, remember, it’s really hard to make an impact in the NBA as an undrafted rookie — no matter the reasons behind your going undrafted.

Chris Boucher

I covered Slimm Duck here, and not much in the preseason has changed my opinion. Boucher isn’t as good a shooter as the reviews make him out to be, and it’s telling that the one game he started, against Chicago, he was -19, and struggled to protect the rim (despite four blocks), and grab rebounds.

Still, Boucher has shown himself to be active on defense and willing to shoot on offense — on a team starving for size and potential finishers on the bench, Boucher will get a chance to prove me wrong, but he’s the one most at-risk to lose minutes if either RHJ or, less likely Johnson get it going.

Malcolm Miller

Miller is a great story for anyone who roots for the little guy. He battled an almost non-existent college portfolio, a series of horribly timed injuries, and a lot of competition, to finally break camp with an NBA team.

If things continue to break right, Miller’s ability to be a 3-and-D-type wing could get him minutes. He shoots the three when it comes, and has hit them at an encouraging rate (37 percent in college, 43 percent in 25 pro games). He also rarely turns over the ball — an added bonus given the possibility that ball security could be a concern with this Raps bench unit.

However, he’s also fairly limited beyond his catch-and-shoot game. In 49 preseason minutes he managed one non-three point shot, garnered one rebound, no assists, and shot just four freethrows (which, to be fair, isn’t horrible for his type of game). All of which lines up with his limited NBA resume.

Despite all that, Miller could have a place on this team — Nurse said he was “close” to the rotation, but it’s slightly damning that, like Boucher, his worst game was also his lone start. To see any significant minutes this year, he’s going to need the other wings to struggle and he might need to convince Nurse that he can outplay the following guy.

Matt Thomas

Thomas came into camp with a well-earned reputation as the best shooter not in the NBA. He also was said to have a bit more to his game than “pure catch-and-shoot”, but would be someone who would struggle defensively in the NBA, perhaps mightily.

The preseason confirmed all of that. Thomas got off 15 three in 57 minutes (a blistering 9.5 per 36 minutes), and hit 47 percent of them. Unlike Miller, Thomas took 11 shots from inside the arc, as when defenders ran him off the line he showed his comfort with floaters and even the occasional finish (below) the rim.

Thomas also pulled down eight boards, and dished out four assists, suggesting that he can help the team even when his shot isn’t falling.

The defense was definitely a work in progress. Thomas is feisty and competes, but he was constantly attacked, and often overwhelmed on that end. Still, smarts and effort go a long way on defense, and it feels like Nurse really likes the elements Thomas brings as he received constant minutes throughout the preseason as a bench microwave.

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The best case scenario for Toronto and the bench may be this: with Lowry or VanVleet on the floor, Ibaka and Powell both shoot the three in the high 30s. RHJ uses his impressive basketball IQ to develop a connection with the point guards (and maybe in some minutes with Gasol), so that his cutting heavy game plays up. In that world the Raps probably don’t need Davis’ high-usage game, and assuming McCaw shoots just enough to keep defenses honest, and Thomas doesn’t get killed defensively, Nurse can use that last piece of the bench to either be able to play four out around RHJ, or feature plus defenders at all five positions.

The worst case scenario is that neither Ibaka nor Powell can shoot consistently enough to open the floor, that Thomas can’t stay on the floor defensively, that McCaw and Johnson can’t shoot at all, that Malcolm Miller shows why he’s been a 15th-16th man so far in his career, RHJ doesn’t find a rhythm in the offense, and that Davis is a high-volume, low-efficiency gunner who forces the action way too much.

Regardless of which case is more likely, the Raps bench right now likely has more downside risk. So, during the inevitable periods where they cough up nine-point leads in three minutes try not to throw anything at your screen. Take heart though, even if they don’t always fit that well together, at least Masai Ujiri has given Nurse a ton of pieces with which to play.