If I wanted to worry about Fred VanVleet, I might worry more about defence than his shooting.
Last year percentile defence vs. p&r ball handlers, spot-up and isolations: 44, 73, 58
This year: 36, 46, 42
Still a small sample, but that matches eye test of FVV looking slower on D
— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) December 6, 2022
Raptors have assigned Dalano Banton to the 905
— Vivek Jacob (@vivekmjacob) December 6, 2022
3. Fred VanVleet is playing well below his capabilities and the Raptors will remain stuck in neutral until he finds himself again. VanVleet made the right reads early on, taking the open shots available to him as the Celtics dropped back on defence to protect the paint, but his pull-up jumpers and floaters simply wouldn’t connect. The Raptors also tried the approach of getting him into his pet play, where VanVleet would cut to the corner around a screen after inbounding the ball for a wide-open look in the corner, and even that wouldn’t drop for him.
VanVleet was heavily pass-first in the second half but there were still times when he had to shoot it, such as a drive and kick look in the corner that he missed, or a momentum-shifting three that he tried which also came short. If he has nothing else, the one aspect VanVleet provides is his shooting, and he was outdone by Marcus Smart of all people.
VanVleet is normally as plain-spoken as they come, but he didn’t want to elaborate too much on his struggles — which go back to last season given he shot just 29 per cent from three after the all-star break.
“I mean there’s a lot going on. I mean, like, a lot going on all across the board,” he said when asked if teams were covering him differently recently. “I’m not really going to run down the list with you guys, I’ll just play better and then you’ll have better things to talk about. But there’s definitely a lot of reasons for the situation that I’m in. I’m going to continue to keep working, being professional and giving everything I’ve got when I step out there. So hopefully I’ll turn it around soon.”
He also said he felt his shooting slump was mostly in his head at this point: “Once you’re in it it’s all just mental. There’s nothing really more to it.”
Later on head coach Nick Nurse said the data gathered by the analytics system the Raptors have at their practice facility shows that VanVleet’s ball flight is a little wonky. “Normally his numbers on his right/left, his straightness, are off the charts,” said Nurse. “…that’s the one that is got a little bit of a wrinkle for him right now that he’s got to get ironed out.”
It probably doesn’t help that with VanVleet finishing in the lane so poorly teams can be more aggressive crowding him at the three-point line — another element Nurse touched on — making life more difficult for VanVleet there, too.
But whatever the Raptors’ issues — be they as simple as their best three-point shooter being in a deep slump or something possibly deeper and more systemic — the easiest way to put them to rest in the short term is to string together some wins.
The Raptors were 11-13 at the same stage last season and in 12th place and were still at .500 in late January before finishing the season with a 25-11 push and moving all the way up to fifth place.
“I know it doesn’t feel like [it] … because maybe expectations are so much higher or whatever, but I would say we are really on the right track,” said Nurse. “We are making some progress … we have had a rough year injury-wise. So I think on one hand you can look at it and say we are doing ok. We are hanging in here with a lot of tough breaks and if we just hang in there and keep improving a little bit, we will get things squared away and be really tough to beat.”
That’s the optimistic view and quite possibly the proper view. But it will be a lot easier to sell with some wins — something a return to form by VanVleet would help with — and the sooner the better.
After knocking down 39 per cent of their three-point attempts over the first eight games of the season, the Raptors are shooting 30 per cent over the past 16 contests. Only Charlotte has shot worse over that span. They are 3-6 when they’ve shot below 30 per cent from long distance, but on average, they attempted 13.3 more shots than their opponent in those three wins.
For them to improve as a three-point shooting team this season – they shot 35 per cent last year, good for 20th in the league – it was believed that Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes would need to take a step forward in that area. Strangely, they both have, even if those improvements have only been slight. And after an eight-game stretch in which Gary Trent Jr. shot 18 per cent from deep, he’s seemingly broken out of his funk and is shooting 44 per cent since his move to the bench last week.
So, why can’t they shoot? VanVleet and Anunoby, both 38 per cent career three-point shooters, are each shooting 34 per cent on a combined 12.8 attempts per game this season. Given their volume of shots and the lack of reliable shooters on the roster, much of it falls on them. Of course, Anunoby is having an incredible campaign in just about every other facet of the game, continuing to pad his All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year candidacy. VanVleet’s shooting slump has been more glaring.
Over his past four games, VanVleet has gone 5-for-28 from long range. The All-Star point guard has missed time due to a lingering illness. It’s certainly possible that he isn’t fully healthy, or more likely, that he’s still getting his conditioning and rhythm back. But there may be more to it.
