Synergy mining: Looking at the Raptors’ offense for 2013-14

Looking at Synergy’s play-type breakdown and how it may change for 2013-14.

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As much as the Toronto Raptors are expected to be a different team this coming season, their starting five remain unchanged. With a somewhat weak — or at least unproven — bench, a great deal of the workload is likely to fall on last year’s starters.

That unit (Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas) played 343 minutes together last year, which surprisingly made them the 29th most tenured five-man unit. They were also really good together, being passable offensively and shutting the opposition down on defense.

Now, it’s unrealistic to suggest that this unit, together, will play a bulk of the minutes. Only three five-man units played more than 800 minutes together last season and only two played together for more than 65 games. Injuries are a thing that happen, as are line-up changes.

However, when analyzing the Raptors offense ahead of the 2013-14 season, it’s tough not to look at that unit exclusively. Each of the players averaged at least 23.9 minutes per game and in a situation where all are healthy, each can be expected to play at least 30 minutes a night this year. With bench minutes spread out across a to-be-determined depth chart of up to 10 players, any analysis of the offense starts and stops with the top-five.

I pulled Synergy data on each player to get an idea for how often the team may run the offense through the different “play type” buckets that Synergy assigns. Don’t look at the Points Per Possession and assume teams should run their offense only via whichever play type they’re most effective at – basketball is too fluid a game and defenses too reactive to simply call out “spot-up three” every time down the floor.

Anyway, one thing is pretty clear, and that’s that the two wing players are likely to get a good chunk of touches via isolation plays. DeRozan and Gay both took more than 15 percent of their shots out of isolation sets, and they’re both well known as isolation players. Whether or not they should be is a question that fans are wont to bring up, but they were both fairly effective as far as isolation offense goes (they both ranked in the top-50 league wide).

There was also a great deal of transition offense last season, although obviously the bigs get less involved here. Transition was the team’s most efficient means of scoring, but it’s not realistic to plan an offense around transition buckets. Those flow from defense and rebounding, and even if the goal is to be aggressive in pushing the pace off any defensive rebounds, those plays still require stops and boards.

The pick-and-roll game is also likely to be used heavily, given how well both Johnson and Valanciunas do in that area of the game. Lowry was somewhat less effective in this aspect, although the fanbase’s expectations of him may have been skewed by his predecessor’s excellence here. Something Synergy doesn’t catch is that pick-and-rolls also set up a lot of the “spot-up” opportunities that are identified. That’s an important aspect of the offense and it’s why I’ve tried to hammer home on numerous occasions this offseason why it would be valuable for Gay and DeRozan to improve their long-range shots. If Lowry doesn’t appear to be a great scorer as the wheel-man on a pick-and-roll, the more options he has to facilitate through, the better.

The one area in particular I’d like to see grow is the post-up game. Valanciunas is obviously deserving of more opportunities here given his apparent growth and the franchise’s need to develop him. But it’s actually DeRozan who I’d like to see try to score more from the block. While the numbers don’t necessarily bare it out here, DeRozan can be an effective post scorer when he’s willing to forego wild turnaround jumpers.

It’s worth noting now that all of this analysis is difficult picture mentally. So many of these play types evolve from other plays, like a cutter coming open while an isolation play is being run, or a spot-up opportunity being created by the spacing from a pick-and-roll with a cutter, and so on. It’s almost worth throwing up your hands at, but we need content in late August.

The table below shows the frequency and efficacy of these five players in the different “play types” from 2012-13. As mentioned, a lot of this is very fluid, subject to stringer bias, and more, but it gives us an idea of what the offense could look like with the primary unit on the floor.

Player ISO% ISO PPP P&R % P&R PPP Post-Up % Post-Up PPP Transition % Transition PPP Spot-Up % Spot-Up PPP Cut+Screen % Cut+Screen PPP
Raptors 10.6 0.85 21 0.86 8.4 0.84 10.5 1.17 20.9 0.95 14 1.03
DeRozan 15.6 0.91 14.6 0.89 11 0.85 11.6 1.23 18.8 0.99 19.2 0.93
Gay 19.9 0.94 16.9 0.74 14.1 0.79 14.1 1.19 14.3 0.62 10.9 1.05
Lowry 12.4 0.79 37.1 0.83 0.3 1.33 16.3 0.99 15.7 1.14 5.5 1.02
Valanciunas 2.6 0.86 19.9 1.23 26.7 0.88 4.2 1.57 6.6 0.67 15.3 1.16
Johnson 4.4 0.97 27.5 0.99 5.4 0.88 7.6 1.49 12.4 0.79 16.2 1.26
Non-wgt Avg 10.98 0.89 23.20 0.94 11.50 0.95 10.76 1.29 13.56 0.84 13.42 1.08

And it’s going to be a struggle at times, I think, to figure out what exactly the offensive identity is. We have two iso-heavy wing players, a forward who has shown to be very good in the pick-and-roll, and a young center who needs to establish his strengths and work on his weaknesses. There are a lot of mouths for Dwane Casey to feed, and it’s why I think you’ll see far less of the “hockey substitution” pattern of last year. Instead, reserves should be staggered in and out to avoid a dramatic drop-off in offensive quality while also spreading touches around between the top players.

This unit, together, was excellent last year because of their defense. If that can hold true and they can figure out how to better complement each other offensively, it should remain one of the league’s most effective units. The growth and identity of the offense is likely to be a key exhibition and early-season storyline as well.

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