Where would the Toronto Raptors be without the NBA’s best bench this season? Probably not leading the Atlantic Division by double-digits in games (+11) and in a three-way fight for second place in the Eastern Conference. Through seven different starting lineups, the only consistent thing about Toronto this season has been Head Coach Dwane Casey’s good fortune to have a deep bench that has been able to outperform the 29 other benches in the league by a good margin and objectivity, his starting unit as well.
Casey plays his bench an average of 19.6 minutes a game and only the Spurs, among teams with a similar record, use their bench more. Washington (18.7 minutes), Atlanta (16.5 minutes), Chicago (15.6 minutes – second last) and Cleveland (15.4 minutes – dead last in the NBA) all rely upon their bench significantly less and for good reason.
The Raptors bench averages 39.7 points and has an NBA best +3.5 points differential on the season. The Wizards (34.9 points, -1.9), Hawks (31 points, +0.6), Bulls (30.6 points, +0.9) and Cavaliers (23.8 points, -0.6) get a lot less production from their second unit and the Wizards and Cavs start losing ground without their starters. (The Spurs bench is +2.2 points.)
The eye test bears out what the numbers tell us. The Raptors bench turns games around after poor starts and even saves games down the stretch as the Raptors starters have been a measly +1.5 points differential over the first half of the season.
The reasons for the contrast between Toronto’s starters and their bench goes back to the lineup changes Casey made a year ago in December when he elevated Terrence Ross to starting small forward. The mantra of last season has largely carried over to now – develop Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. They will live with the price of playing two young players in the starting lineup or at least they did until very recently.
The other side of the equation was the addition of veteran guard Lou Williams and free agent forward James Johnson to an already strong bench. Williams has been averaging 14.9 points per game and playing better than expected defense. Johnson has been the big small forward Casey was looking for last year and has provided surprisingly efficient offense. Returning veterans Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough and even Chuck Hayes has allowed Casey to go five deep or more off the bench and matchup effectively to big and small lineups.
The depth and consistency of the Raptors bench continued to show through as the team went into a minor nine game slump that started with an overtime loss in Portland early in January. Toronto went through a stretch of seven losses and just two wins as the team went with three different starting lineups. Those starting units looked lost, scoring 5.5 fewer points per game and surrendering a -6.9 points differential, however, the bench still averaged over 40 points and maintained a +1.7 points differential despite the rotation changes, Williams shooting 23.5 percent from deep (33.9 percent season average) and Patterson shooting 28.1 percent from three-point range (41.3 percent season average).
Through that nine game slump Vasquez found his shot, some defense and 11 points per game and he has taken Ross’ spot in the starting lineup over the past four contests in which Toronto has gone 3-1. The starters are not scoring any better than they were during the slump, but they are defending better and have gotten the points differential down to -0.4. The bench has recovered slightly to post a +1.9 points differential despite only scoring 35.3 points per game with Ross coming off the bench instead of Vasquez. However, at least the team is winning again.
The Raptors starting unit should start to put up numbers more in tune with a 29-15 team now that their 2014 NBA All-Star DeRozan is back and finally starting to look comfortable once again. However, that doesn’t take anything away from what this team’s bench has been able to provide with DeRozan in the lineup and somewhat more convincingly, with one of their members starting while DeRozan was out for 21 games. Toronto’s second unit has been the best at building and taking a lead in the NBA this season and this team wouldn’t be in their current advantageous position without them.
photo credit Paul Saini Fylmm.com
The Toronto Raptors had spent a franchise record 59 days atop the NBA’s Eastern Conference as they reached the midway point of the 2014-15 season with a record of 27-14, the most wins in franchise history after 41 games. Toronto set franchise scoring records for the first 41 games this year with 4,363 total points and 367 three-pointers made.