According to Nurse, there’s a hitch in VanVleet’s shooting mechanics. Using Noah analytics, the shot-mapping tool that measures the arc and accuracy of a player’s jumper, they’ve determined that his release has been a bit off line. Normally when fatigue or an injury impacts a player’s release, it’s more common for the arc to be affected. It’s more unusual for a player with good mechanics to suddenly start shooting far left or far right, Nurse noted, but they’re working to correct it.
“Obviously, nobody wants them to go in more than me, trust me,” VanVleet said. “But it’s just the way it goes sometimes. You can’t get too high or too low with it. Just keep working and try to find ways to get better.
“It hasn’t been pretty out there for me, personally. So, just gotta go back to the drawing board and find ways to be successful. And I’ll do that. I’m not concerned about it.”
Even though teams are defending VanVleet differently, putting more pressure on him to take contested shots, both he and Nurse said they’re happy with where the vast majority of his looks are coming from. The seven-year vet has never shot below 36 per cent from three in a full season. It’s not just that he’s a great shooter. Historically, he’s also been a consistently great shooter, so you have to figure he’s due for some positive regression.
For the Raptors to compete with the likes of Boston and become a team that’s capable of winning games in different ways, they’re going to need some of those shots to start falling.
“His numbers on his right left [axis], his straightness are [normally] just off the charts and that is the one that’s got a little off-kilter a little bit for him,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said following practice Tuesday morning. “It’s a bit strange because that’s one of those things that once you dial that in in your mechanics, that one doesn’t leave you very often. No matter how tired you are, or how deep you’re shooting, or whatever, you still get it to come off your hand the same way with some straightness and that’s the one that has got a little bit of a wrinkle for him right now.”
Part of the slump is how defenses are playing VanVleet who continues to garner respect as one of the league’s top shooters. He’s taking slightly fewer catch-and-shoot three-pointers this season as opposing teams run him off the line, forcing him to either move the ball or try to penetrate inside, a skill VanVleet has notoriously struggled with. His number of so-called ‘Wide Open’ three-pointers when the nearest defender is at least six feet away, per NBA Stats, has also dipped by nearly one attempt per game.
“I would say that there has been a lot of extra attention toward him,” Nurse said. “Probably one of the better examples was Orlando the other night because we were in numerous sets for him where he was open, like normally open, and at some point either the last screener made a really hard switch out to his body, or the guy who was chasing him … just sprint[ed] right to his body. So things that looked like they were going to be nice catch-and-shoots for him turned into get-off-the-ball things.”
At the same time though, there’s no sugarcoating it: VanVleet has to be better. He knows that too.
“Some of them are great looks, shots that I take. Some of them are a little more contested than it feels in the game when I go back and break the film down,” he said. “It’s just one of those things, they’re not going in right now and I just need a spark to turn it around.
“I’m not really concerned about it. Obviously, nobody wants them to go in more than me, trust me. But it’s just the way it goes sometimes. So, just can’t get too high or too low with it. Just keeping working and try to find ways to get better.”
Toronto’s best shooter Fred VanVleet hasn’t struggled like he is now since his rookie year and is shooting just 25.5% over his past four games. From three-point land, he’s shooting just under 18% for the same time period.
Under normal circumstances with that kind of team run and VanVleet struggling, panic might be setting in, but none of that is occurring right now within the team framework.
Twitter and social media are handling the scenario as you would expect, but within the team the view is one of incremental progress.
“I don’t know quite where we are right now — but I think going into (Monday)’s game we were two games ahead of where we were a year ago,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “I know it doesn’t feel like that to anybody because maybe expectations are so much higher or whatever, but I would say we are really on the right track. We are making some progress. We have had, and still do have, tons of impact guys out. We have had a rough year injury wise. So, I think on one hand you can look at it and say we are doing OK. We are hanging in here with a lot of tough breaks and if we just hang in there and keep improving a little bit, we will get things squared away and be really tough to beat.”
Whether it’s Nurse or VanVleet or 16-year vet Thad Young talking, the message is consistent.
It’s a good team, that has a lot of talent and right now, perhaps because of all the injuries and the revolving door of lineups, things are just a little out of kilter.
“I think we’re trending in the right direction,” VanVleet said. “Again, we had a tough stretch of guys being in and out and unhealthy and a tough schedule and now we’re getting back and everybody’s, you know, we’re trying to figure out what it’s going to look like all together.
“So, it’s early, man, we’ve got a long way to go. It’s a long season and I’m confident that we’ll turn out to be who we think we are at a certain point and just patience is easier said than done. So, it sucks in the moment sometimes, but you just have to trust the bigger picture.”
As for his personal shooting struggles, VanVleet has absolutely zero concerns that they will linger for very long.
It’s the kind of confidence only one who knows his craft and knows what he has put into it can have. VanVleet almost seemed amused at the level of concern and the line of questioning he was receiving regarding his current struggles.
