DeRozan’s absence being felt on defensive end

While the Raptors are out 20 points a game, it's the defensive end where DeRozan's absence has had the biggest impact.

The Toronto Raptors are about to embark on their toughest stretch of the season so far, with five road games on the west coast in a span of just nine days. While the 5-in-9 isn’t all that arduous – it’s bookended by long layoffs and has just one back-to-back – the only team on the docket that can be labelled a “should win” is Denver, who happen to host the Raptors on the second night of said back-to-back, in one of the hardest environments to play in the league has to offer. It ain’t gonna be an easy way to close out 2014 and kick off 2015.


Of course, the Raptors enter that stretch riding very high, and it’s easy to maintain confident from a 22-7 start that has the team atop the Eastern Conference standings. Even without DeMar DeRozan, who has missed 13 consecutive games with a torn left adductor longus tendon, which I’m assured is a real thing, the Raptors have gone 9-4, dropping only one game you could really call a bad loss (to the Lakers in the first game without DeRozan). DeRozan is expected to miss the entire trip, according to a report from Nene Head of the Post.


The offense is still chugging as the league’s No. 2 unit and the defense has been middle-of-the-pack. This team hasn’t disappointed yet, so why not have faith in the coming week-plus?


That’s a good question, and I wouldn’t fault you for suggesting 2-3 is a possibility. I think that’s pretty optimistic, but I also had the Raptors down for just 47 wins before the season, so what the hell do I know?


My primary concern is with perimeter defense. On this five-game stretch, the Raptors will face Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Ty Lawson, Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, and Eric Bledsoe, plus some others. That’s a murderers row of difficult guard covers, and while the team has maintained momentum with DeRozan, his absence has led to a major issue with the team’s first line of defense: at the point of attack.


Some of this falls on Kyle Lowry, who hasn’t been quite the defensive force the team has come to expect. With a heavier offensive burden and perhaps due to too heavy a workload in general the last 12 months, Lowry seems to have slowed down defensively. He can still draw a charge or force a turnover with the best of them, but he’s been less effective slowing ball-handlers and funneling them into help. He’s slid some on that end, in a completely understandable way. That’s an issue, but one that exists even with DeRozan in the fold.


The bigger issue is that DeRozan’s absence means more minutes for Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez at the two, and as much as small-sample lineup data may suggest the two are fine together, individually they’re not, and the team’s overall defensive performance without DeRozan speaks to this.


Now, DeRozan isn’t an all-world defender. As a straight-up, man-to-man defender, he may grade out as average, and I’d accept someone thinking he’s a shade above or below that mark. But defense extends beyond just locking someone down one-on-one, and DeRozan excels in other defensive areas. He’s very intelligent, and can rarely be spotted napping or blowing an assignment. Head coach Dwane Casey’s system is predicated on smart, quick reads and anticipation, with switches being called early and players being expected to help almost in pre-rotation. In short, you need to be at the help position before the help is needed. DeRozan is very good with these reads, and he’s also adept at recovering on to a new man once his help has come if he’s beat.


As pointed out by a few commenters, DeRozan also gets to the free throw line a great deal, which allows the defense to get set. Only seven players average more free throw attempts per game than DeRozan, and while getting to the line is an offensive skill, it has an appreciable impact on the defense. With decent on-ball skills, heady team-level play, and aid in getting the defense set, I’d warrant DeRozan is a defensive plus in general, and an appreciable upgrade on the sub-replacement level defenders taking up some of his assignments.


In the past month, the Raptors’ perimeter defense has been spotty and leaky, with guards able to penetrate far too easily. The man at the initial point of attack getting beat, especially early in the shot clock, sets off a chain reaction, with players having to help early, others having to rotate effectively, and the whole team left in a scramble. Compared to when he’s on the floor, the Raptors allow slightly more threes – corner and above the break – when DeRozan sits, while teams also shoot better in the paint (non-restricted) and mid-range. The mid-range efficacy effect may speak to DeRozan’s individual defensive ability compared to his replacement parts, while the additional threes are a minor concern. All on/off shot location data is going to be subject to noise and small samples, and so looking at the overall team defense may be a better way of illustrating DeRozan’s impact.


In doing so, we see that the Raptors’ defense has been much, much worse without DeRozan, while the offense has been a small degree better. This defensive impact is apparent when looking at both on/off court data and when comparing the team’s first 16 games to their most recent 13.

First 16110.7100.99.8
Last 13113107.85.2
with DeRozan111.1102.09.1
without DeRozan112.1105.36.9


The Raptors essentially go from being a top-10 defense with DeRozan to a bottom-10 defense without him. Surprising though this may be, it’s not entirely new – last season, following the Gay trade, the Raptors performed the same with or without DeRozan, notable considering he’s a starter logging heavy minutes against the other team’s best lineups. In general, if a starter has a nil on/off effect, that’s a positive considering their quality of competition is almost surely higher. Last year, DeRozan was also backed up at times by John Salmons, who, garbage though he may be, is a better defender than Vasquez or Williams.


It’s unclear what the solution is in the short-term, because Casey’s system is what it is and has generally got the most out of a lot of mediocre defenders. The defensive versatility of Landry Fields and James Johnson helps some, and the Raptors may at times need to explore sacrificing offense or defense and playing two traditional wings instead of two point guards a bit more often. Those are in-game adjustments, though, and can’t really be prescribed in advance.


DeRozan playing wouldn’t exactly make this an easy trip or make that bevy of tough checks easier to handle, but it will be worth watching the team’s guard defense closely over the remainder of his absence. If nothing else, it should give a greater appreciation of DeRozan’s value on the defensive end.


Why yes, I do wish I had the chance to make GIFs/screenshots for this article. Such is life. Happy holidays, everyone.