One of the (many) flaws inherent in the '12/'13 Toronto Raptors was a shallow reserve unit that was let down by disappointing seasons by the likes of Landry Fields and John Lucas III and leaning too heavily on marginal talents like Alan Anderson and Aaron Gray.
Fast forward to a year later and the good news is that the Raptors have made a conscious effort to address the bench. The bad news is that a good chunk of the second unit overhaul has come courtesy of the Indiana Pacers, the reigning Eastern Conference finalists whose chief weakness was... you guessed it.
The Raptors signed away both Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin from the Pacers, two players who Indy was perfectly prepared to walk away from. They also added Steve Novak in the already-a-win Andrea Bargnani trade, took flyers on fringe NBA'ers Austin Daye, Dwight Buycks and Julyan Stone and returned Fields, Gray, Terrence Ross and Quincy Acy from last year's reserves.
Sorting through the point guards, wings and big men, let's take a look at how the Raptors' bench stacks up for the 2013-14 season, which gets underway on Wednesday:
This year, unlike recent seasons, the only point guard controversy heading into the season will lie in the status of unchallenged starter Kyle Lowry's finger injury that he sustained on Wednesday night vs. Memphis. Lowry should be good to go for Wednesday's season opener, but the lack of a viable candidate to push the 27-year-old might prove to be a concern.
Lowry wasn't exactly a standout in his first season in Toronto (11.6 points, 6.4 assists) and actually regressed when the calendar turned to 2013. It's not much of a stretch to suggest that the former Rocket was better when he was being pushed by Jose Calderon than after Numero Ocho was shipped out in the January 30th Rudy Gay trade.
Who else is there? Well, there's Augustin, a 25-year-old with already five pro seasons - two as a starter in Charlotte - under his belt after entering the league as the ninth over-all selection in the 2008 Draft. But the former Longhorn is coming off the worst of his five seasons, serving as a glaring weakness on an otherwise strong Pacers squad. At this point, Augustin is more likely to be fighting Buycks for back-up minutes than battling Lowry for the starting role.
Speaking of Buycks, who strangely received a two-year deal in Toronto without much evident interest from other clubs in the D-League call-up, he has found the best possible situation to earn meaningful minutes on an NBA team. Already, without an overwhelming pre-season showing, he has done enough (and Augustin has done sufficiently little) to create some question of who will earn the primary back-up minutes at the point. Hard to see the former Tulsa 66'er as a game changer, though.
In his sophomore NBA season, it hasn't gotten any easier for Ross to gain minutes. As long as Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan are on the roster, Ross will need to get noticed for his contributions in sparse minutes off the bench. Of course, you have to figure that he's at least heard some of the trade rumors surrounding his primary rivals for floor time.
If Ross is in tough for minutes, that doesn't bode well for Novak, Fields or Daye. Even with Brooklyn-bound Anderson and the amnestied Linas Kleiza out of the picture, it'll be hard to find minutes to be allocated beyond the two 35 minute-per-game starters.
Of the available back-up options, look for Novak to find some stretch-the-defence minutes (although the team will likely hope they can build enough trust in Ross to become their go-to gunner) while Fields may have a chance to see some action as a defensive stopper. If Fields under-performs early, he could easily get buried without the presence of a GM who has to justify the $20 million contract handed to the former Knick. As for Daye, look for plenty of opportunities to see how the sinewy 25-year-old looks in a suit.
Despite some hope for progress amidst improving starters Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas, this could still be the best opportunity for a back-up to ascend into a key role with the club.
As we head into the start of the season, conventional wisdom suggests that Hansbrough is the team's de facto sixth man. The former UNC standout quickly gained popularity over a pre-season in which he was, predictably, among the most feisty, energetic players on the court at a given time. Hard-nosed rebounders have a long track record as fan favorites in Toronto and the baby-faced-but-intense "Psycho T" should be no exception.
Other than Hansbrough, Gray and Acy remain on hand, largely to clean up any foul trouble that the Johnson/Valanciunas combo find themselves in. With a glaring lack of offensive polish among all of Hansbrough, Gray and Acy, it's not hard to envision scenarios wherein the Raptors will 'go small' and slot Novak or Daye in at the power forward position.
Slip Slidin' Away
How bad were the conditions in what was supposed to be the Raptors' pre-season finale on Friday night in Milwaukee? This bad.
The start of the regular season means the return of another season of my Examiner game recaps. I can't promise I'll be able to offer the goods on every game, but I can guarantee a take on all things season opener and that I will do my best to keep on top of things as the season progresses (even as my recaps regress into draft/trade speculation).