How Far Will the Raptors Newfound Identity Take Them?

Last summer, after the Toronto Raptors traded two of the team’s weaker defenders in DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl for two All-Defensive Team players in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, it was clear that the Raptors had a newfound identity: Defense.

For a franchise that has been around since 1995, the Raptors on-court identity was rarely clear. Off the court, the Raptors developed an identity as the team in the North — the outsiders from Canada with Masai Ujiri at the helm and Drake on the sideline. But even as the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan-Dwane Casey era started to change the Raptors off-court identity for the better — bringing legitimacy and OVO jerseys to Canada’s team — they never developed a clear on-court identity.

Leonard and Green quickly changed that. As I wrote last summer, upon imagining the possibilities of a Leonard-led Raptors team:

“Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, three-time First-Team All-Defense, and quite possibly the best perimeter defender the league has ever seen. Add him and Danny Green, a decent defender himself, to a roster already composed of defensive stewards like Lowry, Wright, Powell, Siakam, and OG and what do you get? A long and athletic team with high basketball IQs and the ability to switch at almost every position.”

The Raptors 2018-19 regular season defense was good — ranking 5th in the league with a defensive rating of 106.8 (worse than the 2017-18 Raptors mark of 105.3) — but left something to be desired. It was inconsistent and only elite on occasion, showing flashes of swarming team-defense that made clear it had the potential to be much better than it was. On paper, the Raptors had one of the best defensive rosters in the league, especially after the Marc Gasol trade, with a starting lineup of Lowry, Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol all exceptional defenders (with the exception of Gasol, all received All-Defensive Team votes).  

It wasn’t until the playoffs that the Raptors truly embraced their newfound identity and became the defensive juggernauts they seemed destined to be. They posted a defensive rating of 104.2 in the playoffs (4th in the league), while going through three of the best teams in the world in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Golden State. They rarely took a possession off on defense, playing with the intensity and intelligence few teams are capable of. They held Giannis Antetokounmpo, the regular season MVP, to just 22.7 points on 44.8 percent shooting, both well below his regular season averages. They held Joel Embiid to just 17.6 points on 37.0 percent shooting. And they made life so difficult for Steph Curry that he shot just 41.4 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from deep (he still averaged 30.5 points per game but Steph gonna Steph). Leonard was the reason the Raptors had a chance to compete for a championship, but it was their team defense that actually enabled them to win one. 

The 2019-20 Raptors are going to look different from the team that just won the championship, but the team’s on-court identity remains the same: Defense. Leonard and Green are gone, and Norman Powell/Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby project to fill their respective places in the starting lineup. The Raptors also signed free agents Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, and Matt Thomas, the former two being defensively-sound wings with length and versatility. They held onto key pieces in Patrick McCaw, Chris Boucher, and maybe Malcolm Miller (depending on if they pick up his contract), who all have the length and versatility to be solid defenders. Finally, the Raptors still have the remaining core pieces from last season’s playoff run: Lowry, Siakam, VanVleet (lest we forget how he locked up Curry), Powell, Serge Ibaka and Gasol, who now have more time to play together and to develop additional chemistry while also acting as leaders who can teach the younger players the fundamentals of team defense and Raptors basketball.

It isn’t going to be easy to account for the loss of Green and especially Leonard: There is probably no better defender in the world than Leonard over the length of a playoff run. But Ujiri built a roster capable of remaining competitive and defensively-elite. Anunoby will presumably step into Leonard’s role as the starting small forward and is due for a breakout year after being riddled with injuries and personal issues last season. He has the size (6-foot-8, 232 pounds) and length (7-foot-2 wingspan) to defend multiple positions effectively and his speed and good hands enable him to be a difference-maker on the defensive end (more on that later). Plus, he — along with the rest of the Raptors young core — got to watch Leonard for an entire season, which has to be insightful and inspiring. Anunoby has the potential to become a legitimate 3-and-D wing next season and is an important part of the Raptors future defensive identity.

The other starting spot, left vacant by Green, will likely be filled by either VanVleet or Powell. Despite both players being significantly smaller than Green, both are quicker and understand the Raptors system well. VanVleet is a much better shooter than Powell and can defend guards but Powell is a traditional shooting guard who is bigger and more versatile, capable of defending one through three effectively. Nick Nurse will likely allow them to compete for the starting spot and could even flip back and forth between them depending on the matchups (like he did at the start of last season with Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas and like he was planning to do with Anunoby and Siakam until Siakam won the job).

Speaking of Siakam, the Cameroonian power forward projects to step into Leonard’s role as the team’s primary option next season. He is now a proven scorer, averaging 19.8 points in the NBA Finals on 50.5 percent shooting against the Golden State Warriors while being guarded primarily by Draymond Green, but his next big leap could come on the defensive end. Siakam has the size (6-foot-9, 230 pounds), length (7-foot-3 wingspan), speed, and basketball IQ to legitimately defend all five posititions. According to research by Nylon Calculus’ Krishna Narsu, Siakam was one of nine starters who guarded all five positions at least 10 percent of the time on the floor last season (Anunoby had the 11th best defensive ranking of all players and was almost as versatile as Siakam in terms of his defensive matchups). There is a lot of talk about Siakam developing a reliable jump shot, and while that would be a nice skill for him to polish, last season’s MVP Antetokounmpo proved that you can be among the league’s best without one, as long as you are elite on defense. Siakam has the potential to make an All-Defensive team (he received 24 second-team votes last season) and maybe even win a Defensive Player of the Year award one day. Next season will be his biggest test yet as he looks to prove he can carry an elite NBA defense without Leonard. 

In terms of the bench, the Raptors have created a competitive environment with the additions of Hollis-Jefferson, Johnson, Thomas, Terence Davis, Cam Payne, and Dewan Hernandez along with the returning players McCaw, Boucher, and Miller (maybe). Those players will all be competing for minutes starting in training camp, and with the team’s identity clearly defined, defense (along with three-point shooting, which the Raptors desperately need) will be the most important factor in determining who gets those minutes.

With the exceptions of Thomas, Davis, and Payne, all the players the Raptors added share common characteristics: They are big, long, fast, athletic, and defensively sound. As Zach Lowe put it on a recent Lowe Post podcast with Kevin Arnovitz, “the apex of modern basketball is not small ball; It’s skill ball with size.”

That is the type of roster Ujiri is clearly trying to build: a long, athletic team with skill, smarts, and a focus on defense. If the Raptors want to compete in a top-heavy Eastern Conference next season, head coach Nick Nurse will have to get weird and experiential in order to score enough points to overcome their lack of talent and three-point shooting.

However, as long as they embrace their defensive identity, the Raptors will have a chance to win on any given night. What more can you ask for from a team that just lost its best player and is in a transitional state? 

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