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Breaking it down: Yay or nay to Pascal Siakam’s center foray?

Pascal Siakam wasn’t supposed to be a viable all-star candidate this early in his career, if at all. Siakam was very good last year as a skilled power-forward with the all-bench lineup. It was en vogue to suggest he would improve this year, but his level of improvement has been remarkable. Siakam is now a possible frontrunner for the Most Improved Player Award; his future is brighter than was once conceivably imaginable.

Within some corners, however, it has been suggested that Siakam is not yet playing the position for which he is best suited. Siakam is frequently compared to Draymond Green because of his defensive switchability; because Green’s dominance at center helped power the Golden State Warriors to multiple championships, it’s not a logical leap to want Siakam, too, to play center. Of course, Siakam is not Green on either side of the ball. But he has played center for brief moments this season. It has become a useable, if occasionally flawed, weapon in the Raptors’ toolkit. With Jonas Valanciunas sidelined for at least a few more weeks, Siakam may be pressed into even more center minutes. To study Siakam-at-center’s benefits and drawbacks, how and when it’s used, and how to improve the look, I’ve clipped every possession in which it’s happened so far this year. Let’s go situation-by-situation and see how the Raptors have performed when using a small-ball center.

Half-Court Defence

Switching

The Raptors usually switch everything with Siakam at center, and when they all communicate, they’ve done great at forcing difficult shots and lots of turnovers. Siakam himself has been the main reason for that. He’s terrific at moving his feet with jitterbugs and not falling for pointless fakes and jukes. When the tactic is working well, the Raptors’ entire defence shades with the ball, digs into driving and passing lanes, and stays one step ahead of the offence. They switch as an active weapon to force defensive possessions to stall out, rather than as a reactive response to close an opened advantage.

The first play of the video is one of the greatest defensive possessions of the season. The Raptors are happy to switch Fred Van Vleet onto players more than a foot taller than himself, but he quickly switches off-ball so that Siakam would be involved in a possible upcoming pick-and-roll. The Raptors zone up the weak-side so that one player is shading the ball-handler in the paint, and one is guarding two shooters close beside each other. The hogalicious D’Angelo Russell can’t get an inch against Kyle Lowry or Siakam, especially with the rest of the defence so attentive and shifting to the requisite spots.

The Raptors are happy for Giannis freaking Antetokounmpo to post up Lowry and Van Vleet at the 1:22 and 1:32 marks. Both result in double-teams being sent his way; the first from the baseline, and the second from the riskier first-pass away on the strong-side. However, OG Anunoby approaches Antetokounmpo both times at the correct time and angle when his back is turned, forcing difficult decisions.

Of course, Siakam can be beaten while switched like any other defender. He has been blown past a few times or been forced into unnecessary fouls. It’s rare, as you can tell by the brevity of the video.

One major issue of the small-ball defence has been errors in communication and tactics. Frequently, the Raptors have given up points because players didn’t know they were switching, didn’t recognize early what the plan was, or forgot some other aspect of the defensive coverage. Frequently, this happens when the Raptors are tentative, switch lazily, or use it as a reaction to the offence rather than vice versa.

In the first clip, Danny Green tried to switch off-ball onto a cutter who beat an exposed Lowry, but Lowry declined the switch. It’s hard to say whether the fault lay with Green or Lowry, but Green was predictably late in his recovery and gave up an open drive.

At :09, Siakam seemed to expect Van Vleet to fight through the screen. He hedged up high to slow the ball-handler, but Van Vleet had expected the switch and wasn’t there to recover back to his man. Siakam wasn’t prepared to defend the ball-handler for longer than a moment, and it resulted in an open drive.

At :28, Siakam seemed to be afraid of a one-second violation in the key. Centers usually spend so much time in the key that they can put down roots and start a family,  but Siakam didn’t even station a foot in the paint. That was despite LeBron James posting up Anunoby on the other side of the key; it was clear that help would be needed. Of course, Siakam was late on the play; he needs to know when he’s the center and the last line of defence.

At :47, the Raptors overreact to Van Vleet defending Antetokounmpo alone in the post. Anunoby sinks too low to help and can’t recover to defend a triple.

Siakam is frequently too low during opponents’ screening actions, specifically at :42, :54, and 1:00.

At 1:05, Siakam forgets he is the center during a transition play. He isn’t ready to protect the paint when Delon Wright loses track of his man.

