What is the Raptors offense?

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Ageless wonders at the point guard and center positions. A conveyor belt that moves G-League talent into max contract spaces. Opportunity for all. What the hell is the Raptors offense?

I could walk through film and all that, but I do that in all my other pieces, so I just want to walk out some ideas.

The Raptors offensive scheme breaks down into a couple different groups. These groups were created by Nick Nurse to make the Raptors more versatile and difficult to scheme for. It’s the clear cut reason for why Fred VanVleet, a 48th-percentile pick n’ roll ball handler, gets more ‘PNR’ possessions than Kyle Lowry, one of the very best ‘PNR’ players in the league (89th-percentile.)

It makes the team better in the clutch, and potentially better in the playoffs. It’s led to career years for Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell, and made for a welcoming system for Terence Davis II to step into.

Creators on the Raptors sacrifice their efficiency because they play a free flowing, read and react style of offense, instead of a well-regimented pick n’ roll offense like the Portland Trail Blazers, for example. In the read and react system we see Lowry, Siakam, VanVleet and Gasol (to a lesser extent) creating advantages for themselves, yes, but often times the ball will find the spot on the floor where the defense is vulnerable. This isn’t like the Houston Rockets finding the weak-side shooters, though. The Raptors aren’t manufacturing a specific advantage, but rather any advantage. Once the advantage is created the Raptors are really good at getting the ball there.

Siakam’s multifaceted game creates havoc for defenses, and Lowry’s basketball IQ sees the havoc turned into buckets. The same goes for Marc Gasol, especially in the Raptors “corner” offense. DHO’s, split-action, backdoor cuts on the opposite side – the goal is almost never to get Gasol a shot. Lowry has been superb at the rim and getting to the free throw line this year, but most of his downhill action is in service to one of the big men who are rolling, popping, or sneaking into the dunker spot. Since Siakam is the walking mismatch, he’s often times the player who’s asked to go at the vulnerabilities. These four create endlessly for the Raptors on offense, and from Siakam-Lowry-Gasol-VanVleet, they all take a different proportion of opportunities for themselves. There are different ways to fulfill the “creator” role on the Raptors squad, but all four are creators.

Lowry and VanVleet are a little bit symbiotic, because they’re constantly swapping between “creator” and “finisher”, and doing so at opposite times. Nurse and the Raptors love playing VanVleet and Lowry together because they’re both incredible relocation threats, potent catch-and-shoot options (though VanVleet is the better catch and shoot option, and Lowry is much better pulling up), and they can get the defense in rotation with regularity. The numbers indicate that VanVleet would probably operate more efficiently as a “finisher”, but you can’t unleash some of Lowry’s scoring sensibilities off-ball without asking VanVleet to handle the ball – something he’s also getting better at.

Most teams would probably shift a healthy amount of VanVleet’s possessions over to Siakam and Lowry to be divvied up, but not these Raptors.

It’s great to be a finisher on the Raptors. Not a single player of the four has a true shooting percentage under 59-percent. It gets as high as Norman Powell at 63-percent and goes as low as Serge Ibaka at .593-percent. These players represent the true ceiling of the Raptors offense, because it operates at it’s most formidable when these guys are making their shots. The offensive style the Raptors play needs to be able to rely on offensive production from these players – Powell and Ibaka especially.

Few plays are run for OG Anunoby and Terence Davis II, which is okay, because they’re both pretty good off-ball. Anunoby shoots 37-percent on catch and shoot triples, sneaks along the baseline like a burglar, and has a brutish post-game if he gets a mouse in the house. Terence Davis II is a remarkably good cutter, equally impressive as a shooter, and a somewhat shocking offensive rebounder. They both get out in transition, space the floor, and read plays well. It’s a great fit.

The Raptors go into every game with the intention of running plays for both Powell and Ibaka. It’s well deserved seeing as they’ve both become some of the best finishers in the league. When the Raptors offense is in a funk, a pick n’ pop to get Ibaka a mid-range jumper is as high on the list of priorities as any other play the Raptors could run. The same goes for a pin-down for Powell. These two have been remarkably dependable, and in a lot of games, teams simply can’t track the firepower the Raptors have on the floor, and one of Ibaka or Powell run rampant on their way to yet another 20+ point performance. This has been the case for Ibaka for some time, but Powell was the player who made the big jump this season.

A lot of teams are built with this type of stuff in mind. These roles receive sub-genres of sorts: rim runner, ‘3 and D’ etc. However (comma) the Raptors have more creators than most teams, and more effective finishers, too. It’s made for a ton of interesting offensive performances, and maintains their danger and versatility going forward.

Projecting roles + other stuff

Of the 8 players that were sorted, I only see one player receiving a material change in role over the next few years, whether that’s in Toronto or elsewhere. Davis II has the talent, and will likely have the room to grow into a real combo guard role. One in which he handles in the pick n’ roll often, isolates, and works off-ball.

As much as I’d like to think OG Anunoby is truly the next Kawhi Leonard, I don’t think that’s in the cards. Although, we’ve seen what a maximized finisher role looks like (Powell) and if you combine that type of offensive output with Anunoby’s top-10 defense pedigree you’ve got a hell of a player. Maybe even someone who creeps toward the top 25 in the league. Anunoby can certainly improve, but I don’t expect him to become a creator.

Despite Norman Powell having an obscenely good offensive season, I don’t think anything he’s done indicates that he’ll start creating exceptional looks for teammates. He’s a reliable swing pass guy, but I don’t see it. What is good though, is Powell has become one of the very best at what he does in the whole league. Another year of this, without injuries, would place him comfortably in the top-3 of 6MOY voting. He’s damn good.

If Fred VanVleet signs elsewhere I don’t think it will be as a tertiary option, and he’s clearly shown enough chops on-ball to legitimize him as a creator.

The other players on the team definitely fit these roles in one way or another, but they all fell under 1000 minutes played this year (an exception was made for Gasol). So, I’ll just highlight them here in the roles I think they’ve been cast in.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – Finisher

Patrick McCaw – Creator

Chris Boucher – Finisher

Malcolm Miller – Finisher

Matt Thomas – Finisher

Oshae Brissett – Finisher

Dewan Hernandez, Stanley Johnson, Paul Watson, Shamorie Ponds – Too few minutes, and I’m not assigning their G-League roles to their NBA roles, because that doesn’t make much sense.

Thanks for reading.

Have a blessed day.


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