The Toronto Raptors are getting some much-needed frontline help.
They have officially signed centre Khem Birch for the remainder of the season after the Montreal native reached a buyout with the Orlando Magic and cleared waivers.
The 28 year old averaged 9.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per 36 minutes with the Magic this season. Birch was in the final year of his two-year, $6 million deal he signed in the summer of 2019. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Birch should have some familiarity with Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. Nurse coached Birch when the two were a part of the Canadian men's national team that competed at the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
"Team Canada has a lot of potential, especially with coach Nurse," Birch said in an interview on Sportsnet 590 back in March of 2020. "With the roster we had, I think he did a really good job, and I imagine if we had all our guys I think we would have won the whole thing.
"It's a really good benefit and individually it was good as well, to see my potential. I've never had a coach tell me to do those types of things…
"He's a great guy and down to earth. He's kind of different from the other coaches I've had. He's really new school and I see why the Raptors are a very good team."
Birch averaged 11.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 57.9 percent from the field at the World Cup. Nurse asked Birch to carry a heavier offensive load than he was customed to, along with having to anchor the team's defence. Birch responded well and now he'll have the opportunity to play for Nurse in the NBA and hopefully, he'll be able to unlock some of the confidence and potential he unlocked in China.
It's no secret that Toronto has been needing frontcourt help and with the addition of Birch, they might be able to find a combination to get back on the right track to close out the season.
Where Birch's immediate impact should be felt is on the defensive end. Aron Baynes hasn't been the defender the Raptors anticipated and Chris Boucher has lacked the size to compete with some of the beefier bigs in the league. Birch is a better and more versatile defender than Baynes at this point in his career and at 6-foot-9, 235 pounds, Birch can bang with the bigger bodies in the league without an issue.
Orlando has been awful defensively this season, but when Birch was on the floor they were elite. According to NBA Stats, with Birch in the game, the Magic were giving up 107.6 points per 100 possessions. When he sat that number ballooned to 113.4. That's the difference between the Magic having a top-five defence in the league with Birch on the floor and a bottom-five defence in the league when he wasn't in the game. With Birch potentially anchoring Toronto's defence, it should be better than what it's been so far this season.
On the offensive end, I doubt that Nurse will lean on Birch to score in the post as much as he did for Team Canada, but Birch can certainly score down there. He proved that for Team Canada and in his limited opportunities this season for the Magic, he's been fairly efficient on the block. Birch ranks in the 73rd percentile in post-ups, according to NBA Stats. Although it's an extremely tiny sample size (less than a possession a game), no one on the Raptors right now has been that efficient. For a Raptors team that struggles to find easy looks on occasion having the option to put Birch on the block could be a welcomed sight.
Birch has also turned into an elite offensive rebounder since entering the league. The Canadian has an offensive rebounding percentage of 10.6 this season, according to NBA Stats. No Raptor is in double digits in offensive rebounding rate this season.
Birch may not answer all of the Raptors' problems this season, but he'll certainly help. With 20 games remaining the team can use all the help it could get as they try and make the postseason.
Looking ahead, adding Birch on the roster now gives Toronto a good look at him in their system and they can then determine his value. He should be relatively cheaper in comparison to other starting NBA centers and if he can fill the void left behind by Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, that's one less area of need that the Raptors have to address this offseason.
For Birch, this is his chance to prove he belongs in the league. He was buried in a crowded Orlando frontcourt, but now he lands on a team desperate for his help.
This should be a win-win situation for both sides.
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