The Toronto Raptors are absolutely eviscerating the league this season. They sit atop the Eastern Conference at 47-17, and they’ve now won 13 of their past 14 games.
During that span they rank first in the league — yes, even ahead of the Warriors and Rockets, the latter of whom has gone 14-0 during that stretch — with a ridiculous +14.5 net rating.
Their starters have been solid during those 14 games, ranking sixth with a +7.0 net rating, but they’ve really done their damage with their bench, which ranks first by a country mile with a ridiculous +23.0 net rating.
Their main bench lineup is roasting teams. Among all five-man units with at least 200 minutes played this year, it is best in the league with a +24.4 net rating:
The numbers are video game-like, and I think it’s fair to ask the question: Do the Raptors have the best bench in the modern NBA?
The Modern NBA’s Best Benches
At the risk of being quite anticlimactic, I have to say that the Raptors probably don’t have the best bench in the modern NBA. We have net ratings for starters and benches back to the 1996-97 season on NBA.com; here are the best units during that span:
Still, the Raptors’ 2017-18 unit is among the best we’ve seen recently and is clearly a big part of their success this year. But the question then turns to this: How important are benches to playoff success? The outcomes for the best benches (listed above) aren’t encouraging: The best bench during that time — the 2012 Chicago Bulls with Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, a still-alive Omer Asik, and a 22-year-old Jimmy Butler — lost in the first round, although that was the year of Derrick Rose’s ACL injury. The second-best bench — the 2016 Spurs with Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, and David West — lost in the second round. A historically good bench doesn’t necessarily translate to playoff success.
To put some actual data to that statement, I found the correlation between playoff success and team, starters, and bench net ratings.
Since the 1997 NBA playoffs, it has been more important to have a high team net rating and starters net rating than a great bench, suggesting that the old axiom of rotations being shortened in the playoffs has some merit. Take a look at how the best starting units have performed during our sample time:
The majority of those have won the title, and the nine best have all at least made it to their conference finals.
How the Raptors Look This Season
So how to do Raptors look in terms of their starters and bench units this season? Actually, not so bad: Their starting unit is third in the league with a +7.4 net rating. They’re certainly the best team in the East, and FiveThirtyEight.com gives them a 56 percent chance to make the Finals and a 17 percent chance to win it. The betting market has them at +270 (27.0% implied probability) to win the East and +1100 (8.3%) to win the title. It seems that they’re undervalued by the betting market currently, which has put the new-look Cavaliers back on top of the East.
The question in the playoffs, of course, will be how the Raptors’ main guys in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can hold up. In a series versus the Cavaliers, LeBron James and the best players will go as many minutes as they can handle. LBJ played just 32 minutes in their only meeting this year, although part of that was because it was a massive blowout. It was 100-72 at the start of the fourth quarter, and the Raps ended up taking it 133-99.
On that note, here’s how the Raps have fared against the league’s best teams:
This is obviously a small sample, but it is notable that the Raptors’ bench has struggled with net ratings of -13.3 and -10.8 against the Wolves and Bucks, two teams known for giving their starters playoff-level minutes in the regular season.
They also struggled against the Warriors, who 1) are good and 2) have a solid bench themselves. Against the teams with poor benches — the Blazers, Cavs, and Wizards, for example — they crushed. Their game against the Thunder was intriguing: In the 20-ish minutes the bench units played against each other, the Raps posted a solid +7.5 net rating. The starters got demolished, however, posting a laughable -40.6 net rating against Russell Westbrook and Co.
Still, any edge in the playoffs is huge, and the minutes logged by the main bench unit could help swing a game and perhaps a series. NBA.com has five-man lineup data only since the 2007-08 season, but the Raps unit is one of the best in that time frame:
- 2013 Knicks: Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler — +26.9 net rating in 269 minutes
- 2009 Magic: Jameer Nelson, Courtney Lee, Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Dwight Howard — +25.1 net rating in 256 minutes
- 2011 Mavericks: Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler — +24.6 net rating in 257 minutes
- 2018 Raptors: Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl — +24.4 net rating in 233 minutes
Even if that unit plays only 10 minutes against another bench unit at a regular pace of 100.3 possessions per 48 minutes, that equates to about a five-point advantage. It’s another weapon in the arsenal: If a team knows it’s going to outscore its opponent by five to 10 points when the bench is in, all the starters have to do is hold serve. In a close playoff series, that really matters.
The Raptors don’t have the best bench of all time, but it’s pretty darn close, and that should help them in the playoffs, even if the minutes and effect are abbreviated. The Cavs are looking better in the East, but I’m still buying Toronto futures.