Breaking It Down

System and personnel: the Raptors’ defensive woes

Raptors are struggling to execute Dwane Casey’s hyperactive defensive schemes.

In the world of NBA writing, you seek out Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski for breaking news. For analysis, you turn to Grantland’s Zach Lowe.

Like most fans, I’ve been perplexed by the Raptors’ abhorrent defense which has ranked 28th overall since DeMar DeRozan’s injury. Why is one a top-10 defense from a season ago suddenly failing to stop teams like the Charlotte Hornets?

Lowe’s diagnosis, as he wrote in his weekly column on Tuesday, points the finger at Dwane Casey’s frenetic system. Lowe’s breakdown is far more concise and insightful than mine, but in short, the Raptors play a style of defense built on an endless stream of quick rotations, especially in defending pick-and-roll scenarios.

The aim of Casey’s scheme is to pressure the ball, then to rotate. The effect it creates amounts to something like a zone defense. When opponents run pick-and-roll, Casey prefers for his bigs to show hard. Kyle Lowry said as much to Lowe.

“That’s our scheme,” Lowry says. “We show. We rotate. It’s what coach teaches us. It’s hard work, but it’s what we do.”

The ideal outcome for the Raptors’ frantic defense looks something like the following. It’s a marvel to watch. Five defenders seemingly on a string, making rotations one after the other. James Johnson flies all across the court for closeouts, Patrick Patterson executes a perfect hard show on the baseline, Lou Williams helps the helper and Tyler Hansbrough shifts seamlessly between guarding the perimeter to contesting a layup.

Showing hard and sending double teams comes with its costs. In willingly dislodging defenders from where they are most comfortable, the entire endeavor pits the offense and defense against one another in a race between rotating players and ball movement. Having a big come to the top cuts down on the ball handler’s options, but if he manages to pass out of the double, can another defender rotate in time to cover for the big? And who will help the helper?

Like every other team, the Raptors get into trouble when they’re caught between rotations. It’s tricky because help defense is a double-edged sword. If the defender is indecisive and a step slow, teams feast off an on-ball defender without backup. Conversely, if they’re overactive and a step ahead, opponents simply find the open man. There’s absolutely no room for error.

As Lowe also points out, opposing teams have clued into the Raptors’ aggressive schemes and have started turning Toronto’s activity against itself. Making good rotations requires equal measures of aggression and diligence. Close out hard, but make the right closeouts to the right measure. On the play below, James Johnson, who is as aggressive as they come on rotations, is burned for being too eager, helping on Mason Plumlee when there is no need.

That’s to say nothing of defensive rebounding. The Raptors rank 25th in defensive rebounding rate. Snagging rebounds is easiest when bigs are situated in the paint when shots are launched. However, the Raptors’ bigs are often deployed up high, necessarily out of position, and it doesn’t help that Amir Johnson is routinely hobbled. Another solution could be to ask guards and wings to crash the glass, but aside from Kyle Lowry and James Johnson, the Raptors’ wings rank as average to below-average in terms of grabbing boards.

Plays like the following, where overactivity leads a big out to the perimeter, is not altogether uncommon. Here, both Patterson and Valanciunas are drawn to the perimeter by a stretch four in Marvin Williams, leaving Ross to box out a big. Predictably, the Hornets capitalized by grabbing the offensive rebound. This is an issue that dates back nearly a month, something Blake wrote about here.

Although the Raptors have struggled to execute, it needs to be said that nothing wrong with Casey’s tactic itself. Aggressive defenses are just as successful as their Thibodeau-ian conservative schemes. For every Celtics in 2008, there’s a squad like the Heat between 2010-14. The strategy itself isn’t necessarily wrong.

But just with any other strategy, it’s all dependent on personnel. The best tactics in the world don’t mean squat if the players can’t execute.

Take the two-time champion Heat squad. Like Casey, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra prefers his players to fly across the court. Switches and double teams formed the backbone of the Heat’s defensive dominance.

The scheme was brilliant, but Spoelstra also had the right players to pull it off. They had aggressive guards that were willing to be physical on the perimeter. They had an interchangeable do-it-all defender in LeBron James and a lesser version in Shane Battier. Most importantly, they had a mobile center like Chris Bosh who was clever enough to blitz pick-and-rolls, quick enough to rotate and big enough to protect the basket. It was a perfect union between scheme and personnel.

I’m not trying to hold the Raptors to an unrealistic standard by using the Heat as an example. My point is this: the Raptors, as currently constructed, do not have the manpower to play the style of defense that Casey demands. It’s something Zarar pointed out on Friday, but the issues run deeper than just offensively (which is fine, IMO).

The Raptors don’t have the pieces to play so aggressively, at least, not without making concessions.

It starts with Jonas Valanciunas, who is too slow to show and recover to Casey’s liking. His troubles are further complicated by his poor decision making, which always seems a step behind as if the game were too fast for him. It’s no surprise why the Raptors’ defense is significantly better with him off the floor, or why Valanciunas routinely benched (he plays the least clutch minutes out of any starter). When the Raptors’ defense notches into top speed, Valanciunas’ limitations leaves him in the dust.

But the Raptors don’t have a true center to play in place of Valanciunas. Chuck Hayes, bless his soul, is way too short and he’s slow. Greg Stiemsma is a foul machine and Bebe Noguiera playing basketball is akin to Bambi learning to walk.

That necessitates a small frontline like Hansbrough and Patterson (which has been effective in certain spots), or relying heavily on Amir Johnson’s creaky ankles. All three can rotate and execute Casey’s gameplan, but there’s a price to be paid in terms of rim protection and rebounding. None of the three rank as particularly strong shot blockers or rebounders, which, incidentally, happen to be two of Valanciunas’s strengths.

It doesn’t help that the Raptors’ wings are generally rather soft on defense. Kyle Lowry and James Johnson are exceptions, but Lowry has noticeably dialed back his defensive intensity in an effort to fill in for DeRozan’s absence on offense. Terrence Ross is quick, but he often plays out of position and is easily overpowered by bigger players. Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez are just lost causes altogether. One is too small, the other is too slow, and both of their priorities clearly lay on the offensive end.

Casey told reporters after Thursday’s loss to the Hornets that lack of effort was a problem. That’s true to some extent. Plays like the one below, where a guard outright fails in containing the ball-handler, betrays everything the defense is trying to do. That’s on the players.

The caveat should also be added that DeRozan’s return will help. Not only will he stabilize the defense by shooting free throws, DeRozan is a familiar player in Casey’s system who knows which rotations Casey expects. No one will confuse DeRozan with a shutdown wing, but he makes the right decisions far more than his replacements have. Perhaps DeRozan helps the team climb back to average, but it’s hard to see the mismatching scheme produce a result better than mediocre with no shutdown wing or rim protector.

But even at full strength and effort, the Raptors don’t have the pieces necessary to execute Casey’s system to an elite level, not as currently constructed. Their wings aren’t great at limiting penetration and their bigs are either too slow to rotate, or too small to contest. That could change if Ross and Valanciunas develop, but expectations have grown for the Raptors after a blistering start. Right now, it’s a problem.

This leaves Casey and the Raptors in a tough spot: either adapt the system to fit the players, or find players who will fit the system.

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