Should Chris Boucher be inserted into the starting lineup?
It’s the latest question plaguing Raptors Twitter. The question replaces other early-season hot topics like: can somebody other than Kyle Lowry step up? Will Fred VanVleet be an All-Star this season? Is Pascal Siakam back?
Along with OG Anunoby, who has quietly risen to no. 3 in steals and no. 11 in two-point FG%, Toronto’s core four appear to each be rounding into form. The Center position, however, is very much in flux.
Over the last five games, here is Aron Baynes’ and Alex Len’s minutes' distribution:
- @ Sacramento — Len started and played 4:43; Baynes (DNP)
- @ Golden State — Baynes & Len (DNP)
- @ Portland — Len started and played 9:33; Baynes (DNP)
- vs Charlotte — Baynes started and played 7:33; Len (DNP)
- vs Charlotte — Baynes started and played 4:20; Len (DNP)
Meanwhile, Boucher has been on an absolute tear.
Chris Boucher’s last 5 games:— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) January 17, 2021
20 PTS - 9 REB - 2 BLK
25 PTS - 10 REB - 2 BLK
20 PTS - 8 REB - 3 BLK
15 PTS - 6 REB - 6 BLK
23 PTS - 10 REB - 3 BLK pic.twitter.com/6IXC7mvkP6
Those numbers only scratch the surface. After Saturday’s games, Swatterboy leads the NBA in Offensive Rating and Win Shares per 48. Boucher has been an offensive juggernaut, ranking in the top 10 in [giant inhale] FG%, 2-pt FG%, PER, TS%, eFG%, Turnover %, Offensive Win Shares, and Offensive BPM. On the defensive end, he’s third in blocks per game, second in blocks percentage, and 10th in Defensive BPM. To say he deserves a spot in the starting lineup is the understatement of the year!
Believe it or not, similar questions circulated last season about Norm Powell. The conclusion at the time was to keep him as the sixth man (when the team wasn’t dealing with a plethora of injuries) to prop the bench unit’s scoring up. This season is a completely different story. According to Cleaningtheglass.com, Powell plummeted from 92nd percentile in eFG% among wings last season to 37th percentile this season, and from 79th percentile in FG% at the rim to 7th percentile (not a typo) this season. Ironically, it’s Powell’s regression this season that may keep Boucher from moving up from the bench to the starting lineup.
For what it’s worth, Boucher has been inserted with the starters in the second half and has also been added to the closing lineup — both of which carry more importance in the grand scheme of things.
The road to .500 will only get tougher, as nine of the Raptors’ next ten games are against teams that made the playoffs last season. Toronto has only faced three such opponents so far (0-3). As Nick Nurse weighs his options at centre, I will replace the Fun Fact segment this week and analyze whether or not Slimm Duck should be starting. Let’s get to this week’s picks!
January 18 vs Dallas Mavericks
The problem with writing these weekly columns is how quickly outdated lineup information becomes, especially during a pandemic. As of Sunday afternoon, the Mavericks are without Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Jalen Brunson, Maxi Kleber, and Dwight Powell, due to health & safety protocols. That’s very handy information when projecting how a relatively healthy Raptors squad (knocks on wood) would fare against a typically difficult foe. However, this season is unlike any other — yes, not even last season — as postponed games pile up and more teams find themselves short-handed. For now, let’s assume that all of the aforementioned players are out, or at least the entire squad is slightly fatigued from playing Chicago the day before.
Luka Doncic is still playing. Kristaps Porzingis is back. Rick Carlisle is still one of the best coaches. These short-handed Mavericks still handled a Hornets squad (104-93 on Wednesday) that the Raptors had trouble closing out in their previous two games.
In Saturday’s game against Dallas, the Bucks threw different defensive tactics at Doncic (something Mike Budenholzer has been openly mocked for not doing during the last two failed playoff runs), and also had Jrue Holiday be very physical with him. Those are both hallmarks of Toronto’s defensive scheme — switchability and aggressiveness. How did it go for Milwaukee? Doncic had 28 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists. I swear this guy can be a cheat code sometimes!
Should Boucher Start?
Yes. If only to incite PTSD on the Mavs.
CHRIS BOUCHER AGAINST THE MAVERICKS.— Canadians in the NBA (@NBACanadians) December 22, 2019
4 BLK (!!!)
1 Porzingis stuffed in a locker!
Led the Raptors to the BIGGEST comeback in franchise history!pic.twitter.com/LwFcyfmRFT
The Raptors have won four of their last five against the Mavericks, including the record-setting 30-point comeback in the clip above. Their only defeat was at the tail-end of a grueling 5-game Western Conference road trip where the team was without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. These teams appear to have done some sort of a Freaky Friday switch this season.
