The 2020-21 Toronto Raptors were always going to have to be better than the sum of their parts. That’s the only way to overcome a lack of top-end talent in a superstar-driven league.
Last season, the Raptors were able to coalesce into a defensive machine extremely quickly; one that was described both as an “octopus” and a “haunted house.” Part of the reason the Raptors were able to achieve the second-best record in the league and the best winning percentage in franchise history is because they got off to such a quick start, and the reason they got off to such a quick start was because their defense was humming when the rest of the league was playing catch-up.
This season, the transition from offseason to preseason to regular season basketball hasn’t looked so smooth. The Raptors have given up 113 and 119 points in their first two losses, while combining for 31 turnovers. They have looked even more aggressive on the defensive end than they did last season, switching it up between man and zone constantly while double-teaming big-men in the post and trapping ball-handlers beyond the arc, but it hasn’t gotten good results. That aggressive defensive system requires all five players on the floor to be on a string, rotating and recovering quickly enough to make up for your teammates (constantly) being out of position. Instead, we saw a lot of this on Saturday night:
5 Guys pic.twitter.com/nxS14aXpSB
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) December 27, 2020
An optimist would look at the play above and chalk it up to a new roster needing time to gel and learn the system and their new roles, especially after a shortened preseason. A pessimist might tell you that all five players on the floor were part of last season’s team and should already know where and when to rotate on simple drives, but maybe just don’t have the collective IQ to do so. I saw a lot of people on Twitter blame the defensive mishaps on the lack of an effective back-line communicator like Marc Gasol.
“I am not going to give anybody credit for communicating, myself included,” Fred VanVleet said after the loss. “We got to do a much better job of that. So to answer your question, everybody on the team needs to be better on that end of the floor communicating, starting with myself, and I think that will help our defence out. I mean, there’s nobody in the building so there’s no excuse to not be talking. It’s as quiet as hell out there.”
As with almost anything in the NBA, it’s impossible to project whether or not Chris Boucher or Aron Baynes can develop into that kind of communicator or back-line defender. Maybe all it takes is a few more reps and some more accountability from the coaching staff. On the other hand, if the current Raptors’ players can’t adapt to this aggressive system eventually, then the coaching staff will need to adapt to its players.
Last season’s system seemed perfectly built around the players on the roster. This one seems built around what Nick Nurse wants to do, how he wants to play. It could work: The Raptors tend to go after high-IQ two-way players for a reason, and so eventually this roster should be able to play in Nurse’s aggressive system. If not, though, it’s not beyond the coaching staff to reshape the defense towards a more conservative system that fits the incoming players’ more limited skill sets.
At least some of the early season accountability should fall on the coaching staff because the Raptors just haven’t looked ready to play. They have gotten badly out-rebounded in both of their first two games, and it killed them against the Spurs, who seemed to score after every offensive rebound. Maybe Chris Boucher can only play center if OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are on the wings at the same time. That would force the coaching staff to alter the rotations, but it would shore up a lot of their defensive rebounding issues. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
The point is, it’s simply too soon to definitively say if the Raptors need to change up anything or what that change should be. And while it’s true that their clearest path to contention is through elite defense, their offense has actually looked the better of the two early on. The ball has been moving along beautifully and finding good shooters in good positions to shoot. There has been remarkable off-ball movement surrounding Pascal Siakam post-ups and isolations. And the Raptors are even running more pick-and-roll than we are used to seeing, along with an inverted “horns” set with Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet screening at the top of the key for Siakam, who was getting to the rim at ease against the Spurs, and who looked more dominant in the first half than we have seen in a long, long time.
It’s encouraging that the offense is ahead of the defense, actually, because we that was probably the biggest question heading into the season. However, the Raptors need to be more organized on both sides of the ball and clean up stuff around the margins, especially if they want to beat elite teams.
The Raptors need to coalesce into a sum that is greater than its parts. That, or Pascal Siakam needs to become a superstar. Those are the two paths to contention. Fortunately for the Raptors, time is in their favour.