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What do the Raptors need to change after the All-Star break?

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors are 36-17 going into the 2015 NBA All-Star weekend, with their very own Kyle Lowry starting in the main event on Sunday. What else is impressive is that the Raptors are carrying their best record in franchise history going into all-star break, right on the path towards breaking the 50-win mark.

In 36 wins, and 17 losses, the Raptors have shown mostly ways of brilliance. However, they’ve also shown their young age, lack of experience, and inconsistency. We’ve also seen individuals either stepping up, overachieving, or falling significantly. Despite great positives, we analyze the major concerns for the Raptors, and what needs to change for them to make their final push towards the play-offs.

Currently, the Raptors are ranked 18th in defensive rating, and if that isn’t enough of an eye-opener, especially for a team that distinguishes themselves as a defensive team, than I don’t know what is. Not only do the Raptors allow teams to have high-scoring games, they haven’t been resistant against opposing teams in the paint. That clearly needs to be answered before they step onto the court next week, especially against the Atlanta Hawks.

How exactly can they change that? Well, number one, Coach Dwane Casey made one major adjustment, which has already proven its effect by the numbers in the last three wins – all against top teams in the league. James Johnson was inserted into the starting line-up, and the individual match-ups weren’t exploited as early as it was in the recent past. Especially when Greivis Vasquez was defending at the point of attack, or against two guards far quicker and or bigger than him. However, more changes need to be made; especially the effort of the team’s defence.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors have been up-and-down defensively, and if this was displayed on a chart quarter by quarter, the graph would be all over the place. The Raptors have been switching on all perimeter screens, which was a reason for some easy scores, and players getting into foul trouble. There were various situations where screens were being switched, and Jonas Valanciunas would end up guarding Jarrett Jack at the top of the 3-point line, or Kyle Lowry would be stuck trying to out-muscle Nene with his back-to-the-basket.

Neither of those scenes are ideal in any case, so why are the Raptors consistently finding themselves in bad situations? Only reasons to think of are either the unwillingness to fight through screens, or poor communication. Since their 13-3 start to the season, the defence had significantly dropped in it’s communication. They’ve got to start fighting through screens, blitzing, hedging, and communicating when things go array. The team had settled to turning it on and off.

Since already mentioning the “turning it on and off,” the Raptors have acted and played with an attitude as if they’ve already won an NBA championship; they’re only 19 games over .500. They’ve allowed teams to get back into games, and they’ve come back from large deficits. It’s allowed them to survive bad starts, but it’s also thrown great starts and great runs right out the window. A lot of what fans and analysts are seeing from the team when adversity hits is the team’s inability to have a consistent mindset and attitude; they’ve lost some of the hunger which made this team so dangerous. Again, the Raptors have proven to be one of the league’s best teams, but they’ve accomplished nothing but an un-guaranteed high seed in the temperamental Eastern conference. Their hunger must be revived in order for them to continue on the path that’ll lead them to success into the play-offs.

John E. Sokolowski
John E. Sokolowski

In terms of individual defence, Jonas Valanciunas needs to see the fourth quarter. This is probably the biggest hack at Dwane Casey despite coaching the team to it’s greatest season in franchise history. A lot of the time, Coach Casey has been going with the match-ups, but when Jonas Valanciunas has had a stellar game, he’s plugged on the bench in dying minutes of a close game. Casey adjusts to other teams, he doesn’t make other teams adjust.

Valanciunas is the team’s best rebounder, and has become an absolutely force in the paint defensively. Example, the San Antonio Spurs game, where the Spurs shot 1-of-8 in the fourth quarter in the paint when he was in the game. Valanciunas has developed nicely on both ends of the court, and was a silent rob in playing on Sunday’s main event. He needs minutes, not only for his development, but because of his impact on a game. If the Raptors want consistency defensively, it might be best to play your anchor when he’s needed most.

The Raptors have also made strides offensively, but at the cost of their defence. They’ve played at a much faster pace since DeRozan’s injury, and little change has occurred since DeRozan’s return. The Raptors are in the bottom half of the league in terms of pace of play, but in the month of November – arguably their most consistent month of play – were ranked 23rd in the league in pace of play. Pace affects one team’s defence, mainly based on possessions, and energy used on one side of the floor. The Raptors have lost a lot of energy defensively, because in turn it was spent offensively. A higher pace of play means more shots, and even a higher number of turnovers. In November, the Raptors were one of the best in taking care of the ball, 11th in the league in turnover percentages at 15.4.

