A Nick Nurse challenge that doesn't make sense. A fun walk down memory lane, this is.
— Chris Walder (@WalderSports) October 27, 2023
The luminaries! https://t.co/STXBGcd6Pm
— J.E. Skeets (@jeskeets) October 26, 2023
The easiest way to understand Nick Nurse’s hyperaggressive defensive strategy over the last two years was by, counter-intuitively, focusing on the offence. Nurse’s calculation was that the Raptors could not outscore most teams on pure offensive talent — shooting and playmaking in the half court — so not only did he want his team to have far more shots than his opponents, but he wanted many of those extra opportunities to be in transition, where efficiency is typically highest. Part of the way to do that is to try extra hard for deflections and steals, but that left the Raptors giving up some of the most desirable shots to their opponents when they could not turn them over. The Raptors finished 29th in opponents eFG last year, and that rose to just 23rd after the acquisition of Jakob Poeltl.
The takeaway: If the style goosed the Raptors’ offence, it likely hurt their defence, too. The Raptors didn’t have as much offensive talent as their 13th-ranked offensive rating suggested, but they probably had more defensive talent than their 11th-ranked defence. Whether the results basically cancelled each other out? Well, that is part of what we will learn this year.
Darko Rajaković’s bet is simple: He believes the Raptors are long and physical enough to create enough turnovers and misses to help spur the offence without heading over to the extreme. It is easy to poke fun at Achiuwa’s statement, but he, Scottie Barnes and O.G. Anunoby are three of the small group of players with quick feet and overall strength to guard across the positional spectrum. When Poeltl is out there, the Raptors will play more conservatively, obsessed with making their opponents shoot over them. When he’s not — assuming someone like Achiuwa is his replacement — they will switch assignments liberally to encourage the same effect.
While new point guard Dennis Schröder isn’t the help defender that Fred VanVleet is, he is quicker when defending on the ball. Anunoby is the best bet to guard the best non-centre offensive threat on the opposition, leaving the likes of Barnes, Pascal Siakam and Achiuwa to roam in their most imposing defensive lineups.
Poeltl referred to Barnes as the team’s defensive wild card.
“Scottie, sometimes he’ll see a situation where he feels like he can come double (team) a guy that’s ball-dominant (who) is not really going to find the right pass,” Poeltl said. “And I think the rest of the team is quick enough to pick up on stuff like that. So when he does go and double, even if it might not be part of the system at that moment or it’s not a play call or anything like that, everybody else is on string and then can react to it.”
“I just feel like I don’t really get that recognition, as I should. But I feel like I’m a great defender. You see me, I can guard one through five, anybody on the court. I pick up full-court sometimes. I do it all on the defensive end, so that’s what I really take my pride in. That’s where my game starts — on the defensive end. Being able to go out there and guard anybody, taking pride in it, that’s just my mentality going into every game, trying to start off on defence. That leads to great offence with transition and that just leads me to stay on lockdown throughout the game.”
Whether he’s guarding all-star big men such as Karl-Anthony Towns, forwards or point guards, Barnes isn’t lacking confidence. And though his rookie-of-the-year season a couple of years ago largely was a result of the his offensive numbers, Barnes insisted he’s just as impactful on defence.
“I always feel like I’ve been a great defensive player,” he said. “(Against Minnesota), I had those opportunities to go block shots and I went out there to go get them.
“It’s going to come (recognition for his defence.) I’m not really worried about it.”
Teammate Jakob Poeltl said Thursday he believes the Raptors can field a top-five defence overall and Barnes didn’t disagree.
“I think that’s the best thing about our team. You see Dennis (Schroder) out their guarding point guards full court, setting the tone out there,” Barnes said. “And we’ve just got a bunch of guys that can guard one through five. They’re strong, physical, got that length. I think that just shows what our team can have defensively. We should be top five defensively with all these guys and these long-ass arms. We’ve got length, tall, strong. We should be able to just go out there and get stops every night and impose our will on the defensive end.”
Rajakovic had the last word on his team’s defensive potential.
“I think this year, (the) NBA should save themselves (some) worry and give our starters five rewards for being the best defensive players,” he joked.
Despite the performance, the improvement needed to be made isn’t lost on the Raptors. The group wasn’t content with its defensive performance, nor its offensive showing.
