What should we make of the Raptors’ Offense?

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Pascal Siakam
Pascal Siakam's 23 points helped the Raptors defeat the Sixers 110-103 (photo by : Getty Images)

The 2020-21 Toronto Raptors’ season was a mess for several reasons. It’s been covered a great deal, but there was another iffy element that’s been an issue for a few years now: offense hasn’t been a particularly strong suit of the Raptors since winning the championship in 2019. The departure of Kawhi Leonard obviously left much to be desired in go-to scoring situations. A year later, the absence of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol as floor spacing bigs with high basketball IQ was certainly felt. And if you were already worried about how the Raptors would address their league average offense, the first weeks of the 2021 offseason probably didn’t help alleviate those concerns.

As the 2021 draft approached in late July, rumours were rampant. The Raptors, lucky enough to be picking fourth after having the seventh-best odds, seemed to be taking whoever was left of Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, and Jalen Suggs. As the draft process went on, Suggs was the name that seemed increasingly likely, if not almost a certainty. On the day of the draft, it felt like Raptor fans were ready to welcome Suggs into the fold, as was the media. Then Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster took Florida State forward Scottie Barnes instead. 

While Suggs presented an obvious solution to the hole that would appear in a few days when Kyle Lowry signed with Miami, Barnes presented a more confusing scenario. A six-foot-eight forward with a high motor, incredible defensive skills, and an offensive game that is certainly a work in progress. Where have we heard that before? Does OG Anunoby ring a bell? Maybe Pascal Siakam? In the coming hours and days of the draft and free agency, Ujiri and Webster doubled down on their favourite player type. They drafted Toronto native Dalano Banton, another gigantic guard in David Johnson, and then pivoted to sign Justin Champagnie to a two-way deal later that night. In the Lowry sign-and-trade they acquired Precious Achiuwa and brought in Ishmail Wainright from overseas. All players with extraordinary size, high defensive upside, and still developing offensive skills. Could I interest you in an ultra switchy lineup of Siakam, Barnes, Anunoby, Yuta Watanabe, Achiuwa? No offense. Just defense and vibes. 

In an NBA increasingly defined by pull-up triples, the offseason moves by the Raptors definitely seem questionable. The four conference finalists were all top-ten offenses in the regular season with extremely identifiable fulcrums and systems. Trae Young created advantages all over the floor for the Atlanta Hawks with his pull-up shooting and incredible passing. For the champions, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton are absurdly talented at finishing despite contests. Even without Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers spaced the floor and dominated the midrange. For the Phoenix Suns, Devin Booker and Chris Paul took turns running high screen and rolls. 

In the championship season the Raptors were fifth in offensive rating during the regular season. In the two following seasons they dropped to 13th and 16th. The Raptors were younger without Leonard and Danny Green, and players didn’t immediately grow into new roles. Fred VanVleet assumed much more on-ball duty, and he struggles to finish at the rim due to constant injuries and size. Anunoby is still learning how to hone his creation skills and is better attacking rotating defenders than set ones. Siakam is carrying too much of a load for the offense, and his pull-up jumper abandoned him. 

The Raptors have had some success teaching players how to shoot. Scottie Barnes came into the draft with essentially one glaring negative, so the hope has to be that the team can help him become a plus shooter. He shot a very poor 28 percent from beyond the arc on only 40 attempts in his lone college season. For comparison, Siakam shot an even worse 18 percent on 17 attempts in his two years in college. And Siakam shot the three ball at a very respectable 37 and 36 percent in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, respectively. Anunoby turned his 37 percent on 1.5 attempts a game in college into 40 percent on 6.1 attempts a game last season. There is a track record here to show that the Raptors can help players improve their jump shots. Barnes has shot 27.3 percent from deep during Summer League, but the team has always maintained it’s a long-term process to develop that skill. The progress of Barnes as a shooter and the return of Siakam’s three point shot will be hugely important factors in the Raptors’ offense for the foreseeable future. But the fact remains that if Toronto’s most important offensive player and fourth-overall draft pick are spacing negatives when on the floor will mean the offense will continue to be bumpy

If defenses are forced to respect them from outside, it will create more space inside for cutters and easy lanes to the cup. Five of the last six NBA champions have been top-five regular season offenses (the lone exception being the 2019-20 Lakers, who had LeBron James to figure that part out in the playoffs). The Raptors seem to be making decisions that focus on the other side of the ball, opting for ultra flexible and switchable defenders that will lead to them being a transition offense menace but possibly stagnant in the halfcourt. If there’s one thing we know, to get playing time under Nick Nurse you must be in his defensive good books – see Patrick McCaw, circa whenever healthy as a Raptor. There’s a path to the Raptors becoming an extremely tough and fun defensive oriented group. We should expect a lot of grab-and-go possessions with Siakam and Barnes ripping down rebounds and pushing the pace. VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., and Malachi Flynn will have ample opportunities at transition and trailing threes. But when it really comes down to it and the game slows down, in late game situations and hopefully the playoffs, they will likely struggle to initiate halfcourt action. No one is saying this is the wrong blueprint, but it means the consistent issue from post-championship seasons may remain in 2021-22.

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