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Player Review: Will Khem Birch be a part of the Raptors going forward?

Khem Birch outperformed expectations in his brief stint with Toronto, but did he do enough to justify a key role with the team in the future?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors’ challenges this season were myriad. When the team limped to a 2-10 start, every game seemed to present a new set of problems. Some were solved temporarily, others sprung up as the season progressed. Even as the team steadied and had a brief turnaround, one of the problems remained and just would not go away. The Raptors simply did not have a dependable centre.

With its sights aiming clearly at Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2021 free agency, the front office couldn’t find a way to keep veteran big men Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka on the team and risk losing that once all-important financial flexibility. Instead, the team tried to dam the hole with formerly reliable centre Aron Baynes and take a swing on Alex Len.

This was a disaster on all fronts. Giannis signed an extension with the Bucks later in the offseason, and to say the Baynes and Len moves didn’t work out is to say is an understatement. In all, Toronto was stuck. From there, the trade market was not helpful, but the buyout market — typically used by contenders to bolster their team for the playoffs — bore fruit for the Raptors in the form of Khem Birch.

Birch, a Montreal native, had proven he could be a solid depth piece in a frontcourt rotation with the Orlando Magic, but he got caught up in their frontcourt logjam and perpetual rebuild. When he was released by the team, the move to Toronto (or Tampa) made too much sense. Birch wanted to play for his home country’s team and Toronto needed a centre.

Hardcore Raptors fans had long wanted to see Birch in a Toronto uniform. Both his passport and a belief that there was more to him than was seen in Orlando brought some serious excitement when he joined the squad. Even with that local hype, Birch comfortably surpassed even the most bullish of expectations.

Toronto started the season by struggling with incompetent centres. It then got to the point where Nick Nurse said “screw it” and went centreless for a time. By the time Birch joined the team it felt like he was Hakeem Olajuwon (pre-Toronto Hakeem Olajuwon, of course) in contrast to the other options on the team.

Birch’s pick-and-roll game gave Toronto a go-to set-piece on offense. His vertical athleticism is a constant threat, he has nice touch on his floater, and he can make nifty passes on the roll that keep the defenses honest. Birch was always opportunistic and ready to pick up an easy bucket, and even showed a corner-three that had stayed hidden in Orlando. With his opportunities with the Raptors, he averaged nearly five points more per game than he ever had in the NBA, obliterating career-highs more than once in his short time with the team.

On the glass, Birch was ravenous, giving the team an offensive rebounding weapon that they’ve lacked for years. On the defensive end, sound positioning and sheer size cleaned up Toronto’s shoddy work on the glass, which had led to some seemingly endless possessions for the opponents before his arrival.

Defensively, Birch showed off his athleticism and smarts.

Surrounded by quality defenders on the perimeter, the centre does not need to be spectacular, but Birch was usually in the right place at the right time, and his impact was obvious. Prior to Toronto’s Tankapalooza, when the odds of seeing a good player suited up diminished significantly, Birch’s combination with the core Raptors was formidable.

The lineup of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Khem Birch was dominant in their 184 minutes played together. They outscored teams by 22.3 points per 100 possessions (!), splitting that impact pretty evenly between consistent offense and lockdown defense. That group was balanced, smart, and operated without a glaring hole.

This team showed enough to suggest they would be a playoff team with Birch and a full, relatively healthy season in Toronto. He gave a spine to a team that badly needed structure and steadiness from their centre. That said, two big questions arise in terms of Birch’s future with the Raptors.

The first is of his free agency. When the Raptors first picked up Birch, it seemed obvious that he would sign with the team on a cheaper deal as a depth big. That got complicated by the second question: can Birch be Toronto’s starting centre?

On many teams, the answer would be a clear no, but Toronto is so strong on the perimeter that they don’t necessarily need a star-quality centre to be successful. Birch is an excellent fit with the core of the Raptors he is dependable, smart, and unselfish. The numbers and eye test show that he can be an effective cog in a high-functioning machine.

If Toronto can add some depth through free agency and the draft at one through four, then they might be able to justify Birch at starting centre. His impact may not be as great as some of the other centres in the NBA, but he does exactly what the team needs. Provided, of course, that the Raptors can sign him for a deal that doesn’t hamper their flexibility.

Birch’s excellent run with the Raptors earned him more money than he would have gotten had he finished the season with the Magic. There’s a chance he commands more from another team than the Raptors are willing to pay. That said, Birch expressed a desire to be in Toronto. He still hasn’t experienced a full Scotiabank Arena crowd. It feels like he and the team will be able to make something work.

In a borderline painful season as a fan, Birch was one of the few bright spots. He is Canadian. We love Canadians. He is a competent centre. And the Raptors need a competent centre. His future with the team is uncertain, but I think he would look great in Toronto colours for the next few years.