It’s also worth noting that this is essentially the same personnel the Raptors used last year. Their top seven players in minutes, and eight of their top 10, were on the team last year. One of the others, Christian Koloko, has been their most impactful individual defender off the bench. I don’t think Juancho Hernangomez’s 558 minutes have derailed the entire philosophy.
The principles haven’t changed much, either. Speaking broadly, these are the Raptors’ primary defensive beliefs.
Be aggressive to force turnovers and create deflections. This helps make opponents uncomfortable, can force the ball to lesser players later in the shot clock, and it helps fuel the transition offence. Because the Raptors’ halfcourt offence isn’t very good, those transition opportunities are very important. This is the one area the Raptors are still succeeding, leading the league in forced turnovers and deflections by a wide margin, which helps fuel the league’s top transition attack. The clock element is working, too, as opponents average 15 seconds per-offensive possession against Toronto, the third-slowest mark in the league (league-wide, efficiency decreases as time on the shot clock decreases).
Fouls and missed gambles are a worthwhile trade-off. This isn’t said explicitly, but the risks of trying to get into every passing lane are obvious. Guess wrong or miss and you’re relying on the next helper, and the next helper, and so on. At its best, we see the Raptors’ defence on a chain for 24 seconds, the help assignments instinctual. At its worst, we see them unaware of who the next assignment belongs to. The Raptors also foul at a top-five rate, which you might expect for such an aggressive team lacking rim-protection. Blow-bys aren’t as accepted, but even those can open gambling opportunities, like poking the ball free from behind after losing your man on a screen; the Raptors prefer that type of defence to conservatively keeping a man in front of you (this is the Dalano Banton vs. Malachi Flynn defensive debate).
Vision 6’9” is about everyone being able to guard anyone. This allows the team to take risks on the offensive glass without undercutting their transition defence. Since anyone can guard anyone, which players are back first on defence doesn’t matter. The Raptors have slowly morphed from a low-crash team to one of the most aggressive crashing teams in the league over the last few years. This is another part of the strategy that is mostly still working, as the Raptors are fourth in offensive rebounding rate and are a top-10 transition defence, a hard balance to strike. The matchup versatility also allowed the Raptors to throw a number of different looks at opposing top scorers, theoretically disrupting rhythm.
A lack of traditional rim-protection can be made up for with rim deterrence. In other words, not having a 7-footer at the rim can be fine if your defence is good enough everywhere else that an opponent can’t get to the rim as often. Whether it’s switching pick-and-rolls (something the Raptors don’t actually do a lot), showing a lot of size in tight spaces on drives (the Giannis Antetokounmpo strategy from 2019), pinching at the nail, sending two bodies to the post on the catch, or emphasizing a no-middle strategy, the Raptors believe being big, fast and versatile everywhere can make up for not having a drop-coverage behemoth down low.
This requires a lot of trust in everyone’s ability to help and recover, and to execute their individual assignments. It’s also the area the Raptors have struggled the most this year, as they’re in the bottom third of the league in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim and opponent volume at the rim. (They’re also near the top of the league in dunks allowed and allow the most assisted buckets at the rim, which probably matches your eye test.)
Defensive rebounding is a collective effort. Without a natural centre and with an aggressive scheme that has players in different spots on the floor all the time, securing rebounds is as much about attention and effort as anything. It’s a tricky balance to strike, because the Raptors also want to be out running off of opponent misses. The Raptors started the season better here only to regress, now ranking 20th on their own glass, which is additionally painful because they’re so good scoring on the run when they do come down with the rebound.
Corner threes aren’t a feature, but they’re not a bug, either. I’ve been writing some version of the corner threes story for three calendar years now. The first wave of the defensive approach led to a record-setting number of corner threes for opponents. Traditionally, the numbers have said that’s one of the worst spots on the floor to allow shots from. The Raptors believed, however, that creating turnovers and protecting the rim were more important, and because they were so long and so fast, they’d be able to contest those corner threes better than other teams. Those shots would also generally be taken by lesser players (stars don’t spend much time in the corners), where they’d be rushed late in the clock and have few options for driving past an aggressive close-out. The Raptors block more threes than any other team, and a deeper numbers dive shows those shots are coming slightly later than average. Still, for the second time in three years, opponents are hitting those shots at an above-average clip.
The “long road ahead” has multiple meanings for the Toronto Raptors.
