Can the Toronto Raptors regain their bench magic?

Toronto Raptors - Terence Davis (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Terence Davis (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images) /

Two years ago, the Toronto Raptors had one of the most destructive benches in the NBA. Can they rekindle their magic this season?

The 2017-18 NBA season was the last season of heartbreak for the Toronto Raptors. Not that there will ever be another heartbreaking moment in franchise history, but this season feels like the team is playing with house money.

They’re the reigning NBA champions and have started off their title defense with a victory over the New Orleans Pelicans and a loss to the Boston Celtics, but it’s going to take a lot for that to happen. If someone had pitched that fact to you 16 months ago, you would have told them that they were crazy. The Raptors had just been swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers (again) and the team was in crisis.

One thing did stick out as a promising trinket for the Raptors, though, even if it did fall short in the postseason, was the bench. The Toronto Raptors bench unit ran teams off the court in the regular season and averaged a 7.7 net rating across 82 games. The bench was one of the best in the league and their ability to hold their own against quality starting lineups while playing fluid basketball was a joy to watch.

The lineup of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl captured lightning in a bottle, combining experience with youthful exuberance, they coined the nickname “The Bench Mob” on the way to helping the Raptors winning 59 games in the regular season – a franchise record.

The following season saw the unit ripped away from each other. Jakob Poeltl was part of the deal that brought Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, while Miles and Wright services were sent to Memphis in exchange for Marc Gasol, and Pascal Siakam was promoted to the starting power forward spot – to great effect.

As a unit, the Raptors bench suffered last season, and statistically, was one of the worst units in the NBA. Ultimately, the bench came to the rescue of the team in the playoffs, with big performances from VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell when the Raptors needed them most.

That bench unit has lost another body now, with Fred VanVleet seemingly the starting shooting guard for the foreseeable future, the benches most productive player will now be spending the majority of his on-court time with starters. That’ll hurt the bench, but it’s a move that makes sense.

Even without Fred VanVleet, can the Toronto Raptors regain their bench magic from two years ago?

Is there enough talent?

There’s still talent on the Raptors bench, which is always good to know. Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell are both coming off career-years, and Terence Davis – an undrafted rookie from Ole Miss – has looked more than ready to step up as an NBA-ready player.

From what we saw in the season-opener against the New Orleans Pelicans, Nick Nurse may only run a strict 8-man rotation for as long as he can. That might be down to the comments he made recently regarding some of the new players and how they have – or haven’t – adjusted to the required intensity in training.

It might not be down to how talented those overlooked players are, though. Patrick McCaw will likely see extended looks once he returns from injury – hopefully, that won’t cut into Davis’ productive minutes – and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, despite not being a terrific offensive outlet, is a great defender and a more than adequate passer for a forward.

As end of the rotation guys, they are both solid enough, but whether they can step up when the chips are down is a different question. That’s the difference between the Bench Mob and the rest of the pack.

The likes of Ibaka, Powell, and Davis are great, but Nurse can’t run 8-man rotations all season, this is where the rest of the bench needs to step up.

Can they mesh?

The thing that made the Bench Mob so compelling, and effective, was their chemistry. Everyone had a role and played it to perfection. VanVleet and Wright were the ball-handling guards, Siakam was the energy guy, Miles was a deep threat and Poeltl was a strong finisher at the rim.

The Raptors bench doesn’t need to follow that formula to be successful, and lineups are a little more fluid than they were two years ago, but the bench needs to mesh for maximum results.

If Nick Nurse ends up running a 10-man rotation, McCaw and Hollis-Jefferson will be the likely additions to a bench lineup, and while both are negative offensive options, they do provide a lot of defensive versatility.

A five-man unit of McCaw, Davis, Powell, RHJ, and Ibaka seems a little clunky and unable to provide much floor-spacing, something the Raptors desperately need this season. It seems more likely that Nurse won’t use a platoon swap and will stagger his starters minutes, which means the bench has more opportunities to impress, by playing with better players.

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It certainly won’t replicate the bench unit of two years ago, and may not even be on par with last year’s unit, but there’s still individual talent, and like in the playoffs last season, that could be a big difference for the Raptors this season.