Morning Coffee – Fri, Oct 14

Barnes in the spotlight | Is Precious All-Defense? | Raptors prime for big in-season trade splash

Sports Insights – NorthStar

The Toronto Raptors employ some of the best individual defenders in basketball. O.G. Anunoby is one of the best wing defenders in the league. Fred VanVleet is one of the best at the guard spot. Pascal Siakam can cover ground like few others in the league, contesting the 10th-most shots per game last year despite rarely protecting the rim for the Raptors. Precious Achiuwa was perhaps the team’s most impactful defender last season.

Yet their defensive ranking last season was a modest ninth. Good, but not great.

The issues with Toronto’s defense had more to do with a system than personnel. Sure, there were some individual issues. Scottie Barnes was not a great on-ball defender. Gary Trent Jr. could have been better at navigating the pick and roll. But most of Toronto’s players performed well in their roles. Instead, it was the roles that were asked of them that perhaps allowed for Toronto’s overall defense to underperform.

The question now entering the 2022-23 season is whether the Raptors’ defensive strategy under Nurse – one that produced 48 regular season wins and a playoff berth a year ago – is too risky in the small sample size of the post-season.

Yet that risk carries a benefit on offense the Raptors are loath to concede.

Toronto allowed the highest rate of corner threes in the league last season and the ninth-highest efficiency at the rim. They also allowed the 10th-highest rate of free throws. Corner threes, layups, and free throws are the most efficient ways to score and thus the foundational pillars of a good offense. The Raptors were among the worst teams in the league at preventing such shots.

The fact that they finished ninth in defensive rating was miraculous considering the structural flaws inherent to the system.

Some of this has been an issue since Nick Nurse took over as head coach. Toronto has ranked 24th, 30th, 28th, and 30th in opposing corner threes in Nurse’s four seasons running the show.

The Raptors do have defenders capable of defending the corners. Chris Boucher, Siakam, Barnes, Anunoby, and others are so endlessly long they can close to the corner from across the court and still contest jumpers. In fact, the Raptors have blocked the most corner threes since 2018-19. All stats courtesy of the wonderful PBP Stats.

It’s clear that under Nurse, something is happening in the corners of the court in Scotiabank Arena.

Without a traditional center on their roster last season, the Raptors were forced to protect the rim as a collective. In defending pick and rolls, they pulled the weakside corner defender closer to the rim to help tag the roller, and occasionally they even pulled the strongside corner defender a few steps past safety, all leading to open passes for opponents to the corner.

The Raptors also like to clog the lane on drives, trusting their defenders to recover longer distances after swing or kick-out passes. And they peel switch proactively, defined as asking off-ball defenders to step in and take over the ball and on-ball defenders to peel away and rotate elsewhere. Sometimes they recover to the same offensive player the new ball defender was covering prior, and sometimes Toronto starts a whole series of rotations, mucking up the entire court with rotating giants playing musical chairs.

It’s entirely possible the Raptors could have produced better defensive numbers a year ago but chose not to. Their halfcourt offense was so putrid last season — 26th on points-per-play efficiency — that a defensive scheme permitting so many corner three attempts might have been designed to serve a secondary purpose: to boost their offense.

Josh Lewenberg: Barnes unfazed by lofty expectations ahead of sophomore season –

“I think everybody should manage their expectations,” said Fred VanVleet, the Raptors’ point guard and eternal voice of reason. “I said it before last year, and I know Rookie of the Year doesn’t really help that situation – you expect another monster jump. But he’ll be fine. He’s a heck of a player and he’s a great kid. There will be ups, there will be downs, but I don’t think anybody’s worried about Scottie.”
So, what would be a realistic and attainable jump? For a player like Barnes, who impacts the game in so many facets, it could be tough to measure incremental growth in the box score.

In 74 games last season, he averaged 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 49 per cent shooting from the field and 30 per cent from three-point range. Given the amount of work he put into his jumper this summer, it’s reasonable to think that his three-point percentage should start to trend upwards. He’ll likely take more than the 12.6 shots he averaged a year ago; the question is whether he can maintain his efficiency with an increased volume of attempts. The Raptors have talked about getting the ball in his hands more, which makes sense considering he was fifth on the team in usage as a rookie, so his assist rate could also climb.

