Toronto Raptors 2016-17 player grades: The bench

Mar 27, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell (24) is congratulated by point guard Cory Joseph (6) after scoring a basket against the Orlando Magic at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2016-17 NBA season now over for the Toronto Raptors, it’s time to look back on the performances of each player. Moving from the youngsters to the bench to the starters, we’ll grade each player’s 2016-17 season and evaluate his future with the franchise.

Earlier this week, we gave grades to each of the Toronto Raptors’ end-of-the-bench youngsters. For this next group of player grades, we’re looking at true rotation players.

Toronto head coach Dwane Casey built some patchwork starting lineups throughout the regular season and playoffs, but the five players graded here comprised his core bench unit.

Toronto’s bench was actually quite productive throughout the regular season and playoffs. Four of the five players had positive on-off plus-minus ratings, meaning Toronto posted a better rating with them on the floor.

So here goes. We’ve got three veterans in Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker and Cory Joseph, and two youngsters in Lucas Nogueira and Norman Powell.

Each of them will get an admittedly arbitrary grade that represents their progress and performances in 2016-17. These grades – and I cannot stress this enough – are relative to preseason expectations.

Jan 24, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors center Lucas Nogueira (92) during an NBA game against the San Antonio Spurs at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Lucas Nogueira

Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira’s first season as a rotation player yielded mixed results.

Prior to Serge Ibaka‘s arrival, Nogueira was Toronto’s only pure rim protector, and the statistics bear that out. Bebe’s 3.0 blocks per 36 minutes ranked sixth in the entire league. At the rim, he held opponents to just 47.9 percent shooting. Bebe’s long, relatively mobile and finished the season with an elite 5.6 Defensive Box Plus-Minus.

On offense, he used his 9-foot-6 standing reach to pose a threat around the rim. He ended the year shooting 76.2 percent from within three feet, per Basketball-Reference. Altogether, Toronto was better with Bebe on the floor.

But there’s a thin line between “defensive specialist” and “one-way player.” Like Jakob Poeltl, who we evaluated earlier this week, Bebe barely touched the ball this season, finishing with just 8.4 points per 36 minutes. Unlike Poeltl, Bebe is a thin-shouldered, below-average rebounder who fails to give his team extra possessions.

Even elite defenders have a difficult time cracking rotations when they’re not trusted on offense. Just look at Dewayne Dedmon, who started 37 games for the Spurs before dropping out of San Antonio’s playoff rotation altogether.

The Ibaka trade hurt Bebe a lot. He’d been playing productive defensive basketball before his minutes fell off a cliff in March. Having played just seven minutes in the playoffs, the big Brazilian will have his work cut out to reclaim a rotation spot, whether Ibaka stays or not.

Next season is a contract year for Bebe. Will he become the next shot-stuffing, lob-gobbling center to get paid? The jury’s still out. 

Grade: C+

Mar 27, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Patrick Patterson (54) shoots as Orlando Magic forward Terrence Ross (31) defends at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Magic 131-112. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Patterson

Patterson might want to forget this playoff run. The veteran forward shot just 30.8 percent from three and an abysmal 27.8 percent overall during the playoffs. The Raptors were outscored by 16.1 points per 100 possessions with Patterson on the floor.

The shooting woes were so bad that Patterson saw a significant dip in minutes. Yes, the Raptors added Serge Ibaka. But in the playoffs, the best man plays. And in these playoffs, that man was not Patrick Patterson.

All that said, Patterson still deserves a B for his continued glue-guy excellence during the regular season.

The Raptors were 10.5 points better per 100 possessions with Patterson on the floor, showing his 10.3 number from last season was no fluke. He’s not a shot-blocker, he’s not an explosive scorer, and he’s not a great playmaker. But Patterson’s just one of those dudes who helps his team win.

He shot 37.1 percent from three on a decent volume of attempts. Opponents shot just 45.8 percent against him at the rim, the best number of any rotation player. To let Matt Moore of CBS Sports take over, “He’ll never be a super-assertive asset and can’t cover for others’ defensive lapses, but he’s also never going to be the reason you lose.”

Patterson is a free agent this summer, and his future hinges on what Lowry and Ibaka do. If Lowry leaves, expect a rebuild sans Patterson. If Ibaka comes back, Patterson may be a luxury tax casualty. Say Lowry stays and Ibaka goes – at that point, Patterson may stick around.

Regardless, he’s earned his next paycheck. Marvin Williams, a similar albeit better player, just got a contract worth $13.6 million annually under a $94 million salary cap. Expect Patterson to earn a few million less as the cap continues to balloon. 

