Raptors Cage

The Unheralded Dilemma of Free Agency

What if I told you that the Toronto Raptors allowed the highest rate of three-point attempts to opponents throughout the entire NBA? To some, I imagine this is a bit of a surprise for a team that is second in defensive rating to the Milwaukee Bucks. However, similar to our two-time playoff opponents, this is all part of our defensive strategy. We want teams to beat us off of three-point shooting (which in itself is difficult given the second lowest 3P% averaged by rivals). Well, why would that be the case? The answer to that is that it is relatively impossible to effectively/efficiently score inside the three-point line.

When it comes to defence, Toronto ranks 5th in lowest two-point percentage and 3rd in rim protection (per CleaningTheGlass). Our defence tends to centre around two specific individuals; Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka. The goal of the perimeter players is to force the opponents to take two pointers. For example, if the rival ball handler is driving, whoever is on him would direct him right to whoever is manning the post on that possession. This is a tactic called funnelling, and the Milwaukee Bucks employ the same strategy considering the defensive dominance granted by the Lopez brothers, as well as Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Photo by Steve Russell, Toronto Star

This was most evident in the Minnesota Timberwolves game where D’Angelo Russell made his debut alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. Though the defence eventually found itself, for a good portion of the game they were discombobulated and extremely exploitable as they desperately scurried to adapt to a new scheme due to no real bigs. Both Ibaka and Gasol can protect the rim quite well, and they are both free agents this off-season. This is where the problem arises.

Despite being of advanced age, Gasol can still make quite the impact thanks to his passing, shooting, and, of course, his defence. This season Serge Ibaka has been scoring at a level we had never seen from him before. Given that this is a league stock-full of teams attempting to win-now and/or take that next step by any means necessary, it isn’t hard to imagine (one of) the two getting a contract that can provide them with financial security, and or a rather jaw-dropping amount of money (though these cases are more likely for Ibaka since he’s five years younger).

Photo by Sergio Estrada, USA Today Sports

Given the obvious interest the Raptors front office has in the 2021 free agency class, they could be hesitant to match whatever offers the two bigs have come their way. Note, I am not saying it is a sure thing that they aren’t in Toronto next season. Teams could be hesitant to give them an offer appealing enough that the Raptors won’t match, or the always-present scenario for any team that has appeased their players that they could end up taking on discounts for the organization they (may) have come to love. However, the possibility remains, and even if one of them leaves (which is fairly possible) then we will need to effectively address the loss.

There are three different ways to go about doing this: trades, free agents, and the draft. There are pros and cons to each, so let’s start with the draft. The best part of this is pretty evident, in my eyes. The team has no safe centre prospect. Sagaba Konate and Dewan Hernandez are flier projects, one still recovering from a very rough injury and the other (based on what I read) struggling in the GLeague. Chris Boucher is 27-years-old (likely around his peak) and weighs a measly 200 lbs, which makes him better suited as a forward if that consistency to his shot ever comes around. Serge and Marc are in their 30s, so a younger centre would need to come around eventually.

Photo by Stacy Bengs, AP Photo

In regards to this draft class it is often labelled as fairly weak. However, using this consensus mock draft composed by 119 users, there are a couple of bigs within a  five-pick range of where Toronto is currently projected to pick at that interest me (based on my readings). These names would be Daniel Oturu and N’Faly Dante, though Paul Reed with a bit more bulk could possibly do the job. Aside from that, there are not really any players within our range, and as someone like Oturu or even Reed’s stock grows higher than it even is our few options get even thinner.

Would I have a problem developing a big man? No. Would I prefer one that could slide into the Raptors defense relatively comfortably off the bench? For sure. Some of the ones I named above could do that, while having additional upside, but it may be difficult to get them. There is also the option to take another flier on an appealing prospect we could maybe get in the second round, though they may not be ready to step in at first. Luckily, the draft isn’t the only way to go about doing this. The trade market could be a source of other bigs, and there are a few shooters that I think are capable of protecting the rim competently enough.

Photo by David Sherman, NBAE via Getty Images

Naz Reid, Daniel Gafford, and, um…Mo Bamba? Masai would have to provide one of his most convincing pitches to date. The problem here is that while there are interesting targets, it’ll be hard to get one that works. Gafford and Reid are the furthest thing from guaranteed to prove effective right away, and given their age and upside, their teams would probably want to hold onto them (now imagine how high a Bamba price-tag would be). Options here are limited, as all targets will be either too valuable to their respective squads, or not effective enough to fill the role that we’d need them to. This ultimately leads us to free agency, the final option.

While the biggest name to be on the market in 2020 is Hassan Whiteside, as Anthony Davis is highly likely to remain a Laker, and Andre Drummond is reportedly planning accept his player option, that seems to be an odd statement. However, quality centres are abundant in the context of a bench role, and in the scenario that one of Gasol or Ibaka is kept, then properly filling in that backup role will comfort the blow immensely. “So who are these guys you’re thinking of, Kempton?”, you may be asking right now.

Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

Four players take the cake for this role, in my eyes; Nerlens Noel, John Henson, Ian Mahinmi, and Meyers Leonard. For Miami, Meyers Leonard has been a solid stretch big with rebounding and quality screening who could be a bench-anchor to their defence, as they often run the funnel scheme as well. While Noel isn’t the offensive player Meyers is, he has been establishing himself as a real force in Oklahoma as an unsung hero to their surprise season. Having played for the Cavaliers, and now the Pistons, Henson is still a positive defender but has not been in an environment that maximizes his ability. The same logic applies for Mahinmi, but on the (potentially historically) bad Washington defence.

All of these players have impressive D-PIPM, all have an impressive D-RAPTOR (aside from Meyers who has a neutral number), all own encouraging luck-adjusted D-RAPM numbers (aside from Mahnimi who is on the wrong side of that 0 number), and all possess impressive D-RPM ratings. RAD numbers aren’t too kind to Noel and Henson, though they are meant to be companions to the other types of metrics I’ve brought up. Statistically speaking, Nerlens Noel and John Henson were the only options positive in each statistic until RAD came around. However, against Henson and Noel, players shoot 12.6% and 9.6% worse, respectively, when shooting within six feet of the rim. As for Mahinmi, 8.3% worse. We won’t talk about Meyers if you catch my drift.

Photo by Morry Gash, The Associated Press

There is a clear top 3 here, and an even more obvious top 2. However, despite Meyers’ struggles, I do believe he has shown enough (this season) that he can protect the post competently enough when put in the right situations. Unfortunately, the Miami Heat defence has died down rather hard as the season has gone on. Mahinmi, though not on the statistical level of Henson and Noel, has been good enough. It is important to note how these players will be put in a position to succeed. With that being said, I’d be interested in any of these players, but Henson and Leonard possess the most upside in my eyes while Mahinmi comes in last for me.

There’s also the concept of signing a Harry Giles type player. Young, but not having proved to be fit for this role quite yet. A project that’s already in progress.

Alas, this is still far from a guarantee. As aforementioned, it is possible both Ibaka and Gasol stay, which is what I hope does end up happening. This is an aspect of this summer we should not overlook, as the way Toronto approaches the off-season is deeper than the whole Fred VanVleet saga we are set to face. I’m sure the front office has considered this, but the fan base should also be aware of a possibility that has been right in front of our eyes.

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