The Culture Reset That Has Created the Best Bench Unit in the NBA
It seems like it was centuries ago when the Cleveland wiped the floor with the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the Eastern Conference players.
The panic button was not just being pressed in Toronto, it was being abused over and over and over again.
After a magical run to the Eastern Conference Finals, taking LeBron James’ mighty Cavaliers – the eventual NBA champions to six games – the Raptors faltered. They were swept, embarrassed, and obliterated – a message that echoed throughout the offseason emphasizing of how much more the Raptors had to do to get to the Cavaliers level.
And despite popular belief, LeBron James is human – he can be beat – but what is the winning formula? How can an Eastern Conference team beat James four times across the span of seven games? A team made up of Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Stephen Curry cannot be the only answer, can it?
Now, let me preface what I’m about to discuss about next with this: I am a baseball fan as well – a rather avid fan too. As analytics is starting to slowly overtake basketball, analytics has been a large part of baseball for a number of years already – think money ball.
What is money ball?
It is essentially finding an effective way to win by conserving money, by allocating the funds evenly. Not spending 70-percent of the money provided by ownership on two or three superstar players and then plugging the rest of the holes with mediocre and below-average talent.
Analytics is becoming the real king in sports. Math is taking over. The game is changing. Look no further than the mass amount of points put up on the score board. Ten years ago, 100.0-points per game was the league average. The average now is up to 106.4-points per game. This year only two teams average fewer than 100-points per game – in the 2008-09 campaign, that number was up to 17 teams.
What this means is that through analytics, teams are finding more efficient ways to score – and more importantly – more efficient ways of winning.
This is how you can beat LeBron. This was the culture reset the Raptors needed and through 70-games this season, this is the culture reset that has transformed the Raptors from a team that folds in the postseason to not only a Finals threat, but a team that can compete for a championship.
While the process started with keeping Dwane Casey at the helm and re-signing both Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry, the key fix was in the second unit. After losing a plethora of proven veterans, a young and unheralded group of relative unknowns entered the season with unprecedented pressure thrust upon their shoulders.
Now, they are the talking point of the entire NBA.
Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, and Jakob Poeltl are the best second unit in the entire NBA. The only recognizable name of the bunch entering the season was that of the shabby, sharp-shooting veteran Miles.
Fast-forwarding to today, VanVleet is in line for Sixth Man of the Year considerations. Pascal Siakam has innate skills – he can ball-handle, he can create, he has an insane motor, and is just a jump shot away from becoming one of the more feared young players in the entire league. Siakam started playing the game at a late age yet has the basketball instincts of a proven veteran.
Delon Wright has began to grow into what everyone has expected him to become. A two-way player with great length – on one end, a pesky defender with the ability to block shots, get his hands into passing lane, and disrupt the flow of opposing offences. On the other end, he is quick, agile, can finish creatively at the hole, has a developing three-point shot and can facilitate. As for Jakob Poeltl, his two-man game with Siakam makes the Raptors bench nearly unstoppable. He is turning into an elite shot-blocker, he has very underrated footwork, and is an athletic big who can run the floor.
The Raptors bench in general is filled with guys who just run. They play good, hard defense, they shoot threes, they stretch the floor, they attack their opposition – they are legit.
For the Raptors second unit, it is VanVleet leading the charge – an undrafted free agent turning heads around the League in his second NBA season.
He is first among reserves with a +15.0 net rating and and a defensive rating of 106. He has become consistent behind the three-point line and has proven to be capable of defending the opposing team’s best back court player.
With a line-up of Miles-Poeltl-VanVleet-Siakam-Wright, the Raptors have logged an overall net rating of +24.3 in 267:16 minutes of action. They bully their opponents, out-run them, and out-hustle them. The Raptors second unit plays with trust, the chemistry is incredibly visible and they simply ooze confidence.
The culture reset is real. The Toronto Raptors are real and so is their second unit.
Going into the season this looked like the same old baby dinosaurs, but today the Raptors look like something so much more than just that. Call it money ball, call it analytics, call it a resurgence, but the Raptors bench has been vital in this team’s success and they will only continue to play a pivotal role as the Raptors enter the playoffs.
This is the bench mob.