The Toronto Raptors are not exactly rife with offensive talent.
When the team lost offensive mastermind Kyle Lowry this offseason and replaced him with three relatively raw youngsters in the rotation in Scottie Barnes, Dalano Banton, and Precious Achiuwa, they became a radically different team. Not only are all of those players known more for their defence than offence, but none of them have a reliable three-point shot and none of them are known as self-creators — people who can create an advantage to either score or make plays for their teammates. To make matters worse, the Raptors lost their best offensive player to start the season as Pascal Siakam recovers from shoulder surgery.
So, considering the lack of offensive talent, how do the Raptors have a league-average offensive rating of 105.4 through seven games? How do they have a 4-3 record despite shooting just 32.5 percent from beyond the arc? It’s a small sample size, of course, but watch closely and you’ll notice that the team has restructured its offence around its new personnel.
Everyone has been focusing on the Raptors' defence this season and justifiably so given that it has the seventh-best defensive rating in the NBA and ranks second in the league in steals. Nick Nurse has always been good at getting the most out of his team on the defensive end, building systems that fit his personnel. In the past it's been with aggressive schemes that double-teamed stars and rotated on a string, and this season it's by simplifying it and switching ball-screens, getting the most out of this young, long, and mobile group.
But offensively is where Nurse’s teams have struggled a bit in years past. Last season, the Raptors were simply too reliant on three-point shooting, with 40.6 percent of their shots coming from beyond the arc. It led to an extremely high-variance offence that took the saying "it’s a make or miss league" to its logical conclusion, as the Raptors shot 40.9 percent from three in their 27 wins and just 34.4 percent from three in their 45 losses.
This season is different. Only 35.5 percent of the Raptors' shots are coming from three — the fifth-lowest frequency in the league — where they have converted only 32.5 percent of those looks. They are shooting way more from midrange this season at 34 percent of their shots despite Nurse’s teams never shooting more than 29.8 percent of their shots from there before, and that was during Kawhi Leonard’s season in Toronto. And this year’s Raptors team is somehow getting to the rim exactly as much as it did last season at 33.4 percent of their shots despite losing Lowry and Siakam, the two players that put the most pressure on the rim. They have a balanced attack, with four players averaging between 13.6 and 18.1 points per game.
The question is: how are they doing it?
In short, the Raptors are taking advantage of their size and smarts. After all, they are a walking mismatch, with the average player being 6-foot-6.7 and 209.5 pounds with a 6-foot-10.2-inch wingspan. And not only are they bigger than most other teams, they are also much more physical and aggressive in taking it to their opponents.
One way that size presents itself is on the offensive glass. After ranking 18th last year in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing 25.6 percent of their misses, the Raptors are sending bodies to the boards on almost every offensive possession, grabbing 34.5 percent of potential offensive rebounds, tied for first in the league with Memphis. Barnes and Khem Birch have been leading the way, each averaging 3.0 offensive rebounds per game. And while offensive rebounding might not be the sexiest statistic, last year’s champions, the Milwaukee Bucks, were the No. 1 offensive and overall rebounding team in the playoffs among those that advanced beyond the first round.
“We think we’ve got a lot of guys that can offensive rebound, we’ve got some size and athleticism and length and, it’s kind of one of those weird things in coaching where, yeah, we do block out drills and we say, ‘hey we want to get on the glass,’” Nurse said. “We’re trying to do a little bit more of that this year.”
Between the offensive rebounds and their 11.1 steals per game, the Raptors are winning the possession battle most games, and that is giving them a chance to win despite a lack of high-end offensive talent and struggles in transition, where they are scoring just 1.1 points per 100 possessions (compared to 4.4 last season).
“Just making sure we get more [possessions] is always our No. 1 goal. Whoever has more possessions, more shots, is a huge determinant in winning,” Nurse said.
“We want to try to get at least plus-five [possessions]. That’s a number that most of the analytics say that once we get to that number, the chances of winning improve greatly.”
The other thing the Raptors are doing is taking advantage of their smart players. After all, the team drafted two really high-feel players in Barnes and Banton, and often have five guys on the court who all read the game at a high level. Accordingly, they have introduced an egalitarian, motion-based offence that puts guys in good positions to succeed, confuses defences, and creates mismatches for the Raptors to take advantage of. Of course, as is the case with any young team, the results haven’t always been great, but the process has been promising.
Instead of spamming pick-and-rolls — a play type they have used the least in the league — or playing isolation basketball, the Raptors rank second in the league in dribble-handoff frequency and are scoring in the 86th percentile in the play type at 1.14 points per possession, getting their wings the ball with a head of steam going downhill, putting them in positions to use their size and speed to get to the rim without having to break their opponent down off the dribble.
“It helps our team: Me going downhill, being able to go to the basket, being aggressive, finishing at the rim,” Barnes said. “It helps people collapse and then if they collapse too much I'll be able to kick out and things like that.”
Another thing the Raptors are doing is setting a lot more off-ball screens than we have seen in the past, with weak-side movement distracting defenders from the primary action. In the play below, VanVleet sets an off-ball screen for Barnes to cut across the baseline to his favourite spot in the post where the screen has given him enough space to receive the ball in good position to score.
These off-ball screens create a difficult dilemma for the defence: If the Pacers switch the screen, Barnes would have even more of a mismatch in the post, which is something we have seen a lot of this season with him and OG Anunoby, who is posting up on 10.0 percent of his possessions. And a lot of these mismatches are a result of the opposing defences just not having enough big bodies to match up with the Raptors' wings and trying to hide smaller defenders elsewhere.
“We’re doing it a little bit more, I think,” Nurse said about mismatch-hunting. “I wouldn’t say it’s something we’re trying to do all the time. I think it’s something we’re trying to do a bit. So, somewhat aggressively?”
Finally, the Raptors are cutting more than they did last season, and a lot of that is just instinctual based on having high-feel players on the court. In the case of Barnes and Banton, without a reliable three-point shot they need to move around and make themselves available rather than just stand around the perimeter where they do not pose a real threat.
Barnes, whose scoring has been one of the biggest revelations this season, credits the improved spacing in the NBA for his ability to already have more 15-plus point games in the NBA than he did in 24 games at Florida State University. And Fred VanVleet and Anunoby deserve a ton of credit for Barnes’ success, as he appears no higher than third on the scouting report and usually has room to go one-on-one with a lot of the defensive attention focused on the two veterans.
“At this level, they can't really help so much because you have so many shooters everywhere. The floor spacing is so much bigger, of course you're gonna be able to get to spots easier,” Barnes said.
All of this should make for an interesting transition period when Siakam returns to the fold. After all, Siakam is also a guy who likes the ball in the post and who would seem to take away from the egalitarian offence given how skilled he is. But on the positive side, Siakam should see less attention from defences now that Barnes, VanVleet, and Anunoby all have it going, so he could be able to increase his efficiency while playing more within the flow of the offence.
In conclusion, the Raptors are a radically different team this season, especially on the offensive end. And while it hasn’t always looked pretty, the fact they have been able to maintain a decent offensive floor without Siakam or good transition play is a good sign of things to come.
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