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Things aren’t working for the Toronto Raptors right now. How aggressive do they need to be in remaking this roster into a contender?
After an 11-9 start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have now lost nine of their last twelve to push them to a 14-18 record and 10th place in a loaded Eastern Conference.
Their stretch of bad play has come with speculation that it is time for Canada’s only NBA team to engage in a full-scale rebuild.
What makes comments like these particularly interesting is that not too long ago, the Raptors appeared to be one of the most promising teams in the league.
What the heck happened? Why are they losing? And is it really time for a rebuild?
The Raptors are versatile … just not on offense
In today’s NBA, versatility is all the rage. However, when we think of versatility, we normally think of long, athletic wings and forwards who can defend multiple positions. This is a very defensively-slanted definition of the term. Offense also requires a level of versatility, particularly in the halfcourt.
The best halfcourt offenses can create advantages with multiple creators in multiple different ways. Think about the Boston Celtics. They can have Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, or Malcolm Brogdon create off the dribble. And they can do it via pick-and-roll, while curling off of a screen, in the dribble handoff game with a big man. The possibilities are endless.
The Raptors’ halfcourt offense doesn’t have nearly as many dimensions (hence why they are 28th in halfcourt efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass). When they can’t get out in transition, they are often relegated to arduous isolations (fourth in frequency) and post-ups (10th in frequency).
So why don’t they just incorporate more of Boston’s offensive sets?
There’s a common acronym used in basketball circles known as “KYP” – Know Your Personnel. The best coaches live and die by this principle. Don’t make your players fit your scheme. Make the scheme fit your players.
Coach Nick Nurse has been criticized in the past for his offenses’ lack of rigidity, and while some of these critiques are fair, his personnel does limit what he can do.
Toronto’s best players are robust and powerful forwards — think OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes. It is in their best interest to have them leverage their strength to muscle through defenders.
The problem isn’t that he’s not playing to his personnel’s strengths. It’s that their strengths are inefficient. The Raptors are 28th in points per possession (PPP) on isolations and 23rd on post-ups (per NBA.com).
The thing Nurse can do is make the events leading up to these plays more imaginative. All too often, we are forced to bear witness to dull backdowns (like the one highlighted below) that fail to fall under any of the four factors of an efficient post-up.
Until these play types become more efficient, Toronto’s only forms of consistent advantage creation rest in the hands of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.
VanVleet, after bursting into All-Star status last season, has experienced a regression in his 3-point shooting (down from 37.7 to 32.7 percent), which has mitigated his ability to warp defenses. Meanwhile, Siakam has been playing at superhuman levels, but unfortunately, the Raptors may be putting too much weight on Superman’s back.
The epitome of their over-reliance could be seen during their Monday night clash against the Philadelphia 76ers. Siakam fought tooth and nail to revive the Raptors from a 14-point deficit to force the game into overtime, scoring a then-season-high 38 points (including an elongated layup to tie the game with five seconds left).
But alas, when they got to overtime, the offense could only muster two points in five minutes because they couldn’t generate any transition opportunities, and the defense was able to load up on Siakam in the halfcourt.
The montage above is every offensive possession from overtime. Nearly every possession resulted in an inefficient shot of some sort. The only favorable looks were the two VanVleet 3s, but remember, he’s in the midst of a shooting slump!
VanVleet’s struggles extend across the entire team. Normally, massive reliance on a single star (i.e., heliocentrism) leads to, at the very least, passable offense. But the problem with Toronto is that teams can sink into the paint on drives without major consequences because the Raptors are currently dead-last in the league in 3-point percentage.
The Raptors defense is versatile, but not THAT versatile
We mentioned earlier how having rangy players who can defend multiple positions is a part of defensive versatility. The key word here being “part.” Matchup versatility is important, but it isn’t the only part of the equation.
The other portion of the formula is about the variety of styles a defense can play. Toronto has length and agility up the wazoo, and it unlocks a blitz and switch-heavy scheme akin to the SOS Pressure Defense of the 1990s Seattle SuperSonics.
This defense is great for the Raptors because it induces the turnovers they need to get out in transition. Toronto has the highest opponent turnover percentage in basketball. But their defensive rating is still only 18th, and it’s because this technique is not without its drawbacks.
For starters, such an aggressive style can be incredibly demanding on one’s body. Toronto’s core four — VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, and Barnes — are all in the top 20 in defensive distance traveled per game (per NBA.com). It can be difficult to maintain this type of intensity throughout an 82-game season, and it makes sense that many of the team’s key rotational pieces have missed time this year due to injury.
Further adding to their defense’s grueling nature, each possession requires pinpoint precision on rotations (because by blitzing the ball, you are automatically putting yourself in a 4-on-3 disadvantage), or the entire dance falls apart, leading to the concession of high-value shots. And as it stands, the Raptors are allowing a ton of these shots, posting the fourth-worst shot diet in the NBA (per Cleaning the Glass).
Lastly, just like the 1990s Seattle SuperSonics, the Raptors’ defense has a gimmicky quality. The more you see it, the easier it is to beat.
As a general rule of thumb, passing is the perfect counter against a blitzing defense. The basketball always travels faster than the humans on the floor, so by passing the ball enough, you can out-maneuver a scrambling defense.
Teams have figured this out with the Raptors, as evidenced by the fact that the team gives up the third-highest opponent assists per 100 possessions.
This does not mean that Toronto should do away with its exotic defense. They just need to sprinkle in other coverages to both give their players a break and give opposing offenses a different look.
The aforementioned Celtics deploy a dynamic switch-heavy scheme. But they can also lean on a more conservative drop coverage with their bigs Al Horford and Robert Williams III to help lessen the physical toll being placed on their personnel and give other teams another variable to consider as they map out their game plan.
So … the Raptors need to rebuild?
Wait, you just spent the last 1,200 words explaining everything wrong with Toronto. Why wouldn’t they rebuild?
Not to get too aggressive here (like the Raptors’ defense), but if Toronto needs to rebuild, then the entire process of rebuilding is pointless.
You rebuild to get talent-laden young players. Players like Pascal Siakam. Like OG Anunoby. Like the Reigning Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes. Toronto has the players that you rebuild to try and get.
What this team needs is to make tweaks around the margins. Look at the team we keep mentioning as the Platonic Ideal for team-building: the Boston Celtics. They were an uninspiring 17-19 when the calendar flipped to 2022. And what did they do? Started using Marcus Smart as their point guard on offense, incorporated more scram switching to keep Williams closer to the rim on defense, and acquired key contributors like Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon without forfeiting any of their core. And now, they’re the favorites to win the NBA title.
Toronto can seek to make similar changes. Schematic ones that add creativity to their offense and versatility to their defense, and personnel ones that give them more shooting and sources of advantage creation.
Whatever they do, they should not panic or become reactionary because, with a young core as talented as theirs, the last thing they need to do is launch a full-scale Raptor Rebuild.
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