Photo credit: Christian Bonin / TSGphoto.com
An important aspect of success – at anything, not just sports – is knowing the difference between your and others’ roles on the same project. Awareness is important. In the past, I have worked in radio. When there are multiple hosts on the same show, it’s important to know who’s doing what; it’s bad for a show if two hosts are both playing set-up, or if two hosts are both trying to finish the punch line. Professional basketball is no different.
During the Raptors 905 10-game winning streak, players’ roles have begun fitting together like Sean Ashton and being inspiring. The image at large is becoming clear; no two players are playing set-up at the same time, just as no two players are both trying to finish the same joke. Coach Stackhouse knows the importance of his players buying in: “Understanding that if we continue to work and continue to stay together, then we can have moments like this. So, I’m proud of those guys… These guys [are] sticking together.” So what are their roles? Who is doing what, and how has it all contributed to this stellar 10-0 league-wide rampage?
Brown needs no introduction. At the G-League level, he is too fast, too talented, and too smart. He is unstoppable, full-stop. He takes the most shots and leads the team in assists, all contributing to his team-high usage rate during the 10-0 stretch of 24.3%. That isn’t astronomical; he’s a willing passer, and teams have even sometimes sold out their defence, Steph Curry-style, to get the ball out of his hands. Brown is happy to let his teammates get the glory in such situations. He can score from anywhere on the court, and he is already a master of using the threat of his scoring to create openings for his teammates. I’ve written about the development of Brown’s role in the offence here and here, but his 20 ppg (on 56% from the field and 46% from 3) and 10apg averages during the run speak for themselves.
It’s surprising to think of Bruno Caboclo as the second option for the 905, but his offensive usage has surged this season. After attempting fewer than 10 field goals per game last season, his shots per game have ballooned to 12.5 during the 10-0 stretch. His main role for the team is to be a volume 3-point shooter. Dude’s chucked 7.5 3s per game (on a middling 32.0%)! When he’s on the floor, he accounts for 39.1% of the team’s attempted 3s, but only 22.0% of its points.
I’m going to write a dedicated piece about Bruno later on during the Showcase, but for now, suffice it to say he’s on somewhat of a cold streak. His handle is loose, and though his decision-making is speeding up, it’s still not fast enough to consider him a playmaker.
But Bruno does get respect behind the arc, and defenders close out on his shots. The team’s offence has been deadly with Bruno on the floor, boasting an offensive rating of 110.0, versus a total team rating of 105.1 during the last 10. Part of that is because Bruno plays with the talented starters, but it’s important to note that he doesn’t drag down the team offence. Even if Bruno hasn’t been an elite marksman, by playing his role of high-volume shooting big, he forces defenders to open the paint for those deadly Lorenzo drives. The 905 don’t have another player with Bruno’s combination of size, aggression, and skill, and he doesn’t need to hit 40% of his 3s to help the team (although that would be nice).
On the defensive end, Caboclo is a major and unique contributor. His length and motor allow the 905 to force a high number of turnovers per game (17.6). He has shown the ability to harness his tools to get his hands on balls all over the floor, averaging 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. Furthermore, his imposing frame behind the ball, poaching passes or helping teammates beaten on the dribble, empowers his guards and wings to dig into their marks and play tight, trusting the help behind them.
Alfonzo McKinnie / Malcolm Miller / Fuquan Edwin
While averaging the third-most shots for the 905, McKinnie seems to have locked into his role as star 3-D wing. While starting as a huge, long small forward (the team seems to have cooled on his minutes as a power forward), McKinnie takes plenty of 3s for the 905 and makes them at a reasonable clip of 36.8%. Malcolm Miller has backed up McKinnie, and the team loses practically nothing when Miller replaces him on the floor. The two players are averaging nearly the same minutes, points, offensive rebounds, turnovers, and steals per game; Miller is even shooting more 3s (6.0 per game versus 4.8 for McKinnie) at a better (40.7%) clip.
Fuquan Edwin is a recent 905 signing, and he has earned 20 minutes per game during the streak. While he doesn’t have the size of McKinnie or Miller, he performs the same 3-D role. He has shot 35.5% from behind the line, and he is a willing shooter. Edwin is an aggressive defender, taking away breathing space, comfort, anything from his marks.
McKinnie and Miller are elite G-League defenders, who move their feet well and offer multiple contests on shots on the perimeter or around the rim. Though they are less handsy than Brown and Caboclo (Miller in particular), forcing fewer turnovers, they are no slouches in that regard either.
