By now Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse understands there’s almost no use in planning too far ahead. What’s the point, he wondered the other day, in sitting down and trying to draw up some complex rotation for when everyone gets healthy in a week or two? Every time he tries to start planning ahead something seems to pop up, someone gets injured, someone starts to struggle, and those plans go haywire.
Just when the starting lineup seemed to be thrown into chaos with Pascal Siakam returning, Khem Birch popped up on the injury report with knee swelling. When he returned, Precious Achiuwa and Fred VanVleet went down with injuries.
But that shouldn’t stop us.
Both Achiuwa and VanVleet practiced Sunday and if they’re not ready to go on Monday they shouldn’t be too far away. So what now for the Raptors? Well, so far Toronto has opted to go small whenever they’ve had one of Birch or Achiuwa available. It’s tough to read too much into just 103 possessions with Siakam at the so-called center spot, but it hasn’t worked out well for the Raptors defensively. Toronto has allowed opponents to score at a 116 points per 100 possessions rate in those lineups, just over seven points worse than their average as a team, per Cleaning the Glass. While it does allow the Raptors to switch freely defensively, the lack of muscle has occasionally hurt Toronto against some opposing centers.
The other problem with starting small is it leaves both bigs, Achiuwa and Birch, on the bench which isn’t ideal for bench units. The two bigs are so similar that you don’t really want them playing alongside one another, especially with their lack of three-point shooting.
That leaves Gary Trent Jr. and Scottie Barnes fighting for one spot. I’ve previously said I’d bring Trent off the bench, but there’s a very good argument for bringing Barnes off the bench: He flourished off the bench at Florida State.
“It didn’t really matter to me, just coming off the bench, being able to give energy right away,” Barnes said Sunday. “Even though I came off the bench I still played a significant amount of minutes in huge games. It’s just me coming in, visualizing what it was, and then me coming in making that instant impact, instant offense, adjusting defense, picking up full court, showing my length, and seeing different things like that.”
Does Barnes prefer coming off the bench to starting? No. He said he likes getting in a groove early and finding his rhythm. But he doesn’t mind it.
“It didn’t really matter to me,” he said. “I’m willing to help the team win.”
Looking at Nurse’s track record with Chris Boucher and Dalano Banton, it’s clear he values the energy boost those type of players bring off the bench. He’s been reluctant to move the two into the starting lineup even when it’s seemed like the obvious decision and Barnes is the same type of player, albeit more talented. He’s another high-energy guy that comes in and makes an immediate impact.
The solution for Nurse might be as simple as going back to Barnes’ college roots. The rookie averaged 24.8 minutes per game in college, the fourth most of anyone on his team, and essentially played starter's minutes even if he wasn’t truly a starter in title.
So long as Barnes is playing starter's minutes and closing games for the Raptors, it doesn't matter too much if he's coming off the bench or not.