It could reference the long road to respectability. A lot of Raptors fans have reached the final step of the grief process and accepted that the team, as currently constructed, is not good enough to make a deep playoff run. Just last week, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, and Jayson Tatum chose the Raptors as their rest game (injury report be damned). Toronto needs to make a handful of changes in order to regain its opponent’s respect.
The long road ahead could also reference the February 9 trade deadline. Each day brings a plethora of fake rumours, fake trade proposals, and fake Woj accounts. The next 2+ weeks are going to feel like 2 months unless a trade — any trade — is finalized.
Maybe I’m just being literal and the long road ahead references the Raptors’ season-long, seven-game road trip that the team is about to endure. The annual westcoast road trip does not typically go very well for Toronto. Finishing the trip .500 or better is as rare as Khem Birch getting playing time.
The bigger question is whether or not the roster that departed Scotiabank Arena after Sunday’s win over the Knicks is the same roster that returns for their next game on February 8 — one day before the deadline.
These long West Coast trips tend to have a way of bringing out the best or the worst in teams. They can make you or break you, bring you together as a unit or tear you apart. In this case, that’s not hyperbole.
Change seems inevitable. It’s hard to imagine Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster opting to stand pat at the deadline, given how the first 48 games of this season have gone. They’ve got a bunch of holes to fill, this much is clear, and these next seven contests probably won’t change that.
To what degree this roster will change over the next few weeks remains to be seen, though. According to a league source with familiarity of the situation in Toronto, the sense is that Ujiri is looking for any reason he can find to keep the core of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby and Scottie Barnes together, and not the other way around. You can understand why he would be reluctant to break it up. That group is home grown. He built it. His organization has spent the time and resources to develop it. And he believes in it, at least he has for a while.
Whatever they do, or don’t do, those decisions will likely go down to the wire. Meaning that with eight games left on the schedule before Feb. 9 – they come home and host the Spurs on the eve of the deadline – each one could play a pivotal part in determining what comes next.
“There’s no point in thinking about where we were last year or where we’re supposed to be,” Siakam said. “This is our situation, this is the present, and we have to take it as it is and just continue to focus on the everyday.”
“It is what it is at this point in the season, we are who we are,” said Young. “But who’s to say that can’t change? I think we’ve put that part aside of what people think we should be and what we think we should be, and just going out there and playing and letting the cards fall where they fall. The one thing we can control is our effort, the things we’re doing out on the court. Obviously, the coaches can’t play for us. Bobby and Masai can’t play for us. We as a team have to go out there and we have to put our foot down.”
The stakes are high, and in that sense, this might actually be the perfect time for a lengthy road trip. For better or for worse, the Raptors are about to get a pretty good idea of who are and what they’re capable of. Beyond that, with all the criticism that follows an underachieving team – fair or otherwise – and the noise that will only get louder leading up to the deadline, especially for a club that’s been front and centre in the rumour mill, the travel could be a welcomed distraction.
“We are going to spend a lot of time together,” said Young. “There will be a lot of chances to fight through adversity together without all the distractions of being home. For us, it’s obviously a business trip.”
“We are going to make this thing pretty business-like, professional, leaning towards a lot of work, a lot of meetings, lots of practices,” Nurse said. “This is gonna be a pretty focused in, work themed trip.”
If Toronto’s personnel hasn’t much changed, Nurse said one of the big differences this season is a lack of defensive “readiness” that’s leading to too many easy opportunities for opponents early in possessions. The Raptors, in other words, have been too often caught sleeping while the other team scores a quick bucket.
“You’ve got to get your defence set up,” Nurse said. “But before that, there is about four or five things like readiness, anticipation, toughness. There is a bunch of little things that even start before there is a pass even made. So that’s kinda what we were talking about in my closed meeting.”
Nurse, indeed, seemed perturbed that details of Tuesday’s video session had reached the outside world.
“We didn’t have a film session. What are you talking about? … That was a closed meeting,” the coach said.
If plenty of fans would no doubt be content to look beyond the remaining 34 games — to the more intriguing prospect of a trade deadline sell-off and the ballooning lottery odds that could come with a late-season slide — the Raptors will tell you, at least publicly, that they’re still very much in the moment.
“(The video from last season) showed we were always in ready mode, focus mode, effort mode — always willing to make the next play,” Young said. “And that is what we need to get back to doing.”
