Well that was an easy week for the Raptors and a hard week for basketball. Pascal Siakam won Eastern Conference Player of the Week and was named as a starter in the All-Star game. Kyle Lowry was named as a reserve in the All-Star game. And the Raptors won a whole bunch of games in between, with the winning streak now standing at nine.
The explanation for this weekly column at Raptors Republic, called The Black Box Report, is fairly simple. Is it a literary journal? Maybe; it sure sounds like it. If it were, I would probably read it. There would be stories about young men coming to terms with the mortality of their icons. Unfortunately, this is not that journal. This column is for myself and Samson Folk to simultaneously look forwards and back, explicating the under-examined and trying to explain what went, goes, and maybe even will go, on under the hood. The black box is the vessel inside of which all information is stored, and it’s known for its opacity. Hopefully, this column can add some transparency to what actually puts the points on the board.
Also! Samson and I are going to blend the RR mailbag into this column under the transcendental title of the Black Box Rapport. I know. It’s phenomenal. We’ll take questions from the comment section here, as long as they’re formatted as questions, or any questions addressed to either of our twitter handles. You can find myself here and Samson here. Next week will feature two BBRs, both the Report and the Rapport, so please fire away with any questions you may have, as they will not detract in any way from the usual BBR that (we hope) you know and love. On to the good stuff.
Looking back – Zatzman
7:30 EST on Friday, January 24th @ New York Knicks – 118-112 W
4:00 EST on Sunday, January 26th @ San Antonio Spurs – 110-106 W
7:30 EST on Tuesday, January 28th vs. Atlanta Hawks – 130-114 W
7:00 EST on Thursday, January 30th @ Cleveland Cavaliers – 115-109 W
Victory lap, but what are the takeaways?
Ok, my predictions weren’t entirely ground-breaking, calling for an undefeated week as well as a dominant showing from Fred VanVleet against Trae Young, but those two things happened in precisely the way I expected, so it’s worth mentioning that.
More importantly and broadly, what to take away from an easy week, against weak competition, with the gloom of the Kobe Bryant tragedy casting all basketball in a pall of secondary importance? That’s a harder question.
Toronto’s defensive focus can wane at times. They occasionally play down to their opponents, which means sometimes leads can evaporate. All of that is normal, and it happens to the best teams, and it really is not a predictor of success or failure in the playoffs. It’s hard for great teams to stay focused for 48 minutes if they’ve won games in the first 30, especially when there’s bigger things on the minds of the players. But we can be confident in our knowledge that the offense has been stellar as the Raptors have returned to health.
Toronto put up expected field goal percentages, per the excellent pbp stats, of 55 percent, 55 percent, 56 percent, and 57 percent. Those are good. Samson and I both mapped out Toronto’s diverse offensive weapons and stylings here and here, respectively. So no need to delve too deeply into the diverse nodes of offense. Instead, let’s focus on the beating heart, the lodestone, the foundation upon which the house is built:
Siakam’s scoring may be less efficient this year, and his jumper can come and go from game to game. But his play is at an all-time high, and it’s because of his much faster ability to make reads and passes. He is turning into the type of superstar who can create advantages on offense, maintain them with his quick decisions, and punish them with his scoring or passing. That’s what you need in the playoffs, and it’s started to rear its beautiful head.
That’s the future right there. That’s the single biggest reason why Toronto’s offense has been so dominant over the past week. Kyle Lowry has been able to pick his spots. Fred VanVleet has been spitting fire as an off-ball threat. Marc Gasol has launched wide-open triples from his favourite spot, and Serge Ibaka has feasted against bench units. Norman Powell has gotten most of his scoring done in transition and spotting up off the ball. Siakam’s evolution as a passer has unlocked Toronto’s offense, and that’s what to take away from an undefeated week.
Live ball turnovers
The Raptors have forced double-digit live-ball turnovers in each of the last four games this week. This is officially now a trend, after forcing double digits in four of the previous five games before that, as well. The eight-of-nine stretch is by far the longest of the season; outside of those eight games with double-digit live-ball turnovers, Toronto has only forced double digits in 12 games the whole season.
Part of Toronto’s ability to do so is because they’ve faced some poor teams. It’s easier to force live-ball turnovers when opponents’ primary ball-handlers are Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, after all. But there’s more to it than that. The Raptors have seemed to be more aggressive on the perimeter on defense, dialing it up to their defensive intensity of the early season. Norman Powell had a clutch steal and dunk to practically seal the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it was reminiscent of OG Anunoby’s search-and-destroy missions of the early season. The Raptors try not to gamble too much, or at least gamble themselves out of position, and this week they did a relatively good job keeping the rim protected (outside of a few Trae Young dimes to John Collins) while also keeping opponents from taking too many open threes.
In fact, Toronto has ratcheted up opponents’ turnovers while sacrificing little else on defense. It’s part of what has allowed them to score so consistently against opponents. In the beginning of the season, Toronto was first in the league in both transition attempts and efficiency on those attempts. They’ve fallen off since then, but since transition dynamos like Siakam, Powell, and others have returned to the lineup, Toronto’s ability to force live-ball turnovers and score on the run has returned. Easy offense is the best offense, and it’s a huge part of why Toronto was able to get four wins this week while giving approximately 25 percent effort. Finding the easiest way to win is what good teams do.
