Raptors’ defensive rebounding becoming an issue

The Raptors' troublesome defense stems from issues on the defensive glass.

A season after letting their defense stand as the team’s calling card, the Toronto Raptors are struggling on that end of the floor.

Unlike last year’s breakout, when the offense was good enough but the defense nearly elite, the 2014-15 Raptors find themselves thriving on offense alone. The current No. 2 ranking on the offensive end isn’t a luxury but a necessity, considering the team has fallen to 18th in defense (entering play Sunday).

Some of the issues are fairly obvious. For one, the team often plays two guards together, occasionally leaving one susceptible to tough match-ups at the two. Greivis Vasquez is a poor defender but has enough size to capably check some shooting guards, but Lou Williams doesn’t have the defensive chops for either guard spot. This has been magnified with DeMar DeRozan sidelined, not just because it means more minutes for those two but because DeRozan, while not an exceptional individual defender, is savvy, limiting mistakes and rarely missing on the plethora of switches and helps that Dwane Casey’s defensive system calls for. He may be roughly average overall on defense – my eyes tell me he’s a shade above, but I’d prefer a non-Raptors enthusiast confirm that for me – but his absence has caused some trickle-down on the wings.

The lack of rim protection beyond Jonas Valanciunas has also been derided, especially with Amir Johnson not really being himself. Patrick Patterson is a willing and active, but not always effective, defender, especially the odd time when he’s tasked with being the team’s lone big, and the team’s cast of backup centers all do one thing very well, at the expense of everything else. The Raptors have also struggled against opposing bigs who can shoot, the result of a defensive scheme that prefers it’s non-Amir Johnson bigs to protect against the drive.

Looking at the changes from a year ago, the Raptors are performing similarly in two of the so-called Four Factors that can help predict defensive performance. Like they are on offense, the Raptors remain a team that’s willing to send opponents to the line and a team that forces a good turnover rate. Where they’ve dropped off is in actually defending the shots from the floor opponents take and, when they do, cleaning up the rebounds.

Opponent 4 Factors2013-142014-15
FTA Rate31.5%30.0%

Rebounding is perhaps the most frustrating part of this decline. The Raptors don’t allow an egregious number of attempts at the rim and are roughly average at protecting it, while the amount of corner threes they surrender is the only part of the opponent shooting mix that really stands out as irritating (more on that shortly).

On the glass, though, this team should have expected to be good, or at least not bad. Instead, they rank 26th, grabbing just 72.9 percent of opponent misses. Eric Koreen of the National Post wrote about this last week (full disclosure: we are a tag-team called The Reasonablists and he called me “cool cat” on Sunday), quoting Casey as saying it’s a team-wide effort that will fix it.

But hey, let’s look at individuals first. Here are the defensive rebounding percentages (simply the percentage of available opponent misses they grab when on the floor) for each Raptor this year, last year, and for their careers, as well as the net change from last season:

PlayersCareer DRb%2013-14 DRb%2014-15 DRb%1-Year Change
A Johnson18.6%17.6%12.9%-4.7%
J Johnson14.7%13.2%17.1%3.9%

There are noticeable drop-offs for three rotation bigs, an alarming sign. The positive change for James Johnson can probably be explained by his playing more power forward, and Patterson has both been doing a nice job and been asked to play closer to the rim on defense more often. The changes to guards and wings are relatively small, and they make up a much smaller share of the overall rebounding load. The drop-off for Amir Johnson is most concerning. His struggles are surely a topic for another time, all on their own, but he definitely isn’t playing like himself.

The issue is more with the group than any individual, much as Amir’s overall play is troublesome. With largely the same roster, the Raptors have fallen off a fair amount in the defensive rebounding category, posting their lowest rate of the four-year Casey era.


While Casey’s principles haven’t changed a ton over time, the team’s commitment to certain ideals has become more hard-wired over the last two seasons. The Raptors don’t necessarily run anything funky on the defensive end, but Casey’s scheme is an aggressive one that requires players to use their intelligence and quickness. Knowing the roster is found wanting of quality individual defenders, the Raptors instead rely on each other for help, often asking players to anticipate the offense or even pre-rotate. That allows the on-ball defenders to focus on challenging ball-carries directionally rather than just getting a stop themselves, and it’s been effective for the most part, as Mike Prada broke down at SB Nation not too long ago.

The system makes sense for this roster, and for the most part, players have executed it well. It’s exploitable, especially for teams with strong 3-point shooting and multiple passers on the floor. Because the Raptors are always helping, there’s often a player scrambling back to an open man, especially since the team’s lead guards haven’t been particularly effective as the first line of defense. A guard getting beat starts the chain of reaction, and against good offenses that chain may end with a look in the corner as a Raptor flies in desperately to contest at the last moment.

Here are two examples from the Pacers game on Friday. In the first, Amir Johnson quickly helps on to David West, but Landry Fields is unsure about his immediate next step once the switch has been made. In the second, Kyle Lowry helps into the post to make up for Tyler Hansbrough’s floating to the strong side in anticipation, and he’s unable to close out in time. There are surely many better examples (miss you, Synergy), but you get the idea of how quick helps can leave a corner open, especially on the weak side like in the second example.

The constant movement and, more importantly, changing of assignment can leave players out of good rebounding position and without a clear idea who their man to box out is. Here are some examples of the team bleeding offensive boards against the Cavaliers last week. In each case, the offensive rebounder’s man has been rendered out of position by help action (in the second, it’s Kevin Love being open, not Tristan Thompson getting the board, that’s most upsetting).

This would explain why Valanciunas’ rebound rate has climbed, too, since he’s asked to help less than anyone as the defense’s last line of protection. He plays closest to the basket and usually only helps in the restricted area, leaving him in strong rebounding position, even if he does contest a drive.

Offensive rebounds are one of the worst outcomes for a defense, because they turn a stop into a fresh shot clock for the offense. Those extended possessions are incredibly valuable – both because they extend possessions and because team’s score at a higher clip from offensive rebounds – and that’s why rebound rate helps predict overall performance at both ends of the floor.

It’s unclear what the immediate solution is for the Raptors. Some of it may be a greater attention to detail when initial shots go up, DeRozan’s return would help with limiting initial scrambles, and Amir Johnson should conceivably begin to play better (perhaps after an extended rest). Casey can’t exactly have his team abandon the principles that made the defense effective last season, especially since poor guard play has actually made the help-heavy scheme more important. It may just be a reality for right now that the Raptors aren’t a strong defensive rebounding outfit, though I’d fully expect to come up some given the baseline that’s been established by Casey’s system and largely this same team last year.