Sports

Khem Birch is the big man the Raptors needed months ago

Khem Birch is likely to join the Toronto Raptors in the coming days, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Josh Robbins and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Orlando Magic will waive the 28-year-big man, clearing the way for Wendell Carter Jr. and Mo Bamba to split minutes at center for the rest of the season. 

Birch has been a helpful role player throughout his four-year tenure with the Magic, but he will be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason and they have pivoted to a rebuild. In recent games, Orlando played Birch and Bamba together in jumbo lineups that were only viable because of Birch’s ability to defend on the perimeter. This versatility is surely appealing to the Raptors, who have had to choose between size (Aron Baynes) and quickness (Chris Boucher, smallball) at the 5 spot all season. 

At 6-foot-9, Birch is not quite as tall as Baynes. He is extremely strong, though, and has made a career out of setting good screens, rolling hard to the rim, challenging shots, taking charges and rebounding. He could start for Toronto, and his presence will allow Nick Nurse to play Boucher at 4 more often. There have been buyout guys with much bigger names, but he’s easily the best defender of the bunch. 

Among the many reasons that the Raptors have a 20-31 record is their steep drop-off on defense. They were second in the NBA in defensive rating last season (104.7), and now they’re down to 17th (111.7). Only the Minnesota Timberwolves have a worse defensive rebounding percentage, and no team has fouled more frequently. Birch can make Toronto better on this end mostly because he’s mobile enough to play any kind of pick-and-roll coverage and is well suited to fly around and contest shots on the perimeter, but also because he’s simply another legit 5 who can help on the boards. The Baynes signing has not worked out like the Raptors hoped, but they’ve been an average defensive rebounding team with him on the court and an abysmal one with him on the bench. 

Birch will not do much for the Raptors’ spacing, which has predictably suffered since losing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka last offseason. He has started to attempt corner 3s this season, but he’s shooting just 4 for 21 from beyond the arc. Considering how desperate they were for an upgrade in the frontcourt, though, getting Birch on a minimum contract is almost miraculous. The only real downside is that it didn’t happen months ago. 

Toronto is two games out of the play-in, but will be three back if it loses to the 10th-place Chicago Bulls on Thursday with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, DeAndre’ Bembry and Rodney Hood out of the lineup. Birch will not play, as he has to clear waivers before he can sign. If there is a too-little-too-late vibe here, it is mitigated somewhat by the fact that this does not have to be a rental. It is easy to imagine Birch, a Montreal native, being on the roster when the Raptors return to Toronto next season. The rest of this one will be about determining whether or not the fit is as good as it looks on paper. 

One caveat: All of this rests on the rest of the league allowing it to happen. Birch is on a $3 million salary, so the New York Knicks could theoretically use their cap space to claim him off waivers and give him the minutes that have been going to Taj Gibson. The Denver Nuggets could use a trade exception to claim Birch if they’d rather have him than JaVale McGee, and the depleted Indiana Pacers have a big enough trade exception, too. Given how the Raptors’ season has gone, maybe they’re destined to lose out on a player who appears to be giftwrapped for them. Or maybe they’re due for some good luck. 




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