Rethinking the Raptors Offense

More thoughts on Rudy Gay and Demar Derozan’s offense, and how changes in coaching directives can help them improve.

I may have been a tad too pessimistic in yesterday’s post about the Raptors offense.

Yes, having approximately half of the offense coming from two sub-par shooters is a bad thing for the offense, but pointing out that fact alone is not productive. It outlines a problem without proposing a solution. I answered the “what“, and “how much“, but I failed to touch on “how” and “why“. To solve a problem, you need to have some understanding of how, and why a problem exists.

Just to recap, the “what” is that Demar and Gay use up a lot of Raptors possessions, but they fail to convert their chances at an above-average clip. The “how much” is that the two use up 50%+ of possessions, while converting at ~51 TS%, which is about 3 percentage points lower than their respective positional averages (this makes a BIG difference).

But, “how” do Demar and Gay spend their possessions? Are they always taking long jumpers (as they are in my mind), are they slashing to the rim or are they heaving half-court threes? This is an important question, no? If they’re having to bear all the isolation plays within the offense, their shot efficiency numbers will suffer in comparison to a player like Amir Johnson, who gets to crash the boards and shoot closer to the rim. It’s the nature of basketball; not all shots are created, nor taken, equally.

Similarly, answering “why” DD and Gay are taking the shorts that they’re taking is also important. Is it a lack of discretion from Gay and Demar? Are they simply taking what the defense is conceding to them? Or is it a reflection of Dwane Casey’s coaching directives? Without answering “why”, we cannot propose a credible solution.

With that in mind, let’s look at the how for Demar and Gay.

Gay and Derozan both xzibit exhibit the prototypical scoring profiles for scoring wings. They both expend the majority of their possessions in isolation, spot-ups and pick and rolls. Their play usage breakdowns is below (data courtesy of synergy stats). It’s pretty clear that DD and Gay aren’t just cleaning up the glass, or cutting for wide-open passes. They’re bearing the brunt of the playmaking (isolation and pick and roll) while receiving a large number of play-calls from Dwane Casey (as indicated by their spot-ups). Derozan’s numbers are depicted by the red bars and Gay’s numbers are in blue.

both usage

Unfortunately, where the two fail, for the most part, is with execution. Their efficiencies on each play is listed below by NBA rank. A lower bar indicates better performance (ie: ranking 35th in the NBA is better than ranking 350th). Both players took a lot of jumpers, but not from 3-point range, which really hurt their points per play averages. In particular, Gay ranked horribly in things like spot-up shooting, which is not a surprise to anyone who watched (in horror) as he launched jumper after jumper in last year’s games. Again, DD in red, RG in blue (Gay didn’t shoot enough hand-offs and cuts to qualify).

combined rank

What do these fancy charts tell us? Well, it corroborates much of what we already know; Rudy and Demar bear the brunt of playmaking in the offense. Now we know the “how”; we can see just exactly how they utilize their offensive possessions.

On to “why“; why do DD and Gay use the plays the way they do, and why do they fail or succeed on these plays?

Well, the question of why is actually really hard to answer with any measure of accuracy. For example, we can’t be sure if Demar takes a pull-up jumper because A) he chose to, B) the defense took away all other options, C) that’s how Casey drew it up, or D) he wanted to imitate Kobe. We just don’t know. It’s really hard to evaluate these things.

However, by watching enough video, we can parse out the general directives of Dwane Casey’s playcalling. I mean, if the set out of the timeout is a pin-down screen to get Demar an open jumper, that’s probably in large part the coach’s doing, right?

With that in mind, I combed through a swath of videos and found two play calls that Casey liked to implement; running down screens to generate action to get Demar a jumper, and drawing up spot-ups for Rudy Gay. You can see the plays in the videos below (I apologize for the terrible quality/music).

Spot-up attempts accounted for ~14% and ~19% of Gay and Derozan’s possessions, respectively. However, Casey should really reconsider; they really shouldn’t be running these plays.

Why not? Well, two reason; one, both players shot poorly on spot-ups, and two, there are better (and attainable) options for both players. Consider the table below:

Rudy Gay Spot-ups 14.3 354
Rudy Gay Isolation 19.9 29
Demar Derozan Spot-ups 18.8 153
Demar Derozan PR Ball Handler 14.2 30

As you can see, Gay and Demar aren’t very good on spot-ups (okay, Demar was decent, Gay was just abysmal), but they do excel in other areas. Coach Casey and his staff should reorient the offense towards maximizing their strengths.

Demar is excellent when he attacks in the pick and roll. He’s tightened up his dribble (as compared to his previous seasons) and he’s an excellent finisher at the rim (68.4 FG% at the rim). He uses his athleticism well and is generally able to finish with both hands (there’s a joke here). The downside is that he’s not particularly adept at passing, but his scoring prowess makes up for that.

On the other hand, Gay is an excellent isolation player. Now, it might seem ridiculous to suggest that a player who already devotes ~20% of his possessions to isolations to increase his usage, but if the increase in iso-plays comes at the expense of spot-ups, this will actually be a big win for the Raptors offense. Gay scored 0.94 points per isolation as compared to 0.62 points per spot-up.

Gay’s tremendous length and athleticism, combined with his excellent above average ball-handling ability, really allows him to score in a number of ways in isolation. Sure, he sometimes settles for long jumpers, but he’s money when he’s attacking the rim. He’s got an assortment of dribble-moves at his disposal to create space for him to operate, and he’s able to draw multiple defenders to his vicinity (unfortunately he never passes -.-).

Personally, I think that these changes are plausible. Running more pick and rolls for Demar, and isolation plays for Gay is certainly within the control of the Raptors offense. If these changes are made, the impact on Derozan and Gay’s performances will be marginal, but given that they use up so many possessions, the effect on the Raptors’ offense should be significant.

Then again, I want to clearly state that we have not found the solution to cure all of what ails the Raptors (not by a long shot). We’ve simply pointed out two weaknesses in Demar and Gay’s games, and suggested a plausible solution based on the information that is publicly available. Whether the staff should implement this, or to reject it, is why the coaches get paid the big bucks.

But it’s certainly food for thought, no? Maybe the Raptors offense isn’t doomed after all?


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