The Toronto Raptors can’t defend the rim

One event is a dot; two is a line; three is a trend. After two humiliating losses — truly, legitimately, really embarrassing losses — the Raptors are in danger of falling victim to a trend. There’s plenty working against them right now. OG Anunoby is hurt and out, and he is one of Toronto’s three shooters. Fred VanVleet is playing though also hurt, and he doesn’t seem to be quite at his expected level of mobility on both ends at the moment. Pascal Siakam is suffering a non-COVID illness. Gary Trent jr. is shooting cold. Those are the four most important offensive players right there, so Toronto can be forgiven for struggling to score in the past two.

The defense, on the other hand, has been far more concerning. The Raptors have given up a parade of dunks to two strong offensive teams, both led by All-Star guards who thrive in the pick and roll. The thing is, these two games may be damning exclamation points, but the preceding sentence of Toronto’s despair is extensive; Toronto hasn’t been able to protect the rim all season long.

Over the season, they’ve allowed opponents to shoot 66.9 percent at the rim, the fourth-beefiest percentage in the league. The Raptors have a number of decent-to-very good rim protectors on the roster, including Precious Achiuwa (much more on him in a moment), Pascal Siakam (elite defensive rebounder now!), and OG Anunoby (All-NBA defender). Scottie Barnes, Khem Birch, and Chris Boucher record some highlight blocks from time to time. But wingspan can only count for so much. Actual, honest-to-god height and weight is critical when it comes to rim protection, and the Raptors don’t have anybody on the roster taller than six foot nine (maybe six foot 10?). It’s important to take up space down there, and the Raptors are pushing a boulder uphill sometimes in trying to protect the rim without that.

Behemoths have value. Marc Gasol, for example, defended the rim at a top-20 rate among high-volume defenders in 2018-19. And he was dramatically less vertically athletic than any of Toronto’s three center options are now. But he was seven feet tall and positioned himself exceptionally underneath the rim to dissuade all comers. The Raptors lack anyone with a semblance of his ability to take up a mountain of space.

This year, there is one player with a similar ability to deter or stop opponents at the rim as Gasol had in 2018-19: Achiuwa. He defends 4.7 shots a game within six feet, and he forces opponents to shoot 11 percent below their season averages there. Those are great numbers! But too rarely does Achiuwa end up defending the rim — for a variety of reasons.

On one hand, Achiuwa only plays 23.2 minutes a game, most among centers but far fewer than one would hope the team’s best rim protector would play. On the other hand, the Raptors play a hectic, frenzied scheme, and players end up all over the court after a variety of rotations. Achiuwa is as likely to be flying out to shooters as he is to be stationed under the rim, in position, and using his strength and length to deter a layup.

And there are definitely benefits to that! Chris Boucher has the best 3-point blocking season on record! Siakam has had a top-20 season to his name. The Raptors also force the highest rate of opposing turnovers in the league. None of that happens to the same steroidal extent without the scheme. But so too is rim protection a casualty of the scheme in addition to the lack of monster centers on the roster.

NBA basketball has evolved to the point where protecting the rim is perhaps the single most important component of defense. And the Raptors haven’t punted on that, persay, but they’ve certainly downgraded its importance in their list of priorities. They have punted defending — or, more accurately, dissuading — corner threes, which just so happen to be the second-most efficient place from which a team can shoot the basketball. The Raptors allow the highest frequency of shots from the corner and a bottom-10 accuracy to boot.

It’s almost impossible to play good defense when conceding so many points from the corners and under the rim. Somehow the Raptors have the 14th-best defense in the league still. There’s the outline of an elite defense in this team. But too often the picture is blurred when players colour outside the lines. Then the Raptors don’t have the personnel, beyond Achiuwa, to clean up everyone’s messes. There’s not enough bailout happening. And every NBA defense breaks down. All the time. Good ones still get stops when that happens. The Raptors haven’t been doing that.

NBA defense can’t be judged exclusively by what it looks like at its best. That’s important, sure, and the Raptors pass that test with flying colours. But they need to clean up what they look like at their worst.

That’s where the Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks come into play. The Raptors haven’t been at their best since the All-Star break. And at their worst, they’ve been beaten as soundly as soundly can be. The all-time record for most consecutive losses of 25 points or more is three games. The Raptors are currently at two. Defending the rim would equally be a defense against such humiliation. If that doesn’t happen, the Raptors will be left merely hoping that this losing streak doesn’t become a full-blown trend.

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