The Toronto Raptors have had nothing short of their best season in franchise history. Kyle Lowry has become the best player in Raptors history, DeMar DeRozan has evolved into an elite, tough guards to defend one-on-one, and the Masai Ujiri/Dwane Casey combination has provided Canada with unexpected success. Frankly, all three of these parties deserve the massive recognition they are receiving, because without them the Raptors would still be an NBA laughing stock.
This Raptors team started forming in 2010 when Chris Bosh, Toronto franchise cornerstone who had only taken the team to a pair of first round playoff exits in seven years, left to join Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in Miami. At that point, while Vince Carter was the best player in franchise history, Bosh was a clear number two. The team that went 22-60 following Bosh’s exit was led by a young, second-year player in DeMar DeRozan, and not much else. Following this expected yet disappointing season, and three straight years missing the playoffs, the Raptors head coach Jay Triano’s contract was not renewed.
Thus, management in Toronto was faced with a decision that every young sports team is tasked with: who do you hire to mold a young roster into contenders? In extreme examples, you see teams like Philadelphia hiring Brett Brown to tank, coach its young core, and organically create a competitive roster. Instead of this route, enter Dwane Casey.
Casey was a famed assistant coach who had one multi-year job as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Before he was hired by Toronto, Casey was the lead defensive assistant for the 2011 Dallas Mavericks team that beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Per an Associated Press Report on June 22, 2011 – the day the Raptors hired Casey – Mavs coach Rick Carlisle told Raptors then President – Brian Colangelo – that “I want to know what it’s going to take to get Dwane that job in Toronto. It’s right for him, it’s right for you, it’s right for the situation. You need to strongly consider it.”
Coming from one of the smartest coaches in the NBA, this was a ringing endorsement, and Colangelo and the Raptors hired Casey shortly thereafter. Casey noted that “I don’t know a lot about of hockey… But we spliced in those guys checking players up into the window, into the boards and that type of thing and that’s the way we want to play,” he said. “We want to make sure people feel us when they cut through the lane. And that’s a mindset, and that’s having a disposition — a bad disposition — when people come through your paint.” Put simply, Casey wanted Toronto’s defense to be comparable to a physical hockey team.
Yet, following another below .500 season, the Raptors needed change and attempted to find a partner for the still-young DeMar DeRozan. First they attempted to sign Steve Nash, yet the star Canadian had no interest in coming to the struggling Raptors. Thus, option two was Kyle Lowry. Lowry was a former first round pick who, in six years while playing with Memphis and Houston, had been best known for his inconsistent play. In summary, this was not a star signing. The Lowry signing and 2012-13 season was complimented with the arrival of Raptors’ former top-5 pick Jonas Valančiūnas and a trade for Rudy Gay.
Yet, the 2012-13 season massively underwhelmed, and the Raptors yet again finished below .500. Toronto ownership then attempted to change the direction of the franchise by hiring management wiz-kid Masai Ujiri and not renewing the contract of Brian Colangelo. According to the most recent Lowe Post podcast, Ujiri’s management philosophy is twofold: growing from within is the way for a franchise like Toronto to create a competitor; and second, that no bad contract is untraceable. Ujiri followed-up on this philosophy by trading the cancerous Rudy Gay in a deal that netted Toronto the now-popular Patrick Patterson, but moreover, resulted in the Raptors going on a 10-2 run and making the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
This was indeed something to celebrate in Toronto, and moreover, as Canada as a whole. Yet, while having the higher seed, the Raptors lost to the Paul Pierce-led Brooklyn Nets in the first round. This same failure was repeated the following season, and Toronto lost to the lower-seeded Washington Wizards in the first round. At this point, significant discussions occurred in the Raptors front office regarding Casey’s job as head coach. Nevertheless, Ujiri believed in Dwane Casey and felt that Toronto lost because Lowry was injured.
This led to perhaps the best individual season in Toronto Raptors history. The Raptors went down early in their first round series against Paul George’s Indiana Pacers. Going into Game 5, tied at 2-2, the Raptors were facing a near-must-win game. After the fourth quarter, however, another first round exit seemed likely. The Raptors were down 90-77 and staring defeat right in the eyes. But, in one of the great coaching feats of the postseason, the Raptors adopted Casey’s NHL-defense and only allowed nine points in the fourth quarter, and thus won the game 102-99.
