This is uncharted territory for the Toronto Raptors. After a 112-111 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Raptors are now 2-8 in a 72 game season. There is still time, but it won’t be easy to climb up the standings. This isn’t the Raptors team that won 15 straight games last season. If they are able to crawl back to a .500 record – it will be done over time. Think more along the lines of going 20-14 in the next 34 games to be 22-22 and fighting for seventh place in the eastern conference. That should be the new expectations at this point. That is still a .588 win percentage over 30 games, which won’t be easy for a team currently at .200.
Most viewers of Raptors games will agree that they have played much better in their past four games. The loss to the Phoenix Suns was due to an otherworldly shooting performance from beyond the arc. Against the Kings, the Raptors played excellent team basketball en route to a comfortable win. In the last two games, it came down to the final possession with a chance to win the game. Both of these games saw the Raptors hold multi possession leads in the last few minutes, where they were unable to close. This could have easily been a 3-1 road trip, or even 4-0 if things went right – but they didn’t.
The Raptors have held double digit leads in all but two games this season. But still, they find themselves at 2-8. There are definitely positives to take away. The fact that the team can gain these leads and play excellent basketball (at times) is promising. Ultimately, it means nothing if you can’t eventually start winning these games. The question that needs to be answered for the Raptors moving forward is: What factors are causing the Raptors to blow leads?
The Centre Play
This is the most glaringly obvious reason as to why the Raptors look so much different this season. Last season, when healthy, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka provided no concerns for the centre position. It was 40+ minutes of competency at minimum, and at times major contributions. For Gasol, it was defense and playmaking, whereas Ibaka would provide scoring bursts when the wings and guards were struggling. It was an afterthought on many occasions last year, but having 5 good players on the court would be extremely luxurious for the 2021 Raptors.
Aron Baynes was brought in to replicate Gasol as best he could. So far, he has not been able to come close to Gasol’s contributions. In seven games, Baynes is averaging 5.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 0.6 assists – and most alarmingly he has zero blocks. As a centre that is especially abysmal. He is a minus 26 on the season and has been out of the rotation for the last three games. The Raptors, as a team, are only a minus 16 despite a 2-8 record. There is still time for Baynes to get back to what he was, but it’s not like he was ever a high-caliber starting centre. In his career he averages just 5.9 points and 4.5 rebounds. Baynes looks a lot better as a backup centre who plays in favourable match-ups.
Alex Len has been ever so slightly more playable. Despite only scoring 2.3 points per game (16 points in 7 games) and averaging just 1.6 rebounds, he has at least provided some defence. Not good defence, but better than Baynes. Its worth noting that 11 of his 16 points this season came in the win against the New York Knicks. Chris Boucher has been awesome thus far. However, outside of being an elite rim protector he profiles more as a power forward. Boucher has earned a role on this team but he is really only a ‘small ball centre’ option. He isn’t built to bang with the big 7 footers such as Joel Embiid. This needs to be addressed if the Raptors want different results. They haven’t been closing games with Baynes or Len. The problem is that they have had crucial stretches in games leading to comebacks.
Poor Offensive Decisions
As a whole, the Raptors offence has looked fairly good in the past five or six games. Chris Finch has made an emphasis to cutting and screening that has created a lot of good looks. It has been a stark contrast from the first few games, where they were firing 50+ shots from three-point range. Fred Vanvleet has added a few new tricks in the mid range, Pascal Siakam has developed his playmaking, and Kyle Lowry can still orchestrate runs by himself. Of course, it has been inconsistent after that. OG Anunoby has had his moments, Boucher has had some really good games, and others have made small contributions at different times. The offence, particularly in the halfcourt, actually looks promising.
The problem is, at key moments, the Raptors make poor decisions. As much praise as we should have for Lowry – he has been guilty of this. During a key period in the 4th quarter versus the Portland Trail Blazers, Lowry took an ill-advised three, followed by a poor turnover, leading to easy transition baskets the other way. This cut the lead from eleven to five points. He has done this multiple times this season, and swings like this are the different between a 15 point and 5 point lead. Most of what Lowry does for the Raptors is brilliant, but he needs to keep the offence flowing when they have leads better as the primary decision maker.
Lowry isn’t the only one guilty of some poor decisions. Norman Powell has taken countless drives to the basket that have little to no chance of working out. He has some serious tunnel-vision going on, and the other teams know exactly what he wants to do. Being aggressive is good, but when you have three players waiting by the rim – you should consider a drive and kick. Furthermore, Powell has been taking 10-15 foot push shots this year that have resulted in easy transition points the other way. That, as well as drives where he gets blocked and creates five on fours for opponents. It seems like the Raptors build a lead, and forget what got them there.
Fouling and Three-Point defence
In today’s NBA, the best shots are layups, free throws, and three pointers. The Raptors defence is designed to take away the paint and force teams into having their lesser shooters take three-point shots. This worked amazingly well last year. Maybe that was partially due to Marc Gasol’s defensive brilliance, but it couldn’t be him alone. The Raptors still have an abundance of perimeter defenders. The problem is, players like Eric Bledsoe, Patty Mills, Damien Lee, and Carmelo Anthony have been hitting shots that the Raptors are leaving for them. While none of these players are elite (anymore) they are NBA level players with shooting capabilities.
In addition to this, when the opponents due challenge the Raptors in the paint – they are fouling very frequently. This might be where they truly miss Gasol. He was so good at going straight up and using his size to bounce small players out of the paint. Teams are converting and-ones, getting fouls on threes, and quickly getting the Raptors into the bonus situation. Even when the Raptors make the stop, they struggle to get the defensive rebound and eventually foul or give up an open three. When opponents get open threes and go to the line, they have seen their leads shrink by 5-10 points in a matter of possessions.
Can they solve the issues?
If the Raptors are going to get back to .500 or above, they will need to work on these issues. The Centre minutes can be solved in many ways. They could play Boucher more minutes, they could try Anunoby at the five more often, or they could even look at Baynes again to see if he could rediscover his form from last season. Of course, they could also make a trade to pick up someone more reliable.
The offensive decision making can easily be fixed, and I would expect that to eventually work itself out. However, the defence will be more complicated. Some of this has been unlucky, with role players hitting shots that you would not expect them to normally make. The concern is that teams know the Raptors defensive schemes. They are pump faking on the Raptors contests and either drawing contact or taking a step to the side for an open look. Much like we saw in the series versus the Boston Celtics. The rest of the NBA has adopted this formula against the Raptors. If anyone deserves our faith, it’s Nick Nurse. He is a great thinker of the game and he is a major factor in solving this issue as the season moves on.
It will take some work, but the problems are solvable for the Raptors. They may need some external help, but they can get out of this hole. It is too early to be trading Kyle Lowry and tanking the season. Save those talks for mid-season if things don’t improve. The Raptors face the Charlotte Hornets twice this week, and they need to pick up some wins to begin their ascent in the Eastern Conference.