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Where is the Raptors’ Next Man Up?

Injuries have played a role in the Raptors’ struggles this season, but their lack of depth might be the biggest factor.

Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s officially been a month since the Toronto Raptors went on a five-game winning streak, though if you’ve been watching along, it’s probably felt like much longer. Since that last 109-100 road victory against the Washington Wizards, the Raptors have won just four of 15 games (as of Saturday). The vibes, while certainly not at a Tampa level, aren’t quite where they were in October, and the team’s youth is showing up in increasingly non-ideal ways. But if you’re looking for something to blame the team’s 10-13 start on, it’s pretty tempting to start with the injury report.

First, it was Pascal Siakam out for 10 games recovering from shoulder surgery. It was great to see him return — and to see Yuta Watanabe come back from his nagging calf injury — but before Siakam even had time to find a rhythm, the team lost OG Anunoby, Khem Birch, and most recently, Gary Trent Jr. to injuries. Scottie Barnes has also been dealing with a thumb injury that’s knocked him out of a couple games. Luckily, Trent has returned and the Raptors’ current ailments are thought to be relatively minor.

But the fact remains that this team has barely had its three best players healthy at the same time. Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Anunoby have only played a total of 70 minutes together across three games. Most teams’ top three players have already played between 300 and 400. Anunoby and Watanabe, two of the team’s best defenders, have yet to play in the same game. Meanwhile, the Raptors’ top six rotation players (Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby, Barnes, Trent, and Birch) have played just once as a collective unit. The result of that game? A 118-113 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, during which those top six players combined for 107 points. Do some simple subtraction and you can pretty quickly see one of the team’s biggest issues, an issue greater perhaps than the injury bug: depth.

Last season, an onslaught of injuries and COVID-related absences unquestionably sunk the Raptors’ win-loss record — with that amount of absences all at once, the negative outcome was unavoidable. But navigating injuries doesn’t have to be impossible. Just look at the 2019-20 Raptors. Kyle Lowry, Siakam, VanVleet, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol missed an average of 18 games – of the key rotation players, only Anunoby missed fewer than 12. But the team went 53-19, and throughout the season were supported by the “next man up.”

There are a couple ways to survive missing key players. One is to have top-tier talent. That’s how KD and Harden’s Brooklyn Nets are atop the East without Kyrie Irving and now Joe Harris, and how Jokic’s Denver Nuggets are staying afloat without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Toronto hasn’t had that type of talent since Kawhi Leonard left, and it could be a while before they do again. The other way to survive injuries is to have a deep, adaptable roster, like the 2019-20 Raptors did. The Golden State Warriors, who are 19-4 without Klay Thompson, are blessed with both.

We can point to the Raptors’ injuries as a sign that they’re better than their record and just a couple recoveries away from turning things around – these statements are probably true. But by now we should accept that assuming full health is a fool’s errand. Sure, at their best, this Raptors team might be quite solid. But the truly good teams are equipped to succeed even when a couple key players are out. The Raptors’ injuries this season have highlighted not only the team’s lack of depth, but also the roster’s lack of variety.

For example, Gary Trent Jr. is a good player, but his absence from the team creates a bigger gap than it should. One reason for this is that the Raptors basically have two shooting guards on their roster — Trent and Svi Mykhailiuk — and are sorely lacking in players who can provide something similar to what Trent does. Mykhailiuk is shooting 33% from three and while he can make some good plays (especially in transition), he’s also prone to missing open looks. Outside shooting threats are key to create the spacing needed for Toronto’s playmakers, especially on a roster with no real stretch fives. The Raptors have a ton of long and athletic wing players, but as soon as they lose a player from their guard rotation or with shot-creating responsibilities, it’s slim pickings looking for the next man up. This is the same reason why VanVleet has had to play 38 minutes per game — any extended stretch without him starts to look very ugly.

One player on the Raptors’ roster who could’ve alleviated some of VanVleet’s primary ball-handling burden was Goran Dragic. But with Dragic likely out of the fold until a trade/buyout is reached, Chris Boucher displaying regression from last season, and Malachi Flynn lacking consistency as a backup point guard, the Raptors’ depth this season isn’t what we thought it could be. Svi Mykhailiuk is alright off the bench, but inserting him into the starting lineup when Trent is out is just asking too much. And without a true big on the entire roster, opponents with size can more easily wear down a shorthanded Raptors team.

Just to be clear, the Raptors’ depth could certainly be worse, and they’re still developing young talent. If Precious Achiuwa can sustain his positive play while limiting the costly mistakes, and if Yuta Watanabe remains aggressive as a catch-and-shoot option, then the Raptors have a pretty productive eight or nine men. But without deeper rotation players stepping up, an injury here or there just makes the Raptors too vulnerable. Fully healthy and at their best, these Raptors are fairly competitive. But is that enough?