Predicting a realistic path to improvement for the Raptors this offseason

While it was a disappointing end for the Raptors’ season, it’s safe to say they exceeded most people’s pre-season expectations by finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference and taking the 76ers to six games in the playoffs. It could have been better. But it could have been a whole lot worse.

First, let’s look at why the Raptors exceeded expectations in order to get a better understanding of what options they will have this offseason.

THE GOOD

Several players ended up playing better than expected, which contributed to the Raptors unexpected success.

SCOTTIE BARNES

First and probably most surprising was the play of Scottie Barnes. Masai Ujiri was unusually criticized by Raptor fans when he took Barnes over the apparently more NBA-ready and higher-ranked Jalen Suggs. Even my defense of the pick focused more on the long-term outlook rather than the fact that Barnes might actually be a better player immediately. And he was, going on to eventually win Rookie of the Year and the hearts of Raptor fans almost immediately.

Barnes’ defence was expected to be good, but he quickly became one of the most versatile defenders in the league, routinely guarding all five positions and becoming to important to the team’s success he finished in the top 10 for minutes per game.

Barnes’ rookie season was so good that now the question is whether he can become a franchise player that could eventually lead the Raptors to a Championship. Can he become a top 10 player in the league? That’s what we’ll find out.

FRED VANVLEET

The next surprise was the elevation of Fred VanVleet into an All Star. Fred’s “bet on yourself” approach to the game personifies the Raptor culture, and every knew he was ready to take on the mantle of leadership from the departing Kyle Lowry, but Fred seemed to figure out many of the things that prevented many seeing him as the long term solution at point guard for the Raptors.

Before injuries (and possibly the grind of playing, with teammate Pascal Siakam, the most minutes per game in the entire league), slowed him down, VanVleet was shooting a career high 52 percent True Shooting, while dishing out a career high seven assists per game and playing some of the best perimeter defense in the league (he got the most votes of any player who didn’t make an All-Defensive team). Unfortunately, after the All-Star game, Fred played only 15 games and was hobbled in the playoffs, missing the final game.

PASCAL SIAKAM

At the end of last season, many Raptor fans were openly questioning whether they wanted Siakam to be part of the Raptors’ future after he had, what many of them felt, was a disappointing season.

After starting off the season late, due to offseason shoulder surgery, Siakam ended up having the best season of his career. He went from being the target of the ire of fans who felt he was overpaid and overrated to the All NBA third team.

Siakam ended the season as one of only five players in the league to average at least 22 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists per game. The other players were LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic. Very rare company for a guy many Raptor fans wanted to trade away before the season started.

GARY TRENT JR.

Khem Birch put it best with this:

The Raptors looked like they made out well in the Norman Powell for Gary Trent Jr trade in the last few months of last season. Trent Jr displayed an ability to create his own shot that was in short supply on the roster, a potent 3-point shot, and he was only 22. Then this season, he turned into defensive stalwart, leading the lead in both deflections and steals early on before a couple of injuries (and possibly logging the amount of minutes he did) slowed him down a bit.

Still, he proved to be such a valuable player for the Raptors that he was one of four Raptors to finish in the top 15 for minutes per game (more on this later). In the playoffs against the 76ers, Trent was under the weather for most of the series (he was a game time decision for several of them), and the Raptors missed his ability to get his own shot.

PRECIOUS ACHIUWA

When the Raptors agreed to a sign-and-trade for their greatest player in the franchise history, most fans were very disappointed with who they got back. The main return was Achiuwa, who seemed like the prototypical Masi Ujiri player — 6’8, with a 7’2 wingspan, athletic and theoretically with the ability to defend every position, but he averaged just 12 minutes per game with Miami and made just one three pointer his entire rookie season.

The season didn’t start off with a lot of promise for him. Coach Nick Nurse gave him a lot more freedom than he had in Miami, especially on the offensive end. He started the first 10 games, but couldn’t seem to finish at the rim, or anywhere else for that matter, shooting just 35 percent from the field and 18 percent from behind the 3-point line.

