Over the last two seasons, the Toronto Raptors have had the best bench in the Eastern Conference.
That doesn't have anything to do with how many points they've scored off the bench. The Raptors actually rank 27th in bench scoring over the last two seasons. But their aggregate bench NetRtg of plus-6.4 over the last two years trails only that of the San Antonio Spurs and is more than twice as good as the mark of any other East team in that time.
Aggregate bench NetRtg takes the plus-minus per 100 possessions of players that come off the bench and weighs it by minutes played. The object of the game is to outscore your opponents, and that's what the Raptors have done with their reserves on the floor.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey has almost always kept one of his two All-Star guards in the game at all (non-garbage) times. A typical Toronto game has four reserves on the floor with DeMar DeRozan at the end of the first and third quarters and with Kyle Lowry at the start of the second and fourth.
Those units have almost always performed better than the Raptors' starting lineup. In 2015-16, their starting small forward spot was in flux because of injuries, but they were outscored by 52 points in 779 minutes with their four other starters -- Lowry, DeRozan, Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas on the floor together. Last season, their most used starting lineup, with DeMarre Carroll and Pascal Siakam at the forward spots, was outscored by 89 points in 365 minutes.
Over the last two seasons, the Raptors have been outscored by 5.9 points per 100 possessions in the first six minutes of the first quarter. No good or decent team has started games so poorly so often. And Casey has never been able to find the solution.
Despite that, the Raptors have managed to win 107 games, partly because over the final 18 minutes of the first half, they've outscored their opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions. When they've gone to their bench, they've turned the game around. The plus-minus magic of their "Lowry plus bench" units has been one of the most reliable phenomena in the league.
Lowry has been the most important ingredient, of course. So this summer, the Raptors committed $100 million over three years to keep their best player in Toronto. With an additional $22 million per year pledged to Serge Ibaka, they put themselves over the luxury tax line. And to get back under, the best bench in the East had to take a hit.
Patrick Patterson signed a three-year contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder. P.J. Tucker left for Houston. Cory Joseph was sent to Indiana. And the Raptors will soon get free agent C.J. Miles added to their mix.
So the four players who have played the most minutes off the Toronto bench over the last two seasons - Patterson, Joseph, Terrence Ross and Bismack Biyombo -- are no longer on the Raptors' roster. Biyombo left in free agency last summer and Ross was traded for Ibaka in February.
The departure of Patterson may have the biggest impact. He's played the fourth most minutes off the bench in the league over the last two years and has the Raptors' best raw plus-minus in that time. Over those two seasons, the Raptors have outscored their opponents by 751 points in 3,618 minutes with Patterson on the floor and have been outscored by 37 points in 4,294 minutes with him on the bench.
In 2,182 minutes with Lowry and Patterson on the floor together, the Raptors have outscored their opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions, a mark better than that of last year's Warriors, either in the regular season or the playoffs.
Patterson is a floor-spacer at the four, a complement to the off-the-dribble offense of Lowry and DeRozan. On a team that had the lowest assist rate of the last 27 years (assisting on just 47 percent of their buckets), he was one of the only guys able to keep the ball moving.
His impact has also been felt on the other end of the floor, where he's been a strong and versatile defender. Last season, the Raptors allowed just 0.97 points per possession when Patterson defended a ball screen, a mark that ranked sixth among 99 players who defended at least 500, according to SportVU. He ranked in the top 10 in that regard the season before as well.
Joseph has also been an important defender, one of league's best point guards at getting around screens. Though Lowry and Joseph are just 6-1 and 6-3, the Raptors have allowed just 101.3 points per 100 possessions with the pair on the floor together over the last two seasons.
Miles brings improved shooting, but with the departures of Joseph, Patterson and Tucker, the Raptors have lost some of the versatility that they gained with the trades they made in February. More important is that they've lost three good defenders.
The Raptors' bench has been very good for four years now. Prior to the arrival of Joseph, Greivis Vasquez was making an impact as a reserve. He hasn't done much since leaving, so maybe that bench magic has been about the team as much as it's been about the individuals.
Either way, it's time for other guys to step up. The Raptors have developed a group of young guys behind their veteran rotation, but those young guys haven't seen much floor time. Three years after being selected with the 20th pick in the 2014 Draft, Bruno Caboclo has played a total of 106 NBA minutes.
Whether Caboclo sees the floor this year remains to be seen. He should be behind DeRozan, Miles and Norman Powell in the wing rotation. He might not play as much as rookie OG Anunoby.
Delon Wright, who has played just 675 total minutes in his two seasons, will get Joseph's role. At 6-foot-5, he should be a solid defender, but offense will be a question mark.
Up front, Lucas Nogueira or Jakob Poeltl will be the third big man. Nogueira played well for a 50-game stretch last season, but lost his rotation spot after the acquisitions of Ibaka and Tucker. Poeltl has size, but neither will be able to space the floor like Patterson. Combined, they attempted 24 shots from outside the paint last season.
The Raptors weren't going to "blow it up" after the best four seasons in franchise history. They had little choice but to keep Lowry, their best player, and Ibaka, the guy they gave up assets for in February. Because they played a total of only 284 minutes together (including playoffs) after the trade (because Lowry was injured), we don't know how good that combination will be going forward.
But we do know that, in order to keep those guys in Toronto, the Raptors had to say goodbye to a pretty good combination off the bench. And for that bench to remain the best in the East, we're going to have to see something new from someone young.
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