Last season, Dallas was a historically good offense with a below-average defense. This season, their offense is below-average while their defense is top-3. That’s essentially the same description about the Raptors, except Toronto is last season’s Dallas (does that make sense?). The Raptors' #3 offense (over the last 5 games) will have its work cut out against the Mavericks improving defense. Chalk another one up to the moral victory column because Toronto will compete valiantly but fall short again, Mavs win 109-107.
January 20 vs Miami Heat
January 22 vs Miami Heat
Last season, the Heat handed the Raptors two of their most deflating pre-bubble losses. On December 3rd, after being held in check for four quarters, Raptor killer, Jimmy Butler, scored eight unanswered points in the first minute of overtime to quiet the Scotiabank Arena crowd (remember those days?) and lead Miami to victory. On January 2nd, Miami held Toronto to their worst shooting performance in franchise history (6-for-42 from three), and an omen to how horrible 2020 was going to be.
Just three months ago, these teams were a couple of plays away from facing each other for the East crown. This season they’re a combined 8-15 with victories over the Knicks, Kings, Hornets, Pelicans, Bucks, Thunder, and Wizards — that’s two playoff teams from a year ago and maybe only one this season.
The reigning Eastern Conference champs joined the Bucks, Celtics, and Clippers as the only teams in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. This year, they’re in the bottom-10 in both. On offense, the Heat are turning the ball over at a league-worst rate and, while they’re not strategizing to crash the glass, currently rank 29th in offensive rebounding rate. Toronto’s high-powered transition offense will feast on those turnovers and play smaller lineups without worrying about giving up second chances.
Miami made the Finals on the heels of their defense. So far this season, that defense is 23rd in points per possession and 20th in opponents eFG%.
Should Boucher Start?
No. I know I was just saying the team can thrive with some small-ball lineups, but Boucher may need to start on the bench, at least for the first matchup. Miami’s defensive coverage of dropping under screens will work wonders for Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry’s pull-up game from three. Boucher and Norm (who’s now up to 42.4% from three) can carry the offensive load for the bench.
Similar to the issue of predicting Dallas’ lineup, Butler and Avery Bradley has not played recently due to health & safety protocols. The guess here is these guys will suit up for at least one of the games in Tampa. Even if Butler returns, how will Miami slow Toronto’s offense? The Raptors are #1 in 3-pointers made and attempted, while the Heat rank 29th defensively in both of those areas. As long as the Raptors don’t shoot 14% again, I’ll go out on a limb and predict the Raptors pull off a mini-sweep of the Heat, winning 120-115 and 118-104.
January 24 @ Indiana Pacers
Welcome to night one of the Bjorkgren Bowl!
With back-to-back games in Indianapolis, the Raptors’ mettle will continue to be tested, this time against their former Assistant Coach, Nate Bjorkgren.
The Pacers have received outstanding production throughout the roster. Myles Turner is the only player in the NBA with a higher block percentage than Boucher. Malcolm Brogdon, along with VanVleet, is one of 10 players to average at least 20 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and one steal. Domantas Sabonis has followed up his breakout All-Star season by increasing his numbers across the board, thanks in part to an NBA-leading 37.8 minutes per game.
Indiana made some noise last week by surprisingly jumping into the 4-team James Harden blockbuster deal. By trading Victor Oladipo for Caris LeVert, the Pacers were able to unload Oladipo’s expiring contract while replacing him with a secondary shot creator the team has sorely missed since T.J. Warren went down with a foot injury.
Should Boucher Start?
Yes. Pitting the NBA’s top shot-blockers against each other seems like destiny. Come on, Nick. Tether Boucher’s minutes to Turner and give us some modern-day Hakeem Olajuwon vs David Robinson!
As well as the Pacers have started the season, the reality is they’ll be without their three best wings in LeVert, Warren, and Jeremy Lamb. With Brogdon as the only shot creator, the playing field evens out a bit. When these teams last saw each other on February 23rd, Sabonis was mostly guarded by Serge Ibaka. However, in the two minutes he was guarded by Boucher, Domas went after the Slim Duck (7 field goal attempts), only to be introduced to Swatterboy (3 blocked attempts). While I’m obviously trying to make the case for a Raptors victory, I’ll hedge my bet and predict a loss (then follow up with a Nurse-adjusted victory on Monday). Pacers prevail 117-108.