It’s not a pressing question, really, but the Raptors’ bench rotation is still something to consider. As the core players on the squad over the past couple of years have either left or been promoted to the starting lineup, the list of reserves for Toronto has seemingly grown — but also flattened. There are players who could conceivably fill various slots regularly for the Raptors, but whether they actually will (or can) remains a question.
When asked on Wednesday about it, Toronto coach Nick Nurse admitted the following:
Nurse says he would like to roll with one guy consistently in an eighth-man role. Last year was more by committee.— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) December 9, 2020
Nurse also said: “The whole player is probably the one that wins that job,” which means, as Eric Koreen of the Athletic clarified, that the best two-way player from the Raptors’ bench will be the player who gets those minutes. An obvious conclusion, but again: worthy of investigation.
Last season, I made this guessing game into a weekly feature — which I shall not attempt again — but clearly we’re still asking the question: who is the best bet to be the Raptors’ eighth man? And for that matter, who is to be the Toronto’s seventh man? Assuming Norman Powell is a shoe-in as the team’s top reserve — and potential Sixth Man candidate, if we’re keeping it real — everything after that is once again up for grabs.
Before we get into the real candidates, let’s remove a few players from contention. Of the full 17-man roster, it’s safe to say that Malachi Flynn will not be that heavily used in his rookie season. Likewise for rookie Jalen Harris, who is now on a two-way contract, and will also not figure in much to the main squad. By that same token, while Paul Watson could be due for something special this season, he’s on a two-way contract too, which will limit his appearances for Toronto somewhat. For now, we’ll take him out of consideration — though I would be delighted to be wrong about this.
With that settled, let’s get to the remaining pool of eight players on the Raptors.
The 7th Man Candidates
After signing a career-altering two-year contract with the Raptors, it’s obvious the team has plans for him in the short term. While there are immense limits to Boucher’s ability — he doesn’t have much of a handle, he’s probably never going to be a bruising body — there are some astounding physical skills there too.
For one, Boucher can cover a lot of ground, and as a result he’s able to defend a lot of different forwards and wings. It was not uncommon last season to see Boucher hunt for a block at the rim and then run out to the three-point line to credibly challenge — or outright block — a shot. For two, and this is not nothing, Boucher is utterly unafraid to do anything on the court. This is at times something of a curse (e.g. he tries to do too much), but it is also a blessing: whatever happens to Boucher — a missed shot, an attempt sent back in his face, etc. — he’s ready to pick himself up and try again. If nothing else, it’s the mindset of a consistent rotation player in the NBA.
Len is insurance for both Boucher, who may or may not be the main frontcourt reserve for the Raptors this coming season, and for Aron Baynes, who still has to prove he can stay healthy for the majority of the season. For the most part, despite being younger than Boucher, Len is what he is at this point, which is why we’re discussing here at all.
For a more specific Raptors’ frame of reference, the comparison is obvious: he’s like Jonas Valanciunas — a big body who will set screens, rebound well, and flirt with a three-point shot. My money is on Len not becoming the seventh man if the Raptors maintain perfect health (largely because of an overall ethos to downsize). But we can bank on some injuries — or, god forbid, COVID-related absences — which means Len will likely move up the depth chart. Say what you will about the modern NBA, but being big and strong still counts for something.
Maybe this is optimistic, but I think right now Thomas has more utility to the Raptors than the other guard options listed below. He’s proven himself to be an absolutely deadly shooter, of course. But more than that, Thomas has shown he can and should be allowed to expand on his game. That means handling the rock a little more, maybe play-making a little more, and most definitely being used as a defense-warping decoy a lot more.
Assuming the Raptors are once again going to struggle to create on offense (which could be a big assumption depending on which version of Pascal Siakam we get this season), Toronto could always benefit from letting Thomas bomb away. Also, the questions on the defensive end for Thomas have mostly been satisfied: yes, he’s not a lockdown defender, but he’s more than capable — and the team knows how to accommodate him in general. I say let him play!
Under normal circumstances, this would be a no-brainer pick, as Davis’ rookie season showed him to be a player with tantalizing potential still to be developed. But the situation here is bad — there’s just no other way to say it, and the Raptors would be best served by cutting Davis loose. Instead, they continue to tread dangerously by waiting out a legal process that will likely give them the wiggle room they want (whether they state it or not) to keep Davis on the roster. He’s a talented player, for sure, but to retain him now undoes a lot of the progressive goodwill the organization has acquired over the years. So yeah, sure, TD could be the Raptors’ seventh man, but we’re not particularly excited about that fact.
The 8th Man Candidates
Once again, we are here with Patrick McCaw, do-it-all utility man who... doesn’t do it all. At this point, I feel like we’ve been down this road enough with McCaw. What he theoretically brings to the table is well-documented: height and length to take on most guards and wings, a ball-handling and passing ability that allows him to fill in as the Raptors’ backup point guard, and a complete unwillingness to shoot (which totally cramps the Raps’ style). Will anything change in this regard for 2020-21? Can anything change in this regard? Pencil in McCaw for some strong opportunities to answer these questions one way or the other.
Unfortunately for Bembry, despite having a slightly most useful skill-set than Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, his opportunities to play may be fewer and farther between. What the Raptors got out of Rondae was due in large part to his ability to guard every position one to five; that’s not the case with Bembry, despite a similar ability to muck it up in every passing lane and loose-ball scramble. There’s utility there for Toronto, with their defense-first identity and desire to maintain maximum versatility at all times, but Bembry may be slightly less functional overall for them this season than Rondae was last year. Still, we’ll see.
Poor Stanley has to know that he’s only still on the Raptors because of his contract situation. And that same dollar figure may become one of the reasons he will be imminently movable this year — not as a useful player exceeding the value of said deal, but as salary cap ballast in some larger deal. That’s not to say the Raptors have earmarked Johnson for a trade already — far from it — but he’s the most likely candidate to be included to make the math work. Sorry, Stanley.
On the flip-side: who knows, maybe Johnson will prove us all wrong and emerge as the Raptors’ point-forward of the future, the player he could still potentially become. We’re heading towards one of the weirder seasons in living memory, so it stands to reason Johnson could have a part to play. Best to prepare ourselves.
We’re assuming here that Brissett will indeed stick on the Raptors for the time being. There remains some intriguing potential around Oshae, given his penchant for bombing threes and playing hard-nosed defense across multiple positions. Like his former two-way contract running mate Paul Watson, this could be something of a minor breakout year for Brissett, a season in which he proves he has value as an actual NBA player.
Right now it’s hard to see him rising above the position of Toronto’s tenth man — but he was basically in that slot last year and made the most of his limited chances. It’s not impossible to imagine some more development and confidence giving Brissett a boost this year. And if, say, Johnson (or, hey, Powell) get traded, maybe Toronto’s rotation shifts again and Oshae gets a consistent shot.