When the Toronto Raptors drafted Scottie Barnes fourth overall at the 2021 NBA Draft, they shocked the world – not because Barnes was undeserving of a top-four selection, but because his counterpart, Jalen Suggs, was picked by the consensus to don a dinosaur this season.
Also, with this pick, the Raptors revealed how their roster would be reconstructed following a rambunctious season in Tampa. The traditional NBA lineup consisting of a six-foot-tall table-setting point guard and an inhumanely large center to live within the restricted area on both sides of the court was killed by the Golden State Warriors dynasty and their uber-successful small-ball philosophies. While the rest of the league attempted to construct something similar, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster had other plans.
The NBA is a copycat league, and to adopt the same roster-building ideologies as 29 other teams, then expect to win an NBA title with an inferior level of talent than large-market super-teams have at their disposal would be naïve. Rather than trying to sail in the same waters as the S.S. Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, or Warriors and beat them to the finish line using a wooden boat, the Raptors found a new river to glide down: one all to themselves.
Tall, long, athletic, and versatile wings are heralded by many as the most valuable players in the modern NBA. If guys like Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and now Scottie Barnes all fit the archetype of the league’s preeminent asset, then why not deploy all three of them at once? Immediately after drafting Barnes, Bobby Webster told the Canadian media that he wants “all five guys [to look like] OG and Pascal.”
A traditional basketball theorist can easily poke caveats in such an unprecedented assortment of players, beginning with their presumed incapability of defending traditional centers in the paint. The innovative theorist would counter that offensively, with a strong and long wing at the center position, the Raptors would be posing as much of a mismatch to their opponent on the perimeter as they would be dealing with on the inside.
Through their first four contests in action, Siakam, Anunoby, and Barnes have played a total of 75 minutes together. In those spurts, the trio has posted a net rating of +6.8, indicating that they have made a moderately positive impact on the game when working together. However, what comes as a surprise, is that their offense is currently outperforming their defense. For a group that was projected to struggle scoring the basketball, but survive against its opponents by executing the most switchable defensive schemes in the NBA, what exactly has caused the game to go off script?
It’s still a small sample size and it remains to be seen whether this trend will uphold throughout the remainder of the season, but the trio is currently shooting a blistering 36.2% on 11.6 looks from deep. Monday night’s game against Portland was the quintessential example of how an offense featuring all three wings – two of which are treated by defenses as non-shooters – can score at ease.
In the first two minutes of the game, the Raptors made a deliberate effort to assert OG Anunoby as a feature within the offense, first feeding him in the high post against Norman Powell for an isolation bucket, then giving him the reigns to operate as a pick-and-roll ball handler where he pulled up from behind the arc, and then finding him in the corner for an open three. After scoring the first eight points of the game for the Raptors, Anunoby became a focal point of the Trail Blazers’ defensive plans, giving him an extra meter of gravity as he looked to space the floor for his teammates.
On subsequent possessions, the additional space between defenders allowed for Fred VanVleet and Khem Birch to operate an undisturbed pick-and-roll which resulted in yet another three points credited to Anunoby; and for Siakam to easily slip his way into the driving lane and make a layup using his patented spin move.
Of course, the method by which the offense expanded on Monday is not how the carpet always unravels. Relying on Anunoby to knock down each of his first six three-point attempts is not a sustainable way of opening up driving lanes. Luckily, the return of Siakam, who is second to only VanVleet with regard to putting pressure on the rim, does not require ample space to beat his primary defender and get into the teeth of the defense. The combination of Siakam’s quick first step with Barnes’ passing abilities out of the short roll and Anunoby’s hot shooting are synergizing well enough to convince a naysayer that this level of offensive production is legit.
On the other side of the ball, this trio has outperformed the rest of the team’s lineups significantly as well. Since November 2nd, the Toronto Raptors have posted the worst defensive rating in the entire NBA at 116.3. Contrarily, lineups featuring Siakam, Anunoby, and Barnes boast a defensive rating of 106.1, which would rank within the top half of the league since the same time marker. Despite the team as a whole suffering through an insurmountable number of defensive breakdowns and missed rotations, the starry frontcourt trio hasn’t dealt with the same tragedies – at least not to the same extent.
On the play below, Cade Cunningham and Isaiah Stewart are running a dribble handoff at the top of the arc. On the initial ball-action, if the Raptors are employing a switch-everything scheme, Dragic should have switched onto Stewart, and Anunoby should have harrassed Cunningham as soon as he caught the ball. It appears as though Stewart should have received a screen from Jerami Grant as he was cutting towards the basket, which would have necessitated another switch between Siakam and Dragic. Instead, the communication on the second switch was late. Pascal Siakam failed to tag Stewart on his trip to the rim, and this resulted in an easy layup for the sophomore big man.
Poor communication is certainly one of many factors which this particular defensive breakdown could be attributed to, and unfortunately, talking isn’t something that can be learned overnight. What might be a quicker fix – and a more likely cause of this frustrating defensive possession – is that Siakam will need some time to re-learn the Raptors complicated defensive schemes. Having not played competitive basketball since May 8th, it will take him a couple of weeks to get back into game shape: not just by its physical definition, but mentally as well.
Overall, this trio has performed ninth best of any three-man Raptors lineup that has been used for at least 60 minutes this season. Given that the use of this lineup was meant to be used in experimental or high-leverage settings with the understanding that it would take a long time for them to learn how to all play together, the fact that they are already making a positive impact on the game is an encouraging sign for how dangerous they can be in the future.