Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

Raptors’ widespread defensive issues don’t have obvious solution

How do you fix a problem when you can't identify the core issue?

Not to be alarmist or overly pessimistic, but the Toronto Raptors’ defense is currently very, very bad. A top-10 outfit a season ago, they’ve fallen all the way to 22nd on the season, allowing 105 points per-100 possessions, on par with that mess of a Denver Nuggets team and the oft-derided Cleveland Cavaliers allow.


Things have been even worse since Nov. 28, when the Raptors lost DeMar DeRozan to a groin injury that has kept him out for 21 games and counting. DeRozan alone does not make the defense tick, but the Raptors ranked ninth at that end before he hit the shelf. Part of the decline is due to the absence of DeRozan. While James Johnson has assumed some of his minutes, so have Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams, far inferior defenders who put undue pressure on the rest of the defense by getting beat at the initial point of attack.


But it may also be that the defense was over-performing, and the last six weeks have been an exercise in regression. I don’t necessarily believe the Raptors are a bottom-10 defense based on talent and scheme, but I’m also far from believing they’re a top-10 team.


The primary issue with the defense is that there is no primary issue. The Raptors are performing poorly all over the floor, whether it be defending perimeter attackers, cleaning up their own glass, or executing schemes. Certain issues on the offensive end have made things more difficult on defense, too.


If there’s no clear area that needs improvement most, how does head coach Dwane Casey go about attacking the problem? DeRozan’s return, which could come this week, will help some, but there are other issues that go well beyond a single, average wing defender.


The best defense is a strong offense?
You score a basket, play slows, and the opponent inbounds the ball from their own baseline while your defense has time to retreat and get set. Scoring less hasn’t been an issue in general for the Raptors since Nov. 28 – we’ll use DeRozan’s date of injury as a somewhat-but-not-quite-arbitrary endpoint for the defense – with the offense scoring just 0.1 points per-100 possessions fewer in the last 21 games.


But how they’ve come about the offense has been a bit of a problem. For the purposes of setting your defense, the only thing better than a made basket is a trip to the free throw line. Those trips have been far less frequent of late, with the Raptors falling all the way from second to 22nd in free throw rate. That’s an enormous drop, and those 7.3 fewer attempts from the line may translate to an additional four or five possessions per game where the defense isn’t set.

To Nov. 2829.420.354210.55
Since Nov. 2922.1200.2542212.110

Adding to the offense-induced burden, an additional possession per game is being gifted to the opponent by way of a turnover. The Raptors still control the ball very well, but opponents are getting nearly two additional points off of turnovers now compared to when DeRozan was healthy. Between the additional fast break points and the points off of turnovers, the Raptors can account for 3.5 points per game.

To Nov. 2811.6311.9%313.34
Since Nov. 2912.8413.1%415.210

The best defense is probably just a strong defense
The offense isn’t doing the defense any favors, but the defense probably wouldn’t do much with those favors of late, anyway. The Raptors’ defense has taken a step back in terms of keeping teams from making shots (opponent effective field goal percentage has climbed from 51.5 percent to 52.3 percent), but the shot mix they allow hasn’t actually changed much or deviated a great deal from the league average. They still force fewer mid-range shots than average and a few more above-the-break threes and shots at the rim, but the differences aren’t extreme.

SegmentRestrictedPaint Non-RestMidATB 3Corner 3
To Nov. 2833.0%16.0%23.3%7.8%20.0%
Since Nov. 2933.1%15.3%25.7%7.6%18.3%
League Avg32.3%14.7%26.5%6.8%19.6%

Again, the problem is that the team hasn’t done a good job keeping teams from scoring in some of those areas. In particular, the Raptors, for whatever reason, allow teams to shoot a very high percentage in the mid-range relative to the league average. This would make sense if the Raptors gave up a lot of these shots, dropping back in the pick-and-roll to coax teams into long jumpers, but that’s not at all the case. Instead, there’s little explanation beyond poor coverage and perhaps some unfortunate variance.

SegmentRestrictedPaint Non-RestMidATB 3Corner 3
To Nov. 2860.0%37.6%42.5%37.8%35.2%
Since Nov. 2958.3%41.5%45.8%38.2%33.8%
League Avg60.2%39.5%39.9%39.1%34.0%

So if the Raptors aren’t getting the stops they require but aren’t doing anything too egregious elsewhere, what’s the issue? The Raptors have always been a foul-heavy defense, something that remains the case and helps out opponent offenses (as their own offense would attest).


The team’s defensive identity late last year and early this year was that of a chaotic defense that forces a ton of turnovers. A defense doesn’t need to be great if it cleans its own glass and forces turnovers, shortening opponent possessions rather than snuffing them out with misses, and the Raptors are no longer making hay by making opponents cough up the ball.

To Nov. 280.3122117.6%3
Since Nov. 290.2781613.8%21

Allowing teams to make shots at roughly league-average rates with roughly league-average shot locations while fouling a lot and declining to force turnovers any longer sounds like a bad recipe for a quality defense.


The best defense doesn’t force itself into defending more often than it needs to
This one should be self-explanatory, but a defense that gets a stop and then gives up an offensive rebound hasn’t done its job completely. An offensive rebound extends a possession for the opponent, and hey, you guessed it, the Raptors have dropped off in that regard as well. It’s dropped off so badly that the Raptors actually find themselves giving up the third-most second-chance points in the league and the most in the league since DeRozan went down.

To Nov. 2874.1%1612.210
Since Nov. 2971.8%2816.530

So, what do they do from here?
If I knew the answer, I’d have probably led with it. As it stands, I really don’t know what to suggest. The offense is putting undue pressure on the defense, the defense is struggling in its own right, and even when they get stops, they’re giving up additional chances on the glass. It’s a holistic decline that doesn’t have an easy band-aid or schematic change.


DeRozan’s return will help with dribble penetration and tighten up the wing rotation. Amir Johnson has looked better on the defensive end of late. Maybe Jonas Valanciunas begins to speed up his rotations and improve his reaction time. It’s possible this has been an exceptionally poor stretch, and regression will bring the Raptors back near the league average in a lot of these categories.Casey may also nees to recognize that his scheme as currently constructed – with Kyle Lowry playing below his standard defensively, some of the wings helping and rotating poorly, and their rim protector not being secure enough an option to stand as end-line relief in such an aggressive system – doesn’t fit the personnel that well and needs to be made more conservative.


Whatever the adjustment, the Raptors have plenty of time to figure it out. There’s not a great deal of urgency yet. The defense is a red flag, but the offense is good enough to carry them in the interim while the defense drags along. That won’t fly in the playoffs, though, and if it persists until then, it risks costing the Raptors a better first-round playoff matchup, as they’re in a three-way tie for second in the Eastern Conference, with the four-seed likely drawing the Cleveland Cavaliers.


A quick note on strength of schedule
I’ve heard a few mentions that the schedule has been tougher of late, which I thought was worth exploring. It’s not a perfect measure by any means, but by average opponent offensive efficiency, there’s been little difference in difficulty before and after the Nov. 28 cut off.

SegmentOppAvg O-RtgTor D-Rtg
To Nov. 28103.0100.9
Since Nov. 29102.8108.1