What will Darko Rajakovic be like as Toronto’s head coach?

8 mins read

The short answer, as with all coaches who have not been NBA head coaches, is that we simply don’t know. There’s no way of knowing to what extent an assistant coach has been responsible for different component’s of a team’s output. But there are always signs, breadcrumbs to follow, to guess at what might be to come.

And those breadcrumbs look pretty optimistic when it comes to Darko Rajakovic

Rajakovic has worked in Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Memphis, all of which teams improved under his stewardship. Both Phoenix and Memphis became the lowest-frequency isolation teams in the league while Rajakovic was there, according to Second Spectrum. He joined Phoenix to work under Monty Williams, and his one season there saw the team jump from one of the worst offenses in the league to well above average. The same happened in Memphis; he joined and immediately the team saw a huge offensive improvement.

Again, it’s impossible to know what if any causative factor Rajakovic brought when it came to those offensive shifts. But philosophically, he prefers free-flowing offense, with an emphasis on dynamism and freedom of choice for players. He likes spacing and shooting and all that good stuff. He discusses in great depth his preference for 0.5 offense (players making fast decisions) in the excellent Basketball Immersion podcast. But under Nurse, the Raptors also gave their players freedom to build the offense as they went. Toronto did, after all, run a motion offense. For example, Rajakovic said in a Q and A with Global Stars Basketball that he wants his team to hit a minimum of 300 passes per game. The best offenses have led that category, including the Golden State Warriors, Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings, and Denver Nuggets all in the top 10 last year. But you know who else was in the top 10? The Raptors. And Nurse helped revolutionize frequency of 3-point shooting as the head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The aesthetics should certainly look different this upcoming season, but don’t expect the Raptors to become the Nuggets overnight on offense without personnel change.

Rajakovic has significant structural roles that govern the spaces within which players can improvise and work in unstructured ways. All NBA offense is about the interplay between script and non-script. Toronto has had too little offensive success in past seasons in dead-ball moments, with offensive rebounding a crutch saving Toronto’s 25th-ranked first-shot half-court offense. While Nurse was an Xs and Os wizard, the interplay between structure and freedom did not serve Toronto well during the past three years. If Rajakovic can create more dynamism with more emphasis on spacing and structure, that would benefit the team — particularly Scottie Barnes.

I’ve only heard good things about him personally, everyone pointing towards his optimism and passion. Players seem to love him, and he seems to care deeply about the success of his players as people. He is a players’ coach, in that his philosophies all seem to point towards maximizing the players with whom he is working,

Diverse players from Steven Adams to Desmond Bane have all credited him for his individual player development work on their accounts. He has worked with players on their jumpshots, particularly Mikal Bridges. Toronto desperately needs player development, as while its best players have been very successful recently, it has had few young players moving up the ranks and seizing larger roles on the team.

Of course, Nick Nurse also possessed virtually all of those skills previously attributed to Rajakovic. When he was hired by the Raptors, he was a young, up-and-coming assistant coach considered a brilliant and flexible offensive mind. He specialized in player development, credited by Jonas Valanciunas for their work together. Nurse’s principles have been very flexible, adapting to maximize his players.

If there’s one thing that I would point to as Nurse’s biggest weakness with the Raptors, it would be the absence of soft skills. Relationships seemed to deteriorate during Nurse’s time with the team, and the Raptors were far from the family atmosphere they were under Dwane Casey. Masai Ujiri in his after-season press conference was clear that the team was selfish, missing culture, and hard to watch.

If Rajakovic can do one thing to help redeem the Raptors, it would be to reprioritize those relationships. Players and coaches need to care about one another. Rajakovic has been clear that those are priorities for him. He prefers a dynamic offense to a static one because that’s what he thinks players prefer. He prefers short video sessions because that’s what players prefer. He is big on trust and communication, and players co-creating values and philosophies so that they hold themselves accountable.

“We as coaches need to be a service for players,” he said in the same Q and A with Global Stars Basketball. “We’ve got to listen.”

Rajakovic does not seem to want to be the star whom fans come to see. All that seems ideal, but they’re only breadcrumbs. We’ll see to what extent those individual skills form into a fully-fledged loaf. If all goes perfectly, he will install a free-flowing offense that adds pace and space to a technologically-inept Raptors half-court. He will help the young players develop, giving particular focus on how to maximize Barnes and Precious Achiuwa. He will keep lines of communication open, building trust and relationships between players and coaching staff.

None of that is guaranteed, even if it all seems to be what he’ll prioritize. Even the best-laid plans can be waylaid by the grind of the NBA season and the realties of a roster. But, at least, we can be sure that now Toronto has the best-laid plans — at least from the coaching side. Now it’s on the front office to ensure the players with whom Rajakovic will work are ideally fitted to his philosophies. One domino is down this offseason; there are still many more to fall.