38 games into the season the Raptors have few things to complain about. Planted among the NBA’s elite with wins vs. the league’s best, the Toronto basketball club should enter the second half of the season confident.
However, we have seen this story before.
The regular season means nothing to any Raptors fan who has paid attention in the past few years. Given the level of talent and continuity in this roster, basketball before April simply serves as an acclimation and integration process for new pieces(Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard), into the team’s nucleus. In this first half of the season a few weaknesses have emerged.
New Years Resolution #1: Rebound The Ball
The Raptors need rebounding. Regardless of the league-wide shift to more mobile lineups, one of the Raps biggest weaknesses is their inability to secure the glass.
Raptors are 16th in the league in REB. While extremely skilled and defensively versatile, the Toronto starting lineup of Lowry, Green, Kawhi, Pascal and Ibaka is rather diminutive. They have also had tough time handling talented big men(Jokic, Whiteside), especially with JV out.
Toronto is 25th in the league in offensive rebounds allowed, 17th in OREB, and 23rd in REB%. It has been apparent from watching any game this season that the Raptors have struggled to finish defensive possessions, and regardless of how many tough shots they force, if they cannot secure the ball off the glass trouble will arise.
It is also important to note that two of the best rebounding teams in the league are likely their biggest competition in the East(Bucks-1st, Philly-4th). These teams both employ extremely physical and tall players, that wreak havoc and put significant pressure on the Raptors undersized starting 5.
While rebounding’s significance has faltered in recent years with the emergence of more spaced and skilled offensive lineups taking precedence, the Raps are currently operating at the worst of both worlds.
New Years Resolution #2: Make More Threes
The Raptors are currently 9th in the league in 3PA per game, but a staggering 23rd in the league in 3P%. An objective analysis of the stats would make one wonder how the Raptors have pushed themselves into title favorite position. A top 10 defense has helped, but cracks are beginning to emerge.
The Raptors are a mediocre 5-5 in their last 10, and have ceded first place to the surging Bucks. With the 76ers and Pacers right on there heels, along with a Celtic squad who have unlocked their superstar in Kyrie Irving, the Raptors are by no means secure in their position atop the East’s totem pole.
Injuries surely play a factor. Lowry, along with Kawhi, have missed significant time. JV’s dislocated finger will hurt the Raptors, as they have no real answer for any powerful center in the paint. Greg Monroe can be serviceable at times, but is a poor man’s JV on his best day.
This will be a testing few weeks for the Raptors, as key players will have to step up. Kawhi has done everything expected of him, averaging nearly 30 and 8 in 35 minutes in December. However, the drop-off is staggering after that point.
Ibaka has struggled from deep recently, shooting an abysmal 29% on almost 3 attempts per in December. This is a critical issue for a number of reasons. The only way employing a smaller center works vs. a larger stronger match-up, is if the smaller center can punish the defenses lack of mobility by knocking down shots from the perimeter.
Since Ibaka is shooting only 29%, teams are content to simply let him jack up triples from behind the arc, and then absolutely punish him on the other end. Watching the Raptors vs. the Heat(Dec 26th) gave the clearest illustration of this point.
Whiteside was content to let Ibaka shoot as much as he wanted in the PnP, and Serge got quite a few good looks. But regardless of how open those shots were, they were not as high percentage as Hassan in paint, converting 2 foot jump hooks over players 2 inches shorter than him, drawing fouls and offensive rebounds. As much as the game has evolved, the fundamental principle that the tallest dude on the court has an advantage still remains, especially if the shorter guy(Ibaka) can’t really shoot.
This is at the crux of the issue for the Raptors offensively, they can survive against some of the less established teams in the league, but vs. the top level clubs(as is always the case now-of-days), the Raps will constantly have a problem at center if Ibaka can’t hit him jumpers.
Without a viable jump shot he is operating at a deficit in almost every other aspect of the game( *defensive versatility switching out on smaller players). He isn’t the rim protector he once was, he is struggling to secure rebounds vs. Centers because he is undersized and he is getting punished by bigger centers in the paint defending post-ups.
From November vs. December Ibaka’s 3P% dropped 5.3%. This translated in a more than a 50% drop in his +/- from +14.8 to +7.0. Lowry’s injury aside, this illustrates the necessity for Ibaka to hit his threes when he gets them.
Serge’s three-pointers open the court up for everyone else. By running the common PnP action with Lowry or FVV, it creates space in the paint, as the Raptors rarely have less than 3 competent shooters on the court, and Pascal operates in that weird purgatory underneath the rim where he can punish help easily. With a wide open court from the opposing center and guard having to play tight to respect the jumper of Ibaka, lanes for other players to attack the rim become clear, and there superstars(mostly Kawhi) can isolate and dominate without worry of doubles or help defense.
Without Ibaka hitting the three consistently, the paint gets clogged, the PnP doesn’t work because the defenders in the action can ignore Serge, and the offense gets stagnant and relegated solely to the perimeter.
For New Years, everyone should be wishing for Ibaka to work on his jump shot, as him hitting from deep will be one of the most important components of this Raptors playoff run. This coupled with a quick recovery for JV, and focus on team rebounding should be at the top of Nick Nurses to-do list, and subsequently every Raptor fans hopes and prayers.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it.