When you think about Kawhi Leonard’s historic run as a Toronto Raptor to the 2019 NBA Championship, what comes to mind?
The scoring, probably, as Leonard averaged 30.5 points and totalled an outrageous 732 points in 24 games. The assists, too, as Leonard passed out of double-teams regularily and averaged 3.9 assists, up from his regular-season average of 3.3. The defense, too, as Leonard defended Giannis Antetekounpo about as well as anybody can.
But it’s easy to forget that Leonard was a rebounding machine, averaging a playoff career-high 9.1 rebounds per game, up from his regular-season average of 7.3. He led the Raptors in rebounds throughout the playoffs, averaging 2.0 more than the second-best rebounder, Pascal Siakam. And it wasn’t like rebounds were falling into Leonard’s lap, either: Leonard came up with timely rebounds again and again, even grabbing a team-high 2.3 offensive rebounds per game.
There are not many players in the league who can grab this board, not to mention that Leonard is a small forward:
This rebound by Kawhi Leonard is insane 😳
— NBA SKITS (@NBA_Skits) May 10, 2019
The Raptors have their eyes set on another championship this season, which might have sounded crazy in the leadup to the season but no longer is. At 36-14, the Raptors have the third-best record in the NBA and the fourth-best net-rating (+6.7).
However, like most teams in the league, the Raptors do have one glaring weakness, statistically and functionally: rebounding.
The Raptors rank 21st in the league in rebounding percentage at just 49.3 percent. They rank 26th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage at 75.6 percent. Part of that has to do with the defensive style the Raptors play, encouraging three-pointers, especially from poor shooters, which often lead to long rebounds. But part of it is the Raptors personnel and roster construction, and unless something is done to address it ahead of the trade deadline on Thursday, February 6th, it could become an even more significant issue in the playoffs.
To set the scene, in order to reach the NBA Finals, the Raptors will likely have to go through two of the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, and Philadelphia 76ers. Those teams are huge and rank first, second, and third in the entire league in both rebounding percentage and defensive rebounding percentage.
That the Raptors have managed to maintain the second-best defence in the league despite giving up second chances at a top-five rate is impressive, but it could hurt them in the playoffs when the margins shrink.
The Raptors replaced Danny Green — an excellent rebounder for his position — and Leonard with Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby in the starting lineup. Anunoby is averaging 5.4 rebounds per game, which isn’t bad, but he isn’t as strong or positionally smart to be as good of a rebounder as Leonard, and he doesn’t even close out games a lot of the time.
After Siakam, the Raptors three best and most consistent scorers this season have been Kyle Lowry, VanVleet, and Norman Powell, all of whom are 6-foot-3 or shorter. Plus, neither Ibaka or Gasol are elite rebounders for their position.
It’s not that the Raptors don’t have size on their roster: they can and have started mega-lineups such as Lowry-Anunoby-Siakam-Ibaka-Gasol. The Raptors are as flexible and adaptable as any team in the league, being able to play all types of lineups depending on the matchup, which was key in helping them become champions and has become a big part of their identity.
But this year’s team isn’t the same as last year’s. The Raptors don’t have as much high-end talent this time around, so sacrificing skill in favour of size might not be a feasible option.
Think back to the 76ers series last year. The 76ers’ size represented a real problem for Toronto throughout the series, and VanVleet and Powell struggled to stay on the floor.
In game 7, the Raptors played just seven players, with VanVleet playing just 15 minutes and shooting 0-5 from the field.
Size is different than rebounding, of course. But the point I am trying to make is that the Raptors got away with sacrificing skill and scoring (sitting VanVleet and Powell) for size (Gasol played 45/48 minutes). They were able to do this in large part because they had Leonard, who took 39 shots and grabbed 8 rebounds in game 7. The Raptors outrebounded the 76ers 49-41 in that game, which they might not have been able to do if VanVleet and Powell played big minutes in favour of some of the better rebounders.
The Raptors won’t have the luxury to sit two of their best shooters this time around.
The Raptors are playing fantastic basketball, currently on a franchise-record 11-game win streak. They have a group of highly skilled and very smart players who are building on-court chemistry by the day.
Still, it’s worth projecting ahead to the humongous, elite rebounding teams the Raptors are going to have to beat in the playoffs in order to come out of the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors could make a move for another big man ahead of the deadline, someone like Markieff Morris or Danilo Gallinari, as Blake Murphy suggested here. Or they could wait and see if any good rebounders end up getting bought out.
It’s not that the Raptors don’t have big man depth: both Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher are excellent rebounders. However, each comes with flaws that teams will look to exploit in the playoffs.
If the Raptors don’t change the roster, Nick Nurse and his staff are going to have their work cut out for them in the playoffs. The coaching staff is going to have to manage minutes while constantly weighing the pros and cons of playing their most skilled offensive players versus playing their big men.
Not everyone can play big minutes.