Looking forward – Folk
7:00 pm EST on Friday January 31 @ Detroit Pistons
3:00 pm EST on Sunday February 2 against the Chicago Bulls
7:30 pm EST on Wednesday February 5 against the Indiana Pacers
It’s hard to build winners
I found myself with a little bit of extra time in these past couple days, so I turned on my PS4 and started playing 2k20. I never really played the ‘mycareer’ stuff, I always preferred ‘mygm’ or ‘myleague’. The first thing I did was spend 45 minutes tweaking all of the Raptors’ jumpshots – because 2k never gets them right – and then I played one game with the fantastic team out of Toronto. That was all too easy, I wanted a challenge. So, I started a ‘myleague’ with the Bulls, immediately traded Zach Lavine and Kris Dunn for Caris Levert and Spencer Dinwiddie, and then I crafted a tremendous lineup of Dinwiddie-Coby White-Levert-Lauri Markkanen-Wendell Carter Jr. I ran the spread pick n’ roll, Dinwiddie feasted, Carter Jr. did his best Al Horford impression, and I made sure to never neglect Coby in the corner. I had fun.
I could have fun starting any number of seasons with any number of teams, and it really makes me realize how bad a GM I would actually be. I seem to think every player is fun in his own way, and every team is just the right playstyle away from glory. And maybe that’s why the Raptors are such a marvel in the NBA. Some teams have it, whatever it is. The Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies (although, with help from the fantastic Morant), and the Spurs. Worse draft picks (for the most part), horrible trade luck, and all the teams mentioned above keep coming back. Meanwhile, teams like the Bulls and the Kings have had a bevy of opportunities to create incredibly good teams. And yet, they remain aggressively mediocre.
A defensive identity seems important to building consistent winning teams, and credit the Bulls for making considerable strides on that end (9th in the league in DRTG). But, the Bulls are missing almost everything else. Funnily enough, their squad was considered to have extremely high offensive potential by many before the season started, and be it injuries or a deficiency of stamina (that is now being expended elsewhere) their offense has cratered to 27th in the league.
I’ve never been one to engage in the All-Star debates online, I usually have those in person with friends, but their is a part of me that walks away miffed every time a player like Zach Lavine, Derrick Rose, or Andre Drummond is placed above Kyle Lowry. Not just because I love Lowry, but because winning is difficult. There’s really no other explanation for how the Raptors have fared this decade other than to point directly at Lowry, and as the pieces moved around him the Raptors remained remarkably steady. Where as the Lavine-led Bulls seem to be sent off course by the smallest cross-wind.
Lowry will make his 6th All-Star appearance, which is great. The league will probably continue to ignore the significance of what he’s doing. Looking over at the surging Raptors every once in awhile, attributing it to something else. And for those of us who watch it’s tough to explain why he wins in a concise way, but you know what you’re seeing. With the underwhelming Bulls, you can’t really be sure. And if I want them to be fun, I’ll have to turn on my playstation.
How Oladipo built himself
Let’s go back to 2017-18. Outside of the Golden State Warriors most top NBA teams were in flux. The Cavaliers traded incumbent superstar Kyrie Irving, the Rockets traded James Harden’s longtime running mate Patrick Beverley, upgrading to the “Point God” Chris Paul. Disgruntled stars left for greener pastures – Paul George and Carmelo Anthony both found their way onto the Thunder, joining Russell Westbrook. With the return the Clippers received in the Chris Paul trade, the seemingly one-sided trade between the Pacers and Thunder for Paul George, and the Jimmy Butler trade to the Timberwolves, there was a resounding sentiment that you can’t expect to get a lot for star players in a trade anymore – wild when you consider what the LA teams traded for Paul George and Anthony Davis.
Oladipo had his worst shooting year as a pro and was unceremoniously traded to Indiana, where he went to college. Joining a rag-tag group of guys, the ball rolled to Oladipo’s feet and begged to be picked up. He worked relentlessly in the offseason, recognizing that the ball would be in his hands in Indiana, and he worked on one thing, pull-up threes. Similar to what we’ve seen from Norman Powell, a couple years ago Oladipo realized how a potent jump-shot could unleash his athleticism. He started attempting pull-up threes at nearly 3-times the rate he did before (and started hitting, too). Which meant he eventually got defenders to come over the top, and he ate up the space in-between.
He always had the athleticism to get to the rim and defend at a high level. But, he had to figure out a way to get to the rim with less resistance waiting for him. With the addition of the jump-shot, backpedaling big men shuddered at the sight of him, and those who played drop defense watched him hit from mid-range. Oladipo went from being an okay finisher at the rim to one of the league’s very best (69-percent). He transformed everything about his offensive game, and kept his defensive motor.
Finally healthy after some disastrous injury luck, Oladipo gets to try and reclaim his spot as a top-12 NBA player. And the Pacers did a fantastic job of maintaining things while he was away. Oladipo’s return, and the form in which it comes, could really transform the middle rounds of the NBA playoffs. On top of that, he makes the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference all the more valuable, a spot the Raptors look happy to hang onto.
More than anything he’s an awesome dude and a joy to watch. I’m excited to watch the Raptors square up vs. the Pacers.
To repeat, before you go, RR’s mailbags will return next week! They will be under the guise of the BBR, but more aptly named the Black Box Rapport. Please hit us with any and all questions you can imagine, either here in the comment section or on Twitter, if you prefer.
Have a blessed day.