The Raptors have a top-five defense since the Rudy Gay trade. This installment breaks down why that is.

In the 16 games since the Rudy Gay trade (last night’s match against Milwaukee notwithstanding), the Toronto Raptors boast the NBA’s fourth best defense, allowing a mere 97.4 points per 100 possessions. This latest installment looks at why the Raptors defense has been successful by perusing over shot-location data. The next installment will address the how, and focus on detailing the success of the Raptors defensive schemes.

For some reason, the word “analytics” is taboo for certain sports fans. These fans cringe at the thought of some MBA grad in a three-piece suit supplanting a former player or coach because it trivializes the core tenets of the game. It’s seen as pig-headed and wrong-spirited. It’s a cold, calculated approach that champions science over art. “The numbers” dehumanize the game and overlooks the intangibles — leadership, toughness, grit, compete-level.

In reality, “analytics” isn’t about numbers or graphs — it simply refers to approaching the game of basketball like a science. It’s about creating a hypothesis, collecting observations, testing your hypothesis and making conclusions if there are any to be made. In short, it’s a process of finding your way out of the unknown with rationality as your guiding light. It’s done in almost every industry and every walk of life. It’s neither good, nor bad. It simply is.

I don’t have any issues with analytics playing a factor in the modern NBA because it’s just another manifestation of competition. In a competitive industry, every marginal advantage is coveted. This is especially true for a industry like sports, where the product itself is competition. If crunching some numbers pushes the needle from 40 to 41 wins, go nuts. If increasing the video scouting staff helps you win, do it. If hiring the best physicians can elongate careers and minimize injuries, spend the money. It’s all the same.

Thanks to the proliferation of the analytics crowd, the word “midrange” has also become taboo. One of the most prevalent analytical axioms of NBA basketball (and quite possibly basketball as a whole) is that the mid-range shot is “inefficient” — and surprise, surpise — that doesn’t jive too well with many people. In reality, there simply isn’t a debate to be had on this issue — midrange shots are inefficient, as in on average, one would expect less points per shot from a midrange jumper as compared to a layup or three. Shown below are the average expected points per shot values from different areas of the floor over the last 36 days.

ppfga

Now that’s not to say that all mid-range shots are bad. If you’re wide open and you can knock it down (think Patrick Patterson), you take it. It also doesn’t mean that you should never game-plan for it — Rip Hamilton made a career out of curling around down-screens and spotting up from 15-20 feet. It can be done, and it can be done well, but it’s simply not ideal in the aggregate.

So why has the Raptors defense been so good of late? Well, a lot of their success comes from forcing their opponents to shoot the relatively inefficient shots as opposed to threes and shots in the restricted area.

First off, the Raptors are doing a great job running their opponents off the three-point line. How they manage execute this will be covered in an upcoming post, but for the time being, all you need to know is that the Raptors don’t allow their opponents to shoot threes. Three-pointers are broken down into corner threes (the areas of the arc parallel to the sideline, and above the break threes (the area in-between). The Raptors allow the 9th fewest corner threes and the fewest above-the-break attempts, which equates to the fourth fewest three-point attempts allowed overall. Their opponents actually shoot a pretty decent percentage on the threes that they do shoot, but studies conducted on the matter suggest that consistently suppressing opponents’ 3FG% isn’t sustainable in either college, nor the NBA. Either way, limiting the number of attempts is a good thing.

3fga

In addition to defending the three, the Raptors also do a good job defending at the rim. Again, how they manage to pull this off will be discussed in an upcoming post, but the result is that the Raptors hold their opponents to the second lowest shooting percentage at the rim at 53.2% (ironically, the lowly Bucks are first). The Raptors will allow opponents to shoot at the rim (10th most opponent FGA in the restricted area), but they contest effectively thanks in large part to “The Doctor of Denial”.

fgp

In addition to defending the three and the basket, the Raptors also do a good job defending before and after the shot. The Raptors are approximately league average in collecting defensive rebounds and conceding free-throw attempts, but they manage to make their hay by forcing turnovers (7th in the NBA at 16.0 opponent turnovers per game). Kyle Lowry’s charge-taking, steal-nabbing ways serve as an effective first line of defense.

