Everything north of the border felt so predictable last April. A raucous crowd outside the Air Canada Centre, complete with chill-inducing panoramic camera views of playoff basketball broadcasts. High expectations and anticipation of the improvements brought forth, with the T-Dot faithful hoping this would be the year only to have the offense that carried the Toronto Raptors throughout the regular season suddenly sputter and crash along with their playoff hopes.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both froze under the lights and have gotten the to the Eastern Conference Finals only once in four-straight years of postseason appearances. A team as dynamic as Toronto’s, with two dominant scorers, shouldn’t have been as predictable offensively in a seven-game series as they were.
Coach Dwane Casey took the loss to heart this summer, succumbing to critics and redesigning the team’s offensive attack to further emphasize the three-point shot and take away the mid-range-heavy shot selection of his star backcourt. The sets may not look completely different, and the personnel hasn’t changed much at all, but these Raptors are firing on all cylinders with a revamped shot selection and greater reliance on their depth.
It takes a lot of stones to want to bring widespread change to an offense that finished sixth in the regular season in offensive rating, but Casey and President Majai Ujiri knew it was necessary. The tweaks have been more major than they appear: Toronto has increased its passing metrics across the board. NBA.com’s stats bureau tallies up secondary assists, or hockey assists, which are passes that lead to an assist. This year the Raptors are sixth in the league in secondary dimes; last season they were 27th.
Logistically, extra passes occur when the floor is spaced appropriately around the perimeter and pressure is put on help defenders to gravitate towards the ball. Coaches call these “scramble situations,” where the defense’s normal one-on-one matchups are useless and the defense must rotate in a frenzy to stop the ball. That spacing on the perimeter helps make individual defenders struggle to find the right rotation in their split-second of time to react to the play while willing passers around the perimeter get the ball to the right player to score:
These situations only start with penetration closer to the rim, either by drive or pass. You’ll notice how open the lane is in these scenarios, with one player on the interior to put pressure on the rim and the backline of the defense, while shooters surround the play at the three-point line.
Compare the spacing there to the clunky sets that flowed out of the mid-range last season with 15-foot sniper DeMar DeRozan constantly gunning for his. Many of the Raptors sets were designed around throwing the ball into DeRozan, cramping spacing on the weak side and providing zero windows for him to rifle the rock if defenses collapsed on him:
Focusing on the result of the play is like being satisfied with Fool’s gold. Toronto has a lot of really good players and was going to produce good results no matter what the play design was. Still, sets like this were bogging down the flow of the offense and the movement of the ball.
By clearing DeRozan out of the mid-range for stand-still post-ups or curling every down screen ever set for him, the ball has gained a great deal of energy on the Raptors offensive side of the floor. Toronto’s effective field goal percentage is up to 55.7 percent at about the quarter-way mark of the season and good for third in the NBA. A Casey-coached team has never finished a season above 52 percent.
Casey has fully committed himself and his team towards the design of the offense being more perimeter-oriented. With 31.7 three-point attempts a game this season to only 24.3 a season ago, the Raptors are adding nearly three more points per game simply with shot selection. Per Cleaning the Glass, a robust 34.8 percent of Toronto’s attempts come from three, up from 26.4 percent a season ago, turning them from a bottom-10 team in terms of volume into a top-five one.
Statistician Steve Shea recently did a fascinating study about how team’s offenses would look if they had the shot selection of the Houston Rockets, and the Raptors rated in as having the third-fewest points added per game by taking those shots. Why? Casey already has Toronto gunning shots like they’re Houston-East, passing up contested mid-range twos in favor of shots that might yield the extra point.
DeRozan looks more comfortable in an off-ball role than anticipated, spotting up and knocking down threes from the corners and even on the wings. A career-high 17 percent of DeRozan’s attempts are coming from downtown (still a relatively low mark for wings, but a far cry from the eight percent he averaged a season ago). He’s been solid in the corners, too, knocking them down at a 35 percent rate.
What does DeRozan’s new receptiveness to playing off the ball and lighting it up from deep do to the rest of the offense? It allows Kyle Lowry to have a bit more space in the pick-and-roll and other teammates to play to their strengths. Rookie OG Anunoby, an inconsistent three-point shooter at best, can backdoor from one corner and not run into traffic because DeRozan is waiting in the opposite one:
Lowry and DeRozan have both struggled on an individual basis to assimilate to this system, which is more than understandable. Two players used to pounding the rock the entire game now each spend more time without the ball in their hands. Each make up a smaller slice of the pie when it comes to total offense and both are searching to find comfort and consistency in knowing when to attack and when to defer to simple ball movement.
A look at simple stats between the two seasons shows how different things are for these two. Their shot attempts are down each game, decreasing from a combined 36.2 attempts to 28.7 attempts per game.
Lowry in particular has struggled to adjust this season, but the hope is that a slow down in regular season usage rate will keep both he and his backcourt counterpart fresher for a postseason run. Both seemed to run out of gas last Spring, as they did a year earlier, after carrying a massive burden in offensive creation. And in crunch time, with important games on the line, Casey can go right back to dialing up play calls that puts his star scorers into familiar territory.
First and foremost though, the offense is improving despite the lack of production at the top because of the ascent of Toronto’s role players. Their bench has been really freaking good (and fun) while role players like Jonas Valanciunas (even HE is taking threes) and Norman Powell help to balance out the starting unit. Casey has maneuvered around his bench and starting rotations earlier in games; Big Jonas is only playing 20 minutes per game, sharing the center spot with sophomore Jakob Poeltl and shot blocker Bebe Nogueira. C.J. Miles is coming off the bench and launching like a start-up in Silicon Valley, attempting more shots per minute than Andrew Wiggins.