Rebounding

The Raptors have had a rebounding problem no matter which lineup is on the floor, but the issue is greatly exacerbated when Siakam plays at center. They bleed offensive rebounds at an astronomical rate of 50 percent, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Look, it’s tough to get a defensive rebound when almost every player on the opponents’ team is 2-3 inches taller than your player at the corresponding position. But most of these issues aren’t related to size or ability. In the first clip, Leonard goes for the block, which leaves Van Vleet to block out two players. At :18, Leonard doesn’t actually block out with his body. At :40, Anunoby doesn’t …catch the ball? At :50, Leonard unnecessarily looks for a block instead of blocking out Anthony Davis. These are fairly fixable mistakes that should be eliminated with on-court reps, much like the ‘miscommunications during switches’ section above. Lowry and Leonard are two of the league’s best rebounders for their position, and Siakam has improved this year on the defensive glass. The lineup should top out as average, collecting approximately 75 percent of opponents’ misses. They aren’t there yet, but rebounding doesn’t have to be as deadly a weakness as it has been.

Half-Court Offence

Pick-and-Roll

When Siakam plays at center, the Raptors remain a pick-and-roll heavy team. Though Siakam is generally the screener for whichever point guard is on the floor, they use some other iterations. Leonard is fantastic at creating out of the pick-and-roll, either for himself or others. Another great setup is the little-used 4-1 pick-and-roll with Siakam in the dunker spot, Leonard handling, and Lowry as the screener. Here are the pick-and-rolls that have resulted in good looks.

A lot of these are misses, but they are mostly great shots. This is important. The Raptors have only run approximately (I’m making these stats myself, so bear with me) 16 pick-and-roll with Siakam playing center, and they have resulted in 9 points. That’s bad no matter how you slice it. However, Anunoby, Lowry, and others miss some open triples, and Siakam and Leonard miss some contested layups. It’s such a small sample size that you can’t write off the look entirely and say it doesn’t work. It’s worth more investigation, but to date the offence has struggled in this setup.

Of course, Siakam has some room to grow as a screener and roller. Specifically, he needs to improve at keeping passing lanes open for as long as possible, as well as at holding his screens to create more space for ball-handlers. He can occasionally be frantic while finishing, instead of taking his time to work for the right look. If he occasionally alters his speed and learns how to short his roll to open up his passing game, Siakam could become an excellent screening big.

Here are the pick-and-rolls that have either not created an advantage or resulted in bad shots.

These looks are plagued by poor or no off-ball movement around screens, as well as very poor contact made by Siakam on the screens themselves. Dude needs to learn to hit people.

Isolation

When Siakam mans the center position, every player on the floor for the Raptors is happy to launch from deep. That spread attack means defenders are loath to help away on isolations. The Raptors use it to their advantage. Siakam and Leonard especially are terrific at attacking single coverages to manufacture easy points.

I may be liberally defining the first clip and :05 as isolations, but they are great, and they are created because everyone on the floor is treated as a shooter. A spread floor is a good floor!

Siakam dusts Anthony Davis at :20. I have nothing to add, but this is cool and worth mentioning.

Watch Van Vleet in the final clip at :29. He sees that the Washington Wizards – also matching up against the Raptors with an uber-small lineup! – are switching everything on defence. He begins to cut to the strong side to spread the floor, but then decides to loop around and run a brief action with Anunoby. He does just enough to force the switch between the two help defenders, meaning neither is responsible to sink into Lowry’s driving lane. This is very high IQ stuff, and it’s accomplished just by jogging to the right spots at the right time. He understands at a high level what defences are trying to do, and he uses that to create great looks, especially when he’s off the ball.

Notice how almost every one of these shots start with some small action, and even have a few off-ball screens sprinkled in during the isolation. The Raptors need to do something when a player isolates to keep the defence occupied and away from the ball.

However, the Raptors do have a tendency to watch the ball when a single player isolates. These attacks can grind into horrible shots, especially when there is no off-ball movement.

Not much to add here. Bad shots with little going on in terms of play-calling or execution.

Transition

Offence

One would think that playing Siakam at center would juice the Raptors’ transition attack. He is one of the fastest players in the league, and everyone else on the court can handle, run, and shoot. They could run opponents off the floor; however, that hasn’t happened. Partially because the Raptors need every available body to rebound, and partially because the Raptors have played most of their Siakam-at-center lineups in high-leverage minutes when transition opportunities dwindle, they have only taken 5 shots in transition or semi-transition.

Those 5 shots have earned 5 points and 2 free-throws. That’s pretty good! Siakam-at-center lineups have had trouble scoring in the halfcourt, and shifting as many of those looks into transition could be a way of easing those pains. The thing is, they don’t trust their rebounding ability if even one player leaks out, but it’s always possible to run after securing the board. The Raptors haven’t found a way to juice their transition game, but they should try.

Defence

The Raptors’ transition defence has been mostly sketchy.

