By Austin Hutchinson
Last summer, this grand Toronto Raptors experiment appeared at a crossroads on the verge of growing stale.
The Raptors were tired of being good but not great but didn’t have a clear path forward that didn’t involve stripping the roster completely bare. So, Dwane Casey and co. decided to internally flip the switch and beat the modern NBA at its own game.
With ball movement.
Dwane Casey conjectured coming out of camp that… “There is something about touching the ball — there’s energy because you’re involved. So, sometimes you need to pass the ball for the sake of passing it.”
Even DeMar DeRozan, known as an isolation-heavy midrange marksman, embraced this new offensive philosophy.
“To take it to the next level, we have got to be able to move the ball, swing the ball, and that will add different elements to our game.”
Talk is cheap; but, these quotes proved to be more than fluff. Rather, prophecy.
The Toronto Raptors are now 41-16 after the All-Star break. They currently are two games ahead of the Boston Celtics for the first seed in the Eastern Conference, boasting the best home record (24-4) in the entire NBA. They are third in overall net rating (8.1), only trailing the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. They are both fourth in offensive rating (110.7) and defensive rating (102.6), ninth in pace, third in turnover percentage, and fourth in scoring efficiency. This team is performing like a finals contender, clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference.
How in the world did this happen?
Before the season started, the Raptors instituted a new practice regimen during scrimmages. Coach Dwane Casey would only count three-point shots and shots at the rim, taking away points for anything in between, sparking a new offensive strategy for the Raptors moving forward. It’s quite simple; move the ball and take efficient shots. And on defense, switch, switch, and switch some more.
One definite addition to the Raptors offense is the use of the Pick and Roll, especially by employing DeRozan as the ball-handler. Here, we see DeRozan break down the defense with Klay Thompson and Jordan Bell, both excellent on-ball defenders.
Even in this double off-side pick and roll action here, DeRozan cuts through the teeth of Cleveland’s defense, finding himself an easy lay in at the basket.
DeRozan is even getting looks off-ball that he wouldn’t even attempt in the past. Here, Raptors forward Pascal Siakam sets an off-ball pick for DeRozan to pop up for an open shot from deep.
DeRozan is s still an isolation heavy guard who prefers to create his own shot. But this year, he’s taking better shots while playing within Casey’s new offensive scheme. Per Cleaning the Glass, DeRozan has cut his midrange attempts by 13 percent and increased his three-point attempts by 10 percent. Essentially, DeRozan has cut off the middle man (long midrange shots) allowing for more efficient offensive production.
On the season, DeRozan is averaging 23.7 points per game, 3.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game while shooting 46 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep. He has the highest assists percentage of his career. Among all shooting guards, DeRozan is seventh in ESPN’s real plus-minus and third in offensive real-plus minus, trailing only Jimmy Butler and Lou Williams. He’s not the most efficient of scorers to say the least, but his ability to get a bucket when he wants to, while dishing the ball at a higher rate, makes him a very impactful player. (Yes, DeRozan has gravity too.)
Kyle Lowry’s willingness to be an off-ball threat from deep has transformed the Raptor’s offense. Lowry’s shot selection shows so. He takes 58 percent of his attempts from deep, ranking in the 88th percentile among other guards. 65 percent of his three-point shots are assisted, ranking in the 80th percentile among other guards. These are both career highs, indicative of Lowry’s new role within Casey’s system.
Lowry’s usage percentage has dropped to 22.4 percent, the lowest since his age 25 season, while playing only 32.1 minutes per game, his lowest since his age 26 season. From 2013 to 2017 he had averaged 37 minutes per game, shouldering one of the heaviest minutes load in the NBA. Lowry now has the opportunity to be fresh for the playoffs, something he hasn’t ever had the pleasure of.
Here Lowry comes off a Jonas Valanciunas screen for an open three off a pass from DeRozan at the top of the key, splashing it home.
DeRozan finds Lowry again off the pick and roll in the corner for an easy shot from downtown.
Lowry has even found himself cutting to the basket when his defender overplays his coverage. DeRozan finds him again for an easy layup.
Lowry is averaging 16.6 points per game, 5.7 rebounds, and 6.5 assists on the season, shooting 41.8 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from deep. Lowry is fifth in ESPN’s real plus-minus, at 4.05, trailing only Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Chris Paul. Though his defensive impact may not be the same as it was in year’s past, Lowry has also embraced his role within Casey’s offense excellently.
The Raptors are so much more than their two stars. Rookie OG Anunoby was thrown into the fire from day one and has shown himself to be a staple in Toronto. His ability to guard one through five defensively while being able to shoot efficient from deep, particularly from the corners, where he shoots 40 percent, is unheralded. Anunoby takes 30 percent of his shots from either corner, which ranks in the 93rd percentile among wings per Cleaning the Glass. It’s his speciality.
Here are three clips of him effortlessly hitting from the corners.
Anunoby is rarely caught off guard defensively and possesses elite lateral movement, able to switch multiple times a possession. His addition to the starting lineup is valuable from a defensive standpoint, allowing DeRozan to match up with the weaker offensive guard or wing.
Even though he’s only averaging 5.9 points while playing only 20.8 minutes per game, his contributions as a rookie are exceptional, his defensive versatility vital. However, he’s only as good as his role within the context of the system. (He’s *likely* not the next Kawhi Leonard).
Jonas Valanciunas is an excellent rebounder, screener, and inside defender. He has drastically improved from his struggles last season, finding new life in Casey’s offense. Serge Ibaka continues to be a very good shot blocker, averaging 1.3 blocks per game. Along with Jacob Poetl’s contribution of 1.2 blocks off the bench, the Raptors rank second in the NBA in blocks per game with 6, trailing only the Golden State Warriors.
And the bench? It’s played beyond expectations. Casey plays 11 deep, spreading out the minutes between Delon Wright, Pascal Sikiam, Fred VanFleet, C.J. Miles, Jacob Poetl, and Norman Powell. Nearly every single member has exceeded expectations, offering Casey lineup versatility and depth. Their second unit has played as one of the best in the NBA, sporting a 125.4 offensive rating, 94.3 defensive rating, a 31.1 net rating and a 65.3 true shooting percentage. The bench is just the icing on top of a team who is heading, no pun intended, north.
Even Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has recognized the work Dwane Casey has done in Toronto.
“Dwane is incredible. Not only have they tweaked some of the things they are doing on offense, but they have become more switch-oriented [on defense]. From an X’s and O’s standpoint, it’s obvious they are exceptionally well coached. But when you go even further and see how well the young players are playing, it’s a testament to the players but it’s also a testament to the environment.”
As the Toronto Raptors head out of the All-Star break, Casey is focused on refining the team, preparing them for a playoff run. With a new scheme that’s more likely to hold up against teams like the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors should find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals. They aren’t a gimmick, the Toronto Raptors are contenders.
“Everything we’re doing now is adding a few more set plays, more wrinkles in what we’re doing, thinking about the big picture at the end of the year — because that’s what we’re going to be measured on,” Casey said earlier this week.
The Raptors may have been quiet at the trade deadline and in the offseason, but they’re determined to stand still no longer.
*thanks to Basketball Reference, NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass, and 3Ball for all statistical and video content used.*