Why are the Toronto Raptors so bad at defense?

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Charles Knoblauch’s MLB career began with a bang. In 1991, the second baseman won Al Rookie of the Year as well as the World Series. Unfortunately, he may now be best remembered for forgetting how to throw to first base. Only a few years after winning a Gold Glove in 1997, Knoblauch began to experience one of the most profound cases of the yips in sports history. He committed far more errors after joining the New York Yankees, but the problem culminated in 2000. At one point, he tossed a simple throw so far above the first baseman’s head that it hit broadcaster Keith Olbermann’s mother in the head. Later, in June, he committed so many throwing errors in one game that he walked out, leaving the stadium while his teammates continued to play the game.

Is that what’s going on with the Toronto Raptors’ defense? Do they have the collective yips?

The Raptors’ success has long been intertwined with their defensive excellence. Last year, they finished with the second-best record in the league, at 53-19, and the second best defense, with a rating of 104.7. Last year was a continuation of a trend rather than a fluke. The Raptors boasted a top-five defense in each of 2018-19 and 2017-18. In fact, the last time the Raptors had a below-average defense was 2014-15, when the wing rotation was DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross, and Lou Williams Greivis Vasquez played important guard minutes off the bench. Defense has been Toronto’s lodestone. Until this year.

Toronto currently ranks 21st in the league with a defensive rating of 111.1. This previous off-season, the team did lose its entire center rotation in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. But that doesn’t go all the way to explaining the issues. Last year, per Cleaning the Glass, Toronto allowed 100.0 points per 100 possessions with Gasol playing without Ibaka (99th-percentile league-wide), 108.1 with Ibaka and not Gasol (76th percentile) and 108.4 per 100 possessions with neither playing (73rd percentile). So losing Gasol hurts, but the Raptors were still above average without him on the floor last season.

However, Toronto played only a quarter of its possessions without either of its traditional centers last season. Coming into this year, it was clear that it would have to rebuild its defensive structure without a player like Gasol who can close so many gaps behind aggressive defensive rotations. Last year Toronto employed a manic scheme of traps, blitzes, switches, and cascading closeouts that forced its defenders into infinite rotations, while also forcing opponents into the second-most turnovers in the league. A fair trade-off, even if it required immense effort from its core defenders. But the centers were required to clean up at the rim. Opponents shot 3.3 percent worse at the rim than expected, which was second-best in the league, and the incredible success of Ibaka and Gasol was the biggest reason why.

That, uh, hasn’t happened this year.

Aron Baynes either doesn’t help or massively overhelps; either way, the result is often uncontested layups.

This year, without traditional rim protectors who can carve space with their bulk, contest shots without jumping, and remain in rebounding position, Toronto has been forced to adapt its entire defensive structure. Yes, Alex Len and Baynes can theoretically protect the rim, but they do not rotate nearly as quickly as Gasol or Ibaka did last year, and besides they have been giving up more on offense than they may add on defense. And even if they do get stops, neither has been even passable as a rebounder. Toronto has the fifth-worst defensive rebounding rate in the league, and Baynes more often punches or slaps at rebounds than tries to grab them. As a result, the Raptors have played over 60 percent of their minutes without a traditional center on the floor. The team played only 25 percent of their minutes last year without a traditional center; it is clear that last year’s strategy needed to change.

Nick Nurse has decided to employ a switching defense as its base package this year. One result is that the team needs to rotate less. But such a theoretical benefit has come with its drawbacks.

I asked Nurse about the newfound dedication to switching, and he gave me a thoughtful and lengthy answer:

The switching gets you out of a lot of that closeout stuff,” he said in explaining the decision to implement the coverage. “A lot of the closeout stuff comes out of playing standard coverage pick-and-roll… When you do that, then there’s a roller that needs to be accounted for. So that brings another player in off his man to account for that, and then the ball gets kicked out to his man, and that brings a rotation. It kind of starts that kind of defense. So, the switching’s taking care of a bunch of that. And I think it’s let us do things a little bit more the way we’re used to. You know, just a little bit better ball pressure, we get a little bit more aggressive on the ball. It’s theoretically kept the ball in front a little bit more. I think the switching’s made us pretty good in a lot of defensive quarters, here.”

“But we got a long ways to go with it,” Nurse continued. “You’ve got to switch well. You’ve got to communicate those switches. You still gotta do things well. You still gotta impact the ball. You still gotta pressure the ball. There’s still a lot of brushing up we need to do, and then it forces teams into a lot more one-on-one play… We’ve got to sit down into our help positions better, and when it does get driven deep, then you’re again back into some rotational-type things that we’ve got to clean up a little bit. We’re doing some of them well, but we’ve got to make less mistakes, and then we’re going to be really tough defensively.”

Some of Toronto’s problems are thus related to not knowing what’s going on. Sometimes, miscommunicated switches result in uncontested dunks when centers think the play is a switch and guards do not, as happened here with Chris Boucher and Fred VanVleet.

At other times, switches are performed so poorly that they cede uncontested layups anyway. Here Boucher switched but didn’t get into a stance and allowed a straight-line drive. Problems compounded. OG Anunoby didn’t pinch in from the corner to help, and Kyle Lowry jumped out of the way rather than use his body to force Hayward to change direction.

