Take a moment to reflect on the glory days of Toronto Raptors basketball. Look at those rosters from the late 2010s and the kind of players Toronto could turn to off the bench: Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, P.J. Tucker, Cory Joseph, and Terrence Ross. That's a group that will earn over $100 million this season and includes five players who start regularly for their respective teams.
These days, the situation in Toronto is almost the exact opposite.
When asked if the Raptors have figured out who the leader of the second unit is, Raptors coach Nick Nurse shook his head. He’s seen his team ravaged with injuries this season and now 3/5ths of his starting unit is players Toronto had hoped could form the identity of its bench.
“It’s too bad because I really think there was just a brief, 10, 12 days there where we got in a good rhythm of who was starting, who was coming in first, and they were getting used to it," he said. “Now we’re in patchwork here a little bit.”
But injuries always open the door to more opportunities for those who remain. Just ask Fred VanVleet about that. He was barely in the rotation back in 2016 until injuries to Delon Wright and Kyle Lowry opened the door for him to show what he could do with more playing time.
So far this season, nobody has really stepped up and run with their extra playing time. Nurse has instead been left searching for some consistency off the bench, hoping someone will come in and provide the kind of effort and focus he’s looking for night after night regardless of how many points are being scored.
“We haven’t had that from some of the guys,” Nurse said. “We can’t have multiple guys not engaged in the game like in Indiana.
“I don’t expect everybody to fire every night — especially on the shots going in and the shot making — I’ve always said my goal is for you to play a good game and play hard regardless of if the ball’s going in for you or not. … And that’s where we need the Malachis, the Dalanos, Chris [Boucher], those guys have to come in with the mindset of bringing everything they’ve got.”
That can be difficult for young players who have grown accustomed to being judged solely by their offensive production.
“A lot of younger guys sometimes, myself included, I feel like our defense is affected by how we play on offense, which is not the right way, it should be the other way around,” said the 22-year-old Precious Achiuwa.
It’s a learning process for this young team, one that Nurse understands is going to take some time. Ultimately, though, what he’s asking for is to control the controllable. Sometimes you’re going to get beat by a better team. Sometimes your shots aren’t going to fall. But the effort has to be there every single night no matter who is stepping on the floor.
“It’s a mentality of being ready to play in this league,” he said.
Whoever figures that out and runs with this opportunity will reap the rewards this season and into the future. Those who don't... well, last year's bench unit isn't here anymore and none of them is starting anywhere in the NBA. That should be enough incentive to bring the effort every single night.