An offseason ago, the Toronto Raptors organization preached a culture reset. It was an all-encompassing statement vague enough to leave observers unsure of what the ensuing changes might be, but loud enough to establish that said changes would be ground breaking.
The season came, and from day one, the walk backed the talk. Gone was the isolation-heavy offense, replaced by an aesthetically pleasing egalitarian style that promoted the strength of the whole rather than the sum of its parts. While the team ranked highly in statistical offensive measures in years past, there was a sustainability about this one that finished behind only Houston and Golden State per Cleaning the Glass in the regular season and then second in the postseason.
Things could have easily been very different. An overhaul as grand as this and players adjusting so well made the struggles of Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka the exception rather than, well, the norm. DeMar DeRozan could have struggled to be the primary ball handler and distributor, while Kyle Lowry could have remained in the funk he was to start the season when he couldn’t get a grip on where his shots would come from.
But, the fact that it was such a resounding overall success provides even more leeway for further experimentation, something new head coach Nick Nurse has expressed on several occasions since assuming the role but most notably at his introductory presser.
“We’ve got to be innovative, we’ve got to be thinking of what’s coming next before it comes next if you want to stay ahead of the game,” Nurse said. “I’ve tried to make steps in my career to continually learn — and learn about this and learn about that and test this out and test that out — and keep what’s good and throw away what’s bad, that’s part of innovation.
“I think we want to be creative, I think you’re going to see some different things, there’s probably going to be some uncomfortableness at times when we try things that are a little too far outside the box… We want to try some ideas and some things and put some of our guys in different positions, try some different combinations, et cetera, to prepare us for the playoffs, which is what matters.”
Coupling those comments with the not so subtle roster changes, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the potential experiments Professor Coach Nurse may look to run over the course of the 2018-19 regular season to figure out exactly what’s what before the playoffs.
Jonas the playmaker
So, we already saw Jonas Valanciunas get asked to initiate the offense and make reads out of the high post a season ago, but with the strong relationship that he appears to have with the head coach, it’s quite conceivable that Nurse tries to squeeze out even more playmaking from the Lithuanian this upcoming season.
DeRozan, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet shouldered a significant chunk of the on ball responsibilities a season ago and this played a major role in cutting down on Lowry’s usage, at least his high-intensity usage. While on the analytics surface it appears that Lowry’s usage only suffered a minor downtick from 24.9 to 21.5 percent, the eye test showed a Lowry that didn’t need to hurtle towards the rim as much nor constantly delve into his brilliant mind to make teammates better. Instead, he used most of that pent up energy to put up his best rebounding season and take the most charges in the NBA.
The result was consistently strong performances from Lowry in the playoffs, and the goal should be to ensure that the path of least resistance in the regular season for the Philadelphia native’s body is once again at the forefront. Add to that a Kawhi Leonard who probably shouldn’t be overworked coming off a season in which he played just nine regular season games, and there should be an opportunity for Valanciunas here to showcase even more of his playmaking and basketball IQ to the point where he’s swagging like this.
The improved three-point potential of this roster should make it even easier for Valanciunas to pick out guys running off screens in an extremely spaced out court, possibly causing another spike in an assist rate that went from 4.3 to 7.5 from two years ago to last season.
When Pascal Siakam first joined the Raptors, he was thrown into the fire courtesy of a foot injury to Jared Sullinger. Among the first things that stood out about him was his motor. He could get up and down the floor quicker than any big, and as a starter, Lowry discovered a new friend for leak-out opportunities. Siakam struggled to contribute to the offense in any other way, and so it speaks volumes of his development that he can now be looked at someone to initiate a break rather than just finish it.
The Cameroonian’s ball handling is much improved, and the ability to create his own shot off the dribble was a pivotal shift in defenses respecting his ability to create. Add the chemistry he developed with Jakob Poeltl and the rest of the Bench Mob and it’s safe to say he’s fully earned the nickname of Skills.
