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What types of offence should the Raptors be playing?

It’s simplistic, but generally true, that the Raptors have spent most of the season playing two distinctive offensive styles. There is the Kyle Lowry preferred high pick-and-roll, where he has thrived alongside every possible big imaginable. Serge Ibaka is his current preferred dance partner (injury aside), but Lowry is excellent at running the PnR with Marc Gasol and even Pascal Siakam. The other form of offence the Raptors have pounded is less aesthetically pleasing, but still effective. Kawhi Leonard and Siakam, to a lesser extent, have spent a great deal of time isolating and posting up this season. Both forms of offence are usually, but not always, incompatible, but both are important forms of scoring in the halfcourt. Let’s dive deep into the waters of offence, investigating those two (and other) methods at scoring, what works and how well, and how the Raptors should modify their offence (if at all) to perform at peak efficiency.

Let’s start with the most efficient form of offence available to Toronto: transition. The Raptors are elite at running.

 Possessions per gameFrequency (%)Points per gamePoints per possession
Toronto Raptors22.820.326.81.17
Sacramento Kings24.921.527.71.11
Golden State Warriors20.918.524.61.18

The Warriors are the most efficient team in transition, and the Kings are the team that most frequently runs in transition. Toronto is right in the middle, the Goldilocks of transition offence, if you will. Here’s how they’re so efficient.

 Points per possessionPossessions per gameFrequency (%)
Giannis Antetokounmpo1.146.325.2
Kawhi Leonard1.264.418.4
Pascal Siakam1.253.926.6
Patrick McCaw1.630.828.1

I included Giannis Antetokounmpo as a point of comparison. His 1.14 isn’t as efficient as transition offence can be, but for a high-usage player in transition, it’s incredible. Both Leonard and Siakam are better. They run it almost as often and more efficiently. I included Patrick McCaw for fun. His numbers are eye-popping, but they’re such a small sample size that they carry almost no weight. Still, the guy is blurry fast, and transition scoring is probably his only plus offensive skill (other than cutting in the half-court).

Another small contributor to the Raptors’ transition attack has been Gasol. He is as good a big outlet passer as there is in the league short of the Nikola Jokic / Kevin Love tier. Gasol’s ability to find players instantaneously after corralling the defensive rebound is unequaled on the rest of Toronto’s roster, and it shows up in the numbers. Per pbpstats, Toronto scores 1.21 points per possession after a Gasol defensive rebound and 1.17 points per possession after any other player snatches a defensive rebound. (There is an exception, which, as always, is Kyle Lowry. Toronto scores an eye-popping 1.3 points per after a Lowry defensive rebound.) Gasol’s ability to jumpstart the break is tangible.

It isn’t just the sprinting Siakams and outletting Gasols that create points in transition. Danny Green (1.20 points per possession in transition) is perhaps at his best shooting from deep when slowing from full sprint to total stop. Kyle Lowry is endlessly probing and attacking in transition. The team on the whole is always looking to push the pace whenever it benefits them.

Toronto’s transition attack is probably already peaking. They are the second-most efficient team in transition, and they run the third-most often. There’s not much left to mine. Especially in the playoffs, Toronto will be lucky just to maintain their fastbreak numbers, let alone improve them. Still, it’s Toronto’s best possible source of offence, and it’s an important way to get easy points before the defence sets up.

Probably the most important form of offence for Toronto in the halfcourt is the PnR. Toronto has a variety of players capable playing in the high PnR, and it almost always yields at least a good shot. To have a good shot – say, Ibaka pulling up from the midrange, from where he’s shooting 49 percent on the year – as your halfcourt baseline is a fantastic thing for an offence. When all else fails, they know the worst they can do. And it’s not bad at all.

But there’s riper fruit to be plucked from the PnR than an Ibaka midrange jumper. Lowry is an elite practitioner, but his scoring off the dribble has faded somewhat this year. Though still dangerous, he has only produced 0.87 points per possession in the PnR as the ball-handler this season. He has shot 33.7 percent on pullup 3s this year (1.01 points per possession), but as soon as he enters the arc, his scoring ability is limited, especially from the midrange. Lowry, however, is fantastic at hitting his bigs. He’s one of the best in the league at slotting pocket passes into seemingly closed corridors. A Lowry pass to a rolling big yields layups more often than jumpers.

Even better, Leonard is a superior scorer out of the PnR than Lowry. He is a threat to pull up from anywhere, and he has enough strength to hold off defenders for entire possessions and still finish from the midrange or at the rim. He has scored 1.02 points per possession as the PnR handler, which is 89th percentile leaguewide. He, too, is terrific at dishing to his rolling bigs, especially because he draws so much more defensive attention as the handler.

If the ball hits the big in the PnR, the result is generally far more positive than if Lowry or Leonard decide to shoot. Ibaka (1.12 points per possession), Gasol (1.04), and Siakam (0.99) are all capable options on the roll, though none are near the top of the league for efficiency. (Valanciunas, at 1.26, was, by the way.) Still, those are all fairly efficient options, particularly Ibaka’s stellar numbers. Whether with his jumper, floating hooks and pushes, or just state of liberty dunks, he is a terrific finisher anywhere inside the arc.

