Raps hope to re­de­fine depth

The Expositor (Brantford) - - SPORTS - SCOTT ST­INSON

Among the many opin­ions on the Toronto Rap­tors of last sea­son that did not age well, of­fered by ev­ery­one from op­pos­ing coaches to TV an­a­lysts to the per­son writ­ing this very sen­tence, one of the most com­mon ar­gu­ments was that their depth was a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage.

It was a strength, that is, right up un­til it wasn’t. Toronto’s vaunted Bench Mob was thor­oughly pantsed in the play­offs, and all that ear­lier talk about whether the Rap­tors had un­locked a new way to play — a 10-man ro­ta­tion in­stead of a ros­ter molded around a cou­ple of su­per­stars — was an­swered in the neg­a­tive. Turns out a great bench looks a lot like a bench against a play­off team’s starters.

And yet, for all the ways the Rap­tors of this sea­son are quite un­like those of last year, what with a new head coach and a new star on the ros­ter, the depth talk is very much back in vogue. Dis­cus­sion of this team, in­side the or­ga­ni­za­tion and out­side of it from around the league, again fo­cuses on how many weapons Nick Nurse has at his dis­posal.

Here was Nurse af­ter a prac­tice this week, on depth: “I think we thought we had it on pa­per and it’s shown it­self,” he said. Then the coach slipped into some bas­ket­ball-speak that if noth­ing else was a re­minder of how much of a lifer he is in the sport: “I think we are re­ally in­ter­change­able kinda 2-3-4, 3-4 for sure, a cou­ple 1-2s are in­ter­change­able too, I mean there’s kind of a lot of depth and some in­ter­change­able parts at 3-4.”

Trans­lated, he’s say­ing that the Rap­tors could move around a lot of play­ers be­tween shoot­ing guard, small for­ward and power for­ward, and also be­tween point guard and shoot­ing guard, and also just be­tween the two for­ward po­si­tions. So: lots of depth. A bench that is brim­ming with pos­si­bil­i­ties. It’s all kind of fa­mil­iar, yes?

Ex­cept Nurse and staff are aim­ing for a whole new kind of depth. The Rap­tors had a very ef­fec­tive sec­ond unit last sea­son, in­deed, but it was very much that. They rolled their five-man Mob out on to the floor, usu­ally near the start of the sec­ond quar­ter, in the same way a hockey team rolls its for­ward lines. That worked very well for most of the reg­u­lar sea­son, but the fact that the Rap­tors strug­gled to de­fend against the best of­fences in the league was tied di­rectly to the fact that the all-bench unit was rou­tinely strafed by those bet­ter of­fences. As a re­sult, Toronto was 35-2 against teams that were be­low .500 but a mid­dling 24-21 against teams that won more than they lost. Per­haps we should have seen this as an omi­nous sign come play­off time.

So, how could this year’s depth be dif­fer­ent that last year’s depth? A cu­ri­ous thing about last year’s team was how, for a group that was con­stantly praised as hav­ing a lot of flex­i­ble parts, there was a lot of con­sis­tency in its line­ups. The Rap­tors’ nor­mal start­ing five — Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valan­ci­u­nas — played more than 800 min­utes to­gether over the course of the reg­u­lar sea­son. None of the top four seeds in ei­ther con­fer­ence came within 200 min­utes of that with a five-man unit. Golden State’s top five-man unit by us­age played 414 min­utes to­gether; Hous­ton’s played 267 min­utes; Bos­ton’s played 354. Toronto was even more con­sis­tent with a four-man com­bi­na­tion of Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka and Valan­ci­u­nas. They played more than 1,300 min­utes to­gether, dwarf­ing the num­bers of ev­ery top-four seed other than Ok­la­homa City, which ran out Russ West­brook, Paul Ge­orge, Steven Adams and Carmelo An­thony for an ab­surd 1,600 min­utes, and then at­tached what­ever ran­dom fifth player they could find.

Did Toronto’s reliance on two main units ul­ti­mately make the Rap­tors pre­dictable? Or did the bench just get over­whelmed against bet­ter teams?

What­ever the case, this ver­sion of the team is likely to de­ploy its bench strength quite dif­fer­ently. Now, depth won’t lead to a whole­sale rollover of lines but to more fre­quent piece-by-piece switch­ing. Re­quiem for the Bench Mob, then. Nurse can throw, to use his par­lance, a whole mess of 2s and 3s and 4s at op­po­nents to keep them off bal­ance. Some of that was ev­i­dent in Wed­nes­day’s preseason game against Brook­lyn in Mon­treal, when the coach used his pre­sump­tive start­ing five — Lowry, Ibaka, Anunoby, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — for all of eight min­utes be­fore bring­ing in Fred Van­Vleet and Pas­cal Si­akam for Green and Anunoby. That switch­ing con­tin­ued through­out the night, with Delon Wright in for Lowry, Valan­ci­u­nas in for Ibaka and on and on. This is the new way of do­ing things. The depth is dead, long live the depth.

C.J. Miles was asked af­ter prac­tice this week what it was like to play with dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of starters, and how he liked that role. “I’m tied to the Mob for­ever,” he said with a smile.

Per­haps emo­tion­ally, yes. Just don’t ex­pect to see much ev­i­dence of it on the court.

POST­MEDIA NET­WORK FILES

Toronto Rap­tors Fred Van­Vleet on the bench dur­ing the Rap­tors’ pre-sea­son game on Oct. 5. For this com­ing sea­son, the Rap­tors are hop­ing to change their phi­los­o­phy re­gard­ing their bench. They’re hop­ing to ro­tate bench play­ers in with starters, as op­posed as us­ing the se­condary play­ers as one whole unit.

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