Look back at that 2017-18 Toronto Raptors team for a moment.
No, it wasn’t an all-time team by any means. It lacked what so many Raptors teams over the years have been missing: one go-to guy. But reading through the names on that iconic bench it’s hard not to be amazed. From Pascal Siakam to Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, and C.J. Miles, it was a team loaded with bench talent. Even Norman Powell, who signed a five-year, $90 million deal this past offseason, saw time off the bench as the team’s 10th man.
“It’d be great to have a group like that, that goes out there and kind of has their own identity and rises up and plays that good and then becomes all that they become,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said as he reminisced about those days gone by. “There's a couple stars out of that bench mob. Bench mob to All-Star, who’s writing that story?”
That was the question the Raptors were searching for all season. Apart from Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, and Thad Young, who became reliable bench players in the second half of the season for Toronto, Young having been acquired at the trade deadline, Nurse never felt at ease with his bench this past year. It was usually a gamble when the starters checked out as he prayed for steady minutes from a group that he barely trusted.
That lack of faith resulted in Toronto’s bench playing a league-worst 14.4 minutes per game and averaging just 25.7 points per game, also the worst in the league.
Some of that is certainly on Nurse who benched Malachi Flynn — deservingly — for large swaths of the season. Dalano Banton quickly fell out of the rotation as his mistakes piled up. The same was true for Svi Mykhailiuk and Yuta Watanabe who couldn’t reliably hit their shots. That led to Nurse feeling like he had to ride his starters more than any other team in the NBA.
But a lot of that blame also falls on the front office who didn’t fill out the bench with the kind of quality talent Toronto used to be known for. Then, when injuries piled up, things got ugly.
“I said this early in the year, you can’t go into a season with eight or nine guys anymore, you can’t,” Nurse said. “There’s COVID that knocks a bunch of guys out and ever-prevalent injuries seem to be way more frequent than I can remember, not just us but around the league. Every time you turn around every game all year long there’s like two starters missing from every team and I just don’t remember that being the case like five years ago. So whatever reason that is it means your ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th guys better be able to go out there and play and not just look like it once in a while, they’ve gotta be players.”
Toronto trotted out 27 different starting lineups this past year, battled injuries to almost every single player in the rotation, and still wasn’t in the top half of the league in man-games lost.
If there’s one area the Raptors need to improve this summer, it’s the bench. The core is going to remain intact this offseason, Raptors president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri said, but there will be small tweaks on the fringes.
That presumably means bringing back at least Boucher and potentially, albeit unlikely, Young. It also means using Toronto’s mid-level exception of $10.3 million on a player or two, adding someone with the 33rd pick, and, hopefully, getting some development from some of the younger players who didn’t quite impress this past year.
“We’ve got a 12-month-a-year program and we like to do a lot of group work so that (those bench players) can have a feel for what we're doing and have some chemistry and cohesion at both sides of the floor,” said Nurse.
“I think players like Dalano, Justin (Champagnie), those guys will make a jump, they’ll get better,” Ujiri added. “They need to be given opportunity, too, because if we call our program a developmental program we have to give those guys opportunity, too.”
Toronto just needs one or two of those players to really pop. If Flynn, Banton, and Champagnie take a step forward next season and the Raptors can round out the bench with a quality signing, things will get a lot easier for Nurse and the starters. And while NBA championships are won and lost based on star power, keeping your stars healthy really starts with having a quality bench.