Every fantasy book nerd will tell you (I am one of them, so I am telling you) that all natural forces require balance.
Good and Evil. Light and Dark. Order and Chaos.
In basketball, order prevails.
Coaches design sophisticated schemes dictating exact execution. Players maintain balance on the court relative to their teammates and opposition. The time, the score, the rules, and the referees enforcing structure, are all products of the game’s desire for order. For basketball to be played “as it should”.
But what if something chaotic were to muck that all up? A character entering the story whose only purpose is to disrupt and destroy. Order typically struggles to respond.
Insert Chris Boucher and Stanley Johnson. Two Toronto Raptors projects, who, after years of spending time on the bench and exploring their NBA identities, are becoming mainstays through the spirit and success of chaos.
Toronto started the season 2-6 in its first eight games. Things were grim; in almost every statistical category they were middle of the pack or worse: 20th in defensive rating, 15th in offensive rating, 28th in rebounding percentage, 18th in opponent field goal percentage, and 20th in opponents points allowed.
While things could have been a lot worse, it was clear that Toronto was floundering.
Then, since January 8th, they went 4-2. Their two losses coming by a total of two points – the difference of two missed Pascal Siakam buzzer-beaters against the Warriors and Blazers.
While the team found new life collectively, it has been the efforts of the defensive demons, Boucher and Johnson, and their penchant for bedlam, that have stood out.
Le Block Quebecois, Chris Boucher
Chris Boucher has displayed glimmers of NBA success before. His slender frame and inconsistent offense limited his impact.
This year though – woooohhh, this year – the skinny-St. Lucian has been unleashed. He’s fourth, ya, that’s right, read it and weep, 4th, in ESPN’s player efficiency rating in the entire league. He’s rolling in the ranks of Joel Embid, Nikola Jokic, and Kevin Durant. The big boys.
In that two-week span, when Boucher finally supplanted Aaron Baynes as the primary centre, he’s gone from Steven Urkel to Stephan Urquelle.
He’s averaged 21 points a game on a blazing 66% from two and 53% shooting from three. And, uhh, he’s 3rd, in the league, in true shooting. It’s spectacular.
But it is his defense – something that has kept him in the league for this long and that earned him a two-year, fourteen million dollar contract this past offseason – that stands out above all else.
He is chaos personified in a six-foot 10-inch, 190-pound spaghetti-noodle body. Nothing is safe from his snapping alligator arms: not three-pointers, not jumpers, not floaters, not lay-ups.
Chaos Rule #1: No easy shots.
In the paint, Boucher is a menace. Of players averaging more than 20 minutes a game in the last two weeks, he is first in blocks, fourth in contested two-point shots, and 20th in defensive rebounding,
Fast breaks, chaos’ cousin, are the hardest plays to defend. Yet, Chris, being the first back to stop the onslaught, not only prevents the primary attack, he completely annihilates the second one.
Chaos Rule #2: No free space.
Outside the paint, he’s like a hawk blotting out the sun diving at its prey. In those six games, he is 4th in shots blocked between four and fourteen feet, 9th in contested three-point shots, 1st in blocked three-pointers, 1st in corner three blocks, and to demonstrate the efficiency of all those freaking blocks, he is third (out of first by only one block) in having blocks recovered by his own team.
Just…watch…he stops the initial drive, then closes out on his own guy who is salivating over the “open” kick-out three. Get-dat-gahbage-oudda-here.
Chaos Rule #3: The reputation to disrupt is as good as disruption itself.
Boucher’s defensive effort is not just a crescendo of blocks. His mere presence is wholly bothersome. On this screen and roll, Boucher first dissuades Tyrese Haliburton from attacking on the double-screen curl, then glides back to stuff the roller – his man – with a gentle no-no-no-no-no.
Boucher seems to be everywhere at once, which is the kind of data an offensive algorithm cannot compute. If, at one moment, you think you have a wide-open three and then the next moment you are nearly swallowing the basketball whole, can you really be sure of anything…ever…again?
I joke, but Chris Boucher’s versatility, length, quickness, and athleticism means no one on the court is safe.
In turn, his teammates can cheat and apply greater pressure knowing that a defensive dragon circles close-by ready to melt shooters and chomp drivers.
Stanimal, Stanley Johnson
There’s a metaphor Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons use for players who everyone has given up on, but they still believe in. It’s called “PLAYER’S NAME Island”.
It’s often a lonely island. Most times the island quietly slips away washed over by the uncompromising swell of misplaced faith and inevitable failure.
But sometimes, your island prospers. A couple of other harebrained believers join in, then a few reasonable gentlepeople buy some timeshares, then some real investors look into development, and before you know it your island is buzzing.
Well, I dug a well on Stanley Johnson island. I was there for the long haul.
And I am happy to report that property value on the island is on the rise.
Stanley Johnson had the makings of a modern NBA player wing. Coming out of college at six-foot-six, 240 pounds, he was given the comps of Kawhi Leonard and Ron Artest by NBADraft.Net. The Detroit Pistons drafted him, andddd not so much, NBADraft.Net.
His athleticism could not compensate for his poor shooting and ball-handling. Detroit gave up on him. Then Toronto took a flyer on him. The first year was when Stanley Johnson Island really suffered: a maelstrom of DNPs, inactives, and a public tongue-lashing by coach Nick Nurse. It was tough.
This year looked to be the same. He had a defensive rating of 70. His offensive production was nil and he was playing a meek 12 minutes a game with two DNPs.
Then on January 8th, Nurse tired of his undefensively-minded bench and threw Stanley into the game. Since then, he has been averaging a solid 17 minutes a game.
Definitely not his offensive output, he’s averaging a whopping five points a game.
His individual defensive numbers are not all that thrilling either. But, over the past two weeks, of all the Toronto Raptors lineups that have played more than 15 minutes together, Stanley Johnson’s line has the best defensive rating by far.
It is a small sample size, and if you glance at the stats, you notice very little about Stanley, but when you watch him play, you get it.
Chaos Rule #4: Let no one think they are safe.
Putting a small forward in the centre of your 2-3 zone makes little sense, unless you have a big, strong, and active Stanimal prowling the paint. In the zone, the Raptors are a marauding group of long, quick-moving pirates. And Stanley is captain.
Stanley, responsible for a lot of space on the back of the zone, comes over to support Fred Van Vleet on a post-up, then seeing the pass go backdoor, flashes back and eats Bismack Biyombo’s lunch at the rim.
Chaos Rule #5 & #6: Never stop moving. Piss off the guy you are guarding.
Stanley, like, Chris, just makes things hard for people. He guards guys like they’re playing musical chairs with one pair of shorts and he covers ground like a flying squirrel. Stanley has figured out that his motor must run at its highest RPM all the time, no matter what. That is the value he brings to the team.
His D, in this set, is scarier than Scary Terry Rosier himself, who he absolutely smothers, twice in one possession! And then pisses off…
Chaos Rule #7: Get in their grill and stay in their grill.
Not many NBA players are willing to pick-up full court, let alone do it against the next generation’s best point guard. Stanley does, emphatically, and (Rule #6) pisses Luka Dončić off in the process…
Players try to find minutes by figuring out where to fit in a system.
But for Boucher and Stanley, they have excelled by trying to take the whole system down.
All that to say, you can become an indispensable part of a team simply through smart, hard work on the defensive end.
They’ve proven that.
Remember the balance. Order hates chaos. It has trouble adapting when something, or someone, crumbs it all up.
So when in doubt, crumb it all up.