There is a commonly held belief that younger teams are better in transition because they are quicker and more athletic, beating their opponents down the floor. But it’s actually really difficult for many young players to make the adjustment to the speed of the NBA game, and that includes executing in transition, when NBA athletes are chasing them down at 100 percent speed.
Plus, that idea ignores many of the more complex and symbiotic elements of transition offence, including ball handling, decision making, floor spacing, and finishing. It’s no wonder that more skilled, veteran teams are often the best at finishing in transition, demonstrated by the Miami Heat being top-5 in transition efficiency for three years running and the Raptors actually being an elite transition team in 2018-19 and 2019-20, when they were significantly older than they are now.
“I think the main thing is making a good first quick decision,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said about all the different options players have in transition. “So the ball comes out and you grab it and are you thinking score? Are you thinking pass? Is there somebody ahead of you? Is it a next play bing, bang, throw ahead? Or is it you going to draw the defence and then reading [the floor after] that?
“That does take reps and we work on that a lot in practice. Of how to score in transition and things like that. And you’ve got to do it quickly because if you don’t, transition is over with. So I think your point about more experienced guys and the more reps they’ve had [being better], like in a lot of things, is true.”
Last season, a Raptors team that was among the youngest and least experienced in the league (both in terms of games played and games played together) struggled to execute in transition, finishing the season with the eighth-worst effective field-goal percentage at 59.0 (meaning they didn’t hit many threes) and the ninth-highest turnover percentage in transition at 12.6.
The only players who consistently made good decisions in transition were Siakam and rookie Scottie Barnes, while players like Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. were too often guilty of being sped up and making bad decisions on the run. The Raptors also leaned on their starters so heavily and their bench so sparingly that they probably didn’t have the legs to finish enough of those plays.
This season, there seems to be a lot more intentionality to what the Raptors are doing in transition. Internal development from some key players and continuity with the core group seems to be paying dividends when it comes to the Raptors’ transition attack. Achiuwa, for example, has developed his handle to the point where he can now comfortably attack the full length of the court and euro-step his way to the basket, while on the whole the team’s spacing is better and the roles are more defined in transition.
It’s all amounting to the league’s highest frequency at 20.8 percent of possessions ending in transition and the fourth-highest efficiency through seven games. They have an effective field goal percentage of 65.7 and are turning the ball over on just 8.6 percent of possessions. (It’s worth noting that transition offence is slightly up across the league to start the season in part due to the new take foul rule).
And unlike last season when they were fairly efficient scoring after steals but among the least efficient teams scoring after defensive rebounds, this year’s team is doing both well, lulling defences to sleep as they walk the ball up the court before flipping a switch into attack mode in semi-transition.
Fans clamouring for the Raptors to find someone capable of filling in behind VanVleet to ease the veteran’s load might want to look past Dalano Banton and Malachi Flynn and check out the versatile six-foot-nine former rookie of the year.
Especially if he shoots like he did Monday, even if that is asking a lot. Barnes has worked resolutely on his jump shot and seems more comfortable this season, although 5-for-9 from distance is unsustainable.
“It’s always mechanics and then can you execute those mechanics in the game, and do you have the confidence to pull the trigger?” Nurse said.
Raptors star Scottie Barnes finished with five three-pointers (on nine attempts) to go along with seven rebounds and eight assists against only two turnovers while filling in at point guard for the absent Fred VanVleet agains the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.
“So, won’t get carried away here on one big shooting night, but still, I think the willingness to step into them and take them is what I like more than anything.”
The raw numbers suggest it’d be best for Barnes not to forget what he does best. According to basketball-reference.com he attempted 680 field goals inside 16 feet and shot 56 per cent on them in his rookie season when he was just a 29 per cent shooter from three-point range (60-for-205). He’s gotten away from that in the early stages of this season when he’s attempted 37 shots in the paint and made 11-for-21 threes for a remarkable — and unsustainable — 52.4 per cent.
“I don’t know what the numbers say, I’m sure you all do, but my sense is he’s not taking it down there and using his physical size and strength to punish people at the rim,” Nurse said. “His shooting looks better but we need that in the rhythm of the offence. We need him to be the offence at times, either scoring or kicking it out.
“One of the things I said he did late last year was he just kept going down there and beating people up and laying it in,” the coach added. “That’s what I want to see.”
Despite how good it must feel to make three-pointer after three-pointer, Barnes knows what the coach wants too.
“Last year I feel like I was pretty good in the paint, I feel like when I get in the paint I get easy looks and more easy finishes for me,” he said Monday.
“Me being able to go downhill, get in the paint, be aggressive, being able to kick out to shooters, that just opens so many different things for our offence.”
Siakam, who already has a pair of All-NBA selections and a Most Improved Player award under his belt, is averaging career bests in scoring, assists, rebounds, free throw attempts, three-point makes and accuracy, and player efficiency rating. His free throw generation rate, defensive rebounding prowess and assist percentage are up massively from previous rates and his turnovers are down. He looks like the best player on the floor just about every night after saying in training camp his aim was to rank amongst the very best of the best.
“I feel like Pascal’s been killing it, been playing at an MVP level, playing really well for us,” said Scottie Barnes, who looked like more than just a mere sidekick in the 139-109 thumping of the Hawks, the fourth-highest scoring game in franchise history.
“He’s been doing so many different things for our team offensively and defensively so I feel like he should be in that (conversation) of being in the MVP with the level he’s playing at. If we keep winning games I feel like it’s just gonna keep bumping him more and more.”
Only Siakam, perennial MVP candidate Luka Doncic and former MVP James Harden have compiled at least 150 points, 50 rebounds and 50 assists this season. Siakam’s made the second and third all-league teams, and if the voting was held right now, he’d have a legitimate case to join Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jokic on the All-NBA First Team frontline.
It doesn’t sound like Siakam is going to be distracted by any of the talk or by the reaction of the home fans.
“I think obviously it’s appreciated, but I’m focused on continuing to be the best I can be for my team to win, and just going out there every single night and trying to win the game,” Siakam said.
Siakam looks more comfortable with the ball than ever before. Whether that’s when he squares up to shoot from deep, when he assesses where opposing blitzes are coming from, or when to get into the paint and attack the rim, the decisions are coming quicker than ever before, resulting in extreme efficiency.
Head coach Nick Nurse had challenged the Raptors both before the season and prior to the Atlanta game to get to the bucket more, and Siakam and Barnes, in particular, really responded.
Siakam’s 16 free throw attempts were a career high.
“I try to do that every night, today was good … I work for it a lot. Just continue to be aggressive finding angles and trying to manipulate the defence and do different things,” Siakam said.
“That was the objective for myself, just to go into the season like ‘find new ways to get to the free throw line’. Obviously I have to convert it, when I get there but the first thing is to get there. I just wanna, you know, feel like the guys who do that get to the next level, so I wanna be able to do that.”
Right now Siakam’s even averaging slightly more attempts than one of his mentors, free throw maestro DeMar DeRozan.
8. Toronto Raptors
2022-23 record: 4-3
Previous week’s ranking: 15
Pascal Siakam has played as well as anyone to start this season. Averaging 26.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and 7.4 assists — all of which would be career highs — Siakam has helped Toronto go 4-3 through a brutal opening stretch full of playoff contenders.