The Toronto Raptors have all but clinched a playoff spot, they hold a sizable lead on the cluster of teams fighting for third place in the East and boast a player in Kyle Lowry that isn’t getting nearly enough attention because, well, Steph.
But some of their regular-season success should be attributed to their incredible bench play.
Make no mistake, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the main reasons the Raptors are having a successful season. When the “best backcourt in the NBA” talk was flying around before the 2014-2015 season, Lowry and DeRozan weren’t considered by most and were often mocked when the two were mentioned (is there still time for Dion?). While there’s no question where the Eastern Conference championship belt lies at the moment, Lowry and DeRozan are viable championship contenders.
There are other factors to consider this year, though, as others have stepped up to make the Raptors the clear challenger to the Cavaliers in the East.
The Other Dynamic Duo
Small-ball is all the rage in today’s NBA and it’s easy to see why. Playing a four-out — or sometimes five-out, especially in Golden State’s case — system allows for more free-flowing movement, more shots at the rim and the opportunity for more threes. But playing players on the perimeter is useless unless teams have the personnel.
Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas (when healthy) are the usual starters for Toronto, but Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo ensure that there’s no drop-off when the two enter the game, and at times, provide what the starting frontcourt cannot.
Patterson has developed into a more reliable three-point shooter over the past few seasons, and is now taking more than ever (3.8 per game) while converting at an above-average clip (36.0 percent, league average is 35.3 percent). His true shooting percentage is suboptimal (52.7 percent), which probably has something to do with his 24 total free throw attempts this season and his 52.2 percent shooting within three feet. In fact, among players who’ve attempted at least 40 attempts within three feet, Patterson ranks far closer to the bottom of the list than the top.
The good news is Patterson takes more threes than all other shots combined. Patterson takes 61.3 percent of his shots behind the three-point line, an incredibly high number considering his position. For comparison, Kyle Korver — a player who’s known strictly for taking threes — takes 64.1 percent of his shots from behind the three-point line. Just the threat of Patterson shooting the three is enough to draw his defender out of the lane, leaving more room for the guards and Biyombo to do their work inside.
The Raptors don’t rely on Biyombo for his offensive skills, but he still has some value on that end. Although it’s a small sample size, Biyombo is one of the best pick-and-roll big men in the league, according to NBA.com. Biyombo scores in the 83.5 percentile as the roll man, although that only considers scoring opportunities. The other skill Biyombo brings is on the offensive glass. Among qualifying players, Biyombo is one of the better offensive rebounders in terms of percentage (percentage of available offensive rebounds the player grabbed while on the court) in the league.
Offensively, the duo makes a ton of sense. One has the ability to shoot the three, and the other is a great offensive rebounder. Their skills complement each other, but none of that matters unless they’re able to stop opponents from scoring, as well.
It’s difficult to measure individual defense from Patterson’s position. He guards the other team’s second big man or the biggest wing, and there aren’t many ways to determine how good he is on defense outside of trying to watch him for the majority of his games. He does possess the athletic ability necessary to switch or help on the perimeter, whichever is asked of him.
Biyombo’s impact on defense is slightly easier to measure, thanks to NylonCalculus.com. According to Seth Partnow’s rim protection metric, Biyombo is one of the best rim protectors in the league (through 3/8). When Biyombo is unable to affect a shot at the rim, he grabs a higher percentage of defensive rebounds than almost any other player in the league.
The Raptors are benefiting when the two share the court, and the numbers show exactly that.
According to NBAwowy.com, the Raptors score 109.8 points per 100 possessions when Patterson and Biyombo are on the court (for reference, the Raptors are fifth in the league with an offensive rating of 110.1). The team benefits greatly on the defensive end, as they allow only 100.5 points per 100 possessions when both are playing (the Hawks are second in the league this season allowing 101.6 points per 100 possessions).
These two are only part of the reason the bench in Toronto is thriving. Both Terrence Ross and Cory Joseph are limited players, but they play to the role perfectly. Joseph isn’t having the offensive season he did last year in San Antonio, but defense is where his value truly lies, as teams are scoring 102.8 points per 100 possessions when Joseph is on the floor. Ross may never utilize his incredible athleticism defensively, but he’s converting on 38.7 percent of his three-point attempts and has a well above-average true shooting percentage (55.3 percent).
Obviously the on/off numbers are skewed because of how good Lowry and DeRozan have been this season. Of the near 981 minutes Biyombo and Patterson have shared the court this season, only 80 of those have been without both Lowry and DeRozan. It’s easy to retort the bench players’ good play by questioning how good they’d be without the two stars, but coming from someone who watches the Thunder religiously, that’s how it should be.
Not every team can have a Spurs-style bench, allowing those five players to play the same style as the starters. Usually, teams split the volume scorers with the bench lineup so the opposition doesn’t dominate lesser units. Nearly every four-man and three-man Raptors lineup that features more bench players than starters has a positive net differential (minus one giant Luis Scola-sized parasite that drags down nearly every lineup into the negatives).
The main contributors to the Raptors’ success is clearly their two All-Stars, and in the playoffs, lineups shrink, possessions become more valuable and players who can’t contribute on both sides of the floor are more difficult to play. But to have playoff success you first have to get to the playoffs, something that the Raptors’ bench is a large part of this season.
All stats are from Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com or NBAwowy.com, unless otherwise stated.