In conclusion, the Raptors have a top-five defense because they don’t allow opponents to shoot threes and they do a great job contesting shots at the rim, which is key in the modern NBA. Throw in the fact that the Raptors aren’t weak in the other defensive categories (FT, rebounding, forcing turnovers, blocks), and voila, you have a the makings of a great defense. Or rather, that’s according to the analytics. I’ll have to get back to you on the “toughness” and “grittiness” another time.

However, the more interesting question is how are the Raptors managing to limit threes, challenge shots and force turnovers? For the answer to that question, we’ll dive into the video and break down some plays, so tune in for the next installment in “Really?! The Raptors have a top-five defense?”

  • TheSpiceTyrant

    Analytics schmanalytics. Moving your damn feet on defense + contest / closing out shots + give a toss + closing out + communicating + calling help + active hands in the passing lanes + players listening to the coaches scouting reports = good defense.

    • DDayLewis

      Yeah that will be covered in the next one.

    • Keepup

      .,.. and have athletic and long players that can do these things very effectively.

    • onemanweave

      A lot of sharp basketball minds on here. I played high school basketball five decades ago; watched Bill Russell dominate games while looking fairly clumsy on offense; watched the Raps for years.
      Won’t/can’t get into techniques but have a couple eye test observations.
      In most other seasons teams got better against Toronto as the game wore on. They exploited their weaknesses and wound up with straight-line drives to the basket for dunks/lay-ups in crunch time to either erase Toronto leads or bury them.
      That doesn’t happen now. The Raptors cut off penetration and contest the perimeter. Wonderful to see — a Toronto team making stops when they need to.
      Other point: opponents always seemed to get better as games wore on. This year — the reverse. Raps seem to get a better read against the offense than vice versa as games progress to crunch time. A sight for sore eyes.

  • Delabar’s Weighted Balls

    Jonas doesn’t get nearly as much credit as he should. He masterfully challenges shots & alters attempts; It’s a joy to watch him employ the principle of verticality. He just has a knack for playing great defense

    • leftovercrack

      I like the Jonas-Patterson front-court combo. 2Pat’s outside shot complements JV’s inside game and he can defend as well. And one is 21 years old and the other 24. I’d like to see both in TO for a long time

  • Phat AlberG

    Terrance Ross

  • webfeat

    Looks to me like the raps are quick to switch defenders on screens near the perimeter, allowing them to have a body on the shooter off the ball, even if there’s a mismatch. On the inside, the 5 and 4 are assigned to be conscious of providing strong help defense, so there’s plenty of rim protection. Where the raps have trouble are opponents that use attacks on the rim to draw defenders or use picks in order to open up a pass to a long range jumper or corner three. Another approach against the raps is to use screens to force a mismatch, then wait for an opening when the matched defender tries to return to his man.

    How’s my BS meter?

    • DDayLewis

      Pretty spot on

    • Tim

      Makes sense to me. You’ve got to pick your poison in today’s NBA on defense and giving up the mismatch to protect against the three makes sense. Up to the wing player on the opposing team to recognize the mismatch and take it to the hoop, not just once but over and over again to ensure defenders start fouling out. The great ones will do that, the merely good ones get tired at going in hard and getting hit and start taking jumpshots, leaving defenders with only 3-4 fouls. But mine is an amateur player analysis, I might be overlooking things.

  • SR

    Great write up.

    The Raps’ athleticism is finally being put to good use. Forget about run and gun/fast breaks – use those quicks to help fast and hedge hard. The bigs are great at aggressively hedging out at the perimeter and then recovering on the roll man. Also, Andrea Bargnani is gone. This helps.

    Not surprised at the Bucks paint defense. Damn, those guys are long and skinny at all forward positions. The Raps’ bigs had a tough time on layups and putbacks in that last game. John Henson’s trash talk T was funny, though. The intimidation factor just isn’t there when the thickness of your legs is doubled by putting on a pair of socks.

