What happened to the Raptors “Bench Mob”?

TORONTO, ON- JANUARY 22 - Toronto Raptors bench as the Toronto Raptors beat the Sacramento Kings 120-105 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. January 22, 2019. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON- JANUARY 22 - Toronto Raptors bench as the Toronto Raptors beat the Sacramento Kings 120-105 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. January 22, 2019. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Raptors’ bench has struggled all year long; a 360 turn from what was the best bench in the league last season. What has gone wrong for one of the best second units in the league?

The Bench Mob; the perfect name of a collective unit that was all kinds of fun for the Toronto Raptors last season.

This year, however, has been an entirely different story.

With a little bit past the halfway point, the Toronto Raptors are an impressive 37-16, currently sitting second in the Eastern Conference. What’s most impressive about the success of the Raptors, has been their ability to win without a healthy lineup for a majority of the season, and a bench that has been inconsistent.

The dynamic of last season’s second unit was the ideal counterpart to its starting five; with much of the offense flowing through two guys, the bench mob was an assembly of five young players capable of providing energy on any given night.

With Fred VanVleet’s big shots, Delon Wright’s craftiness, C.J. Miles’ outside shooting, Pascal Siakam’s energy and versatility, and Jakob Poeltl’s defense and rebounding, the second unit was a machine producing all kinds of juice for the Raptors on both ends.

This year’s version has been much less of that, rather an enigma with different lineups that have been unpredictable and significantly lacking.

Last year, Toronto was first in the entire league in plus/minus with a rating of 3.6, the majority of the lineup being VanVleet-Wright-Miles-Siakam-Poeltl.

This season, the Raptors rank in the bottom-third in the association with a plus/minus rating of -1.5, sitting 22nd in the league.

Much of that has been because of the change in personnel. With Poeltl being shipped to San Antonio, Siakam moving to the starting lineup, Wright starting the season in street clothes, and Anunoby moving to the bench, Nurse has had to experiment with different units across the board.

The bench mob last year ranked 5th in scoring at 41.8 points per game, 1st in offensive rating at 69.4, 2nd in assists, 3rd in assist-to-turnover ratio, 3rd in eFG%, and 4th in true shooting percentage. To say the least, the bench was efficient, took advantage of their chances, and shared the ball.

They were the best bench unit in the league.

Much of that success was a result of having two playmakers on the floor between VanVleet and Wright, Siakam’s ability to run the floor and get quick chances, Poeltl’s strength in the screen-&-roll, and Miles who spaced the floor..

The bench managed to attack the fast break and get easy looks, drive the paint, and find open shooters accordingly.

This year, it’s been a gong show.

Problem: Offensive Issues

Toronto’s second-unit sits 19th in the league in scoring at 34.9 points per game, 10th in offensive rating at 59.2, 25th in assists, 23rd in assist-to-turnover ratio, 26th in eFG%, and 24th in true shooting percentage. This rendition of the bench mob is one of the worst in the league on the offensive end.

While the rate of production last year was unlikely to be duplicated, the second unit’s colossal downfall is a result of more than just an historically-good bench unit.

So, how can they fix the offensive woes?

Stagger the lineups. 

In the recent game against the Milwaukee Bucks, head coach, Mike Budenholzer, opted to remove Giannis Antetokounmpo early in the 1st to substitute him at the beginning of the 2nd frame, to take advantage of the lowly bench unit.

With the postseason drawing closer, one approach would be to play Kyle Lowry (who in years past has played well with all-bench units), Kawhi Leonard, or Pascal Siakam with the second unit.

The other four players will have less pressure to produce on their own and can exploit defenders heavily concerned about one of the three main guys.

For example, substitute Lowry out at the six or seven mark in the 1st quarter, bring him back with one or two minutes remaining, run him into the second until the eight or seven-minute mark, where one of Siakam/Leonard enter the game, and relieve Lowry.

It’s easier said than done; lineups have heavily relied upon who’s got the hot hand and the opposing matchup. However, Lowry/Leonard/Siakam are capable of playing two positions, alongside an inventory of interchangeable players that can form a lineup to supplement those three guys.

Because of the team’s lack of cohesion, as opposed to last year’s well-oiled machine, the second-unit has not established a consistent way to score. With Valanciunas’ sidelined and Nurse’s lineup changes at the five position prior to his injury, JV has not been able to develop into that role.

Nurse’s best bet would be to alternate the minutes of Lowry, Leonard, and Siakam, having one of them on the floor at all times.

Get VanVleet off the ball.

The strength with VanVleet was his ability to be a relief guard for either Wright or Lowry, capable of initiating the offense, creating in one-on-one drives, and spacing the floor.

VanVleet has noticeably taken command of the offense, with the two aforementioned point guards heavily deferring to him. He’s increased his possessions with the ball and initiating more plays than last year where Wright and Lowry – when they played together – took care of the primary point guard duties. Fred has demonstrated a lack of awareness on the court, forcing the issue and making bone-headed, tunnel vision plays.

But, as they try to deal with their offensive issues, Nurse is still searching on the defensive end, too.

The Raptors’ second-unit was one of the worst in the league last year, ranking 28th in defensive rating. 

They have been slightly better this season but still, rank among the worst.

Currently, they sit at 24th in the league in defensive rating, 21st in opposing fast break points.

Quite frankly, the bench has been a negative on both ends, hence a net rating of -2.7 which ranks them at 24th in the league.

With Jonas Valanciunas out, they lack an inside presence defensively, who has been long misconstrued to be a poor defender. Jonas’ injury means the lack of a physically-imposing presence on the inside.

The team’s defensive flaws also come as a result of Greg Monroe being the main substitution, a major decline defensively from Serge Ibaka.

JV and Ibaka are also different athletes from Poeltl, who was capable of running up and down the floor, challenge multiple shots, and push the pace with the ball-handlers, making last season’s bench mob a juggernaut in the open court.

Another issue and one that is often overlooked is Anunoby’s inability to defend the bigger bodies.

From being the team’s starting small forward to coming off the bench in Siakam’s former role, he’s less accustomed to guarding opposing fours and rebounding from that position.

While he has the strength, size, and length to be versatile in specific matchups, it’s not suitable to plug him into that role full-time, especially when the opposing matchup is considerably stronger and more experienced. He’s a perimeter player who now spends considerably more time in the paint.

So, what’s the fix?

Again, stagger the minutes between Siakam and Leonard with the bench unit, two of the team’s best versatile defenders.

Having one of the two will allow Nurse to hide limited defenders in Monroe and Miles, and relieve Ibaka from soaking up a big bulk of minutes, allowing him to rest and stay fresh for physical matchups.

It wouldn’t hurt to try Chris Boucher, who has shown some competence at defending the rim and challenging shots, in comparison to Monroe who has been a major liability. More length, more speed, more quickness on the floor is a positive, especially with the lack of overall strength and size within the Raptors’ roster.

A potential lineup to experiment would be Wright, Green, Leonard, Siakam, and Boucher, a lengthy, defensive lineup that is capable of spacing the floor, attack passing lanes, and force turnovers for easy points in transition.

The bench unit has been a discouraging development thus far into the season, but there’s a lot of the season left for Nurse to make adjustments.

Next. How Kristaps Porzingis trade impacts the Raptors' long-term plans. dark

One only hopes the Raptors don’t go down the same road former head coach Dwane Casey followed; at some point, you’ll have to make decisions that might not be beneficial to your player.

You need to win, and the current bench construction and its usage have proven to be a catalyst for losing.