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Toronto Raptors

The case for and against the Toronto Raptors starting Chris Boucher at centre

Chris Boucher did it again.

On Friday, Boucher helped the Toronto Raptors storm back from a 19-point deficit to take down the Sacramento Kings with 23 points and 10 rebounds in 29 minutes off the bench. It marks Boucher's third 20-point game to start the season and his second double-double.

Why is that notable? Boucher now has as many 20-point games this season than the first three seasons of his career combined. He's also on pace to shatter his career-high for double-doubles in a single season of five, set in 2019-20.

Boucher is now averaging 13.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 20.8 minutes through eight games. He's been one of the few bright spots in what has been a slow start for the Raptors, giving them the two-way play they've desperately needed at the centre position. And yet, he's come off the bench in all eight of Toronto's games, backing up either Aron Baynes or Alex Len.

Should that change? Let's take a closer look.

The case for starting Chris Boucher

This is pretty simple: Boucher has been Toronto's most productive and most consistent centre.

It hasn't been particularly close either.

Baynes has gotten the start at centre in eight of Toronto's nine games, but both he and the Raptors have struggled in the minutes he's been on the court. Following the best season of his career, Baynes is averaging only 5.3 points on 37.8 percent shooting from the field and 18.8 percent from 3-point range. The Raptors are scoring at a rate of 101.1 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup while giving up 111.7 points per 100 possessions on the other end.

For perspective, that would rank the Raptors 29th in offensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive efficiency. We're still working with some small sample sizes here, but ... yeah, not great.

"He seems to (have) a real good game or a real not-so-good game," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of Baynes. "We just kind of need a little bit in the middle, but we'll probably keep looking at that."

It's been even more of a struggle with Len on the court, with the Raptors being outscored by 15.0 points per 100 possessions. That number is skewed slightly from the Kings scorching the Raptors in the few minutes Len did play on Friday - Len has played half the amount of minutes Baynes has, making him even more of a victim to sample sizes - but he hasn't exactly been lighting it up in the minutes he has been getting, posting averages of 2.7 points, 1.8 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 11.0 minutes.

Boucher, on the other hand, has.

Toronto Raptors stats (2020-21)
Player MPG PPG RPG BPG FG% 3PT% FT%
Aron Baynes 19.3 5.3 5.7 0.0 37.8 18.8 0.0
Alex Len 11.0 2.7 1.8 0.8 55.6 60.0 50.0
Chris Boucher 20.8 13.5 6.0 2.1 57.4 40.0 71.4

At his best, Boucher gives the Raptors an inside-out threat, someone who can space the floor and put pressure on teams at the rim.

Through eight games this season, Boucher has knocked down 40.0 percent of his 3-point attempts. While he has always been a willing 3-point shooter - over a third (40.8 percent) of his shot attempts in his career have come from the perimeter - he's never come close to converting them at such a high rate. It probably goes without saying, but having a centre who can space the floor out to the 3-point line provides crucial spacing for everyone else, most notably Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.

Baynes is a capable 3-point shooter but hasn't been able to find his rhythm yet this season.

Len has flashed potential as a 3-point shooter in the past, but outside of him going 3-for-3 from the perimeter in Toronto's win over New York on New Year's Eve, he's 0-for-2 on the season.

Boucher is also the better finisher around the rim of the three. According to NBA.com, Boucher has made 22 shots in the restricted area this season, tying him with VanVleet for most on the team. (For perspective, Baynes and Len have combined to make 12 shots in the restricted area).

Not only has he proven to be a solid cutter...

...Boucher has been Toronto's best offensive rebounder. He leads the Raptors with 15 offensive rebounds on the season and ranks behind only nine players in the entire league in points scored off of putbacks.

Put it all together, and there isn't much - if anything - the Raptors lose offensively from playing Boucher at centre. (Coming into this season, I would've said that Baynes is a better screen-setter and passer, as well as a more consistent 3-point shooter, but that hasn't quite been the case to start this season).

To boot, Boucher gives them more pop defensively. He is leading the Raptors with 15 blocks - VanVleet is tied with Siakam and Len for second with five, believe it or not - and he's better equipped to defend the perimeter than both Baynes and Len.

One of my favourite stats that I keep referencing: Boucher blocked 12 3-pointers last season, tying him with Anthony Davis for sixth-most in the league. He's up to three blocked 3s this season, tying him with De'Aaron Fox and Ben Simmons for second-most in the league.

With Boucher at centre, it gives the Raptors more speed, length and versatility in the frontcourt on both ends. It's resulted in the Raptors posting an offensive rating of 113.4 and defensive rating of 106.8 with him on the court. Again, small sample size, but the Raptors go from outscoring their opponent from 6.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court to being outscored by 6.9 with him on the bench.

If that's the case, why not start him?

The case against starting Chris Boucher

This really comes down to three factors.

One, size.

Boucher is listed at 6-foot-9 and 200 pounds, whereas Baynes is listed at 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds and Len is listed at 7-feet and 250 pounds.

Boucher being built more as a power forward than a centre isn't as much of an issue in today's NBA, where it's normal for teams to downsize, but starting him over Baynes and Len would put the Raptors at a huge size disadvantage when playing some of the best centres in the league, such as Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic or Rudy Gobert. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Anunoby take on those matchups if the Raptors did decide to start Boucher at centre, with Boucher taking on the matchup of Tobias Harris, Paul Millsap or Bojan Bogdanovic instead.

Anunoby has guarded centres in the past - he actually did a decent job against Jokic when the Raptors were without Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka last season - but it's still a lot to ask him to guard 7-footers on a more consistent basis.

Two, rebounding.

As I wrote prior to this Western Conference road trip, defensive rebounding has been one of Toronto's biggest problems so far this season, and they've been at their worst with Boucher on the court.

According to NBA.com, the Raptors have grabbed 73.8 percent of available defensive rebounds with Baynes on the court this season. They've been ever better with Len on the court, grabbing 77.0 percent of available defensive rebounds. With Boucher, that number has plummeted all the way down to 65.9 percent, what would be the worst defensive rebounding rate in the league by a mile.

Possessions like this, in which the Raptors play good defence but give up two offensive rebounds, are a killer:

Last but not least, bench production.

This has more to do with the Raptors than Boucher. The Raptors have had one of the lowest scoring second units to start this season, with Boucher being the only player off the bench who has been able to make a consistent impact. Norman Powell has had a tough start, as have Stanley Johnson, Matt Thomas and Malachi Flynn. It's forced Nurse to change his rotation by the game, to the point where Yuta Watanabe has been getting some burn lately.

Removing Boucher from the equation would leave the Raptors with one less player they can count on off the bench. Additionally, Baynes and Len have a better chance of bouncing back playing next to Lowry, VanVleet, Siakam and Anunoby than they do playing in bench-heavy lineups that would require them to do more heavy-lifting on both ends. (You'd think so, anyway).

That alone might not be enough of a reason to keep Boucher on the bench, but it gives Nurse a lot to think about when taking everything into account.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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