In the first clip, Siakam sinks too low into the paint, for fear of John Wall dusting Lowry. He isn’t able to recover onto the man who was supposed to be his mark, and it’s an open triple. At :07, Siakam actually sat at the nail in transition, which is the correct positioning for a big. He was able to pick up a fairly easy block as a result. The Raptors’ defence is already at a few disadvantages with Siakam at center. Having to cross-match and recover would probably doom the Raptors’ defence; the lineup should probably eschew the offensive glass entirely to keep opponents from running.

Conclusions

The Raptors have been outscored 51-36 in the 39 possessions in which Siakam has played center. Needless to say, that’s quite bad. They’ve given up 7 offensive rebounds. However, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. They have forced 8 turnovers (for an unsustainably large 20.5 percent) and attempted more triples than their opponents, 16-12. There are some positives.

Being outscored so dramatically isn’t to say the offence has been necessarily worse than opponents’. Despite being outscored, the Raptors’ Siakam-at-center lineups have had higher expected shot quality, per pbpstats, than their opponents during games against New Orleans, Washington, and Brooklyn. The Lakers and Bucks (in two games) have had higher expected shot qualities in the other games. All that to say; the Raptors being outscored in these looks could be due entirely to random variance of missing good shots (and a few specific instances, particularly by the Pelicans, of opponents making difficult shots).

So we shouldn’t say the look is useless quite yet. If Siakam learns to adapt to playing center defensively – and all signs indicate that won’t be a problem – then the unit’s defence will be improved massively. Him hitting the nail early in transition defence, learning to sit in the paint for longer periods of time, immediately attacking ball-handlers after switches, and being hyper-aware of his duties as last-back helper would all be specific ways to boost an already-solid defence. He isn’t a world-beater on the defensive glass, but with Leonard beside him, they should be able to clean most misses from their opponents.

It’s worth mentioning that the Raptors gain little on offence with Siakam that they don’t offer when Ibaka plays the same position. The offence is terrific when Ibaka plays center. Siakam is certainly more talented in isolation, but he’s a significantly worse screen-and-roll player, which impacts the scoring ability of every other player on the court. Siakam’s playmaking hasn’t factored into the offensive side when he’s at center, especially because he always rolls at full speed towards the rim. If he mixes it up, occasionally shortens his roll and looks to sling the ball cross-court, or even pops sometimes, his passing will help the offence as well. Lowry hitting his jumpers would almost instantly make the Siakam-at-center lineup playable offensively.

The look has mostly been used as a defensive weapon. The idea is to switch everything, grind defensive possessions to a halt, and force turnovers. That has happened occasionally, particularly in some possessions against Brooklyn. Fewer miscommunications would allow the lineup to win its minutes against the right opponents.

Another detail is that the Raptors haven’t always been outplayed when Siakam plays center. They have been outscored by 16 points in 39 possessions, but not all of those possessions are made equally.

When the Raptors play Lowry and Leonard in those same lineups, the Raptors have outscored opponents by 3 points in 15 possessions. (That balloons out to an offensive rating of 115.8 points per 100 possessions and defensive rating of 100.0 points per 100 possessions). Leonard is irreplaceable when Siakam plays center. He supercharges the defence with his ability to guard anyone as well as Siakam, including centers. He is the best non-center rebounder on the Raptors, and he can stifle opponents’ entire offensive possessions with one thrust of his monster hands. On offence, he can convert ho-hum possessions into easy points, and his handling and shooting open up isolation attempts for Siakam against less mobile centers.

The best small-ball lineup the Raptors can put on the court is probably Lowry-Van Vleet-Green-Leonard-Siakam. There’s plenty of shooting, creation, and intelligence on offence. The defence is switchable and tough. It can outscore opponents, and it has, 11-9, in 12 possessions. Against other small-ball centers like Jarrett Allen, Markieff Morris, or Ersan Ilyasova, the Raptors should feast when they downsize. Perhaps not so much against Anthony Davis.

So is Siakam a center? Probably not yet, no (even if the lineup might work in certain situations). There are a host of skills that need improvement, but it’s a good thing that he’s been offered reps to work on his center skills; even when he’s not playing center, screen-setting, cutting from the dunker spot, defensive positioning as last-back, and defensive rebounding are valuable skills to have at his command. Siakam is not Draymond Green. He’s a much better scorer already, with better handles and shooting. He’s a much worse rim defender, shot-blocker, rebounder, and screen-setter. Siakam may not yet have the requisite skills to dominate the NBA floor as a center, but he’s already played his way into the borderline all-star conversation. He’s done it as a power forward. There may yet be untapped potential with Siakam as a center, and the Raptors could use the look in specific situations; however, it doesn’t yet project to be a useful look in high minutes. Good thing Siakam doesn’t need to be a center to devastate opponents on the court.

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