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Raptors getting hurt on defense at both lines

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Despite quite the down-turn on the defensive end over the last three games, against poor offensive teams no less, the Toronto Raptors rank 11th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, surrendering 101.1 points per-100 possessions (PPC).

There’s been some concern that the defense maybe isn’t quite that good, at least not with DeMarre Carroll sidelined and with some of the issues they’ve had against stretchier teams. Defensive rankings are somewhat fickle, not because they’re a poor measure, but because a good portion of the league is incredibly close right now. Were the Raptors giving up one more or one fewer PPC, they could rank as high as seventh or as low as 14th. That means that small variances, good and bad, can have an impact on where the team grades out on defense.

That’s in part why it’s prudent to evaluate defensive performance qualitatively game-to-game and look at what’s going into the team’s quantitative performance.

3-Point Defense
For example, a major talking point of late has been the Raptors’ 3-point defense, as they rank 27th in opponent 3-point percentage (37.8%). Holding teams to a low 3-point shooting mark is a tough thing to sustain year-to-year (the correlation is weak), but in qualitative terms, the Raptors seem to give up open looks above the break fairly often. That might be a part (or a trickle-down) of the defensive strategy, as the Raptors want to wall off the paint and protect the corners; if the more difficult above-the-break threes, particularly late in the clock, materialize, than the Raptors are more OK with that than looks at the rim or shorter threes.

They’re getting some of the good out of the strategy, as they’re allowing the third-fewest attempts per-game at the rim and the second-fewest baskets, but they’re giving up an average amount of corner threes, and teams are hitting 41.2 percent of those. They’re giving up roughly an average number of above-the-break threes, too, but teams are hitting 36.8 percent of those. According to NBA.com, the Raptors are boosting opponent 3-point percentage by 2.5 points, more than anyone but Phoenix or Washington.

11.3 percent of opponent field goal attempts have been threes classified as “open,” and 11.2 percent have been “wide open.” The Raptors, as a point of comparison, get open threes 11.7-percent of the time and wide-open ones 9.6 percent of the time, while the league averages are 11.2 percent and 10.2 percent, respectively. In other words, the threes the Raptors are giving up are slightly more open than the ones they take or what the league surrenders on average, but it’s not by a significant amount.

The Raptors’ opponents also haven’t skewed sharpshooter-heavy, as their average opponent is shooting 35 percent on threes, just a shade below the 35.1-percent league average. Even weighting for volume, the Raptors would have been expected to give up a 34.9-percent mark from outside.

The Raptors aren’t surrendering the wrong shot mix, overall, and when factoring in the job they’re doing at the rim, their overall performance defending high-efficiency shots is fine. Based on data from Nylon Calculus, the Raptors are holding opponents to a slightly below-average effective field-goal percentage, a shade better than their “expected” eFG% allowed, which is also a shade better than league average.

Threes just happen to be standing out because opponents are hitting a robust 34.7 percent on contested triples and making the Raptors pay with a 41.4-percent mark on uncontested looks, both among the highest opponent marks in the league. Some of that might be noise or variance (“bad luck”), but it also backs up the fairly common recent refrain that the Raptors aren’t doing a good enough job closing out on shooters.

Free-Throw Defense
Here’s a bit of early variance that’s tougher to hang on the Raptors: Opponents are shooting 78.6 percent at the line against them, the fourth-highest mark in the league and well above the 75.6-percent league average. It’s also well above their expected opponent free-throw percentage based on opponents, which is 75.6 percent on a weighted and non-weighted basis.

We’re pretty certain that at the player level, a defender can’t prevent an opponent from hitting free throws (unless you maul a guy, maybe). At the team level, the correlation year-to-year approaches zero, and a team’s best approach to preventing free throws is to keep team’s off the line. The Raptors are doing well in that regard, with a 25.1-percent opponent free-throw rate that is the seventh-stingiest in the NBA. That means, too, that the over-performance at the line has been muted some by fewer free-throw attempts. (Somewhat related tidbit: The Raptors have given up the third-fewest and-1 opportunities in the league. Nothing easy.)

Still, the impact has been profound in terms of the Raptors’ defensive rating.

There’s a good case to be made that defensive rating should account for free-throw variance, because teams have such little control over it. There may be something to the area on the floor and the type of player a team fouls, and the Raptors do foul players in isolation a little more often than most. But they also rarely foul either player in the pick-and-roll and don’t foul spot-up shooters more than average, so there’s not much evidence that they’re sending better free-throw shooters (guards and wings shoot better than bigs, in general terms) to the line.

You can hang the hot outside shooting of opponents on the Raptors to a degree. The free throws are just a tough break.

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