When the NBA zigs, there's always a zag that follows.
It's funny how things work. Just when the Toronto Raptors find success with a small ball lineup, there's a jumbo, supersized lineup that pops up and shows its strengths. In an otherwise disappointing 120-116 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night, Raptors coach Nick Nurse might have stumbled onto something with Chris Boucher at the power forward position.
It's weird to think that the Raptors may have discovered Boucher's strengths might be at the four. Looking at him and his 6-foot-9, 200-pound frame, it's hard to see how he was ever a true NBA centre. Yet for almost all of his college career and for the better part of his NBA career, Boucher has been the lone big man on the floor.
Boucher's strengths have never been in his strength. He's long and lengthy, capable of whizzing up and down the court, blocking shots, and scoring buckets in transition. If you're asking him to bang down low with the NBA's biggest centres like Joel Embiid and Steven Adams, then you're probably in trouble. So when the Raptors took on the Pelicans, with the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Adams and the equally enormous 6-foot-6, 284-pound Zion Williamson, Nurse decided to trot out a two-big lineup for an extended look.
Of Boucher's almost 29 minutes on Saturday, 12 minutes came alongside either Aron Baynes or Alex Len. On the season, he's played 42 possessions with another big — typically Baynes — and Toronto is +7.9 with a pretty woeful 97.6 Offensive Rating, but an impressive 89.7 Defensive Rating, according to Cleaning the Glass. It's still a small sample size and the Raptors have actually been +8.2 with Boucher as the lone big, according to Cleaning the Glass, but the so-called jumbo lineup certainly showed some promise against the Pelicans.
"We just need to be bigger when we're playing a really big team like they are," Nurse said. "So just trying to match up a little bit athletically and size wise. We went through a tough stretch on the glass, so again, trying to get some size in there to help us rebound. But as far as the way Chris has played with those guys in two games, it's been pretty good at the four. We really need some depth there, so it's good to see that he's been able to make a transition kind of on a need basis. Now it might be something we can count on."
Playing alongside another big allows Boucher to get back to what he's the best at. He doesn't have to focus as much on defending bigs and trying to grab rebounds. Instead, he can play more free safety — to borrow a football term — and roam around the defensive zone using his elite shot-blocking ability to frustrate teams.
"It helps a little bit when you’re playing against a smaller guy, you can contest a little bit more," Boucher said. "[It] helps a little bit more on the drive knowing the centre is going to be at the position for the bigs. So I think it just helps me out make a better read."
It also allows Boucher to start sprinting out in transition a split second earlier because he doesn't have to worry about rebounding as much.
The lineup configuration was certainly impressive enough to warrant another look, especially against bigger teams. Don't expect it to get too many minutes considering Toronto's best players are primarily guards and wings, but when Nurse needs to go big off the bench, using two bigs instead of one might be the way to maximize Boucher's effectiveness.