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The Raptors’ bench continues to tread water, and search for solutions

The Raptors beat the Kings last night, but they’re still searching for a strong enough bench rotation to withstand the length of the regular season.

Detroit Pistons v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

It feels fitting that the words “load management” are once again on everyone’s lips, in Toronto and across the NBA world. After sitting 22 games last season with the Raptors, the ClippersKawhi Leonard has returned to resting on select nights to ease the stress on his quad muscle. Given how things went in Toronto for him last year — particularly during a post-season run that still saw him power through a limpy performance or two — it is both understandable and desirable to keep Leonard on this health regime. Why risk it, especially with a chance at the title sitting right there?

A fair question, but these problems are now far from Toronto’s mind. In fact, the Raptors currently have the reverse issue, a situation the team hasn’t quite faced since the injury-plagued run of 2016-17 (before mid-season trades restocked the team’s core) or the 2015 collapse before it (also wear-and-tear induced). In short: the Raptors have seven established and trustworthy players in their rotation, and beyond that only question marks. The luxury of last year, the ability to rest a star player because he needed the break, appears to be gone. It’s led to the team eschewing load management entirely; and pushed two of their key players, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, to be among the top three in minutes played on the year.

Coming off a 124-120 win last night against the Kings, the Raptors are 5-2 and have to be pleased on a game-to-game basis with how some things have gone so far. Despite losing Kawhi (and Danny Green), the squad remains a top ten defensive team, with an offensive approach that is increasingly pass-happy and egalitarian. Pascal Siakam is blossoming even more into something special, OG Anunoby is finally advancing along his development curve, and veterans like Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka are rising to the occasion. The team is winning now, but are the current loads being placed on each of these players manageable? Can they find a rotation that regularly puts trust in an eighth, ninth, and tenth man? Or is it just too hard to make — and watch — mistakes that cost the Raptors’ wins?

On this last point, coach Nick Nurse was affirmative. It is indeed difficult to play through the mistakes. “It seems like in the moment you’re trying to coach to win for that night,” he said before last night’s home game against Sacramento. “And that’s always the way we’re gonna approach it. It’s kind of what my training has been, let’s get the next one and worry about everything else later.”

For any coach in the NBA, this is the governing ethos. You play to win the game, as they say. It’s understandable then for Nurse to take this approach too, especially when he knows his team’s core — coming off winning a championship, no less — can snap together and win most any game. But Nurse was also around in those aformentioned past years, the seasons when the Raptors leaned too hard on Lowry, or found themselves surviving — or not — by injury luck alone. (Remember when Dwane Casey had to trot out Lucas Nogueira as a power forward in early 2017 because of a downed Patrick Patterson?) Fortunately, Nurse has acknowledged where this route will take him if he overplays the mainstays of his team’s rotation. Adjustments are presuambly to come.

“But now I’m gonna have to try to long-play within a game just a little bit more,” Nurse said. “I’m gonna have to try to hold water or tread water a little bit in that first half a little bit, just to make sure the minutes are down for the regulars and up for the second unit guys a little bit so we can have a little bit more room to play with it in the second half.”

In Wednesday’s Kings game, this holding and treading water led to the following minutes distribution beyond Ibaka (superlative in 23 minutes) and Norman Powell (maddeningly inconsistent for 19 minutes): 11 minutes for Matt Thomas, seven minutes for Terence Davis, and five minutes for Chris Boucher. Nurse’s bid to mix in his bench came in fits and starts, and while his stated ideal was to keep two starters out there at all times, that didn’t quite go as planned either. A Lowry-plus-bench lineup still appeared in over five minutes of (struggling) game action for the Raptors. Toronto was a minus-3 during that run and the Kings were able to hang around.

In their combined 23 minutes, it was possible to squint and see the roles for Davis, Thomas, and Boucher. In the absence of Patrick McCaw, who’s down for at least a month, Davis is to come in, act as a secondary ball-handler, and create the same plays Powell produces — drives and 3s, and active hands on defense. In last night’s run however, Davis was very much the rookie, drawing five fouls in seven minutes. (At one point he actually fouled out before the foul was re-assigned from him to Norm; not that it really mattered at that point.) Davis’ mentor VanVleet could only offer three pieces of advice: “stop hacking ... don’t talk to the refs,” and perhaps most importantly, “there’s games like that.” (He added a bonus fourth bit: “don’t do it again on Friday.”)

Thomas, meanwhile, showed exactly why he deserves to be in the NBA (shooting!) and why it’s been difficult for him to crack a rotation both in the NBA and on the Raptors (defense!). With Toronto’s lead having shrunk to just three points in the fourth quarter, there was Thomas with a timely three to push it back up to a two-possession game. He would follow it up with another 90 seconds later to get the lead up to nine points. And to his credit, Thomas was also credited with a steal in last night’s contest, so it’s not like he was a complete zero on D. Teams will continue to attack him though, and the Raptors have to be prepared for it.

In that, presumably Boucher can help. The springy forward had one monster weak-side block in last night’s game, a salve for the defensively-challenged on the perimeter. But he’s still searching for a place on offense — or altogether lost. It’s clear that Toronto has settled on Boucher playing in the power forward spot where he makes the most sense in the NBA (rather than the G League). But it’s still a mystery why exactly he’s getting those handful of minutes instead of, say, giving Rondae Hollis-Jefferson a chance, who could presumably do most of what Boucher does. Yes, RHJ is a notorious non-shooter — but is Boucher scaring teams with his range right now?

It’s an open question, much like the Raptors’ bench continues to be. There just hasn’t been the right amount of pressure yet to answer it definitively. Now however comes the season’s first test: after a light week with just two games in seven days, the Raptors head on their first 5-game road trip, a west coast swing that takes them to New Orleans, Los Angeles, Portland, and Dallas. There likely won’t be many “easy” minutes to be had there — even the 1-6 Pelicans gave the Raptors quite the fight back on opening night. Still, the time for Toronto’s new version of load management may be necessary to make it through such a slog without risking Lowry, VanVleet, or someone else. Yes, even if it costs the team a win or two on the trip. So, should the Raptors be worried?

“Nah, it’ll be fun,” said Lowry, as his usual joyfully cranky self after another sturdy effort. “It’ll give us a good opportunity to be on the road as a group and hang out with each other and kind of get some camaraderie together and be in some warm weather.”

Here’s hoping they can stay if not hot then at least warm together through their west coast sojourn — and upon their return home. There are, after all, another 75 games to play.