One aspect of the second unit that could be looked at as a weakness last season was its ability to execute in the half-court, especially without either Fred VanVleet or C.J. Miles. Their absence would shrink the court, allowing defenses to zero in on potential drives by Delon Wright or Siakam. Again, with the shooting that’s now available to Nurse, he’ll be able to put Siakam in positions where he’ll have greater room to operate from the top of the circle. Outside of his ability to find other guys for open looks, the extra attention defenders will have to pay to the improved shooting on the floor should open up more scoring opportunities for Siakam as well.
Ibaka off the bench
David Locke made an appearance recently on Nate Duncan’s Dunc’d On podcast to preview the Utah Jazz’s season and made an interesting point about the top defenses in the league last season. Six of the top eight — including Toronto — dropped the big in pick-and-roll coverage.
Essentially, what this means is that in order to avoid the worst case scenario of a centre getting stuck on a guard out on the perimeter, the on-ball defender would generally force the ball handler to his weaker hand as the big defender both prevents any rim running action and discourages the ball handler from driving to the rim. Having defenders who can fight through screens is vital toward executing this strategy successfully — unless you’re defending Marcus Smart or Ben Simmons — so the ball handler isn’t always left with an uncontested look. Regardless, conceding a midrange shot isn’t a bad outcome.
What does this have to do with Serge Ibaka coming off the bench? Well, since the Raptors now have more defenders capable of defending multiple positions and fighting through screens, it gives them even more reason to play with one ‘big’ on the floor. Maximize the ground speed available, contract and expand depending on the offense’s action and wreak havoc while Valanciunas holds his own and closes out possessions with the rebound. Rinse and repeat with Ibaka off the bench.
Worth noting, it also helps that one of those eight teams from last season is the San Antonio Spurs, a team that has been extremely successful in implementing this strategy over several years.
OG at power forward
Which leads us here. OG Anunoby, as Jack Armstrong likes to say, is built like an ox. With the current state of the league, he’s perfectly built to play the four-spot, and Nurse made it clear during summer league action that he wanted more out of the Indiana University forward.
Anunoby’s role as a rookie was quite simple — or at least he made it look so — in his first season: defend as best he can and be a spot up shooter with occasional cuts to the rim. The hard part was often being tasked with guarding the best offensive player on the opposing team, which he will undoubtedly have to do less of this upcoming season.
Nurse said this summer that he wanted to see Anunoby get out in transition more often as well as look for put-back and post-up opportunities. He might be able to learn a thing or two from Siakam as far as getting out ahead of the pack is concerned, but advantageous post-ups will probably be hard to come by. Some of Anunoby’s best minutes during the summer came at the power forward position which is encouraging, so whether it’s as a starter or off the bench, Anunoby could be afforded more time at the four.
Kyle Lowry the double-digit three-point attempter (per 36)
This probably isn’t going out on too much of a limb. Lowry finished with 8.5 three-point attempts per 36 minutes a season ago, tied with Damian Lillard and behind the likes of teammate Miles at 12.2, Steph Curry at 11.1 and… Marreese Speighs at 12.4. Yes, he only played 13 minutes per game over 52 regular season contests, but that’s not a name I expected to see that high on the list. More power to him, since he shot 36.9 percent from beyond the arc last season.
Back to Lowry. If the Raptors do once again prioritize managing his workload and minutes, it’s quite possible we see him in even more of a spot-up role this season. He is the team’s best shooter, and once again, the importance of more credible three-point threats on the floor can’t be stressed enough. There will be an element of pick your poison for defenses next season, and after a season in which Miles was the only other real volume threat, this edition of the Raptors should create ample opportunity for Lowry to not only get more three-point looks, but better ones.
Think of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Action Network’s Matt Moore wrote about how even though they are two of the greatest shooters of all time, they consistently get the most open looks of anyone in the entire league. This seems counterintuitive since it’s natural to think that teams should be focused on making sure that’s the last thing that happens, but the combination of constantly having to pick your poison along with how hard they work as a team to create open looks for each other makes it all possible.
The three-point threat of this team is real, and if Nurse is as brilliant as advertised with his offensive sets, we could be in for a serious dose of Lowry triples.
These are things I’ll be paying close attention to this season and will probably delve deeper into each of these points as they play out.