Something happened after the All-Star break, though, and Achiuwa started to look like the the player Masai had hoped he’d be. He started finishing better around the rim and suddenly became a 3-point marksman, shooting nearly 40 percent post All Star break. And he had become one of the Raptors’ best defensive players both on the perimeter and inside. In fact, he showed so much promise on offense and defense, that maybe the Raptors biggest need is no longer the center position.

BY THE NUMBERS

After a strange start to the season where the Raptors had one of the best offenses, but one of the worst defenses (the opposite of what most would have expected), the team started to figure it out defensively and ended the season in the top ten for defensive rating.

On full display was Masai’s vision of a roster full of long, switchable defenders who could guard inside and out. Most teams would play with one or two guys on the floor that other teams could exploit defensively. Not the Raptors. VanVleet was often the smallest player on the court, but he certainly didn’t play like it. Like his predecessor, VanVleet is a bulldog defensively and doesn’t give an inch when bigger players try to post him up. He was the teams’ most tenacious defender, just missing out on an All Defensive team nod.

The Raptors were:

#1 in forcing turnovers
#1 in deflections
#2 in steals
#2 in offensive rebounding

This shouldn’t really surprise anyone who watched the Raptors play. At their best, they were a nightmare to play against.

They were also in the top five in the league in transition frequency (how many transition possessions per game), which shouldn’t be surprising for a team that forces as many turnovers as the Raptors do and that is athletic as they are.

Unfortunately, while they were in the top five in transition frequency, they had problems actually scoring in transition, which leads us to…

THE BAD

While the team started off well offensively and finished the season with a middle of the pack offensive rating, there were definitely problems.

As mentioned, while the team did run a lot, they didn’t score well in transition, finishing seventh last in Points Per Possession (PPP) in transition. What’s even more puzzling is that they were right near the bottom in pace, which is partly explained by their low efficiency in transition, but it also has to do with an inability to score efficiently in general.

The Raptors were:

#27 in true shooting percentage (TS%)
#27 in shooting percentage at the rim
#28 in 2-point percentage
#29 in assists

This does not paint a promising picture for winning basketball. For comparison sake, Golden State was in the top five in TS%, 2 -point percentage, and assists, and in the top ten for shooting percentage at the rim. Obviously having Steph Curry on the team helps, but their style of play helps too.

So why did the Raptors shoot so poorly? Watching them play it’s easy to understand why.

The Raptors had the second most isolations per game in the league, just below Brooklyn and just ahead of Milwaukee and Dallas. And unfortunately they were fourth last in turning those possessions into actual baskets.

Siakam might have had an improved season overall, but he actually saw a slight decline in his ability to score in isolation. He isolated more than all but four players (Luka, Shai, DeMar and Harden), but the only player who had a worse PPP (.90) among the top ten most frequent “isolationists” was Julius Randle.

Enough said?

Don’t be too hard on Siakam, though. Most of his teammates were even worse in isolation. Barnes (.87) had a similar PPP to Siakam (not bad for a rookie), VanVleet (.76) was well below average and the worst of the bunch was OG, who had a PPP of just .61, which was in the 12th percentile. Perhaps there’s a reason that OG found his touches decrease as the season went on.

In fact the only player who score at least a point per possession in isolation on the roster was Trent Jr, who was in the 75th percentile in PPP in isolation.

It’s puzzling why Nick Nurse relied so heavily on isolation when it’s clear it’s not a strength with this roster. They were second last in spot up shots, fifth last in shots off of screens, and in the bottom 10 in shots off pick and rolls. More on this later.

And while they were overall a good defensive team, it should be surprising to no one that they were eighth last in opponent field goal percentage at the rim.

The last big problem the Raptors have is that they finished the season with four players finishing in the top 15 in minutes played, and had OG played enough games, it would have been five Raptors.

Siakam and VanVleet finished first and second in minutes per game.

Nick Nurse has always played his best players tons of minutes, and with the lack of production from the bench (they had the lowest scoring bench in the league this past season), it’s easy to understand why. But we saw first hand what heavy minutes can do. VanVleet broke down in the second half of the season and wasn’t at full strength during the playoffs. Trent also saw a dip in production during the second half of the season, possibly due to heavy minutes.