The 905 foisted playmaking duties on McKinnie to begin the season, trying to mold him into a multi-tool weapon on the offensive end. Last season for Windy City, he was primarily a spot-up shooter who crashed the offensive glass with abandon. After mixed results in the early going, McKinnie has initiated the offence much less during the 10-0 streak. He had trouble dishing the rock from the drive early in the season, instead forcing shots and getting blocked quite frequently. Easy fix: just give the ball to Lorenzo.
Kennedy Meeks / Shevon Thompson
The 905 experimented early in the season with Meeks as a power forward. After Edy Tavares departed, the center position was open for the seizing, and Meeks did just that. However, with his absence from the 905 while playing for Team USA’s FIBA roster, the 905 signed / traded for Shevon Thompson to fill the void. Fast forward to mid-December, when the winning streak began.
Meeks and Thompson are a two-headed dragon at the center position. Both set vicious screens to create loads of space for probing Lorenzo drives. Both have good feel around the rim, shooting 52.6% and 61.1% from the field respectively during the winning streak. Each has had slightly over half of their field goals assisted, but their unassisted scoring numbers are inflated by their strong offensive rebounding and put-back abilities.
And they are loads on the offensive glass: Meeks due to his mass and strength, and Thompson due to his size and length. Together, they’ve combined for 7.4 offensive rebounds a game. This is their main job: do the dirty work. Both players are willing to be physical on both sides of the ball, bumping cutters and corralling drivers on defence, and slamming would-be-rebounders or defenders on offence. This provides room for Lorenzo to work. Their reward? Brown has a knack for finding both of them on the pick and roll, as both players are talented at keeping the passing lanes open for as long as possible while rolling. The chemistry is evident, and they are both selfless, low-usage players.
Kaza Keane / Davion Berry
It seems bizarre to place these two in the same tier in the 905 hierarchy, as Keane rarely shoots, and Berry rarely does anything but. However, they are almost two sides of the same coin. Together, they make up one whole (G-League level) Manu Ginobili.
Keane is a talented passer. While he has trouble scoring the basketball himself, due to an average jumpshot and below-average athleticism and paint finishing, he excels at creating for his teammates. He even shares the 905 single-game assist record (15) with Lorenzo (and assured me after game 1 of the Showcase that he didn’t begrudge his teammate for tying his record only a few short games after Keane set it).
Berry, on the other hand, plays like a gunslinger from a Sergio Leone movie. He is only averaging 8.8 points per game during the stretch, but that is during his limited 20.1 mpg. Berry is more than a 3-point shooter (though inconsistent, he can be terrific in that regard as well), as he is a willing attacker off the bounce; he’s had more than his fair share of circus shots around the rim. Berry is the team’s most potent shot creator other than Lorenzo, and together, Berry and Keane duplicate Lorenzo’s role when the star guard sits. When Berry and Lorenzo play together, the offence is juiced beyond recognition.
Best is a spot-starter whose position (shooting guard) is usually filled in close fourth quarters by Malcolm Miller or Davion Berry. Best has a feathery lefty stroke, and the majority of his shots (62%) come from 3-point range. While his offence has been limited to mostly corner 3s, he represents another defensive-minded wing who is willing to get into his opponent’s body and force turnovers. (If you think I’m saying the same thing about all these wings, it’s because they are all awesome defenders. The 905 are by most measures the best defensive team in the G-League. They don’t switch much or use complicated schemes; they just generally play five defenders who they believe can lock down whomever they defend, 1-on-1. It’s been working.)
That’s the 10-man rotation. Negus Webster-Chan has fallen out of the rotation, even when healthy, as have youngsters Kethan Savage and Andre Washington. The 905 try to play the same no matter who is on the court. The basic offensive strategy is to put an offensive playmaker who excels as the pick-and-roll ball handler beside one great screen setter and three great shooters. Lorenzo Brown has thrived in this setting. When it’s the bench’s turn, Keane and Berry manage to offer enough production in the same setting that the offence doesn’t completely stall out (though it definitely struggles without Lorenzo). The point is everyone knows their role, and the offence – though far from the league-consuming force that is the team’s defence – has done enough to cobble together a 10-0 streak.
The 905 have won the same way as the Boston Celtics: curb-stomp your opponents on the defensive end, and allow your superstar point guard to create just enough semi-efficient offence to win (although Lorenzo has been far more efficient than Kyrie). Sean Ashton would be proud. Coach Stackhouse excelled in his first year, winning the championship with the 905. However, his ability to mold this entirely new team (other than Bruno) into such a dominant force may represent his best piece of coaching yet.