The Toronto Raptors are currently 10-6, but it’s been a roller coaster ride thus far. They opened the season on an incredibly strong note, going 5-0 with impressive wins against the likes of the Dallas Mavericks and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Following the strong start were three consecutive losses, along with injuries to both DeMarre Carroll and Terrence Ross. The next seven games were followed up with a mediocre 4-3 record, where they dropped three straight in the first games of the Western road trip. They managed to salvage the trip with back-to-back wins against the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Los Angeles Clippers. However the Raptors would had a major setback, with Jonas Valanciunas going down with a big hang injury, who will miss significant time throughout the end of November, into December.
Throughout the mess the Raptors have had to scrap through, in terms of their awful schedule to start the season, there have been important captures in their play. They’ve shown good and bad habits on both ends, and trends through the first 16 games that will have both a positive and negative impact on the organization’s success.
We’ll start with the good; so far, the Raptors are one of the best defensive teams in the league; a lot of thanks to DeMarre Carroll‘s presence on the floor, and Kyle Lowry‘s new found quickness and athleticism. According to NBA.com, the Raptors are sitting at a 99.5 defensive rating; 8th in the entire league behind the likes of the reigning champs in the Golden State Warriors, and the San Antonio Spurs.
Looking at DeMarre’s effectiveness via the on/off-court comparison, the Raptors are obviously much better with him on the floor with a 96.8 defensive rating, verses off the floor with a 101.2 defensive rating. Throughout his time out, based off the eye test, the team lost much of the defensive toughness they demonstrated in their hot start; Carroll’s effect is based on his defensive IQ. Not only does he guard the best player on the opposing team, he also is a fantastic help and rotation defender, and an excellent communicator.
Along with Carroll, the Raptors have a better defensive rating of 98.4 when Lowry is on the floor, verses when he’s off at 102.5. Also, in traditional defensive statistics, the Raptors average a whooping 7.6 steals, and 2.7 blocks when he’s on the floor, versus 1.5 steals and 0.9 blocks when he’s off the floor. Also, Kyle Lowry has the third biggest impact of any player in the entire league through plus-minus metrics, not only demonstrating how he’s the Raptors’ biggest success factor offensively, but arguably the team’s best defensive player.
The Raptors have great individual defenders, which has boosted the team defensive system – the effect of Carroll and Lowry have been contagious. Overall, the team is 5th in the league in opposing points per game. With wins, they limit teams to shoot 41% from the field, six percentage points better than in losses, and nearly eight percentage points better in wins than losses at 41% from the perimeter.
Other very positive trends relate to the bench play, particularly Cory Joseph, and Bismack Biyombo, and the Raptors’ rebounding.
Cory Joseph has taken over the team’s best guy off the bench, not just through his scoring, but his defensive ability, and the pace at which he plays at. Again, looking at NBA.com’s statistics, with Joseph on the floor, the Raptors are significantly better; 3.6 +/- on the floor, verses 0.9 +/- when off. The team also shoots more free throws, rebounds the basketball and scores at a higher level when he’s on the floor. A lot of his effectiveness comes when playing alongside Lowry; Joseph is so good defensively, he’s able to match-up against slightly bigger guards, and offensively, rarely turns the ball over, also allowing Lowry to go into scoring more, creating more offensive options on the floor.
Biyombo on the other hand, has added major factors to the second unit – and now the starting unit with Valanciunas’ injury. Dwane Casey calls Biyombo the team’s “best communicator,” and contagiously affects the others around him with his energy. His help defense is almost second to none, and is a vicious shot blocker and screen setter. He doesn’t finish very well around the rim when it isn’t a dunk, but is a powerful rebounder, especially on the offensive glass, and gets fouled often sending him to the free throw line.
Last season, Toronto was ranked 26th overall in rebounding – 27th in defensive rebounding, and 15th in offensive rebounding. The roster last season gave up way too many extra possessions to the opposition, and rarely went for their own extra possessions. It showed itself to be a major issue in the playoffs, resulting as one of the burdens in the Raptors’ poor performance against Washington.
This season, through 15 games, Toronto is tied at 11th for overall rebounding in the league – 16th in defensive rebounding, and 7th in offensive rebounding. 16th in defensive rebounding isn’t great, especially for a team hoping to be labelled a contender, but in comparison to the 2014-2015 season, it’s night and day to where the Raptors have come. A lot of it has to do with Dwane Casey’s identity returning towards the defensive end, but also because of the new individuals Masai Ujiri went out to acquire.
The biggest and most concerning negative is the Raptors’ offence; it is bad.
The offense for the Raptors is a complete mess; they are ranked in the top half -15th – in the league in scoring, but that comes with a lot of perplexity.The team is 28th in assists per game, 23rd in field goal percentage, and 20th in the league in least turnovers per game. Now, they do have some solid stats to build on: 15th in three-point shooting, and the best team in the league at getting to the free-throw line, but those come with a story.
The Raptors take very few threes, 22nd in the league, offering a small sample size, and the free-throws come from a lot of isolation play.
Despite adding in Joseph and Carroll who come from very ball-moving-friendly systems, and Scola who as a veteran is supposed to add a ton of offensive control, the Raptors still lack ball movement, and rely heavily on their running game, or off-ball cuts from Carroll when they aren’t running a pick-&-roll, or isolation.
In connection to Carroll offensively, he’s shown that he’s had to do much more than he was expected to. With DeRozan and Lowry a lot of the times clearing the space for themselves, or throwing the ball in Valanciunas waiting for him to do something with it, a lot of the time the others are waiting for the ball to come to them, or for something to happen. There’s very little intent in the offence if the other four players do not have the ball in their hands. Carroll has bailed DeRozan out of very many isolation positions, in what most of the time looks to be a turnover, ends up in a surprise play where Carroll catches an impossible jump-pass from DeRozan.
What’s even funnier, is when the Raptors are moving the ball, it’s almost for absolutely nothing. They move the ball side to side, but without any intention to score, especially when the movement doesn’t involve anything on the inside; perimeter players are able to rotate and switch off, unless the defense totally breaks down and miscommunicates. Essentially, the Raptors offence is terrible, a lot of that has to do with the defensive focus since training camp, and maybe some of it has to do with Casey’s inability to create a functioning, consistent offence. There has to be change.
Through a 10-6 record, the Raptors have been able to fight through a tough schedule to start, which can be very satisfactory, especially with individuals playing exceptionally well. But, the offence and trend at which it operates is very discouraging, mainly because historically, it has affected the other end of the court. Things need to change quickly. Despite a defense keeping the team afloat, without a solid, well-oiled functioning offence, or one at least that does not rely so heavily on isolation down the stretch and players with the ball, they are going to struggle in a half-court game.
Hopefully, Casey makes some changes to the offensive identity, because we are seeing the same trends as last season. If there aren’t any changes, expect the same results. Through 16 games, it is hard to make meaningful conclusions. However, we’ve seen iso-ball hurt the Raptors before, and in a game like basketball, if the negatives outweigh the positives, it makes it difficult to sustain any sort of success.