Grade: B

Apr 24, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) controls a ball as Toronto Raptors forward PJ Tucker (2) defends during the second quarter in game five of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

P.J. Tucker

The Raptors gave up Jared Sullinger and two second-round picks to get Tucker at the trade deadline. The goal? Get someone to defend LeBron James. Seriously. That was the rationale.

Tucker lived up to his sterling defensive reputation in Toronto. At 6’6,” 245 pounds, he’s an absolute load. But he’s also reasonably quick for his size and tries like hell. Tucker and Norman Powell make about as feisty a wing pairing as you can get.

The 32-year-old played well in the first round against Milwaukee, when he reduced Giannis Antetokounmpo from “supernova” to “really great player.” He was less effective against the Cavaliers, mostly because LeBron James is LeBron James. Tucker gave LeBron everything he could handle, especially in Game 4, but the Raptors were always overmatched.

Overall, Tucker brought defense and toughness to a Raptors team that needed both. He didn’t give them enough shooting, canning just 32.1 percent of this threes during the playoffs, although he’s not a knockdown guy anyways. Over the course of April and May, he was probably Toronto’s most indispensable role player.

Tucker is a free agent this summer and his future mirrors that of Patterson. At 32, he’s too old for a rebuilding team. If Lowry stays, Tucker becomes valuable, but perhaps not more valuable or cost-efficient than Patterson and Ibaka.

Defensive wings are expensive, and the underpaid Tucker is still awaiting his first big contract. Solomon Freaking Hill just got a $48 million deal. Unless DeMarre Carroll is traded, Tucker may be better off grabbing eight-figures elsewhere.

Grade: B

Apr 24, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell (24) and center Jakob Poeltl (42) celebrate a basket during the fourth quarter in game five of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks at Air Canada Centre. The Toronto Raptors won 118-93. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Norman Powell

Steady progress. That’s all you can ask for from a second-year player, and that’s exactly what Powell gave.

The one they call Norm played over 600 more minutes than he did in 2015-16, and his production shot up accordingly. He averaged 16.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per 36 minutes – solid, if unspectacular.

In the playoffs, his insertion into the starting lineup changed Toronto’s first round series against Milwaukee. His energy is contagious, and even though he’s only 6’4,” he has the tenacity and bulk to guard bigger wings. In the playoffs, the Raptors were 7.7 points per 100 possessions better with Powell on the court.

Like any 23-year-old player, parts of Powell’s game need refinement. After shooting over 40 percent from three as a rookie, he shot at a mediocre 32.4 percent clip this season. He should settle in as an above-average shooter, but that 40 percent was probably a small-sample mirage.

Going to the hoop, Powell is an incredible athlete. He got to the rim far more frequently this season, but still lacks a degree of fluidity and patience in the lane. To make the most of his abilities, the Raptors need to give Powell more reps as a ballhandler.

Norm has legitimate upside. He’s a good backup wing as is. He could become a core player – not necessarily a star, but certainly a dependable starter. As with Bebe, next season is a contract year for Powell. If the cap room is available after free agency, the Raptors will want to extend him ASAP.

Grade: B+

May 3, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Cory Joseph (6) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) in the third quarter in game two of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Cory Joseph

The 2016-17 season was Cory Joseph in a nutshell. He played 25 minutes per game, averaging 9.3 points and 3.3 assists – no different than last year. But when Kyle Lowry went down with a wrist injury in February, the Raptors could’ve cratered. Instead, Joseph stepped into a starting role and kept the Raptors chugging along.

Overall, the Raptors went 14-7 with Joseph at the helm. He may not be starter material, but Joseph is one of the elite backup point guards in the NBA. He can run a team’s second unit, step in when injuries strike or play alongside another point guard in crunch time.

Joseph won an NBA championship with San Antonio in 2014, and he brings that typical Spursian steadiness. This past season, he turned the ball over just times 1.9 times per 36 minutes and was trusted to defend many different types of guards. When called upon, he has the speed and pull-up shooting ability to make plays outside of the system.

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Joseph still isn’t a gunner. He only attempted 1.7 threes per game. But he made a career high 35.6 percent of his attempts, and even went 9-for-22 during the playoffs. With a jumper, Joseph would be closer to George Hill. But Toronto didn’t need him to be that good; they just needed him to be reliable. He pulled through and then some.

Assuming Toronto retains Lowry and one or two other free agents, the luxury tax will be a concern next season. Joseph is just 25, and he makes only $7 million annually, which is below his market value. He’s a Toronto-native and a high-character guy, but he’s an obvious salary-dump candidate. If he’s moved, his new team will be getting a keeper.

Grade: A-

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