When I started working on a piece about the Raptor’s offence a week ago, I was nervous. It was hard to imagine an outcome that fell outside the range of a parental ‘I’m disappointed in you’, to downright scathing. I’m happy to say that instead I’ve found reason for optimism. Now, before we get ahead of ourselves with raising the Atlantic division champions banner, let’s clarify that reason for optimism does not mean that the Raptors have a great or even good offence. The Raptors have a below average offensive efficiency, couched right in between the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings. That’s sobering company. Let’s not pretend that the Raptor’s offence isn’t in a state of disrepair. There are major problems here at a team and individual level. But there are also some things that needed to be improved coming in to the season, like Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan’s 3pt shooting, that have. There are a few glaring problems that have carried over from last year, and a few new ones as well. It’s increasingly unclear how much of the responsibility for these come from players following intentional coaching decisions, players choosing not to follow the coaches plans, or a lack of well-thought out direction from either side. The last week of the season has shown some signs of improvement on this last point from both sides.
Let’s break down the major cogs of the Raptor’s offence individually to gain a better understanding of what the strengths and weaknesses are as things stand.
Rudy Gay is the biggest part of the Raptors offence by volume. He’s taken more shots this year than anybody in the league not named Carmelo Anthony. The Rudy Gay inefficiency numbers storyline has been beaten in to the ground, and for good reason, so I won’t waste time in reiterating them now. Rest assured, they’re bad. But Rudy Gay is can be very good. And according to the numbers, he isn’t just the biggest single part of the Raptors offence; he’s also the most important. Take a look at this breakdown:
The difference in Raptors wins compared to Raptors losses is 7 shot attempts. When Rudy puts on his chucker cape and shoots with reckless abandon (22.7 attempts per game would be tops in the league by a full shot and a half), the Raptors have a 0.000 winning percentage. On the other hand, when he is more selective with his shots, putting up only 15.4 attempts, the raptors offence as a whole is much more efficient, and the team is winning. The 18 points with 40.3% shooting on 15.4 attempts is roughly comparable in efficiency to Chris Paul, Damien Lillard and Steph Curry. Compare that to Rudy’s overall averages, which match up with Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker and Brandon Jennings. There is an ocean of difference between the two. The latter player is humorously overpaid, while the former, averaging almost 4 assists and playing solid player, is actually earning his max contract. The Rudy Gay experiment is far from a failure.
It’s an important question to ask whether Rudy Gay takes too much of the blame for his shot selection. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t take bad shots, and far too many of them. He does. What I mean is, does he take those shots despite what the coaching staff wants him to do, or because of it? The movement in the Toronto offence has been as stale as the awful Memphis one that he left. Nobody likes to play with a shoot-first ball hog. Whether it’s the NBA or YMCA, it kills the energy, and slowly, everyone else stops trying. But the sheer volume of isolation plays and the apparently flashing green light Gay approaches 2pt jump shots with indicates that he must be encouraged to play this way. The pick and roll game has been abysmal (every single ball handler on the Raptors is scoring at a below average rate out of the pick and roll, according to Synergy stats). Every elite offensive NBA team has a series of play, picks, pin downs or in-bounds sets that it runs in order to help enable their stars to get good shots. The Raptors don’t do this for Rudy. Instead, he’s expected to create everything on his own. Gay is the hands down league leader in the percentage of made 2pt FGs that are unassisted. 72.2% of all of Gay’s 2pt shots are unassisted. That’s HUGE. On the flip side, an equally disproportionate amount of Rudy’s made 3pt FGs are assisted. That number is, co-incidentally, also 72.2%, also way above the league average. The majority of Rudy’s 3-pointers are good, team generated shots, and he’s hitting them at an elite level (What up laser eye surgery!). So, when Rudy is left to create on his own, he’s good enough to get looks and put up points, but it’s not efficient basketball. On the other hand, when the team helps to generate good 3pt shots for him, he hits them at an incredibly efficient rate.
Obviously Rudy needs to take the blame for a part of his shot selection. He needs to make better choices, and to his very recent credit, he has been. I’m sure that coaching has played a big role here. But the coaching staff needs to do a better job of devising plays and schemes that get Rudy better shots, as he in turn learns to turn his bad shots into assists.
The next piece of the offence is DeMar DeRozan. Coming out of last season, DeMar was the worst 3pt shooting starting shooting guard in the league. The infatuation with mid-range fade-aways and inability to turn double-teams into assists were the other blemishes on DeMar’s game that seemed within his ability to fix. The positives that DeMar took out of last season offensively was a much improved body language and confidence after the arrival of Rudy Gay, no longer feeling the pressure of being the offensive focal point and the other teams defensive game plan, and a run of a dozen games near the end of last season that saw DeMar getting to the free throw line at a near league-leading rate.
