Raptors

Birch Brings Much-Needed Big Stability to Toronto

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The benefit of having a competent big man is a breath of fresh air.

The center position has been rough for the Toronto Raptors this year– remember Alex Len? Aron Baynes was supposed to fill the gap, but he has looked slow-footed at his worst moments.

Normally, the guys you acquire in the buyout market aren’t really very good. Small-market fans may have cried foul when the Nets got Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, but the latter is retired and the former is scoring in the single figures.

You usually get injuries, mediocre veterans or severely flawed players. Khem Birch is the rare player on the buyout market because he is competent.

Why He Was Available

The Magic didn’t waive Birch because he’s bad. The problem was that you can’t ask coaches to tank, and there was no way Mo Bamba was getting minutes ahead of this guy. The front office sees a potential Kristaps Porzingis in Bamba, the coach sees a player blowing half his defensive rotations with the baby beginnings of a versatile offensive game.

It’s no coincidence that Bamba played 20+ minutes only once with Khem there, and he’s hit that mark countless times since.

So what makes Birch such a comfort to coaches? IQ and physical tools.+

Despite not being a top prospect, he has great measurables. Though only 6’9, his wingspan is about the same as the famously long-armed Draymond Green. Combined with a pretty impressive vertical, it allows him to function around the rim on both ends. Operating in a power forward’s body with a center’s arms gives him an extra step in the pick-and-roll on both offense and defense, giving him a better chance against guards and a quicker jump towards the rim.

He has better touch than any Raptors big with the exception of Chris Boucher, and he has thirty pounds on Boucher. So he’s got the physical profile of a good fit, but his IQ is where he shines.

Birch isn’t a basketball savant, smothering 2-on-1s like Draymond. But the Raptors don’t need a genius, they just need a guy with his physical profile and foot speed to be in the right place. Their scheme is famously difficult and demanding of centers. Joel Embiid has talked about how difficult their defense is to face.

Replacing Marc Gasol & Serge Ibaka has proved difficult. Baynes just wasn’t quick enough, and for all of Boucher’s talents at blocking the ball, it is just too easy for an offensive player to dig a shoulder (and sneak a push-off) into him and then step through for a layup.

The Benefits Of Good Players

Good players cause a domino effect. It’s very easy to see when a rotation player isn’t good, because coaches will scramble to fill the hole. The championship version of the Raptors very clearly had a hole to fill at fourth guard, because they scrambled in the minutes two of Kyle Lowry/Fred VanVleet/Norman Powell were on the bench. Almost every game involved praying Jodie Meeks didn’t give up run. Relying on Baynes and Boucher was causing those kinds of problems for the Raptors.

Near the halfway point of the season, OG Anunoby had guarded 5s for 15.6% of his defensive minutes. Siakam has played 19% of his minutes as a center despite never crossing 10% in any other season. Relying so much on guys who already play heavy minutes makes your margin for error very small, and the margins are where good teams steal advantages.

A good example of this is Siakam. He plays 35 minutes a night, and they rely on him to steal a couple small-ball center minutes. But what happens when you’re facing a center too big for Boucher or too quick for Baynes, and they grab two quick fouls?

What happens then? Do you roll the dice on a third foul? Roll out a player to face a bad matchup and try to just live with it, sacrificing your scheme? Increase the minutes and size load on Siakam, already tasked with lead scoring duties and a ton of defensive responsibility?

Going Forward

The biggest impact of Birch going forward is taking those problems away. There are very few players who are going to dominate both Boucher and Baynes. You can throw one of them out there for five extra minutes when Birch gets in foul trouble and feel relatively comfortable.  There’s no athletic rollers left on the schedule who leave Baynes in the dust while pushing Boucher like a paperweight. The only one left is Andre Drummond, and his defense is bad enough to make any advantage relatively even.

The playoffs are still a tough goal for the Raptors, but they’re trending upwards with Birch on the team. It does look like they have a shot to sneak in. In every possibility when they get there, Birch can help out in a big way. Whether they’re facing Domantas Sabonis, Bam Adebayo, Robert Williams, P.J. Washington or former cast-off Alex Len, Birch will be an asset.

If this Raptors season is going to end up positive — no sure thing after one of the roughest seasons in franchise history, between Tampa & Covid — then the man in the middle is going to be a big part of it.

Follow us on Twitter @RaptorsLead for the latest Raptors news and insight. 

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About Treye Seabrook-Fields

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