I've never loved chips, but I always eat them when they're in front of me. And not just one, but as much as is available without being rude and finishing an entire shared bowl. I don't enjoy them, and they make me feel sick, and they have no nutritional value. I don't know why I do it. I think it's just being human?
If we're going to diagnose the ills of the Toronto Raptors this season, it has to start there: eating the chips in front of them, feeling sick, and gaining no nutrition. But, also, understanding that this is partially just being human.
The Raptors had several major weaknesses coming into the season: Lack of rim protection on defense, lack of shooting on offense, and lack of rim pressure on offense. (There were other, more minor issues, such as depth or health, but those were less certainly going to trouble the Raptors coming into the season.) The Raptors had massively overachieved in 2021-22, to the extent of a 49-win season that launched the head ahead of its long-term curve (which Masai Ujiri has admitted) and convinced the brass that those issues could be overcome.
In the pros column entering 2022-23, the Raptors had carryover from the prior season (which usually is very predictive of success), veteran leadership that had previously won a championship, athletic defenders, a unique strategy on both ends that prioritized more shooting possessions than opponents, and Pascal Siakam. Those should, all else being equal, have overcome the weaknesses, right? They did in 2021-22. So why didn't they in 2022-23?
Shockingly, little went wrong that was out of Toronto's control. And many of the pros worked as well or better than expect. Toronto ranked fifth in minutes continuity entering 2022-23. The locker-room leadership, specifically Fred VanVleet and Siakam, seemed to keep the team together during difficult times -- outwardly, at least, nothing fractured, particularly during the midseason lull that saw the defense collapse into a shrunken and shriveled caricature of itself. The defenders were, indeed, athletic, and O.G. Anunoby had the best defensive season of his career, led the league in steals, and could still end up with an All-Defense Team nod. The strategy worked as planned; Toronto attempted a ridiculous 737 more field-goal attempts than their opponents, the fourth-most in history and most of this millennium. (Their net field-goal margin was even 183 higher than it was the year prior.) Siakam had a career year.
But so much faded away around the margins. The point-of-attack defense -- which had been a strength! -- became a vapid hole, with VanVleet in particular experiencing a huge slide as his mobility guarding the ball, particularly in isolation, took a hit. Gary Trent jr. backslid. Siakam's defensive effort waned to the extent that he was in all likelihood a net negative despite being at his best and most engaged one the league's best defenders. Toronto's touch from the short midrange -- which had been league average -- plummeted to the bottom of the league. Toronto's ability to protect the paint had been tenuous but survivable, but it fell into the territory of desperation without Poeltl.
In many ways, the Raptors were already crawling on the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and the quest was doomed to fail. And Toronto strayed in many, many ways.
Perhaps most significantly, the weaknesses not only remained unsolved, but in fact were exacerbated throughout the year. The shooting, already dangerously slim, fell off -- particularly from VanVleet. Outside of garbage time, Toronto attempted the 26th-highest frequency of triples and was the 28th-most accurate. It doesn't matter how many extra shots you attempt compared to opponents if you can't score anyway. The rim pressure was slightly better, especially with Poeltl available as a roller, but no one beyond Siakam was really able to create for himself from a standstill and reach the rim.
And it all came to roost at the same time: Toronto was defeated in the play-in by poor (free throw) shooting, poor defense at the point of attack, and an inability from VanVleet to create anything on offense when switched against Nikola Vucevic. He is not a fleet-of-foot defender, yet Toronto couldn't even touch the paint against Chicago's 1-5 switching.
All in all, Toronto couldn't fix its weaknesses, and neither could it make them irrelevant through improving its strengths. Which points to the obvious solution: fix the fucking weaknesses.
That actually shouldn't be as difficult as it sounds. Most NBA players outside of Toronto are passable shooters! The Raptors need to acquire some. Many, many teams have more players than you can count on one hand who can -- without any help from teammates or offensive structure -- reach the rim and finish there. (The Raptors of course have one.) I pined for Lonnie Walker IV during the offseason -- who may not have been perfect but at least was the correct player type. Malik Monk would have been even better, as smart insiders like Joe Wolfond and Samson Folk recognized before the season as well.
8 thoughts on “What went wrong for the Raptors, and can they fix it?”
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