  • Tanks-a-lot

    Look at Michael Jordan’s 3-pointer numbers. Hideous.

    Would you rather have Reggie Miller?

    • DDayLewis

      What?

  • Quest

    lowry, ross and DD have also done an excellent job on perimeter defence!

  • HST

    Jonas alters shots. Amir D’s up like a mofo. That’s why. #inanutshell

    • SR

      #gladyourenotawriter
      #boringashell
      #ilikebrightandcolorfulgraphicstheymakemehappy

  • canadafubuki

    Maybe the raptors have top five defense because they play four of the worst teams in the nba more games than other teams in the highly competitive Atlantic division? I’d be curious if strength of opponent could be included in the analysis.

    • DDayLewis

      A more diligent analyst than myself would have factored this in, but I’m really too lazy to bother. FWIW, they did play the Spurs twice, the Heat and the Mavericks over those 16 games, but they did play their fair share of shitty offensive squads.

    • humza

      They did hold miami, okc, pacers (twice) all under 96 points since the rudy gay trade and by far have had the toughest scehdule in the eastern conference by far and top 6 or 7 hardest scehdule overall

    • humza

      And also in the last 10 games they held opponents to 88.5 ppg whilst having the hardest scehdule over that stretch and going 8-2 from what I recall reading on espn stats

    • Steve

      Division does not factor into your schedule, it depends on your conference. Raptors have also had the hardest schedule in the east, and have the easiest remaining schedule of the league.

  • ItsAboutFun

    Analytics, like any tool, is as good as it’s application. If whatever analysis helps players, coaches, management, then great stuff. The only problems basketball minds, rather than scientific minds, have with analytics is some of the extrapolations that the scientists derive from them, sometimes paying not enough attention to the nuances of the sport,

    For example, getting on DeMar’s case for his mid range game as if it’s simply his exclusive choice to focus so often on that part of his game. Good defenses around the league, besides the Raps, also try to force the offense there, so an offense better have some players reasonably effective there. It’s least efficient, but someone has to do it. It becomes especially important when the playoffs roll around.

    • flobber

      >The only problems basketball minds, rather than scientific minds, have with analytics is some of the >extrapolations that the scientists derive from them, sometimes paying not enough attention to the nuances >of the sport.

      I’d argue that on the contrary it’s the lack of training and respect for science/statistics that leads to basketball minds using these overly simple stats in the ways they were never intended for. Fortunately, lately there’s been some promising developments in terms of advanced analytics but we’re still far from true money ball.

  • Dan Muirhead

    You mean core tenet, not tenant.

    • DDayLewis

      I did. Thanks Dantong Jia

  • plk

    A great write up about the Rap’s defence. I realize this isn’t the point of the post, but glancing at these bar graphs also seems to say that strong defence isn’t necessarily a key to success unless you’re the Pacers.

    Miami: avg. 3FGA allowed, horrible opponent FG% in restricted area
    OKC: horrible 3FGA allowed, very good opponent FG% in restricted area
    Milwaukee: slightly below avg. 3FGA allowed, THE BEST opponent FG% in restricted area

    Just thought I’d point this out.

    • DDayLewis

      Turnovers, rebounding and fouling are also key determinants of defense, but you’re right — shooting charts doesn’t tell the whole story, not by a long shot.

  • http://www.probballreport.com/ Stephen Brotherston

    Hey – take it easy on the MBA’s – there are quite a few of us around! And those of us who have been around – never ever trust the numbers without seeing things for ourselves! The saying, ‘Lies, D*mn lies & statistics’ didn’t happen for no reason.

  • sitnonDfence

    it would be interesting to see how the league adapts and changes. The last generation made a living on mid range shots. Defenses planned for it, and the shot selection switches back to the inside out methodology. Now many NBA teams not just the Raptors are giving up the midrange shot. Which players will adapt and hone their skills enough to make defenses pay?

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