Why The Raptors Bench Is So Important For This Playoff Run
Every team in most group sports believe in having the best players because that's what gives you the best chance to win. Everyone believes in the superstar rule. You have superstars, players that are supremely better at their craft than others and produce the ability to not only give you a great chance to win on the field, but also help get those sponsors, partnerships and handshakes behind closed doors that bring in so much money. Think about the greatest of superstars. The ones we use as the measuring stick of comparisons. The Michael Jordans and Wayne Gretzky’s of the world, as well as historical benchmarks such as Lionel Messi, Tiger Woods, and Tom Brady. I can go on and on but that would be the definition of “drowning.” This is all relatively straight forward information. Great players make great things happen. A simple yet incredibly powerful reality.
However, although we all are in agreement that great players are perhaps the greatest asset, you can't hide the importance of the supporting cast or the “others.” Teams can’t win without a bench, a support system around the best player(s) to complement the superstar. However, some find this hard to believe. Go back and check the team of your favourite squad, or any squad on their road to reaching the pinnacle of their respective sports. Every single one of them has role players that either asserted themselves in the starting lineup or come proudly of the bench to fill the small but consistent holes left by the stars. Look no further than that Cleveland Cavaliers team that came back from 3-1 down to defeat the Golden State Warriors at Oracle to win the series in 7. Sure, the stars showed up. LeBron averaged a triple-double and led in just about every statistical category. Kyrie Irving was in the zone, shutting down Curry defensively while putting on a show offensively to go with the series-clinching shot during the finals moments of game 7. The stars were phenomenal but it was the contributions of Tristan Thompson, J.R Smith, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Kevin Love and Channing Frye throughout the extension of that series that made the difference. The stars of the Cavs we’re definitely going to show up, however, it was the “others” that ultimately put them over the top. Without those players placed in that system around players like Kyrie and LeBron, the Warriors would have already been 4-time champions and Kevin Durant would have still been in OKC. The point is, your supporting cast is pivotal to your championship hopes. If you have a solid bench squad along with elite stars, it's going to give you a good chance of winning every year. That’s particularly why Golden State was so effective prior to Durant’s inclusion. They had their superstars in Curry and Thompson, their leaders in Draymond and Iguodala and a strong group of role players in Shawn Livingston, Leandro Barboza, Harrison Barnes, David Lee, as well as others that bought in the system and came to play every night.
This is why the recent struggles from the Raptors role players have become a growing concern for myself and others that want to see a championship in Toronto. Masai Ujiri has done a phenomenal job, managing to flip DeMar DeRozan into Kawhi Leonard and nurturing the growth of budding superstar Pascal Siakam. Masai is a student of the game and he understands the importance of every roster spot on the team. The Klaw has been as effective as advertised and has proven to be one of the best decisions Masai has made while at the helm. Even with his growing uncertainty as to where he will play next season, Leonard has lived up to the name “playoff Kawhi”, with game-changing performances in the playoffs. His efforts along with Siakam's have propelled Toronto into a serious title contender. However, with much positivity, you bet some negativity is waiting around the corner ready to ruin it all. The easiest way to say this is that the Raptors role players, especially the key ones have not shown up. I don’t mean that literally, they’re at the games, they bounce the ball, run around and shoot it, however, they’re not producing anything worthwhile on the court.
The Raptors role players have quietly struggled at the back end of this season. Various key rotation pieces such as Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka have been underwhelming, to say the least. Even the likes of Lowry have struggled at times in the post-season. Despite the Raptors beating up on Orlando in their 4-1 series win, it was not as easy as it seems on paper. The Raptors were outplayed in Game 1 with Lowry dropping his infamous 0-point game. Although K-Low was able to join Kawhi and Siakam in the productive basket, the remaining key role players listed continued to struggle all series. Powell showed signs of promise in the two away games at Orlando, however not many were convinced with depth heading into the Philly series. I was able to see the cracks in our pavement and realize if the role players don’t urgently get their act together, Philly may take care of business. Game 1 was phenomenal, we were productive, our superstars more than showed up, Lowry and Siakam had great games and Kawhi Leonard had a playoff-best 45 points. However, the Raptors role players, particularly the bench, were horrid scoring only three points. Everyone knows we got thumped in game 2, a game we should have won. However, James Ennis III of Philly has managed to outscore our entire bench 24-15 across both games in this series, especially game 2. The Raptors bench players were -12 in the Orlando series and are -34 for this entire postseason. That is not ideal. Key players like Danny Green and Serge Ibaka have come up short time and time again. Green, being the ultimate role player in the starting unit, has gone ice cold (for his standards) from long-range. He's had occasional great shooting games but the majority has been underwhelming. The same could be expressed for VanVleet, Ibaka and the rest of the bench. They're producing next to nothing yet were still incredibly dominant posting a 6-2 record so far in these playoffs. Nick Nurse is going to have to investigate what's causing key role players to look like they don’t know where they’re supposed to be on the floor if they want a chance to win.
Think about where these exact same guys were just a couple months ago. Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka were looking like a solid duo off the bench, contributing to our success in big ways. Danny Green was shooting lights out in the regular season grabbing the second best 3PT% in the league. Norman Powell added energy and athleticism off the bench in his minutes acting as the hotrod for this team.
So what happened? The supporting cast understands the importance of their contributions. They know that without a proper performance from them, a championship is well out of sight. Our superstars can only take us so far before they’re too exhausted to do so anymore. Kawhi and Pascal need help and if the role players fail to step up, history suggests it won't bode well for this team.
The Raptors with or without Kawhi have always been about the team. Every man in our jersey has a way they can contribute to our success on the court and the moment our team realizes that a championship is not possible without this philosophy, they will be on the fast-track to success. Yes, our stars are important, everybody knows that. However, it's the “others” that win you a championship. Its the role players that make that extra bit of difference. In chess the game is not won often through your King, it is won with everything that surrounds him. Your “other” pieces are there to support your king's survival by causing havoc on opposing player’s pieces. Bit of a stretch but you get my point. The Raptors have boasted a great support group all year that has turned mediocre during the time we need them most. If the Raptors intend on winning a championship, we’re going to need our role players to step up. Beating Philadelphia is going to be taxing enough without everyone performing at a high clip, although we have shown its still possible. They boast powerful and skilled attacking threats like Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler who have grown to assert themselves comfortably against the Raptors defence. Thankfully we have star players that come ready every night with the intention to win every game. Only time will tell whether the Raptors “others” begin to produce on all cylinders, all we can do now is hope.