Could Khem Birch possibly stick in the Raptors starting lineup?
The injury bug has bitten the Toronto Raptors. Following the loss of OG Anunoby, coach Nick Nurse made the call to insert Khem Birch into the starting lineup, pushing Pascal Siakam to the power forward stop in a move that shifted the Raptors into a more traditional lineup.
After a dominant win against the Sacramento Kings keyed by a Siakam masterpiece, it’s fair to question whether Birch’s position in the starting lineup should remain permanent following Anunoby’s eventual return.
Birch has played well above expectations ever since he was signed last year following his release from the Magic. His ability to play a traditional center role as a 6-9 center has given the Raptors someone reliable on the glass and in the defensive post. Unfortunately, these qualities are sorely lacking from the rest of the big man rotation.
Precious Achiuwa’s stint as a starter is best described as clunky, and while Siakam is a talented power forward, his lack of size and strength at the 5 leaves the Raptors open to an all-out paint assault. Khem fixes that problem. But does that make him a permanent fit in the starting lineup?
Khem Birch is an underrated addition to the Toronto Raptors.
Khem had a strong offensive first half against Utah, putting up all of his 14 points while shooting 75% from the field overall. While Utah was able to shut that down in the second half, it’s important to note that the Jazz needed to make a very legitimate adjustment to take Birch out of the game.
Khem has played his best ball alongside VanVleet this season, running a deadly pick and roll that routinely leaves Fred open for a mid-range jumper or Birch for a hook/push shot.
Sacramento was…less successful in stopping him. Not only did Birch nearly record a double-double, but the Kings provided minimal resistance on the offensive end.
With Siakam’s game requiring the ball in his hands and Achiuwa’s pick game looking elementary, Khem offers VanVleet a consistent opportunity to work the two-man game from the high point, and that shouldn’t be undervalued.
Khem is posting a career-high 15.0 ORB%, which is the third-best mark in the league at the moment. For a team with a suspect half-court offense, those extra shots become invaluable.
Toronto Raptors: Khem Birch is helping Pascal Siakam.
While the small-ball lineup has been an interesting experiment that many thought would work, the reality is that Siakam is being overworked and improperly used in a center position that doesn’t fit his game or his play style.
Khem’s aforementioned offensive rebounding is much more conducive to a starting lineup that’s at its best when Fred VanVleet is firing up fadeaways and Scottie Barnes is flicking up floaters. It may very well be that Siakam needs the same freedom.
By pulling Siakam out of the key, it gives him more space to live along the wing and baseline where he can do the most damage.
It’s not perfect, as Birch will need to consistently shift and move in the paint to open up the proper side for a driving Siakam or Barnes, but it beats the alternative of casting a former All-Star in a role he’s ill-suited for.
How do you fit Birch into the starting lineup once OG is healthy and back on the court? The answer is there isn’t one. Not definitively anyway.
It’s tough to envision any Raptors starting lineup that doesn’t involve Anunoby and Siakam right now. While Siakam hasn’t lit the world on fire, he’s a confirmable talent who simply needs to find his groove, and he won’t do that from the bench. Meanwhile, OG is having a breakout season that (hip pointer aside) has been nothing short of perfect for Raptors fans.
So that leaves VanVleet, Barnes, and Trent Jr.
VanVleet is very compatible with Birch and is also an invaluable leader and voice on the court. His statistical output is a fragment of his full worth, and especially beside Birch, he’s ultimately not someone you can move to the pine.
Likewise with Barnes. He’s pure electricity on both ends of the court when he’s firing up jumpers, driving to the net, and blanketing opponents with his obscene reach. If this team was deeper, he’d be the perfect rookie sixth man. As it stands, he’s too impressive to shave any minutes from him.
That leaves Trent.
I know a lot of people won’t like it (what with Gary in the NBA.com running for DPOY), but his energy and shooting ability would work wonders with a bench rotation alongside Dalano Banton, Svi Mykhailiuk, and (eventually) Yuta Watanabe. He’ll contribute to fast breaks and truly spread the floor for a bench that would benefit from a little shakeup.
So, if the Raptors want to push back into a winning formula, this may be what they need. A small shakeup centered around a small(ish) center that is making everyone around him better.