Raptors Cage

Should C.J. Miles be kept on a short leash to start the playoffs?

It’s no secret that C.J. Miles is in a slump. But how did it get to this point?

The Raptors’ big free-agent acquisition this past offseason, Miles was brought in to be a ringer of sorts, to the fill a role Toronto had sorely lacked through its recent stretch of playoff runs: a legit off-ball three-point specialist.

Kyle Lowry had already established himself as one of the NBA’s elite shooters, but as a point guard and the team’s best driver of offence, he often needs the ball to maximize his value. Meanwhile, Miles could run off screens or wait in the corners, waiting for the ball to find him for an open three in the Raptors new egalitarian offence. He seemed like a perfect fit with the other four starters.

As we know now, Miles ended up starting the season coming off the bench, where Casey reasoned his shooting would provide more value for the cast of unproven young players. Meanwhile, Norman Powell’s defence would be more valuable for a starting lineup that should have no trouble filling up the basket.

The play of the two lineups quickly proved Casey right, although OG Anunoby ended up filling in the 3 and D role for the starters instead of Powell. That starting lineup has rolled over the opposition, with a net rating of +11.2 this season according to NBA.com. But the bench mob — Miles, VanVleet, Wright, Siakam and Poeltl — has been even better. They’ve outscored their opponents by 17.1 points per 100 possessions on the year.

On March 14, though, that margin was +25.7. In the 14 games since, a stretch in which they team has gone 8-6 and includes the final game of an 11-game win streak, the bench mob’s net rating is an atrocious -9.8.

Before we go any further, it’s important to note that all of these stats are coming in a small sample size. 14 games might seem like a lot, but that only amounts to 85 minutes for the bench squad. That being said, a drop of over 35 points in net rating clearly means something is wrong. So what could it be?

The likely answer is unsatisfying: a lot of things. It’s difficult to tease out meaningful conclusions over a full season’s worth of data, let alone 85 minutes. The bench lineup is allowing a porous 117.5 points per 100 possessions these past 14 games, compared to 99.1 on the year, but it’s hard to point to one specific thing and say it’s the root of the problem, to find the signal in the noise. The same is true for offense, where the lineup is scoring 107.7 over the last 14 compared to 116.2 for the full season. But even taking all that into consideration, there is one stat that really sticks out — Miles’ shooting.

Before these past 14 games Miles was shooting 38.8% from three — a solid number for anyone, and even more impressive when you consider the difficulty of his shot profile. Since then, though, he’s been shooting the longball at a ghastly 23.1%. That’s bad for anyone, let alone a supposed knockdown shooter.

Miles doesn’t actually have the worst net rating of the bench unit in that span. He’s at a passable +0.9, while VanVleet is at -2.0 and the Raps are somehow being outscored by 10.5 points per 100 possessions when Poeltl is on the floor.

So why single out Miles?

Well, there are a few reasons. Remember, we’re dealing with small sample sizes, so a few minutes could swing these ratings a lot. And that seems to be the case here, at least partially. For example, 12 minutes at +55 net rating for a lineup with Miles but not VanVleet or Poeltl, eight minutes at -15.2 in a lineup featuring the latter two but not Miles… eight minutes is almost nothing, but it’s about 10%of the bench lineup’s minutes over the 14 games. It really is a small sample.

And there’s another stat that really singles out Miles, this one courtesy of Basketball Reference. That site tracks players’ individual offensive and defensive ratings, meaning how efficient a player is at scoring when they use a possession and stopping the other team scoring with a block, steal or rebound, or when they are targeted. Unfortunately it’s not possible to search player stats by date (or if it is I haven’t found out how), but it does provide splits by month. And the splits from the six games played in April are telling.

By these metrics, Poeltl doesn’t seem to be the problem. He’s scoring at a rate of 131 points per 100 possessions, and holding the other team to 99 points per 100 possessions. It’s important to note the bias these statistics might hold for a player like Poeltl, who only takes high-efficiency shots near the basket and gets lots of blocks and rebounds, but even so. Nothing here points to him being the problem.

Wright has the second best stats at 112 and 99 offensive and defensive ratings, respectively, while VanVleet is holding steady (see what I did there?) at 103 and 103. Siakam has actually been the second worst of the bunch, at 99 and 102. And then there’s Miles.

Miles’ personal offensive rating is only 89, and his personal defensive rating is 106 — both the worst marks of the bench unit, and it’s not even close. Again, these data aren’t perfect, and they shouldn’t be accepted as gospel. But they are worth noting when they point out such a big discrepancy between one player and the rest of the lineup, and when that discrepancy matches the eye test.

If Miles isn’t hitting his shots, he doesn’t add much value on the court. The other members of the bench mob are all plus defenders for their position. Miles is, uh, not. The Raptors would probably be better off using Powell in certain situations if Miles can’t find his shooting stroke and won’t dig in on defence, or just forgoing the all-bench lineups altogether and keeping one of Lowry or DeRozan on the court at all times.

None of this is to say that Casey should sit Miles to start the playoffs. The bench unit with Myles has on the whole been incredibly effective all year, even historically dominant at times, and a swoon to end the regular season, when most of the games had ceased to really matter, isn’t enough reason to go away from that lineup. But if that lineup is losing its minutes the way it has been to end the season, and Miles hasn’t shot the ball like he was brought here to do, then Casey should strongly consider changing his role in the rotation before anyone else’s.

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