For the better part of the season, Cory Joseph has impressed off of the bench for the Toronto Raptors. Given a four-year deal to return home as Kyle Lowry’s primary backup, Joseph immediately established himself as a factor on the defensive end, setting a refreshing tone that was entirely absent in the second-string backcourt a season ago.
He quickly forced his way into more playing time, resulting in he and Lowry sharing the floor together a great deal. The pairing has worked out wonderfully, with Lowry getting to work as a score-first guard and defensive ball-hawk while Joseph concerns himself with distributing and guarding the tougher of the defensive assignments. In the 679 minutes the two have played together, the Raptors have outscored opponents by an obscene 14.6 points per-100 possessions (PPC), per data from NBA.com. Lineups where Lowry stands alongside Joseph and the three other primary reserves have been particularly deadly, especially of late.
When untethered from Lowry, though, Joseph’s offense has been up and down. With only an exception or two, his defense remains sharp game-in and game-out, but there have been short stretches where Joseph’s offense disappeared. The team is 7.8 PPC better with him on the court overall and are roughly neutral when he’s on the floor without Lowry (holding serve is fine for a backup guard). He had a well-established slump due in part to an illness around the holidays, and during the team’s current 11-game winning streak, he his a skid where he shot 3-of-15 over three games with just six points.
The primary issue is that Joseph has sometimes struggled to navigate the pick-and-roll with Bismack Biyombo without the aid of Lowry to provide additional spacing and the option to reverse the ball effectively. Biyombo is an expert screen-setter, which helps, but teams will often load up off of Biyombo to protect against the drive, knowing Biyombo has little utility outside of the restricted area. Since Joseph isn’t a great pull-up shooter, he doesn’t have much recourse to punish defenses that do so.
That’s something that can’t be worked around, though the degree of difficulty placed on Joseph’s drives is increased. As a result, he’s sometimes been guilty of over-dribbling or resetting the same action multiple times, habits that grind the pace to a halt and run the risk of tough late shot-clock looks.
It’s a ludicrously small sample, but Joseph seems to be breaking out of whatever slump may have been taking place. In the four games since that three-game dip, the Raptors have gotten a bit more creative, unveiling a few new wrinkles to their standard Joseph sets to provide him with extra space and additional options. The result is 49 points on 21-of-34 shooting with 17 assists, likely his best four-game offensive stretch of the season.
The first thing the Raptors have done is set up a four-five stagger screen for their usual horns/high pick-and-roll. They used it at least twice with Joseph against the Pistons on Saturday, leading to good looks in each case.
In one instances, Patrick Patterson comes up high to set the initial screen for Joseph while Biyombo settles in just above the elbow. Marcus Morris drops off of Patterson as if to guard a standard high pick-and-roll and prevent Joseph from getting into the lane, which itself could create an opening for a Patterson pop outside the 3-point line. Biyombo steps up to set the second screen on Reggie Jackson while Andre Drummond similarly drops back.
Biyombo erases Jackson, Drummond is a bit flat-footed, and Morris is in no-man’s land, leaving Joseph with plenty of options on the switch.
They used a similar play with the screening order reversed, too, and it led to an open 3-point look for Luis Scola. Ostensibly, this same play could be used with Patterson (or DeMarre Carroll) as the second screener. In this case, Biyombo sets the first screen with Scola at the elbow, and the Pistons begin trying to “form a fucking wall” in the paint.
Joseph probes the idea of cutting back to the middle off the Scola screen, where he’d have a free-throw line jumper or Biyombo on the roll (able to set an additional down-screen if needed), but instead cuts outside. Anthony Tolliver tries to keep Joseph from the rim, Drummond remains dropped back to contain the Biyombo dive, and Jackson is still trying to recover on Joseph. Scola casually takes a couple steps back and has all the time in the world to let fly.
The Raptors didn’t just stagger the screens, either. They full-on set double-screens on occasion, a deadly tweak with Lowry as a spot-up shooter around the Joseph action.
Here, Patterson and Jonas Valanciunas both come high, and their men mostly stay back, unsure of which direction Joseph will use the dual picks.
Joseph goes left, then cuts through the bigs in the middle, catching Aron Baynes flat-footed.
The intention here is to draw help off of Lowry in the corner, but while his man shades, he recovers fairly quickly to prevent a clean 3-point look. Instead, Lowry has Valanciunas with deep post-position or the option to attack a closeout. He does the latter and draws a foul.
Later, the Raptors run something similar with Biyombo and Patterson screening. Joseph loses the handle some but still manages to exploit the chaos that ensues from the initial Drummond switch for a short jumper. Even before Joseph gets the ball, the Raptors have Jackson moving and guessing a ton.
When the Joseph screen-and-roll is proving effective, the Raptors can add additional wrinkles, like Patterson slipping his screen and catching the defense entirely off-guard.
I recently suggested that one way to keep the offense afloat when Lowry sits would be to stagger the rotation such that Joseph was working with Valanciunas more in those situations rather than Biyombo. The pair have played just 83 minutes together without Lowry, but the small-sample results, courtesy NBAWowy.com, are encouraging, specifically for Joseph. When Joseph plays with Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, or a super-small lineup and without Lowry, his scoring has been more efficient, his drives more frequent, and his distributing at its best.
I still think that’s a worthwhile tweak to the rotation, but with more creative ways of initiating Joseph’s actions, the Raptors may be able to get a little more out of the non-Lowry second unit. The team has been a plus-24.3 PPC with Lowry on the bench over the last four games, an infinitesimally small sample of garbage time and minutes against opposing reserves, but an encouraging one. Those groups only need to avoid coughing up leads to help get Lowry some much-needed additional rest, and if Joseph stays in his recent offensive groove, that becomes a lot more likely.