The Toronto Raptors finished 34-48 last season which was good for 10th in the East. This offseason, they’ve hired Masai Ujiri as the GM and he subsequently jettisoned Toronto’s two biggest headaches. He amnestied Linas Kleiza (thank God, he’s looked horrible in Eurobasket) and he off-loaded Bargnani onto the the Knicks for scrap pieces and picks (apparently the ghost of Isiah Thomas still haunts MSG).

However, the team is more or less the same as where Colangelo left it; expensive and mediocre. The financial situation left Ujiri in a bind as he was limited to making small signings for bench players (Hansbrough, Daye, Augustin, Buycks, etc). For the most part, it’s pretty much the same team. Same coach, same roster, same wing-heavy offense.

So, why will the Raptors improve?

Well, we can (and mostly have) thrust the majority of our scant hopes onto the strongly-built shoulders of Jonas Valanciunas, but we should be cautious not to bury him if he fails to improve right away. Don’t forget; he’s only 21. We shouldn’t let our frustration turn into impatience with the promising big-man. He’s still young and has a long way to go (as demonstrated by his recent benching in Eurobasket).

We can, however, pin some of our hope to the marginal acquisitions that Masai Ujiri made. Lost amiss all the hand-wringing over their insignificance was that Ujiri deftly made targeted and specific moves to improve two of Toronto’s biggest weaknesses; spot-up shooting and post-defense.

SPOT-UP SHOOTING

According to Synergy Stats, 20.9% (~a fifth) of Toronto’s possessions last season ended in a spot-up shot (their most frequently used play). Given that the coaching staff and the main principles of the offense are still here (Gay, DD, Lowry), it’s a fair bet that the composition of the Raptors offense will look pretty similar this upcoming season.

Unfortunately, they only scored 0.95 points per spot-up which was good for 18th in the NBA (their worst NBA ranking by play-type).

Why did they struggle? Let’s take a look at who took these shots:

Spot up distribution

This distribution is hardly surprising to anyone who watched Raptors games. Most of our spot ups came from the wing positions (largely because our point guards preferred to facilitate, and the bigs couldn’t shoot). But how did they fare in terms of efficiency?

points per spot up

Before I go on, I’d like to make the disclaimer that points per play for spot-up shots is a little skewed because of three-pointers. A player like Demar who almost never shoots from deep (because he can’t) will rarely post a high PPP on spot-ups simply because two-pointers are worth less.

Half of those players are no longer on the Raptors. Bargnani, Anderson, Lucas, Pietrus and Calderon are now wearing new uniforms (or street clothes in the case of Pietrus). However, Calderon, Lucas and Anderson were the first, third and fifth best spot-up shooters on the roster; why would them leaving be a plus?

It’s a plus because those shots will be redistributed to Novak (Bargnani), Gay/Daye (Anderson) and Augustin (Lucas). Compare their numbers (Calderon is excluded because his shots will go to Lowry):

income outcome points per spot up

 

I can see two criticisms forming in your head. One, you’re thinking that Anderson’s shots will go to Gay, not Daye. Two, you’re sceptical that Novak will be as effective without a magnetic offensive talent like Carmelo Anthony beside him.

The first point is fair. It’s far more likely that Gay, rather than Daye, takes Anderson’s shots. Gay had his worst shooting output by far last season, but he’s likely to due for some positive regression (his percentages last season were career lows). There’s also the matter of his vision-corrective surgery which could potentially improve his shooting (although I doubt it’ll change very much).

I can address the second criticism. The majority of Novak’s three’s were not a product of Melo drawing extra defenders, but rather clever play design and execution by the Knicks.

Throw in the fact that Landry had serious issues with his shooting elbow, sprinkle in a little sophomore improvement for Ross (maybe he corrects his form or is more selective), and the Raptors should perform much better on spot-ups next season.

POST-DEFENSE

Honestly, you’re going to laugh, but I really think Tyler Hansbrough will make a big difference.

Go ahead. Get it out of your system.

Okay, are you done? Good, let’s move on.

The Raptors ranked 19th in the NBA with 0.85 points allowed per post-up last season. The majority of the blame rests on Amir and Jonas’s shoulders because they faced the vast majority of post-ups and they both allowed 0.84 points per post up. I’m not sure how much this will change this season given that they’ll both likely play at least the same amount of minutes (probably more for JV), but Jonas has bulked up and has been a very effective rim defender in the Eurobasket tournament thus far.

Hansbrough will reprise Ed Davis’s role as the first big off the bench (backing up Amir when he inevitably gets in foul trouble). Luckily, Hansbrough is much better at defending post-ups (no - I really didn’t need to put this in a chart):

hansbrough davis

 

Again, I could see two arguments for this one. First, you doubt that Hansbrough will be as effective without Roy Hibbert and Indiana’s defense behind him. Second, you’ll point to the fact that Ed Davis is the much better shot-blocker. I’ll address both critiques.

First, I also agree that his numbers will suffer without Hibbert (one of the best rim-defenders in the NBA; hi, Jermaine O’Neal!) backing him up. However, he only played around half of his minutes with Hibbert, and he was equally as effective with Hibbert or Mahimni (compare Hill-Stephenson-George-Hansbrough-Hibbert/Mahimni; small sample size warning!). Given how good his numbers are (8th best in NBA at defending post-ups), it’s more likely that Hansbrough is actually a really good post-defender rather than a by-product of his environment.

Second, while it’s true that Davis is a much better shot blocker, there are more factors to consider when it comes to post-defense. Strength is a really important factor; it allows you to hold your ground which keeps players farther away from the rim. Hansbrough may not have the length nor leaping ability of ED!, but he is much stronger able to keep his opponents away from the basket.

Given the upgrade, plus Valanciunas’ added bulk, and the Raptors should fare better on post-defense this season (hopefully; I want to stop thinking about Roy Hibbert every time someone dunks on us).

So there you have it. The Raptors should hit more of their spot-ups, and fare better in the post. I have no idea how much this will actually impact wins, but I guess we’ll find out when the season begins. Let me know what you think in the comments. Go Raptors!

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