Courtesy of supervancouver.com
Courtesy of supervancouver.com

That great turnover percentage was a result of slow play, especially when DeRozan is the number one option offensively – a player who slows down the game in the low-post, and is exceptional off-the-ball. DeRozan’s injury came along, and players were temporarily promoted to being more offensive minded. Assists numbers rose, but at the cost of defence, and turning the ball over a ton. In the months of December and January, they dropped in turnover percentages to 16th, and 18th in the league respectively. Turning the ball over had them wasting away possessions, and again, giving easy opportunities and more possessions for the opposition.

Despite having terrific numbers offensively, and being ranked 9th in the league in offensive rating, the Raptors volatile offence has relied on limited options; isolation basketball, and constant high screen and rolls. It has had its success, but when the Raptors aren’t running on the break, or aren’t getting the movement off the ball – especially during DeRozan’s injury – they’ve settled for the stagnancy that the isolations and P-&-R’s cause. When Lou Williams isn’t making shots, or Greivis Vasquez and Lowry are getting blitzed with the hedge the offence is, to say the least, bad.

With DeRozan in the line-up, the eye test suggests that the Raptors are moving the ball better, and the movement is improving, but there is much more to build on. That includes feeding Valanciunas in the post, and allowing DeRozan to work with his back-to-the-basket, where he’s drawn a multitude of fouls and has had success consistently. With guys posting up, it forces the defence’s attention towards one side of the floor, which will allow players on the other side of the floor to cut in and towards the basket, and with heads turned, it can open up second chance opportunities. With great rebounders like Amir, Valanciunas, James Johnson, and even Lowry who is one of the best rebounding point guards in the league, it’s a style of play that they should invest in for the future.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Another major concern offensively is the attempted three point shots, which has taken a major rise in the recent month. From already being ranked high at 12th in November and December, in January, their attempts rose significantly, going 8th in the league that month. Now, they have ranked 10th in their makes during January, but it’s obvious that these statistics are exemplifying the Raptors’ reliance on perimeter shooting. The Raptors have gotten to the free-throw line at a solid rate, which is probably what makes up for the team’s multiple jump-shots. We’ve seen at times the Raptors go on cold-shooting stretches and major droughts, to where the team starts to run through the motions.

An example, was the recent game against the Washington Wizards, where they shot an abysmal percentage from the floor, in which most shots came from mid-ranged and the perimeter. Jump-shot after jump-shot, it allowed the Wizards to stay put defensively, and not have to move too far and wide to secure rebounds, allowing them to quickly get out on the break. As a result, John Wall was down the other end before the team reached half-court. Jump-shots are great when they’re falling, but relying on them can force stagnancy, easy run out opportunities, and allow teams to stay home and set their defence. The answer for this is to force the action into the paint, which will get the opposition into more foul trouble, a part in which the Raptors are already one of the best at.

Terrence-RossTerrence Ross has to find himself as a player. It’s easy to note how he’s been awful in many games, and spectacular in some. It’s also easy to note his messy statistics. Really, for Ross to find consistent minutes, he must develop a defence-first game, and to develop a blue collar, hard working mentality. Ross has been known to be the team’s analytic “3-&-D” player, but since his struggles on both ends, he was plugged onto the bench in January. There are games Ross has been on fire from the perimeter, and games where Ross has done an impressive job defensively; he’s proven his talent, and his capability to be a key cog to the team’s success. He just needs to understand what his role is. They use the saying for James Johnson, and it might be the right one for Ross as well: “stay in your lane.”

The Raptors organization has some time to enjoy the satisfaction of their current record, before they have to put all that aside and step into the un-official second half of the season. This is the final part of the season to put their stamp on the league, and where they’ll find themselves in the play-offs. Like we mentioned, the Raptors have many eye-opening issues, but very simple answers for their complicated problems. Defensive concerns will be a minimal if they continue to stay hungry and play hard for 48 minutes while slowing the pace down. They’re turning their efforts on and off too often, which is putting them into bad situations that affect the entire course of the game. Offensively, the Raptors have to find the proper spacing, and start to infuse more off-the-ball movement and involvement into the post to avoid stagnancy and their high turnovers.The 3 games against the Clippers, Spurs, and Wizards exemplify what the Raptors need to do to get big wins.

hi-res-186583895-jonas-valanciunas-of-the-toronto-raptors-defends_crop_exactThe Raptors’ issues have been big, but they’ve been able to carve out a nice spot by beating teams they’re supposed too, and handing other great teams numbers in the loss column. The inexperience and missing parts of their system have shown in the 53 games they’ve played, but, if they improve upon their issues with the mentioned suggestions, they should be able to improve, and continue in their uphill ride towards the play-offs.

Enjoy the all-star break fellas, because it’ll be shorter than you might think. The Hawks are right around the corner, and that game itself will prove if the Raptors will be ready to face the challenges the second part of the season will offer.

 

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