There are alternatives to either the handler or the roller shooting in the PnR. The play can lead to open 3s, whether created by the handler or the roller.

The play can create open cuts from the weakside.

Or, the play can toggle into more stationary forms of offence, albeit with Toronto’s scorers having a distinct advantage. That leads to the next section; another important category of offence for Toronto is comprised by isolations and postups.

 Points per possession in isolationIsolations per gamePoints per possession in postupPostups per game
Kawhi Leonard1.074.00.932.2
Pascal Siakam0.991.41.071.7

It’s worth mentioning here that Leonard is in the 88th percentile for isolations, scoring almost as many as efficiently as James Harden (1.09). Siakam is better at postups, where he is fifth in the league given moderate thresholds. The closest all-star to Siakam’s postup numbers is LeBron James, who scores 1.05 points per possession. So, both are incredible, and a solid offence could be built out of this alone.

What makes postups and isolations more than ‘a solid offence,’ however, is the variety that Toronto includes. There are creative ways to enter both sets that frequently include PnRs, handoffs, or other such actions.

There are better ways to enter the post than a stationary pass from a guard. Here, Leonard and Lowry run an off-ball action that the opponents immediately switch. instead of continuing the cut, Leonard recognizes his advantage, pivots into the post, and easily scores.

Toronto can enter isolation sets creatively as well. Here, Siakam stops his roll at the top of the key and hesitates with the ball. Usually, this is death for an offence, but here it allows defenders to recover to their original marks. Specifically, Portland’s center takes a step back towards his man after camping in the lane to deter the pocket pass in the original PnR. Without help cheating his way any longer, Siakam makes his move. He receives the ball too deep for help to arrive, so he scores with ease.

Even beyond a Raptor player scoring in the post or isolation, it can lead to good things from behind the perimeter as well. Leonard and Siakam are both solid passers, if not as visionary as Lowry. Both usually make the right pass when they draw extra defenders. And like James, they can sow a whole lot of fear with their backs to the basket.

There is another far less frequently used form of offence, but Gasol offers a fourth option by himself. He is one of the league’s best passers from the high post, able to pick out cutters, toggle into handoffs, or kick out into PnRs at will. Toronto is full of solid off-ball movers, but Norman Powell is one of Gasol’s best partners in those dances. He scores 1.5 points per possession off of cuts and 1.23 points per possession in handoffs. Both are 88th percentile marks or higher.

Powell on his own has been outscored in his minutes this season for Toronto. With Powell and Gasol, Toronto has outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100. With Lowry as well, Toronto has outscored opponents by 22.9 points per 100, per CTG. Powell is not an elite initiator of offence, but he is very good jetting around other initiators. He should be tied to either (but probably both) of Gasol and Lowry, allowing superior decision makers to handle the ball more frequently.

These offensive hubs can tie together. These offensive hubs should tie together. A well-run play can, for example, enter to Gasol in the post with shooters and cutters spread around the floor. Leonard can set a flare screen for Lowry, who cuts above the key and receives a handoff from Gasol. Lowry can ping the ball back to Leonard on the wing, who immediately runs a PnR with Gasol. The baseline PnR would attack a moving defence, with shooters surrounding the action above the key (Lowry), on the weakside wing (Green), and in the corner (Siakam). That’s one example of how to blend different offences, and above examples illustrate how to blend PnR with isos or postups, or even high postups with isos.

Now is a good time to mention that I’m only speaking about general schemas of offence. There are clearly more plays, sets, and actions than I could understand. If you want to get into the nitty gritty, no one does it better than Coop. You can find his work about the individual entries to Toronto’s offensive playbook here.

Toronto is a very good offensive team. They rank seventh in the league in offensive rating, behind the San Antonio Spurs. That’s probably below where Toronto should rank. With elite isolation practitioners like Leonard and Siakam, elite PnR handlers like Lowry and Leonard, very good PnR rollers like Ibaka and Gasol, world-beating passers like Lowry and Gasol, and great shooters like Green, Leonard, Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Gasol, Ibaka, and more, Toronto could compete with Golden State for the league’s best offence. They have the tools.

But Toronto spends too much time with lesser creators like Powell, VanVleet, or Jeremy Lin initiating the offence. They spend too much time aimless in the halfcourt, tossing hand grenades to bench players who then have to beat the buzzer. Too often, Toronto strays from what should be a stringent, but diverse offensive identity. Some of that, of course, is because Nick Nurse is trying to experiment. He needs to know what he has in complementary young players like Powell and OG Anunoby; if they develop tertiary initiating skills, that would be a big find for the franchise. Think of Siakam; if he weren’t given opportunities to create early in the year, where would the team be now? But Toronto’s offensive identity should solidify in the playoffs. They know who they have and what works with their personnel. We’ve seen Toronto perform at their peak. Fans, players, and coaching staff know how Toronto should get there. All that’s left is to do it.

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