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Toronto’s Bench Controls Their Playoff Destiny

Rick Madonik - Toronto Star

The Raptors have been the best team in the Eastern Conference this season, but their bench is the key to maintaining that momentum in the playoffs.

Before their game against the Raptors last month, Wizards’ All-Star Bradley Beal offered up some deserved praise for the team up North: “A great team. Probably the best team in the East right now.” That may seem like a simple compliment to give the team sitting atop the Eastern Conference, but it’s respect that Toronto shouldn’t take for granted.

The Raptors are on pace for their first 60-win season in franchise history and the best record in the Eastern Conference. They have the best home record in the league, a bona fide Coach of the Year contender in Dwayne Casey, and a fringe MVP candidate in DeMar DeRozan. Everything seems to be building towards a storybook twist in the DeRozan-Kyle Lowry era, but it’s impossible to forget how the previous chapters ended.

This is, after all, the third “best season in Raptors history” in just the past four years. In 2015 Toronto won a then-record 49 games but exited in the first round. In 2016 they won 56 games but the Cavaliers bullied them in the East Finals. Last season they won 51 times but that same Cleveland squad swept them out of the Semis. Every time it has seemed like things were building toward that next step in Raptors’ history, Toronto has met an unfortunate fate.

At the risk of falling for it a fourth time, this team is different. While the big pieces remain the same, the 2018 Raptors are the deepest and most talented team Toronto has ever seen.

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Bernard Weil - Toronto Star/Getty Images

These aren’t your slightly older brother’s Raptors. Once the Raptor squads of yesteryear reached the playoffs, their once-potent offense hit a wall. The offense that was ranked sixth-best in the regular season saw their playoff offensive rating drop by 10 points.  Their isolation-heavy system created the fewest assists in the league last season and relied all too much on DeRozan and Lowry to create on almost every play.

This season, instead of trying to find a third and fourth option to create offense when DeRozan and Lowry were unable to, Dwayne Casey decided to overhaul their entire offense.

This year’s system has done away with isolation as much as possible and replaced it with far more ball movement. Not only are the Raptors up to eighth in assists per game, but they’ve also improved 10 spots to 17th in passes per game with 299.2 a night. Their offense can still become reliant on DeRozan in crunch time, but they have the ability to create shots for other players with the game is on the line. Late-game improvement has won Toronto a few games this season, but their incredible depth has won them far more.

The Raptors’ preferred starting lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas has been very good this season with a net rating of 12.1. That number is so good, in fact, that it would be tied with the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors for the highest net rating by a team in NBA history. What’s even more remarkable is that the starters aren’t even the best group on the Raptors.

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Nick Turchiaro - USA TODAY Sports

Toronto’s bench lineup consisting of CJ Miles, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright isn’t just the best bench unit in the league, it’s the best lineup in the league, period. That five-man group has the league’s best net rating of 24.9 for any lineup that’s logged at least 100 minutes on the season.

Siakam, while not exceptional in any one area, has become a fantastic energy guy off the bench. Poeltl started slowly as a rookie but has developed into an athletic, rebounding center this season. Miles and Wright are two highly versatile and crafty offensive players who provide most of the offensive firepower off the bench.

But Toronto’s most surprising player this season has been VanVleet. After shooting under 36% from the field in fewer than eight minutes a game last season, VanVleet has developed into one of the best backup point guards in the league. He’s not a great scorer, but he takes exceptional care of the ball and has become a legit lockdown perimeter defender, capable of hounding even the league’s best point guards.

The natural response to Toronto’s bench from many in Cleveland and Boston would be that depth doesn’t translate to the playoffs. And, in many cases, that conventional wisdom holds true. As the playoffs progress, starters play more minutes and take on larger roles so the talent on the bench becomes less valuable. But for Toronto, just because the wisdom is conventional, doesn’t mean you have to follow it.

The Raptors have 10 or 11 legitimately good, playoff-caliber players on their roster. While their top two are clearly defined, the gap between their third and 11th guy is far smaller than any other title contender. Cutting your rotation down to seven or eight guys makes sense when your ninth man is a liability, but not playing Norman Powell, Poeltl, or Wright in a series where they could help just because they’re at the end of the bench isn’t a sound strategy.

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Mary Altaffer - AP

Of the other two true contenders in the East, the Raptors would much prefer facing the Celtics. While Toronto has struggled to contain Kyrie Irving in the past, they match up very well with the rest of the Celtics. Boston doesn’t have a logical matchup for DeRozan (especially if they’re without Marcus Smart) and the Celtics’ lack of frontcourt size could allow Valanciunas and Poeltl to feast on the offensive glass.

But really, the most logical and poetic matchup for the Raptors’ dream season would be the Cavaliers. Their foe each of the past two seasons, LeBron James represents the biggest obstacle between Toronto and the NBA Finals. Anunoby and Siakam are plausible matchups for LeBron, and while that may (and should) be an uneasy position for Raptor fans, they provide a far greater shot than they’ve ever had before.

Given how much better the Raptors have been than any other team in the East this season, Toronto is a deserved mathematical favorite to win the conference. But, as the famous philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.”

The gameplan of depth over stars is great in theory, but if they once again get run off the court by Cleveland in the playoffs then it really doesn’t mean anything. It remains to be seen if the makeup of this years team is substantially different than that of year’s past, but I believe in this year’s team. As things stand right now, the 2018 Toronto Raptors represent the greatest threat to LeBron’s Eastern Conference supremacy that he’s faced in years.

Edited by Emily Berman.

When was the last series in the Eastern Conference playoffs that a LeBron-led team lost game one of a series?
Created 3/14/18
  1. 2017 East Finals vs Boston
  2. 2016 East Finals vs Toronto
  3. 2015 East Semis vs Chicago
  4. 2014 East Finals vs Indiana

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