Getting to the free throw line and hanging on to the basketball can really help keep an offense afloat.
That’s the lesson three games into a Toronto Raptors season in which they’ve looked at times anemic, effective, and excellent, depending on the quarter. To watch the team play, the offense hasn’t felt all that in sync. Defense has been a far bigger issue, one for another day, but no game has left the viewer thinking “yup, the offense is already there,” I don’t think.
That wasn’t what was expected, and perhaps our expectations were just too high on an eye-test basis. With the team’s top-seven players carrying over from a season ago and only a few smaller wrinkles being worked into the playbook, the offense should have looked seamless. It certainly hasn’t been pretty, but on a numbers basis the offense has been really, really strong.
Through three games, the Raptors have scored 108.6 points per-100 possessions (PPC), good for fifth in the league, a mark that would have ranked fourth a season ago, and a rate that is 2.8 PPC better than the team produced last season (and yes, even 1.4 PPC better than the post-trade Raptors). It is, without question, the smallest of samples, but we have only small samples to work from right now, and we can’t simply shrug our shoulders until the 20-game mark. These games have happened, and the Raptors offense, however static at times, has been very effective.
The necessary caveats beyond sample apply – the Magic are young and learning, the Heat were missing two frontcourt players, and it’s unclear if the Hawks are going to be an above-average defensive unit (they’re probably about average). The Raptors were missing Amir Johnson against the Heat, too, and the Raptors have been uncharacteristically cold from long range (27.5 percent). In other words, we’re dealing with imperfect information, but it’s all we’ve got.
There is one primary reason why the offense hasn’t looked great aesthetically but has been effective nonetheless: the things they’re doing well don’t necessarily stand out. The two areas the Raptors are thriving are in ball control, which is more often picked up for its absence than presence, and getting to the free throw line, which is more noticeable but not exactly pretty, and at times irritating to watch (again, from, an aesthetic standpoint only).
The ball control shouldn’t be all that surprising. One would guess that continuity in roster and system would lead to fewer miscues, especially early in the season. So far, the Raptors are turning the ball over on just 9.9 percent of possessions, the best rate in the league by a sizable margin and one that would have lapped the field appreciably last season.
DeMar DeRozan has been the most impressive in this regard, using 31.7 percent of possessions when he’s on the floor and turning the ball over on just 9.1 percent of them. Even this early in Small Sample Size Theatre, DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are the only players in basketball (minimum 40 minutes played) using that many possessions with so few miscues. DeRozan has always protected the ball incredibly well given his usage, but that’s been taken to another level in the early going here.
It’s a damn good thing, too, because his shot isn’t falling much. DeRozan is shooting just 42.9 percent from the field, the same rate he hit at last season, and he’s just 1-of-3 from downtown. He’s doing just about everything else well, though, like with the ball control – he’s grabbed 22 rebounds already, secured 11 steals, and posted a 24.7 player efficiency rating that’s leaps and bounds beyond the best he’s ever had.
And of course, we double back to an earlier point to explain how that’s possible: DeRozan, one of the league’s elite when it comes to drawing fouls, has lived at the charity stripe. In three games, he’s already taken 32 free throws, the third-best per-game rate at this early juncture. Right behind him on the leaderboard is Kyle Lowry, who has taken 31 free throws already (he’s also somehow committed just two turnovers all season, which, well: yeah).
As a team, the Raptors are averaging an obscene 40 free throw attempts per game, 2.5 more than the next closest team (‘sup, Rudy?). Even though free throws felt like an issue on Sunday because the team’s only hitting them at a 74.2 percent rate overall, getting to the line over and over and over and over and over is a really effective use of possessions. When the offense stalls or the designed action doesn’t bear fruit, the Raptors have been able to barrel their way to the basket or fake their men off of their feet, tallying 29.7 free points a night.
It’s not pretty, naturally. Free throws slow the game down, and splitting a pair of freebies can feel, when viewing, more frustrating than a missed offensive set. That’s not the case, though, and the Raptors are basically living off of their ability to draw fouls, something they’re doing better than anyone else. Having players like DeRozan and Lowry significantly raises the floor of any offense, and when things get ugly, they can be relied on for an easy point or two. That’s a pretty good option out of the gate, let alone as a crutch.
As a way to illustrate this impact, we can compare team stats in terms of field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, and offensive rating. FG% is what it is, eFG% incorporates the added value of 3-point shots, TS% incorporates the value of free throws, and O-Rtg measures all aspects of a possession (including turnovers and offensive rebounding, where the Raptors rank eighth). By looking at each, we get an idea of how much of the Raptors’ success is based on just shot making, compared to intelligent shot mix, aggression, and overall offensive performance.
So despite not hitting shots at a strong rate – made worse by the woeful long-range shooting, which in itself may be posing a problem, with the Raptors unable to stretch teams horizontally in the early going – the free throw rate, offensive rebounding, and lack or turnovers have carried the team. Luckily, those are three tenets of offensive production a team could be expected to perform consistently in. All three have at least some basis in strategy and player talent, and the post-trade Raptors a year ago were in the top-11 in each.
None of this forgives some sloppy early play, but if you saw the offense’s ranking and it didn’t exactly jibe well with your impression watching the games, there’s why.