Such switching issues go some way to explaining why Toronto has struggled on defense. The team is using a new base package, and that means defenders need time to improve. The consistency from past years is gone.

But that doesn’t explain everything. In fact, when you watch some of Toronto’s elite defensive players on that end, there is much that is missing beyond the time required to learn a new scheme. Second Spectrum data shows that a number of individual Raptors — ostensibly Toronto’s elite defenders — are struggling in individual but similar ways.

Anunoby has allowed 16 points on 20 isolation possessions this season, whereas last year he was one of the stingiest isolation defenders in the league, allowing only 27 points on 44 possessions. Ignore the fairly sizeable points per possession difference; Anunoby’s greatest defensive skill is arguably dissuading attempts from even taking place. Last year, opponents averaged only 0.4 shot attempts per game in isolation against Anunoby. This year, that number is up to 1.1 attempts per game.

It’s not just Anunoby.

Lowry has allowed 19 points defending 14 post-ups this year versus 19 points on 34 over all of last season. Both he and Fred VanVleet are allowing over one point per possession when defending the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls while last year both allowing fewer than 0.9. Perhaps related: both VanVleet and Lowry are averaging significantly fewer deflections per game this year than last.

Meanwhile, after leading the entire league last year in contesting three-point shots, Siakam is further down the leaderboard, contesting more than one fewer triple per game. He is second in the league in fouls per game, averaging more than a foul more per game compared to last season. He’s been overly aggressive at unnecessary times, which both picks up fouls and allows lesser ball-handlers to squeeze past him with ease, compromising Toronto’s already spongey interior defense.

Separately, any of those downturn in defensive statistics could be taken as small sample size theatre; after all, Toronto has only played 12 games. But together, they indicate that Toronto’s struggles are systematic rather than individual. Each of the core four is having an individually worse defensive season this year than last. To that point: VanVleet, Lowry, and Siakam have lower steal rates this year than last, and Lowry, Anunoby, and Siakam have lower block rates. There must be more at play than everyone getting the yips at the same time.

One important explanation for all of Toronto’s struggles is a lack of trust. Last year, Toronto seemed to always have two or more bodies in front of the ball. No defender was ever truly in isolation. This season, it seems like every action is defended by one Raptor, if at all. Help defenders far too often have heads or backs turned away from the rim. Here Norman Powell should have sunk in to tag the roller — although Lowry and Len certainly impacted the play about as little as possible, as well — but Powell didn’t even see the play happening, with his back turned the whole time.

Or here, when Siakam was supposed to step up after Lowry forced Brandon Ingram to put the ball on the floor, but instead took the time to perform a nifty little pirouette. He did eventually do a decent job of contesting late and at least being tall. Still, Siakam could have prevented the attempt entirely if he had been slightly more Johnny-on-the-spot.

Toronto has been unserious about its help duties, thus making sure that opponents are playing with space to spare. That luck of trust in each other is one possible explanation of the increased frequency with which defenders like Lowry and Anunoby are defending in the post and isolation. Help isn’t arriving as quickly as it used to, if it comes at all.

The Raptors aren’t rotating ahead of the ball, aren’t filling gaps and cutting off lanes. They aren’t digging into the post and recovering. The team defense that made Toronto a wall of sound last season is now absent.

That can’t be due entirely to the change in scheme or Gasol’s absence. Some of the blame must be placed on Toronto’s off-court issues involved in relocating to Tampa Bay. Playing defense at the level Toronto did last year requires absolute buy-in; the team has to care, above all else, about the defensive end. No one on the team wants to acknowledge the excuses, but that buy-in hasn’t been as omnipresent this season.

All this together adds to one point. Don’t worry; it’s not the yips. VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, and Lowry haven’t forgotten how to play defense, either individually or within team structures. They’re not a team of Knoblauchs, who’ve collectively forgotten how to throw to first. They still have all their skills, intelligence, and physical gifts. But something is missing. The structure within which those talents have been applied has shifted.

So what can the Raptors do to improve? They need to talk better to communicate the plan ahead of time. They need to be more physical in handing opponents off when switching so that seems aren’t opened into the paint. They need to rotate cleaner and more directly, knowing where they’re going in advance rather than allowing the offense to dictate. Even simpler: guard opponents better as primaries and help with more urgency, trusting teammates to help further from behind.

But to do all of that with force and accuracy, the Raptors need to prioritize defense. They need to care as desperately about each possession as they did last year. How can you possibly relearn that? Teaching that is almost teleological. It’s as self-defeating as a second baseman trying to relearn how to throw to first.

Within a year after taking himself out of a game early, Knoblauch had quit second base. He moved to left field, never to return to the infield again. He’s remembered now for his bizarre case of the yips and not for his spectacular career.

Nothing so drastic is in store for these Raptors. Still, the defense has fallen apart. And if they’re going to recapture their world-beating form, they’ll need to relearn both the complex and the simple. If the Raptors still think of themselves as a playoff team, they’ll have to get better at the very skills that formed their greatest collective strength last season. They shouldn’t need to, but that’s what this season has come to: re-learn, re-establish, and redeem, or waste a full season of Lowry’s seemingly endless prime, with no golden ticket waiting in the upcoming free agency pool.

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