There was a lot of talk in the off-season, from analysts and DeMar himself, about the work on his 3pt shot. It’s shown. DeMar has demonstrated a much improved 3pt shot, especially from the corners, where he is absolutely killing it with 11 of 15 shooting. Around the arc, DeMar’s numbers have resembled his woeful career percentages. But he’s at least making attempts from that range when he’s open now. DeMar had gotten to the point with his 3pt confidence where he would only take it begrudgingly or at the end of a shot clock. That lack of confidence only served to further hamper his percentages. Now DeMar is taking the 3 whenever it comes to him. He’s drilling it from the corners, and while he may never be an elite shooter from around the arc, I would be surprised if the practice and confidence doesn’t carry over there in time as well.
As for the other pieces that DeMar takes off the table on offence, the mid-range game is still abysmal, and DeMar will likely once again challenge for the crown of lowest assists-to-minutes played ratio. The former problem is a matter of discipline and design, the same as it is for Gay, and I would expect the team to try and rein that in as the season rolls around. As for the latter issue, DeMar may be able to improve, but the reality is likely that he will never be a playmaker. If he adds a reliable 3pt shot to his already reliable game as a slasher, he doesn’t need to be. DeMar’s free-throw rate isn’t at the Hardenesque level he teased us with last year, but he’s focusing so much on the 3pt shot right now, that I think it will rise as time goes on. Even still, he’s averaging what would be a career high in ft attempts already. DeMar needs some help from designed plays and needs to develop some mid-range discipline, but his offensive game is evolving nicely.
Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross have been the team’s primary spot-up shooters this season, with Steve Novak having only just recently been thawed from his frozen-in-carbonite spot on Casey’s bench. Ross and Lowry have quietly put up impressively efficient offensive seasons. Lowry is averaging 37% on 5.6 attempts a game from deep. Terrence Ross is shooting 40% from 3. He was drafted as a shooter, so the fact that he’s doing it well isn’t getting much plug. That’s not surprising. What is surprising is that Ross is shooting great from everywhere. He’s almost 60% in the paint, 40% from 3 and 50% in between. Lowry is already feasting on some wide-open spot-up looks when the defense collapses, and Ross is essentially the only player the Raptors run off-screen shots for. Rudy and DeMar kicking out on drives and an offense with more ball movement would result in more spot-up opportunities for these two (and corner 3s for DeMar) which the numbers overwhelmingly indicate to be shots the Raptors should be doing everything they can to generate.
Finally we get to the two bigs, Valanciunas and Amir Johnson. Johnson is leading the team in fg% and points per shot, which is not a surprise. However, despite my basketball-crush on Amir, it’s hard to make the argument that he should be getting more shots. Aside from the wings making better use of him as a roll man to the basket, Amir is already taking all of the shots he should be. That’s why he shoots so efficiently. He knows his lane, and he stays in it. He’s the big reason why the Raptors get the 3rd most points in the league off of put-backs. He takes wide-open jumpers and shots right beside the hoop. We don’t need to change the way Amir is used.
Valanciunas is a different story. After being completely ignored on offence for the first two thirds of last season, Valanciunas was featured in the final 6 weeks of the season after the playoffs waved bye-bye. He was great, and he clearly loved it. The fact that his rebounding went up when he was more involved is no accident. Valanciunas has been visibly upset about his complete lack of involvement in the teams offence. It has 2 negative effects. First, it results in Jonas deciding that he’s going to shoot no matter what whenever he does get the ball, which results in bad shots or turnovers. Secondly, it has a clear impact on his intensity and level of effort on both ends of the court. In 12 games so far, Valanciunas has gotten 8 or more shots in 7 games, and less than 8 in the other five. In roughly the exact same minutes played between the two, Valanciunas is grabbing 3.7 offensive rebounds (the best statistical indication of effort and hustle, and a huge number), 8.4 rebounds and 55% shooting when he gets 8 or more touches. Contrarily, when he gets less than 8 touches (and it’s usually notably less), he’s grabbing 1.4 offensive boards, 5.6 rebounds and 31% shooting. The difference between the two is enormous. Even if Valanciunas isn’t Al Jefferson in the low post, the Raptors need to be getting him his touches just to make sure he stays engaged, active on the glass and developing. 8 is not asking for a lot.
The Raptors have a slightly below average offence. But there are bright points, the coaches seem to be making an effort for improvement without being overbearing and DeMar and Gay can at least shoot from 3, if nothing else. It’s not a glowing report card, but it definitely has cause for optimism and patience to see where it goes.