Young, for his part, said the seven-game western swing figures to be as good a place as any to begin a second-half turnaround.
“There will be a lot of chances to fight through adversity together without all the distractions of being home,” Young said.
Fair enough. Still, it’s Toronto’s poor record away from Scotiabank Arena that’s been a big part of their problem this season.
Last year, the Raptors won 24 road games; in the East, only the Sixers won more. As the old saying goes: defence travels. So far this season, they’ve won a grand total of six games on the road — the lowest total in the East heading into Tuesday’s games.
If it’s the distractions of being home that are causing them grief, what kind of chaos is reigning in their collective world when they’re on the other side of the border?
“I think that we can’t really worry about the noise or the pressure. I mean, we’ve gotta really dial in on just playing a little bit better, right?” Nurse said. “(It’s) just readiness when the ball is in play, man. We’ve gotta be ready to go and fight and compete and show some toughness and all those kinda things. And I think that’s all we need to focus on.”
And as much as head coach Nick Nurse didn’t want this information out there – Thad Young offered it up in advance of Nurse’s media availability – a film session like this one sounds like something this team needed.
Young began describing the need for more effort, but the more he talked about the film session, the more it became clear it was more about being ready to defend. Often the way you start a defensive possession will dictate how successful that defensive possession becomes and to hear both Young and eventually Nurse tell it, the Raptors this season have not been putting themselves in a good position to start too many defensive possessions.
“It was more so about effort,” Young said. “That is all the way around from when a team makes a shot, or when we make a shot and we get back on defence, picking the ball up early and showing our high walls and our high gaps. Making guys (don’t) see lanes as opposed to how it’s like the Red Sea has parted sometimes.
“We are getting back and everybody is in a defensive (crouch) and not standing straight up to where if a guy drives baseline we have a base go and a guy is rotating for that guy and another is X-ing out on the weak side. Just a lot of different things which all amount to ready basketball. (The film) showed we were always in ready mode, focus mode, effort mode – always willing to make the next play and that is what we need to get back to doing.”
Nurse, who seemed a little miffed that the meeting was even being talked about publicly eventually admitted that the biggest reveal of the film session was how prepared and ready to defend the Raptors were a year ago compared to this year.
For whatever reason, defensively the Raptors have got a little lackadaisical in their initial approach and that has led to some poor possessions.
“Like it’s something we’ve always prided ourselves on is transition and taking away the first action like just taking it out,” Nurse said. “So that boils down, like I told them in there, it’s not a 30-day process where we need to get out here and grind it out. I always say defence transition is at the top of the list. You’ve got to get your defence set up. But before that there is about 4 or 5 things like readiness, anticipation, toughness, you know, there is a bunch of little things that even start before there is a pass even made. So that’s kind of what we were talking about in my closed meeting.”
Young, said he believes a film session like that one could set the Raptors up for a good trip which begins Wednesday night in Sacramento.
“If we bring that same intensity that we had in that tape to each and every game, we put ourselves in a position to win this whole trip,” he said.
“It’s the winning and the losing, of course, but also how the team itself is inspiring fans or not,” he says. “I don’t think this team captures the imagination of fans like the one of three or four years ago. It doesn’t have the same pizzazz, the same fire and the same grit.
“When the attendance starts dropping, you have to make sure that your marketing is as best as it could be. You can’t be complacent.”
Setlur points to the Lakers, who have built such a strong brand over the years and who have the game’s biggest name in LeBron James, as a team that can sell out its arena despite its record.
The Raptors’ brand is also strong, said Cary Kaplan, the president of Cosmos Sports and Entertainment.
“I think the Raptors have a lot of loyal fans who will follow them, win or lose,” he says. “They can struggle for many years and still be at or near capacity in attendance.”
Part of it is due to being in a dynamic city like Toronto, Kaplan says. Corporations and wealthy people are always vying for seats inside the arena, so tickets are at a premium. And the 2019 NBA championship has helped draw more fans into the stands.
And while there can be a direct correlation between merchandise sales and the team’s success, the overall attachment fans feel toward a team transcends the box score, Kaplan says.
“Merchandise, attendance, sponsorships, none of that will drop in any significant regard if they lose,” he says. “People know that in sports you have to go through periods of down time, so I don’t see any significant drop in any of their revenues.”