Raptors must evolve or face extinction
Toronto team trying to survive in NBA's modern era
In today's NBA, offence is the bedrock upon which any title contender is built.
The Toronto Raptors have ranked no worse than sixth in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in each of the past three regular seasons. And yet, as they tip off their season Thursday night, no one thinks the Raptors are a title contender — probably because they've ranked no better than 12th in offensive rating in each of the past three playoffs.
After last season ended with a second-round sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, team president Masai Ujiri promised a "culture reset." The Raptors got accidentally good after trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento in December 2013, and after four straight years of playoff disappointment, they're no longer happy just to be there.
Hence the culture reset. Except, Dwane Casey is still the head coach, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (fresh off a shiny new $100-million US contract) are still the featured players, and Bruno Caboclo is still tucked away on the bench, far from becoming the Brazilian Kevin Durant.
So what has changed?
Shoot the rock
The Houston Rockets are notorious for launching three-pointers. Last year, a league-high 46.2 per cent of their shots came from deep. In the pre-season, the Rockets raised that number to 59 per cent. The only other team above 50 per cent? That would be the Raptors.
And that would also be a stark contrast to how the Raptors played last season, when they ranked 22nd in the league in three-point attempts.
We all know that the NBA is trending more and more beyond the arc with each passing season, and the Golden State Warriors have more than dispelled the myth that teams reliant on the three can't win a title. The Raptors have finally caught on.
It just may not last. The Raptors have three above-average three-point shooters: Lowry, Serge Ibaka and CJ Miles (For the record, it will be extremely lame if his nickname becomes "kilometres.") Norman Powell, who shot well in the playoffs last year, could be poised for a breakout.
The biggest question will be the mid-range maestro — DeRozan. The ultimate "No! No! No! Yes!" player because of his ability to sink questionable shots, DeRozan has been known to pass on an open three-pointer to take a contested two. No doubt he makes it work, but still, taking and making that initial long-range shot would not only make DeRozan a bigger threat, but it would open driving lanes for other players, too.
Jonas Valanciunas, for one, would benefit from the extra space inside, considering players are literally waving off his three-point attempts.
Share the rock
The DeRozan-Valanciunas pairing has been an awkward one. Both players like to operate in the post and mid-range, and pick-and-rolls involving the two often end up staying in DeRozan's hands. When Valanciunas does get fed, he usually eats up the possession with a shot — his career high is three assists in a game, and he's never averaged more than 0.7 per game in a single season.
The Raptors ranked dead last overall in assists last season. Lowry isn't as allergic to passing as DeRozan and Valanciunas, but he does like to handle the ball, and having that trio on the court with another shoot-first player in Ibaka greatly limits ball movement.
Which is why, beyond shooting, the Raptors prioritized an increase in assists in their offensive overhaul. One of the major reasons for the lack of offence in the playoffs was the abundance of isolation plays drawn up for DeRozan and Lowry. More passing introduces more unpredictability — it's much harder to game plan against that.
Further down the rotation, the Raptors' bench offers more hope for additional passing. Backup point guard Delon Wright can use his 6-6 frame to make passes over his defender, and centre Lucas Nogueira is the team's best-passing big man.
Pound the rock
That bench also offers plenty of new faces. Gone are Patrick Patterson, PJ Tucker, Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll. In their stead, the Raptors will feature some of the young talent they've stacked up since Ujiri's reign began.
First-rounder Jakob Poeltl remains the backup centre, while fellow top pick Wright takes over for Joseph. Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet will try to plug the remaining holes. The veteran Miles may come off the bench to play at either forward spot too.
Having so many new players in the rotation could introduce a chemistry problem to begin the season, but may also help the Raptors more easily transition their offence to a more progressive style.
Ever since he took over, Casey has preached "pounding the rock," a philosophy meant to encourage his players to work hard. He even had an actual rock placed outside the locker room.
Casey's halftime speech: Pound The Rock. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/raptors?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#raptors</a> <a href="http://t.co/yMhb2g69P5">pic.twitter.com/yMhb2g69P5</a>—@Benaconda
In basketball terms, "pound the rock" also refers to an old-school offensive style, where the team puts the ball in the hands of a star player like Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal, and the rest of the team clears out to leave that player one-on-one. Since teams have discovered that three points is more than two, and that passing is harder to defend than dribbling, "pound the rock" as a primary form of offence has gone extinct.
This summer, the Raptors, dinosaurs of the NBA, realized they had a choice: adapt or die.
They chose to adapt, and now they must sustain. Will it make a difference when the games matter?