It’s not as if any of these players are given less responsibility on one end. Trent Jr commented how surprised he was when he joined the Raptors that he was required to expend the same amount of energy at both ends.

So what can the Raptors do to fix their problem?

RAPTOR NEEDS

CENTER

It isn’t a secret that the Raptors don’t have a single player over 6’9 on their roster and lacked a true centre. Unless the Raptors can somehow get Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic, there probably isn’t anyone the Raptors could acquire that would solve their offensive problems. But a rim protector would certainly help them in the one defensive weakness they do have.

SHOT CREATOR

Siakam rightly made the All-NBA Third team, but his weak isolation stats put in question whether you can rely on him to be the number-one option, especially if you want his team to go deep in the playoffs. Trent is probably the Raptors best shot creator, but it’s unlikely he turns into the next Bradley Beal.

A true shot creator would solve many of the offensive problems the Raptors have, but good ones are hard to find.

DEPTH

After the trade that brought Thaddeus Young to the Raptors, they actually had nine rotation players, so it doesn’t seem like depth is a real problem. Unfortunately due to injuries, it meant that many games Nick Nurse only had seven or eight players he could depend on.

The team do have some young players who could make a developmental leap and become part of the rotation, but adding more talent certainly wouldn’t hurt. Especially because the Raptors never found themselves fully healthy last season.

THREE-POINT SHOOTING

The Raptors were actually a middle of the road team, in terms of 3-point shooting. In fact before the All-Star game, both VanVleet and Trent were two of the top three best 3-point shooters in the league (VanVleet made the 3-point contest). Anunoby and Achiuwa also were above average 3-point shooters.

What they don’t have is much 3-point shooting off the bench.

HOW TO IMPROVE

DRAFT

There have been numerous posts here on Raptors Republic done looking at the different prospects who might be available, but the fact of the matter is that it’s unlikely, no matter who they pick, they will make much of an impact next season.

FREE AGENCY

The Raptors have no cap room, but they do have their mid and bi-annual exception. The mid level is $10.2 million and the bi-annual is $4 million, so they could get a pretty decent player, if they want. They could also, as they’ve done in the past, split their exception to get two players.

While it’s not s great market for free agents, there are several that could help the Raptors immediately and fit into the MLE or BAE.

MO BAMBA

Raptor fans (as well as fans of other teams) have long been enamoured with Bamba’s length, athletic ability and skill. On the surface, he’d fit in perfectly with the Raptors. He’s a 7-foot center with a 7’6 wingspan who rebounds, blocks shots and spaces the floor — he shot 38 percent from three, which would make him one of the best 3-point shooter on the Raptors.

So why wouldn’t the Raptors jump at him? Well, despite being exactly the type of player most teams are looking for, Orlando doesn’t seem interested in re-signing him and there have been questions about his attitude and effort-level, both red flags for a team like the Raptors.

ISAIAH HARTENSTEIN

He might not be one of the more well known free agents, but Hartenstein was actually one of the best rim protectors this past season, is a good rebounder and is actually a good passer, as well. And he’s only 23. Plus, he probably won’t end up costing their full MLE.

JALEN SMITH

Smith was the 10th pick in the 2020 draft by the Phoenix Suns, but he disappointed and was traded to Indiana before the trade deadline. The second chance allowed him to flash many of the skills that made the Suns draft him at 10. He can score, rebound and defend inside and out.

He’s fairly slight, so isn’t big enough to bang with the Embiid and Jokics of the league, but he might have the most potential of the big men the Raptors could get with their MLE.

TRADES

Without cap room, it’s unlikely the Raptors would be able to find a game changer free agent, but there is still a trade they could make that could bring in a player who could turn the Raptors into a true contender.

(We’ve all read the reports of other teams being interested in OG and him possibly being available (or unhappy with his role). OG was one of the only Raptors who didn’t live up to expectations last season. While he was still a force defensively, he didn’t make the leap offensively many expected him to make and actually saw his shooting efficiency decline. With his very low isolation efficiency, one has to wonder whether OG will ever live up to his high expectations.

OG is a great role player and his defensive talents are unquestioned, but he’s probably the most expendable player with the most trade value on the roster.

