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The early returns on the Raptors’ new offense

It may have looked ugly at times, but it’s not as bad as you may think

All I can seem to remember talking about the past 6 months with regards to the Raptors is a “culture reset”. Initially quoted in the annual end-of-season presser by Masai Ujiri, the “culture reset’ (which Ujiri seemed to back off from a bit) became the talking point for the Raptors heading into this past off-season. Coming off of a second consecutive playoff series loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors were in dire need of a new look that relied less on individual talents and one which made the offense as a whole look greater than the sum of the parts. It was time for DeMar and Kyle to take a back seat with isolation plays, and create a more three-point oriented passing game – and even Dwane Casey, who many considered to be on the hot seat following that loss last year to Cleveland, shamelessly admitted to everything we criticized him for. It was time for a change.

So after arriving at training camp nearly four months later continuing to harp on a shooting-focused motion-style offense, and with CJ Miles looking like a sixth-man of the year candidate after the home opener against the Bulls, it seemed like this could come together…right? Not really. If there’s one thing we’ve seen in the first 5 games from the Raptors, it’s that shooting comes…and goes. I guess we’ve grown used to seeing DeRozan and Lowry getting off to hot shooting starts to regular seasons, but aside from good DeRozan numbers in some games, the Raptors offense has overall been…just meh.

The numbers

From a three-point perspective, the Raptors are definitely trying to do their part in creating opportunities. Thanks to CJ (who’s putting up more than 7 a game), the Raptors have upped their three-point attempts to over 34 per game (a 42.1% increase since last year’s per-game average of 24.3). But that’s come at the expense of…you guessed it…efficiency. After a season average of close to 36.3% shooting from beyond the arc last year, 5 games into this season the Raptors are shooting about 29.5%.

As arguably the team’s best long-range shooters, the most puzzling pieces in the Raptors offense so far are the shooting of Lowry and CJ Miles. CJ, after the starting the season 6/9 from long-distance opening night against Chicago, went on to go a combined 8/28 in the next 4 games. Lowry meanwhile, prior to the Lakers game on Friday, had gone 8/29 in the first 4 games. So both of these guys, aside from 1 game, have been generally far worse from long-range than expected. It’s still probably too early, but if consistent bad shooting persists over the next 10-15 games from these guys, it would start to concern me as to whether we can really be a consistently good shooting team.

As for passing, the Raptors offense thus far seems noticeably improved. Assists/per game last year were around 18.5, and through 5 games this year that number has already climbed to 24.6. Not only has Lowry done his part at the point of attack (over 7 a game), but it’s also been the unselfish play of the bench unit with Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet, great passers who have each averaged over 2 assists each off of the bench. And of course, when he’s not scoring, DeMar’s usually dishing it out, averaging over 4 assists a game himself. The Raptors have spoken about playing DeMar at the point in a playmaking capacity, and I like when they do that – DeMar’s been a great passer since about 2-3 years ago when his ability to read plays really improved, so encouraging him to pass both (a) keeps him from taking bad shots and (b) more importantly, keeps teams guessing as to whether he’s going to pass or shoot.

The Raptors have also increased their assist % (% of shots made which are assisted), going from 18.5 assists on 39.2 made field goals per game year last year (47% assist percentage), to 24.6 on 39.6 made field goals per game this year (62%). No matter how good our guys may be in isolation in certain situations, I’ll take as many of the assisted field goals I can get, especially if it involves the surprisingly promising young guys – Poeltl, Norm, Siakam, Delon and OG.

The Raptors offense has appeared more potent this year, at least when we look at total points. The team averaged about 106.9 points per game last year on around 46.4% from the field (with an offensive rating of 109.8). Through 5 games this year, the Raptors are averaging approximately 111.0 points, but at a slightly decreased efficiency of 45.1% (with an offensive rating of 106.7) (keep in mind that includes two matchups against two of the best defensive teams in the league in San Antonio and Golden State). So far, I would say…so good. It’s been a bumpy ride, but a tough schedule has to do with some of it, combined with probably the worst we’ll see of Norm Powell this season (we hope), and a few other factors.

The eye test

The new offense was great on opening night against the Bulls and for most of the Sixers game. Where we saw things change up a bit was in the San Antonio game down the stretch (what didn’t go wrong during that stretch?), and in the final minutes against Golden State. Though we saw the Raptors pass the ball effectively and attempt way more 3’s (not necessarily knock them down, but that’s another story), the good signs we were seeing throughout a game suddenly caved when times got tough. I’m not sure if that was conscious, or if maybe the defense took some of it away, but the results from our new offense have seemed…mixed.

We can all say we try to do something, but at some point we’re going to have to get it done. The Raptors have shown signs of heading in the right direction, but I think it starts with the Raptors’ big guns – Kyle and DeMar. It starts with leadership in the locker room, taking a stand in practice, correcting mistakes game after game, and (can’t believe I’m saying this) pounding the rock until we get it right. This offense wasn’t meant to be built overnight, but that’s what training camp and the first half of the regular season are for – finding an identity as a team, and refining the details to get it right. I’ll take a just-above-500 start to the season as long as it involves steps in the right direction with mistakes that could be fixed by playoff time.

Lookahead

It’s pretty clear that what we all fear as Raptors fans is that this team will start to go back to the way things were; resorting to a formula that we’ve seen for multiple years in a row, and one that didn’t work. So perhaps we’re maybe just over-reacting to whatever we see that’s even remotely isolation in the Raptors’ offense to this point. Not to mention, it’s just been 5 games into the season, and at least on paper, the Raptors are trying consistently to make a more passing-and-shooting-friendly offense come to life. For now…we can’t blame ‘em right?

The Raptors are also playing in a weaker Eastern Conference – meaning matchups like Chicago, New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Indiana and Atlanta will come 3 or 4 times a year each. That’s a lot of a winnable games where you’ll probably see the Raptors flex some offensive muscle (just like what we saw in the first 2 games this season). What’s going to be crucial is getting the young guys enough reps along the way, and encouraging everyone to take on an offensive load (not just Kyle and DeMar), and who knows what can come of it. Maybe even an offense that finally performs in the playoffs? Time will tell.

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