Khem Birch is back to his difference-making ways.
While he hasn't even taken the floor for the Toronto Raptors in 30 games yet, the Montreal native has been the solution for one of the team's biggest issues for two seasons running. Last April, the Raptors' signing of Birch solved a year-long search for a center capable of fulfilling a starting role, which he did for 17 of the 19 games in which he appeared.
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Almost seven months later, Birch is now proving that he can be effective in any role, finding ways to make his presence felt while serving as the backup to Toronto's newest starting center, Precious Achiuwa.
But should that dynamic remain in place?
In the NBA, having too much talent is a "problem" any coach would love to have, and it's something that Raptors lead man Nick Nurse is currently dealing with in the 2021-22 season. On Toronto's roster, there are eight starting-calibre players, making for positional battles and the potential for difficult decisions arising, especially once Pascal Siakam returns to the lineup.
Among those difficult decisions is the potential choice to have Achiuwa come off the bench while putting Birch back into a starting role, which could reap benefits for the team in the long run.
Take the Raptors' impressive road win over the New York Knicks on Nov. 1 for an example, as Achiuwa got the start but played limited minutes, while Birch came off of the bench to log heavy minutes and make a difference in the game's outcome.
TAKEAWAYS: Career night for OG lifts Raptors over Knicks
In just under 17 minutes of action, Achiuwa was 1-for-9 from the field, finishing with two points and nine rebounds, while Birch saw a little over 31 minutes of action, finishing with six points (on 3-for-6 shooting), eight rebounds and three assists.
To state it plainly, Achiuwa has been severely outplayed by Birch as of late, who is doing everything the Raptors ask for from their centers and more.
Raptors with Khem Birch on the floor over the last 3 games: +41 in 83 minutes. Raptors with Precious Achiuwa: -20 in 55 minutes.- Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) November 2, 2021
Following the game, Nurse spoke on Achiuwa's play, saying: "He's just a little out of character these last couple games. He just doesn't quite have it going on either end. He'll be all right… I believe in him. He's got talent all over the place. We've just gotta wash these games away and get his confidence back up," per TSN's Josh Lewenberg.
MORE: How Achiuwa displayed scary potential in preseason
When asked about Birch, Nurse was extremely complimentary, saying: "He was really good defensively. He was up on guys turning the corner… He had a run of offensive rebounds that are really spirit lifters… He was screening good, passed OK. He had a good game for six points."
That said, is the decision as simple as inserting Birch into the starting lineup and moving Achiuwa into the second unit? While it might appear that way, it's a nuanced decision.
In his second season, the 22-year-old Achiuwa is still learning the NBA game and getting accustomed to holding a starting role after earning just four starts during his rookie campaign. If his recent inconsistency is merely a product of the adjustment period, a decision to shake up the starting lineup could be premature as it could again impact Achiuwa's ability to get comfortable enough to find a rhythm.
Conversely, the Raptors could be getting off to better starts. While the team trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half in New York, Birch's efforts helped stage the rally that ultimately resulted in a 24-point swing.
More often than not, however, big early deficits are too much to overcome. Good starts are crucial, and the Raptors might want to opt for the choice that puts them in the best position out of the gate.
Birch, 29, has seen a thing or two throughout his NBA career and has proven that it doesn't matter whether or not he starts the game or comes off of the bench, he is going to do what he does best at a high level for the entirety of the time that he's on the floor.
With that in mind, do you insert Birch into the starting lineup to guarantee a strong start to the game? Or risk the habit of continuously falling into an early hole if Achiuwa is still "out of character," as Nurse put it?
Each question presents even more variables that make for a number of potential outcomes, which, in turn, brings things full circle.
MORE: How long will Siakam be out?
After stacking four wins in a row, the Raptors are 5-3 to start a season in which they've been without Siakam for each game and were down their standout rookie in their most impressive win so far. While things could be better, they're far from broken, which means it might be too early for things to be fixed.
Let's also not forget that in years past, Nurse has been one to change his starting lineups frequently depending on the matchup, notably alternating starts between Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas in 2018 and later doing the same with Ibaka and Marc Gasol.
It's fair to assume that a similar approach will be taken when Scottie Barnes and Siakam are both back, bringing the number of starting-calibre players on the roster to eight.
And once the team returns to full strength, some things will simply fix themselves.
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