When The Toronto Raptors signed Aron Baynes this past offseason I wrote that it was a very good Plan B for the organization.
The 34-year-old centre was coming off the best offensive season of his career and had blossomed into one of the NBA’s best 3-point shooting big men. I knew the Raptors liked having a floor-spacing big and I figured Baynes would be a solid replacement for Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.
I was wrong.
The Raptors have moved completely away from Baynes after watching him struggle at both ends of the court for much of the season. That 35% 3-point shooting on four attempts per game in 2019-20 that had once intrigued me and the Raptors has fallen to 23.7% this season and created all sorts of offensive problems for Toronto back when Baynes did play.
So much of what the Raptors do offensively is based on creating advantages and taking open shots. It’s what Raptors coach Nick Nurse calls “next action basketball” or his “drive, kick, and swing” offence. Basically, Nurse wants his players to be unselfish enough to make the right pass but selfish enough to take the open shot when they get them.
Lately, that’s meant a slight change in Khem Birch’s usage.
In four seasons with the Orlando Magic, Birch attempted just 23 shots from behind the arc. All but two of those attempts came this year and he sunk just four of those long-range shots. Since joining Toronto, however, Birch has already taken 12 shots from deep and nailed five of them in just 10 games.
“I’ve been working on it since, literally, last year in the hiatus, and then the Magic gave me the green light to shoot it in the corners,” Birch said. “So I worked on it a little bit, but on this team, I think the ball swings more so I think you get more opportunity to shoot.”
So much of Birch taking those 3-pointers comes from the Raptors and Nurse instilling confidence in him to let it fly when the ball comes to him. All five of those makes came off “Wide Open” attempts, meaning the nearest defender was at least six feet away, according to NBA Stats. While those shots shouldn’t be difficult by any means, they’re important. They send a message to opposing defences that they can’t leave Birch alone behind the arc. Even if he isn’t an exceptional 3-point shooter by any means, he’ll let it fly when he has space and he can knock them down if given a chance.
“I feel like to stay on the floor in the playoffs, as a big man, you’ve gotta be an elite defender or be able to stretch the floor,” Birch said. “So I’ve been looking at that for a while now, so that’s why I’ve added it to my game.”
Right now Birch is shooting 41% from 3-point range with the Raptors and 55.6% on those “Wide Open” 3-pointers. Will that continue? Probably not. But if Birch can shoot something around 37% from 3-point range or 39% on those wide-open 3-pointers like a league-average NBA centre, it would go a long way to helping the Raptors fill the void Toronto thought it was filling when it signed Baynes.