While the Toronto Raptors have shown promise in bursts so far this season, the team had yet to field its strongest group three months into the season, having struggled with injuries to just about every regular rotation player since the start of the year.
But in the 33rd game of the 2021-22 NBA season, Nick Nurse’s squad was finally fully fit, giving fans a chance to see their team at full strength. Despite playing in an empty arena, the Raptors beat up on the New York Knicks, who were missing much of their own squad to injury and Covid protocols.
Toronto started with what most would consider to be its strongest five, with Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam. Neither team fielded an out-and-out centre, with the six-foot-nine pair of Obi Toppin and Taj Gibson making up the Knicks’ front-court.
In his return to the lineup following a stint in the NBA’s health and safety protocols, Barnes was thrown in right with the starters, a role he’s earned with his stellar play as a rookie. But he was also the first starter to be substituted, making way for Khem Birch at the 7:57 mark of the first quarter.
Barnes is first to the bench with Birch coming in. That probably makes sense with this starting group, as Nurse looks to stagger and have a handler(s) with the bench.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 2, 2022
As pointed out by Sportsnet's Blake Murphy, the shuffling of Barnes and Birch between the starting group and the bench provides Nurse with different options, and represents a dynamic that could very well raise the ceiling of this team.
Let’s start with Barnes and the role he would play coming off the bench.
The Raptors are dead last in the league in bench points per game with 24.5. Not only does the second unit struggle to score, it struggles to create offence as well, with the NBA’s second-lowest average of field-goal attempts off the bench. If Monday’s game is any indication toward the coaching staff’s plans for the second unit, then it seems that neither Dalano Banton or Malachi Flynn are being relied upon to be the primary ball-handler off the bench. Both figured for just under five minutes of action in the fourth quarter, when the game was out of reach and VanVleet was given a well-earned rest.
One of Barnes’s most vaunted qualities entering the NBA Draft was his playmaking ability as a forward — a trait that has translated well to the pros. One of the biggest surprises in his short time as a Raptor is his shot-creation and shot-making abilities, routinely scoring with a variety of low-post moves, floaters and even displaying significant growth as a shooter.
Scottie Barnes making Raptors history pic.twitter.com/iorRPS920B
— Libaan Osman (@libaanstar1) January 2, 2022
Nurse has continuously implored Barnes to be more aggressive on offence and to raise his average of 12.6 field-goal attempts per game. One of the reasons why he is more deferential on offence is likely due to the presence of more established scorers around him in the starting group. While he has shown that he is more than capable of getting his own shot, one can understand why he, as a 20-year-old, hesitates to impose himself over established stars like VanVleet and Siakam.
If he plays with the bench unit as the primary ball-handler and creator, he would have little choice but to be more assertive on offence, taking more shots and looking to get to the basket more often. Sure, the pressure to produce would be greater when he’s surrounded by lesser skilled players, but the boost he would undoubtedly give the bench could be very beneficial in negating the team’s glaring weakness, and would likely go a long way in his personal development as a scorer and creator.
Having started all 28 of his games this season, it may be tricky to predict what the starting lineup would look like without him, but there’s reason to believe it would still be as effective — if not more effective in certain matchups — with Barnes coming off the bench as the sixth man.
As mentioned earlier, his deference on offence means that he plays a lesser role when he’s on the court with the starters. His usage rate of 18.8 percent, good for sixth-best on the team, would indicate as much. He’s also fifth on the team in field-goal attempts per game, behind all of Monday’s starters.
The Raptors' starting group averages the third-most points per game in the NBA with 82.5. With VanVleet and Siakam finding their groove of late, and with Anunoby’s strides as a scorer, there’s little reason to believe that Toronto’s offensive punch would take a blow without Barnes among the starters.
Fred VanVleet last 4 games:
35 PTS | 5 AST | 7 3PT
31 PTS | 9 AST | 4 3PT
27 PTS | 12 AST | 6 3PT
31 PTS | 9 AST | 6 3PT pic.twitter.com/jo2AJGL62n
— StatMuse (@statmuse) January 2, 2022
Barnes’s presence with the starters may be felt on the defensive end, but solid wing defenders like Trent Jr., Anunoby and Siakam make the rookie more of a luxury than a necessity. Unless he’s tasked with a specific defensive assignment, Barnes could improve the bench’s defensive output, solidifying a somewhat shaky unit in its own end.
In terms of a replacement for Barnes in the starting lineup, all signs point to Birch, as signalled by his early entrance into Monday's game. While the lack of size in the Knicks’ lineup allowed Nurse to start his talented rookie forward, it’s Birch who is likely to come in when Toronto faces a dominant centre.
A recent example of this need came in the Raptors’ loss to the Philadelphia 76ers last week, when Joel Embiid bullied his way to a 36-point, 11-rebound performance. While very few in the NBA are capable of slowing down the Cameroonian superstar, Birch and his stronger frame would have undoubtedly put up a more formidable defensive effort than the leaner Chris Boucher.
Birch also provides an offensive dimension that is unmatched throughout the squad with his efficiency as the roll man in the pick-and-roll. He tops the team in points per possession, field-goal percentage and scoring frequency in the PnR, with his proficiency ranking him in the 66th percentile throughout the NBA as a roll man. As a starter, Birch would get plenty of opportunities in the PnR with VanVleet as the ball-handler, who ranks in the 72.8 percentile in that category. Birch’s offence would surely be suppressed with the bench unit, with a lack of a ball-handler diminishing the frequency and efficiency of PnR opportunities.
Precious Achiuwa was once a shoe-in for the starting lineup, having started 17 games while Birch was nursing a knee injury. While he did have some productive outings, the 22-year-old still has some developing to do on both ends of the floor, and may not be the starting centre of choice if Toronto is poised for a playoff push this season.
Trent Jr. may be some people’s preference to be demoted to a bench role instead of Barnes, but his shoot-first mentality, lack of playmaking ability and unproven quality as a ball-handler make him a better fit with a balanced first unit.
Coming into the season, the Raptors’ organization and its followers knew that this would be a malleable, flexible and fun team, and the start of the season has certainly proved so, despite some bad luck on the injury front. Now that the team is healthy, we may finally be privy to the full extent of this unique squad.
And while he may be one of the biggest revelations of the NBA season so far, Barnes’a versatility may be the key to unlocking this team’s full potential.
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