I get it, the Raptors want to use their athleticism to generate offense from defense. So how do you do that? You force turnovers, play the passing lanes, rebound the ball, leak-out and outlet. Let’s focus on the turnovers bit. Who on this team has proven to be a good enough defensive player that they can pressure their counterpart into a turnover without needing additional help? Hmm. Nobody quite jumps out at you, sorting our wings by athleticism you have: DeRozan, Weems, Wright, Barbosa, Jack and Kleiza. Based on their careers thus far, only Wright can be considered considered an above-average defender, so you can see the challenge Triano and the Raptors will face when they try to create a defense that will pressurize opponents.
To start with, the Raptors should take a page out of the Larry Brown playbook and learn to trap. Properly. It’s what athletic, well-conditioned teams do, and from what we’re being told, that’s what the Raptors are going to be. Brown successfully implemented his aggressive defensive tactics with different personnel in Philadelphia, Detroit and Charlotte, and is widely considered one of the best defensive coaches around. Of course, he was fortunate enough to have players like Aaron McKie, George Lynch, Eric Snow, Tayshaun Prince, Lindsey Hunter, Chauncey Billups, Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace, but the fact that he was able to apply his defensive philosophy to three different sets of players is truly a mark of a great coach. One could even claim that Brown had a hand in transforming these players into the defenders that they turned out to be, and didn’t just inherit them.
The impact which Jay Triano needs to have on this set of Raptors is similar. Triano has undertaken the task of converting athleticism, youth and enthusiasm to a cohesive defensive unit, and that should be what he should be judged on as a coach – his defense. If he is able to instill amongst the players a collective desire to play defense and also provide the framework for them to successfully execute the plan, he’s done his job. Comparing Jay Triano to Larry Brown seems ridiculous, but if Triano is to make his mark in the league it has to be on the defensive end.
Traps have been entirely missing from the Raptors’ playbooks under Mitchell and Triano. Perhaps in previous years they didn’t have the personnel to trap and recover, but now that the preamble is that we have an abundance of athleticism and a defensive-minded philosophy, now’s the time to break out this seldom-used but powerful weapon. With Weems and DeRozan at the wings, Jack at the point and shot-blocking in the middle, the Raptors could run a ton of a 1-3-1 traps that have the power to disrupt teams. The question mark in this strategy is Jarrett Jack, who I’m not sold on as someone who can bother even average ball-handlers.
A more aggressive tactic could be to double the point guard after made baskets and force 8-second violations or turnovers in the backcourt. Conditioning is the prerequisite for this as more often than not, the trap will be beaten and the point and the wing player will need to trackback ASAP or they risk giving up an easy bucket or foul if the opposition moves the ball around well. Anticipating the action in the passing lanes could also be a source of points for the Raptors, this was Leandro Barbosa’s only strength on defense in Phoenix and could come in handy here. The flip side of the coin is that you get burned backdoor when you attempt to cheat to the front. The key is doing it selectively and increasing your chances. Can Triano teach that to the YGZ®?
Last year we saw the Raptors use zone defense with some success, if it weren’t for the offensive rebounds we seemed to concede in the zone, it would have been a solid strategy. Can this year’s Raptors take the traditional 2-3 zone and modify it to add an element of pressure? Structuring a zone so that the weakest ball-handler on the floor is passed the ball and then trapping him to force the turnover or burn seconds of the shot-clock is not an uncommon strategy, especially in college, but is it one that the Raptors have ever used? I can’t recall.
Triano has a choice: he can either choose to adopt the Gregg Popovich philosophy of discouraging cheating for steals in favor of staying in front of guys, as we know this doesn’t work out too well when your stoppers are Calderon and Jack. The other option is to play a Boston-style defense where Rondo and Garnett are used to create pressure-situations in the mid-court with the other wings waiting to pounce on the pass. I would think if the “generating offense from defense” is your strategy, you’d go with the latter.
Last year the Raptors ranked 29th in the NBA at forcing turnovers, they forced turnovers on only 11.8% of defensive possessions. The year before that the Raptors were 23rd at 12.6%. So if history is any indication of Triano’s ability to play a style of basketball that forces turnovers, it’s not going to happen. The unknown is what P.J Carlesimo brings, but his record in this category is not great. In his last full-season coaching stint with Seattle in 2007-08, the Sonics ranked 28th in the league in this category at 11.9%. Before that he stuck for 82 games with Golden State in 1997-98 where he produced a 13% turnover rate, good for 26th in the league. The year before that was Portland – 14.3%, 21st in the NBA. (All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com)
The point of this post is to point out that talk is cheap. Saying that you want a defense to generate offense makes great material for interviews in pre-season, but the implementation of this strategy is very difficult to master. Look at the top five teams that forced turnovers last year: Golden State, Boston, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Utah. Don Nelson, Doc Rivers, Larry Brown, Scott Skiles and Jerry Sloan. Triano’s got a lot to live up to.