“It’s just one of those things, they’re not going in right now and I just need a spark to turn it around,” VanVleet said Tuesday. “I’m not really concerned about it. Obviously, nobody wants them to go in more than me, trust me. But it’s just the way it goes sometimes. So, just can’t get too high or too low with it. Just keeping working and try to find ways to get better.”
VanVleet admits teams are paying him a little more attention these days and that’s forcing him to hunt scoring in a manner in which might not be his first choice.
“Yes. I mean there’s a lot going on,” VanVleet said. “I mean, like, a lot going on all across the board. I’m not really going to run down the list with you guys, I’ll just play better and then you’ll have better things to talk about.
“But there’s definitely a lot of reasons for the situation that I’m in,” he said. “I’m going to continue to keep working, being professional and giving everything I’ve got when I step out there. So hopefully I’ll turn it around soon.”
The Lakers will arrive in Toronto below .500, no matter the result of their game in Cleveland on Tuesday. They will be out of even the playoff play-in portion of the standings and their slow start has them fighting an uphill battle just to make the playoffs.
The last time Los Angeles won a playoff series was their bubble championship in 2020, the time before that was in 2012; this is not a franchise riding the wave of sustained success over the last decade.
Still, the mere presence of James, who should pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar later this season to become the leading scorer in NBA history, creates a buzz around the team.
“They’re playing with the greatest — if not a top-three-greatest — player to play this game,” Toronto’s Thad Young said Tuesday. “Things always shift when you have someone like that in the roster.”
But as much as James carries the Lakers by the strength of his will and his still intimidating skills, the Lakers are thriving of late because Davis is playing out of his mind.
He had 55 points in Washington on Sunday, 44 points in Milwaukee on Friday and has been an unstoppable force most nights. His status for Wednesday is uncertain after he left Tuesday’s game against the Cavaliers with flu-like symptoms.
Health is always going to be an issue with the 29-year-old big man but his dominance of late is undeniable.
“He’s able to play,” Young said. “When you don’t have a healthy A.D. the whole landscape of your team changes.
“He’s been playing amazing so far this season. He’s been playing with an aggressive nature in a lot of facets: rebounding the ball, blocking shots, scoring … a lot of different ways, not just jumpers but going out there and making sure he imposes his will on the basket. I think that’s what has always made him who he is as a player. He puts so much pressure on the rim. It just makes it better for the team overall.”
The Raptors don’t have anyone who can match up physically with the six-foot-10, 250-pound Davis, especially with O.G. Anunoby otherwise occupied trying to hold James in check.
If Davis plays, it will take all of Nurse’s game-planning magic to devise some workable defensive scheme.
“He’s not the easiest guy to double-team because he does move so quick once he catches it because he’s done the early work to get the seal (of a defender) or the angles (to attack the basket),” the coach said.
“I’ve grown tremendously on the court and off the court, definitely,” Dowtin says at Scotiabank Arena, where the Raptors affiliate lost 116-101. “Being with 905 and being up there (for a stint with the Raptors) — understanding how things are run within this organization, seeing how we play the game of basketball and just learning from those older veterans up there, too, taking a lot of things from them — I’m getting a lot of advice that I can bring to 905 and help those guys as well.”
The undrafted Dowtin has been constantly on the move in recent years.
In January 2021, he signed as an affiliate player with the Lakeland Magic, where he averaged 6.5 points, 1.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 19 minutes on the way to a G League championship.
Later, time spent in the Golden State Warriors organization resulted a two-way deal in January 2022. The Milwaukee Bucks gave him a 10-day contract shortly after, before he was assigned to the Wisconsin Herd. In that same season he was reacquired by Lakeland, and went on to sign a 10-day with the Orlando Magic.
The sum of all of those moves has been a learning experience that’s shown him what it takes to make the NBA, wisdom he can share with teammates.
“A lot of these (G League) guys are trying to become NBA players. You have to show the NBA teams, and show the league, that you can contribute to a role and play the right way at the next level,” says Raptors 905 coach Eric Khoury. “And he’s trying to help guys play that right way, or try to play that role.”
On Monday, after dropping 20 points and dishing out five assists in the home of the Raptors, Dowtin talks about ways he and the team can improve.
“I think it was just more than turnovers … I see we have 21 turnovers and only 22 assists. That falls a lot on me just trying to move the ball a lot more,” he said, analyzing the defeat.
Coach Khoury adds that Dowtin has been a good communicator.
“Yeah, he’s a leader for sure,” says Khoury. “I’ve only really met him recently, but he’s been like that from the jump. He’s been a great leader. He communicates well. He plays the right way. He plays hard.”