Every role player simply looks more comfortable than they did last season. Pascal Siakam, an uncomfortable rookie just a season ago banished to the corner to stay out of the way, has blossomed into a serviceable playmaker at the frontcourt spot. Just a season ago, plays like this seemed incomprehensible out of Siakam:
Now he’s more than filled in for the absence of Patrick Patterson. Siakam may only be shooting a meager 23 percent from three, but he’s tearing it up inside the arc with a 70 percent two-point field goal percentage and, according to Cleaning the Glass statistics, is shooting a ludicrous 82 percent at the rim. Pascal has shown the ability to stretch the floor and as his metrics from deep improve, he’ll be a difficult matchup for many big men in the Eastern Conference.
Before hurting his wrist, Delon Wright became a legitimate weapon off the bench. The slashing guard is such a tough matchup; he gets to the rim at will yet has been efficient creating for others and knocking down open shots. He can play at the 2 while also leading the bench unit while Lowry rests. He’s another guy who has been shooting north of 70 percent inside the arc, benefiting from the greater spacing of this Raptors’ offense.
Perhaps no player has overachieved more than rookie OG Anunoby, who looks like a steal. The super-wiry wing out of Indiana slipped down draft boards due to his reconstructed knee, despite what seemed like a unanimous acknowledgment of his game-changing potential on defense. There were flashes of raw athleticism and defensive instincts reminiscent of Kawhi Leonard.
Yet Anunoby fell to the Raps with the 23rd overall pick and they wasted no time in swooping him up. OG returned before the start of the season and has been more than impressive on both ends of the court. He’s been a positive on the defensive end nearly every game, providing the missing link on the wings that many feared might not exist following DeMarre Carroll’s departure. He’s shot the ball at a high rate, knocking down just under 40 percent of his threes. Anunoby has also been relatively mistake-free for a rookie wing. He’s on pace, according to basketball-reference’s season-finder, to be the first rookie since Harvey Grant in 1988-89 to have at least two assists and fewer than one turnover per 36 minutes while also boasting a usage rate above 10 percent.
Rookies usually only make the simple play and the revitalization of Toronto’s three-point shooting has certainly made everyone more comfortable with clear reads as the ball zips to them around the perimeter. Anunoby continues to scramble defenses with re-penetration, essentially attacking the help defense for a second time after they’ve already tried like hell to settle the ball. Shooting threes is all well in good, but attacking the rim and getting dump-down dunks will always be the most efficient way to score:
More than ever before, Masai Ujiri has assembled a complete cast of players capable of providing solid minutes in a postseason series. Those Nuggets teams that helped land him the job in Toronto were so incredibly well-rounded, but none of those featured the great deal of young players providing spot minutes. Anunoby, Wright, Siakam, Norman Powell, Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl… they’re all still on rookie deals and still have a ton of untapped potential.
Thinking about this season, Toronto will keep humming along, figuring out how to adjust to this new scheme and getting the right shots for their team as a whole. Lowry and DeRozan will continue to adjust, as will Casey to his rotations and use of his now-bountiful bench.
These offensive adjustments have answered one of the biggest questions coming into the season: Could the Raptors be maxed out with this core?
Clearly, there’s more juice in the tank here as both Lowry and DeRozan have improvements to find as they grow into their roles in the Raptors’ attack. The biggest questions about sustainability shift away from the on-court production and towards the front office as Toronto seeks to duck the luxury tax moving forward.
This is where strong production of their youngsters provides both opportunities and frustrations with how the front office proceeds. This season, they’re ducking the luxury tax by about $2 million and are a crisp $8 million below the tax apron. That number should balloon up over the next few seasons; after incorporating Norman Powell’s new extension to their salary sheets, the Raptors appear over the luxury tax before dealing with impending restricted free agents Lucas Nogueira, Fred VanVleet and Bruno Caboclo. Things won’t get much cleaner in 2019-20, with the Raptors already up against the tax and having to deal with Delon Wright’s new contract that summer.
Toronto is currently hard-capped, meaning they cannot exceed that tax apron until July. But Cory Joseph’s trade to the Pacers in the Miles-Joseph pseudo-swap this summer created a $7.63 million trade exception that fits perfectly with the $8 million below the hard-cap they are. Should Ujiri decide to be aggressive in chasing a top spot out East, he could use that spot to absorb a cagey veteran on an expiring deal to boost Toronto’s playoff depth and chances. Both Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli from Atlanta could be available for a reasonable price. Lou Williams could return to his old stomping grounds if the Clippers continue their free fall and decide to strip down their assets. Other veterans like Thabo Sefolosha and Brandan Wright could be available for very cheap prices.
The benefits of all those players mentioned above: zero guaranteed dollars next season, allowing Ujiri to compete now while ducking the tax later. The way he structured his team’s salary situation has been nothing short of genius, and the play of all their youngsters buys him some time to figure out which buttons to press moving forward.
One of the heavily rumored moves he could make involves trading away Jonas Valanciunas to help chip away those long-term costs and free up space to retain Lucas Nogueira. A move of Jonas seems unlikely simply because that contract is not a friendly one to absorb, his skill set isn’t one many teams are in dire need of, and those two factors mean Toronto would have to take back something less-than-ideal in any trade involving him.
Now the focus shifts to clearing space long-term to retain Lucas Nogueira, a serviceable shot blocker, or cutting him loose for something of value. Thankfully for Ujiri, that decision doesn’t have to be made until July; he can ride it out this season, use the trade exception to bring in some immediate help, and have enough flexibility next summer to restructure the roster against the looming tax ramifications.
Things are pretty dang good in Toronto, both in the short-term and long-term. Their offense looks beautiful and they’re incorporating all of their pieces greater than ever before. Ujiri will continue to make things work from the front office andCasey is finally pulling his weight here too.