In the second round, going up against a veteran Miami Heat squad, another seven game series emerged. This time, though, it was the once maligned Lowry who led the team to victory and sealed his status as the best player in franchise history. From Game 3 onwards, Lowry averaged nearly 28 points and 6 assists per game. During the series, moreover, the Raptors were 37.2 points per 100 possessions worse with Lowry sitting than with him playing. This was capped with a 35-point Game Seven, and thus accomplishing the greatest season in Raptor history.
Although Toronto did take the streaking Cavaliers to six games, the former lost in the conference finals, and this season they have come back stronger than ever. The Raptors – following their shellacking against San Antonio on Tuesday – have the second best offense in the NBA this season. Before that loss the Raptors had the best offense in the NBA, and now, have fallen only slightly behind the Warriors. Moreover, per 100 possessions, the Raptors have the second highest point total in NBA history, only behind this year’s Warriors team.
So how are they doing this? From the eye test, it seems like Golden State is more taxing, Houston is more creative, and Cleveland is more talented than Toronto. Nonetheless, the Raptors are utilizing a simple, effective, and time-tested tool to score seemingly at will: screens. Whether in the pick-and-roll or off-ball, Dwane Casey’s club use screens to put Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan into prime positions, and the two stars in-turn score with ease.
As can be seen in the chart above, the Toronto Raptors use screens as their main play (that which results in a shot, foul, assist, or turnover) on nearly one-third of all offensive possessions. This is noticeably higher than the other four top NBA offenses in Golden State, Houston, Cleveland, and San Antonio. Moreover, the Raptors score at an extraordinarily high frequency on these shots.
Toronto is using a screen-based offense at a historically elite level. The chart above shows that the Raptors score on nearly 50% of all screen-actions they use. Context provides us with the overall greatness. On ball-handler pick-and-rolls, the Raptors have the highest score frequency in the NBA and are averaging .96 points per possession.
These pick-and-roll plays are deadly because both Lowry and DeRozan have mastered various ways to attack off of screens. In a simple Lowry-Valančiūnas pick-and-roll, if the defenders go under the screen, and thus dare Lowry to drive while guessing that they will catch up because of the Raptors’ point guard’s speed, he can get an easy layup.
In the above play, Toronto runs a simple weave on the perimeter, followed by Jonas setting a screen for Lowry. Shelvin Mack and Rudy Gobert – Utah’s defenders – play off Lowry and dare him to drive. This fails when Lowry enters his shooting motion early, thus getting an easy layup.
Additionally, if the defenders dare Lowry by doubling the roll man, he has the ability to make a semi-contested and/or uncontested three-point shot.
The Jazz suffer that exact fate in the video above, where the same two defenders use the same strategy against Lowry and Valančiūnas, and the former nails an open three-point shot.
So why don’t defenses just double Lowry or switch when guarding a Toronto pick-and-roll? The answer is that the Raptors are also an elite “roll” team. When the pick-and-roll results in a shot, assist, foul, or turnover by the roll man, the Raptors are also averaging the highest score frequency in the NBA resulting in 1.22 points per possession.
This statistic has much to do with the abilities of Valančiūnas in the pick-and-roll. In some instances, if Lowry is doubled, Jonas will get an easy, open midrange shot that he usually makes.
The above clip shows this exact thing happening in two different plays against the Lakers. Doubling Lowry is, in-fact, the less efficient shot than simply guarding the pick-and-roll one-on-one. As noted previously, when Lowry shoots as the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls, the Raptors are scoring 1.04 points per possession. Yet, when Jonas shoots as the roll man, the Raptors are scoring 1.29 points per possession! That is good for second-best in the NBA!
Much of this has to do with Jonas’s versatility. Not only can he make an open midrange shot, but he also has the speed and strength to drive to the basket when left open.
In the above video Jonas uses that deadly combination of strength and speed to pass Rudy Gobert, who is arguably the best “big” defender in the NBA. This versatility is one reason why guarding the Lowry-Valančiūnas pick-and-roll is a nearly impossible feat.
Nonetheless, if the Raptors had only one player capable of executing the pick-and-roll as a ball handler they would be easier to defend. Yet DeMar DeRozan is also an expert attacker off screens due to his midrange game and footwork.
