When Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors’ general manager, decided to re-sign point guard Kyle Lowry and power forward Serge Ibaka last summer, it meant big changes for his team’s short-term future.
Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker — who accounted for 34 percent of all Toronto’s minutes played in last year’s playoffs — were either traded or not re-signed, showing the Raptors were prepared to go for another run with their core of Lowry, Ibaka and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. It also meant they would have to find a way to create some flexibility under the salary cap — they were over the league’s luxury tax threshold after being unable to find a trade partner for center Jonas Valanciunas.
Enter former first-round picks Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright and undrafted free agent Fred VanVleet — role players playing a huge part in the Raptors ascent to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. These four players, who average only 23.3 years of age and accounted for only 11 percent of the Raptors’ minutes last season, have seen that number bump up to 30 percent. But the group isn’t just playing a lot. They are thriving.
|Percent of minutes played for Raptors||2016-17||2017-18|
According to NBA.com advanced stats, when Siakam, Poeltl, VanVleet and Wright are on the court together, they outscore opponents by 25.1 points per 100 possessions, good for third in the league this season. In first is the Minnesota quartet of Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Andrew Wiggins and Tyus Jones (plus-26.6). Second place? The Raptors bench again, with veteran C.J. Miles taking Siakam’s place (plus-25.7). In fact, of all NBA five-man lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together this season, the Raptors bench unit (Siakam, Poeltl, VanVleet, Wright, Miles) is first in the league, outscoring opponents by an average of 32.8 points per 100 possessions, 4.6 points better than the next team.
|Lineup (2017-18)||Team||Minutes||Net Rating|
|C. Miles, J. Poeltl, P. Siakam, F. VanVleet, D. Wright||TOR||147||32.8|
|D. Green, A. Iguodala, S. Livingston, K. Thompson, D. West||GSW||105||28.2|
|J. Butler, T. Gibson, T. Jones, K. Towns, A. Wiggins||MIN||259||24.3|
|R. Anderson, T. Ariza, C. Capela, E. Gordon, J. Harden||HOU||214||21.5|
|B. Beal, M. Gortat, M. Morris, O. Porter Jr., T. Satoransky||WAS||155||21.3|
The fact they are playing a huge role after serving mainly as seat-fillers last season is unique in and of itself. But how extraordinary is it for a contender to be thriving while relying on such a young bench?
I looked back at regular-season minutes played for the top five bench players of all No. 1 and No. 2 seeds since the 2012-2013 season to get an idea of both the average age and the percentage of minutes played by those five reserves. Because teams don’t have the same group start all 82 games, I used the most common starting group and the next five players in minutes played that were on the team in the playoffs. I also included number of games started combined by the five players in the data set because percentage of minutes played could be skewed toward teams that had an inordinate amount of injuries or players that were splitting time in the starting lineup.
If you include Norman Powell, another youngster who figures into Toronto’s future plans after signing a long-term extension this summer yet has been fighting off injuries this season, the Raptors have the youngest team in the data set. They have five players coming off the bench that have appeared in at least 40 games and are averaging 16 minutes plus per game. And that isn’t including 2017 first-round pick O.G. Anunoby, a 20-year-old rookie thrust into the starting lineup when Powell went down.
Come playoffs, the Raptors will be more rested than previous seasons and perhaps better insulated against injuries. The minutes played per game of all four holdover starters — Lowry, DeRozan, Valanciunas and Ibaka — have decreased this season. This is important, especially for Lowry, who has battled injuries in recent years, and may not be as worn down heading into this year’s playoffs. If an injury were to occur, Wright and VanVleet have gained valuable on-the-job experience.
Whether Ujiri plans to add a veteran piece via buyout down the stretch to fill their open roster spot remains to be seen. What is known is the Raptors’ decision to move forward with a group of inexperienced, but talented prospects to fill their open rotation spots has proven successful.