UTAH JAZZ

The latest betting odds has a 50-percent chance of Rudy Gobert being traded to the Raptors, but while he’d turn the team into a defensive juggernaut, his offensive limitations would exacerbate many of their problems on that side of the court. And his salary is massive.

So this probably isn’t a deal the Raptors would make.

PHOENIX SUNS

DeAndre Ayton was considered untouchable after the Suns reached the Finals the season before last, but after a disappointing postseason and a dispute with coach Monty Williams, Ayton is suddenly in play.

Ayton is just 23 and still has a lot of the potential that made him the first pick in the 2018. He’s not the shot creator the Raptors need, but he’s a fantastic finisher and can actually step out and hit the three.

Unfortunately, Ayton will demand the maximum and the Raptors would have a lot of trouble matching that in a sign-and-trade.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

With the Lakers missing the playoffs, they might being wanting to make a big trade to shake things up. Anthony Davis struggled with injuries the past two seasons and his three point percentage cratered (just 18 percent this past season), but when he’s healthy, he’s a top ten player and he’s still just 28. It would be a risk, but it the Raptors can acquire him, and he doesn’t get injured, he would turn the Raptors into contenders.

Would OG and Trent Jr be enough to entice the Lakers to trade Davis? It would give the Lakers much needed youth and talent.

The Raptors would get a top-10 player, but give up two of their best 3-point shooters on a team that doesn’t have a lot of it. And Davis’ recent confession that he hasn’t touched a basketball since the season ended isn’t encouraging. Add the fact that he’s rarely been able to stay healthy, and this is probably not the move to make.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

After winning their fourth title in eight years, it’s unlikely the Warriors are anxious to shake things up, but adding OG to their roster would make them favourites to repeat, especially if they don’t have to trade any of their core pieces.

Would OG’s defensive versatility and outside shooting be enough to get James Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga? Wiseman could become the center the Raptors lack and Kuminga showed flashes of star shot creation potential in his rookie season. I would not be surprised if he’s a better player than OG five years from now.

While this might make the Warriors better immediately, I’m not sure they trade two young players with as much potential as Wiseman and Kuminga, especially when they just won the title.

SACRAMENTO KINGS

The Kings are apparently open to trading their fourth pick and are in win-now mode. OG would be a perfect addition and might be enough to snag both their fourth pick and Richaun Holmes.

Holmes would be good depth at the center position, and there are several possible star rookies the Raptors could take at the fourth spot, including Jaden Ivey, Keegan Murray and the mystery of the draft, Shaedon Sharpe. All three have the potential to be stars and great shot creators who would improve the Raptors defense.

But trading away a known quantity in OG for a player who might not end up being as good as OG is right now is a huge risk. Especially since this is considered a three-player draft (although that’s what they said last season).

Still, I would certainly trust Masai if he thinks there’s someone at four who OG would be worth trading for. Indiana, New Orleans and Portland are also trade possibilities if Masai does become enamoured with someone in the lottery.

But I doubt he makes a move like this.

NOW WHAT?

So if the Raptors don’t make a big move, and just sign a decent free agent or two, how can they improve?

What the Raptors need might actually be something they don’t have to trade for. While it’s hard to imagine VanVleet and Siakam improving much, Barnes, Achiuwa, Trent, and Anunoby should all still be developing and could make leaps next season.

Their biggest problem is on the offensive end and their inefficient isolation offence. While it might seem like a simple solution, moving away from an isolation-heavy offense seems like a no-brainer. The team has the personnel to play more of a motion offence, which should increase their offensive efficiency. Siakam, Barnes and VanVleet are all very good passers and a motion offence would also make them a hell of a lot more fun to watch.

They don’t have the shooters that Golden State has, so it’s hard to imagine the Raptors running an offence like the Warriors, but they have the personnel to run a Spurs (circa 2014) offense. The Raptors actually were fairly efficient when they ran off ball screens and cuts, so it’s puzzling why they didn’t do more of it.

An offence that runs through Barnes and Siakam in the posts, with VanVleet, Trent Jr, OG, and Achiuwa on the perimeter and making cuts would make far more sense than asking Siakam to continue to isolate.

Imagine the Raptors playing like this…

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