What innovation is left for the Raptors defense?

Innovative defense in the sport of basketball never starts in the NBA, and why would it? There are countless leagues and levels of play that operate as a proving ground for certain styles and tenets before they get drafted into the collective wisdom of NBA game planning. Much is made of the Raptors influx of international talent, so it only fits that much of their defensive playstyle is built on concepts that found their footing overseas.

X-outs, Next-ing, Peel switching, and switch to blitz were all implemented with mobile players in mind. The 3-point revolution necessitated a new appreciation for ground coverage on defense, and few teams appreciate that quality more than the Raptors, who set their defense in motion at the drop of a hat.

A successful X-out from Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, and a failed peel switch from Scottie Barnes (he didn’t peel off to PJ Tucker in the corner, and he should have). 

So, what happened in Toronto? Well, Nick Nurse’s defensive lever-pulling with the likes of future HOF players Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Marc Gasol eventually became more and more daring, even as the roster changed. Last year, the Raptors put together their most forceful combination of length and mobility yet, and then they leaned harder than ever into the more aggressive schemes. They aren’t the first team to attempt their version of long ball (hank ball, iykyk) and they aren’t the first to play extremely aggressive defensively. They are, however, the first NBA team to combine both ideas this emphatically.

They were 9th in defensive rating a year after being 15th. So, there’s a climb being made here. The question is whether or not the Raptors are near the beginning or the end of it, and what changes (if any) dictate that movement.

Let’s look at the points of inflection. The Raptors were poor at forcing misses at the rim, limiting corner threes, and cleaning the defensive glass. These defensive failings are baked into the tradeoff of size to mobility. They pull off the corners to dissuade players from following their driving lanes to the small, big man who lies in wait at the rim. The ball, naturally, finds the open player in the corner, and the gambit of mobility begins. The Raptors defenders weave amongst each other, trying to cover the disparate defensive responsibilities like the writhing, grunting attempt of someone trying to stretch a small bed sheet over a mattress.

Can the rotation out to the corner dissuade the jumper? Does the rotation after that manage to stop or reroute the drive? Or, in the madness, do the Raptors allow players to slide open in the interior or out on the perimeter? It’s all in the cards for a Raptors defensive possession, and the Raptors do one thing tremendously well in all of that chaos: they force turnovers.

The Raptors forced a turnover on 16.4 percent of defensive possessions, which led the league. This helped jumpstart hyper efficient transition offense, and it fit extremely well into the Raptors’ “win the possession battle” ethos. What doesn’t fit that ethos? All the motion in the Raptors’ defense — and lack of top-end size — means they’re routinely in poor position to box out and a little too small to outmuscle or soar above all-comers for boards. The Raptors’ democratic rim protection that sends bodies at driving wings and guards can punch above its weight as far as forcing misses on drives are concerned. But as far as contesting a big with possession of the ball in the paint? That’s a bucket.

Additionally, the question you have to come back to is: Does mobility, motion, and length = turnovers? Or, can you achieve similar outcomes with less aggressive schemes? Thaddeus Young was overwhelmingly positive on the Raptors, helping them win heaps of minutes during the regular season, and they forced a lot of turnovers with him on the floor. All while he provided less rapid court coverage than many of his teammates. The 2019-20 Raptors — that famously featured Marc Gasol as the central, less mobile fixture of their defense — had a slightly higher turnover percentage than last season (16.5 percent). The defense as a whole was much better that year. Are you questioning how large a role traditional bigs play in defense right now? Are you wondering whether the Raptors have jumped the shark in abandoning that archetype? Are you hoping that Christian Koloko is the saving grace? All very good questions.

No one comes closer to emulating the attractive aspects of the big and the wing defense in their game than Precious Achiuwa, but even he is a far cry from a paint patroller who singlehandedly dissuades players from hunting the interior. Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes and Chris Boucher can all impress as rim protectors from time to time, but none of them hold down the back end of the defense.

A distilled read of the situation is this: the Raptors invested in length and tenacity to try and create outcomes that bigger, slower players with better defensive awareness had already achieved. That creates, roughly, two schools of thought.

The first: the Raptors, either by lack of ability to retain a decent center or by a severe underrating of that position on defense, have designed a team that is continuously behind the eight ball because they’re constantly trying to catch up on defense due to the advantages afforded to the other team. These advantages largely stem from their aggressive scheme that operates this way due to their lack of size. The big, blowout losses to the 76ers in the playoffs were a result of an overzealous scheme that walks a tightrope too often. Pascal Siakam leading the NBA in closeouts isn’t a point of pride, but a black spot that signals how often he was left to clean up mangled rotations.

The second: the Raptors’ scheme relies heavily on the ‘five players on a string’ tenet to govern the success of their defense. They had to navigate a lot of injuries. A few of the heavy rotation players were unproven or poor defensively coming into last season. However, by the end of the season a few of the players who struggled with the chaotic and complex scheme had rounded into form as neutrals and positives on the defensive end. It’s no secret that Barnes was tanking a lot of Toronto’s defensive possessions through a complete lack of awareness off ball at times, but you can argue that was a strength of his by the end of the season. Boucher had far and away his best defensive year after struggling at first. The Raptors return everyone from their rotation for next season, along with adding an extremely heady scheme defender in Otto Porter. Why wouldn’t that collective continuity and familiarity compound their defensive effectiveness? 

I would lean toward the second, despite elements of truth existing in both.

Perhaps the team-wide innovation is done. They’ve been as daring as they can on the schematic level. The only innovation left is the interpersonal kind, where players interact with each other more often to develop defensive shortcuts; where they trust in comfortable scenarios and help in the risky ones. There’s certainly room for growth in that area of the game. I always enjoy breaking down all the funky schematic wrinkles of this inventive Raptors team, but it seems clear now that the path to success is through troubleshooting the existing framework rather than creating something new.

And if it’s wrong? It’s an interesting form of wrong. An earnest attempt at ingenuity. Headlines have always been defined by winners, but the game of basketball is most often changed by those who push the envelope. Even in failure.

Have a blessed day.

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