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.

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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.

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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”.

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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?”

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