The above three clips show DeMar DeRozan using the pick-and-roll to establish is midrange shot. But if you watch closely, the actual events are significantly prettier than that simple explanation. DeRozan uses the pick-and-roll to get to the midrange and/or elbow of the court. Afterwards, he uses Kobe-esque footwork to trip up his defender, and thus getting an open shot. This can be seen in each segment, first against Philadelphia, than Orlando, finalized by Los Angeles.
Yet, my favorite example is when he does this against Orlando (the second clip). DeRozan uses the pick-and-roll to cause the athletic Aaron Gordon to fall behind the play. When Gordon finally catches up, DeMar enacts a simple crossover followed by the smallest shift left with both feet. This causes Gordon to be taken out of the play completely, and thus leads to an open shot. Moreover, it is the perfect example of how DeRozan uses the pick-and-roll to make his footwork deadlier.
Further, if defenses decide they are going to sag off DeMar DeRozan, thus preventing him from getting an open midrange shot on the pick-and-roll, it is easy for the Raptors two-guard to drive and get an easy layup.
Thus, most teams are willing to take their chances with DeRozan shooting the more “inefficient” of the two shots. This yet again shows why the Raptors are so deadly using the pick-and-roll, i.e., it puts their best offensive players in prime positions to score.
On this play, DeRozan and Jonas move the ball to Lowry, Valančiūnas then sets an off-ball screen for DeRozan, Kyle fires the ball back to DeMar, who hits the wide-open jumper. As the stats show, this tends to be a more inefficient play for the Raptors, because it requires the players to operate at max speeds. Regardless, every few times a game they will break out a similar play, and it acts as another example of Toronto’s screen-heavy offense.
Yet, despite their greatness, the simple fact is this season has not gone perfectly for Toronto. Against the top-three teams from each conference not counting themselves (Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Cleveland, and Boston), the Raptors have a 2-6 record, or a .250 winning percentage. They still have not shown the ability to defeat elite teams at a consistent level.
It is because of this that you hear the Raptors’ pop-up in trade rumors regarding Paul Millsap, Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins, etc. Toronto has a clear need for an additional all-star talent as well as plenty of tradeable assets. More specifically, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira, Norman Powell, and Pascal Siakam are all young players who can be traded; DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross, Jared Sullinger, Patrick Patterson, and potentially Jonas Valančiūnasnas are all moveable veterans; and the Raptors have two first round picks in 2017 and then one each additional year afterwards. Consequently, if the Raptors would like to make a move, they absolutely have the assets to pull off a blockbuster trade.
With that said, even the biggest of trades will not guarantee the Raptors a victory over the Cavs in the Eastern Conference. Let’s assume that, in an ideal world, the Raptors find a way to get Paul Millsap without having to trade one of their main rotation players (note: this is very unlikely. This is a thought exercise I am using to demonstrate a point). Here would be their starting five with main backups:
PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: DeMarre Carroll, Norman Powell
PF: Paul Millsap, Patrick Paterson,
C: Jonas Valančiūnas, Lucas Nogeira
Is that roster elite? Yes, absolutely. It is more balanced than what they currently have and could contend with any team in the East. In fact, given an injury to LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, the Raptors are probably representing the East in the NBA Finals.
Yet, can this Raptors roster beat a healthy Cavs team? More than likely they cannot. The Cavaliers roster is special because, at any one time, they have a top-5 NBA power forward on the court. This is a problem that even this Toronto roster does not have an answer for, thus while a Millsap trade significantly improves the Raptors’ chances of victory, it does not come close to making them the favorites against Cleveland.
So why consider making a trade? The Lowry/DeRozan combination has worked brilliantly and Toronto has a young, developing roster that may contain a future star. The answer to the aforementioned question is that Kyle Lowry is a free agent this offseason, and furthermore, passing his prime as an NBA athlete. This means that the Raptors truly need to capitalize on this season or risk losing the best chance they have to win a title. Thus it seems likely that Ujiri and company will attempt to swing for an all-star via the trade deadline, improving an already elite unit, and making the East increasingly competitive.
Overall, the Toronto Raptors have spent the better part of seven years building their current team. From players, to coaches, to management, this Canadian unit has grown together organically, and has found astounding success capitalized by a deep 2015-16 season and potent 2016-17 offense. Nonetheless, the future is somewhat cloudy, and seeing how the Raptors clear through the mist will make for fascinating entertainment.