But remember, while his role will continue to grow, there’s a limit to how featured he can be on this team, provided everybody is healthy. At best, he’ll likely be behind a pair of all-stars, Pascal Siakam and VanVleet, in the offensive hierarchy. Assuming those three start games alongside Gary Trent Jr., who certainly isn’t shy about getting his shots up, and O.G. Anunoby, who is also clamouring for a bigger role – that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

Getting drafted by a winning organization comes with some obvious advantages and has been beneficial to Barnes’ overall development, and probably his case for Rookie of the Year. It also means he won’t be force fed opportunities like some of his peers on rebuilding teams. Even minutes could be harder to come by this year.

Last season, the Raptors tried to balance winning with development but whenever they had to veer in one direction, they almost always prioritized the later. Every once in a while, head coach Nick Nurse would give him the quick hook after making a mistake, letting him watch from the bench for a few minutes before subbing him back in, but for the most part he was allowed to learn on the fly, even if it came at the cost of a win or two. That may not be the case now that winning appears to be higher on the priority list.

“I think [we were] maybe a little more lenient last year, just getting him minutes was a high priority,” Nurse said. “Now he’s got to [have] impactful minutes.”

The area of his game that could probably stand to improve most in Year 2 is on defence, where his potential remains limitless. To this point, he’s looked more comfortable guarding in the post – where he can use his size, strength and length – than moving his feet and defending out on the perimeter. His stated preference is to handle the ball and play point guard, something he did a lot of towards the end of the season and will do even more of this year. He’s got the skills for it, on both ends of the floor, but if that’s how they want to deploy him, he’ll have to do a better job of hanging with smaller and quicker guards.

“I think especially with our team, the way it’s [shaking] out on the stat sheet, it’s probably gonna change fairly dramatically each night,” said Nurse. “Understanding that you can have a really good performance and some nights that’s gonna mean 18 points and some nights that’s gonna mean eight points, but it can still be a really good performance all around.”

Raptors Discuss Scottie Barnes Expectations Ahead of Season – Sports Illustrated

What a difference a year makes. After a Rookie of the Year campaign and an offseason of debating the merits of trading Barnes for Kevin Durant, Year 2 for Barnes comes with the burden of expectations on his shoulder. Will he average 20 points per game this season? (No) Will he be an All-Star this season? (Probably not) Can he be the Raptors’ best player? (Also, no) For all the chatter off the court, Barnes is unfazed.

“I just go on the floor (and) try to help us win,” he said Thursday after practice. “I don’t really think about it when I’m on the floor. So I’m just out there playing and trying to do what I can.”

Through four preseason games this year Barnes has been a tad underwhelming. He’s averaging just 6.3 points per game while shooting 36.4% from the floor with more turnovers than assists. Part of it, Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, is Barnes is returning from a right ankle injury he suffered just before training camp that kept him sidelined for three weeks. While the injury is back to 100%, Barnes said, he’s had to play some catch-up, getting back into shape while his teammates were already finding a groove.

“I think the test comes tomorrow,” Nurse said ahead of the team’s preseason finale in Montreal. “I think he’s put in a good couple of days of work. … Looked good, in the mix on a lot of things, more aggressive and things like that. But we’ll see.”

For Nurse, much like last season, success for Barnes will come down to minutes. He wants his sophomore forward to play with the same kind of energy and charisma that made him a difference-maker last year. The leash, though, will be a little bit tighter this season with less wiggle room for mistakes.

“If he’s going to play as hard and effort and energy and enthusiasm that he has, he’ll be just fine,” Nurse added. “Especially with our team, I think that the way it’s falling out on the stat sheet or whatever is gonna change probably fairly dramatically each night and understanding that you can have a really good performance and some nights that’s gonna mean 18 points and some nights that’s gonna mean eight points.”

On a team as egalitarian as the Raptors with so many mouths to feed, it’ll be hard for Barnes to reach star status this season. His defense will likely improve and he should help contribute more to winning but his shot attempts and points per game are unlikely to skyrocket.

“I think everybody should manage their expectations,” said Fred VanVleet. “I know rookie of the year doesn’t really help that situation. You expect another monster jump. He’ll be fine. He’s a heck of a player. He’s a great kid. There will be ups. There will be downs. I don’t think anybody’s worried about Scottie.”

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