Rajakovic said the group had the “jitters” and that a team film session Thursday morning proved to be a good learning moment for the players.
Toronto scored 34 points in transition, but its halfcourt struggles continued in a new system. However, its shooting struggles from last year didn’t show, with the team going 40 per cent from three.
“Just feeling the flow, guys understanding where their shots are going to come from, how to play on offensive end,” he said. “You’re trying to play different style of basketball with different spacing, with different principles. So it’s going to take some time for all of our guys to start feeling comfortable in that. And for me also to figure out how to best use our personnel.”
“I think we just met expectations. I thought that defensively we did a really good job, I thought in transition we did a really, really good job and I thought we could do a better job in halfcourt,” Rajakovic added.
Despite the continued learning needed going forward, Barnes isn’t low on the team being able to find its identity offensively.
“We’re still just growing,” Barnes said. “I feel like that’s where we’re going at mostly, we can find our identity on defence.
“I feel like our offence, we’re still trying to find that, fix some things, tweak some things. We’ve just got to be better. Keep taking those open shots and we’re going to be confident in taking those shots.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2023.
Schroder has proven that he can be an effective lead guard, most recently at this summer’s FIBA World Cup, where he won MVP and led Germany to a gold-medal finish. Expecting him to step in for VanVleet, a former all-star and franchise icon, and be a one-for-one replacement isn’t fair. But put it this way: Schroder will make less than a third of VanVleet’s salary this season and surely make up for more than a third of his production.
Initially, it seemed like a strange fit, being that the Raptors’ biggest need at the position was shooting and Schroder is a good-not-great 34 per cent career three-point shooter. But as he showed in his debut on Wednesday, he brings several other attributes that fit the style Rajakovic wants to play on both ends of the floor.
For one, he’s an active, high-IQ defender. On Toronto’s first defensive possession of the game, Schroder picked Mike Conley up full court, pressured him at the logo, and forced a turnover – not with a steal, technically, but on a deflection, which is something Rajakovic has been preaching.
He’s as quick and dynamic off the dribble as just about any other guard in basketball. The Raptors outscored Minnesota 34-12 in transition, helping to make up for some clunky half-court offence. Schroder scored eight of those fast-break points and assisted on another four.
He’s also been working on his jumper, which bore fruit on Wednesday. He hit four of eight three-point attempts, including a big go-ahead bucket midway through the fourth quarter of a tight and low-scoring contest. His 22 points were the most by a player in his Raptors debut since Kawhi Leonard scored 24 in 2018, and he also recorded a team-high seven assists.
For Rajakovic to successfully implement his new system – and Wednesday was a promising start in that regard – his connection with Schroder is going to be crucial. The point guard is considered to be an extension of the head coach on the floor. For instance, Nurse always seemed to have the respect of VanVleet, and Kyle Lowry before him. Even with a portion of the locker room seemingly starting to tune him out late last season, the sense was that Nurse and VanVleet generally remained on the same page.
Schroder isn’t the same kind of leader as VanVleet; he’s not quite as vocal. But even after a few weeks of camp, it’s clear that he’s embraced his role as the floor general and steadying hand with the starters and he’s taken ownership of it. He understands Rajakovic’s vision and he’s relaying his message.
“The relationship with me and Darko is great, and it’s honest,” Schroder said. “Whenever he’s got something to say he tells me, and I’ve got the same thing for him. And I think that’s what we’ve gotta do as a team, as well. When you put your egos to the side – and that’s what we did this summer with the national team – and it’s all about winning, then you can get into arguments and move on from it and get better. I think we’re moving in that direction with this team.”
“I’m just glad that [Rajakovic trusts me to run the team]. I’ve been working hard for it, and I just try to play as great as I can for him, for the organization and for my teammates.
It’s not that Trent needs to be coddled or told how valuable he is every day. What he needs — what every player needs — is direction and feedback.
It’s clear Trent didn’t get a lot of it last season. He’s certainly going to get more now.
As for a contract extension, none was forthcoming in the summer — there were never any serious discussions with the Raptors — and it’s highly unlikely there will be any talks throughout the season. NBA sources suggest there wasn’t a huge, high-value market for Trent had he decided to become a free agent last summer, so betting on himself and what Rajakovic could bring out of him seems prudent.
A good year nets him unimaginable wealth — how’s four years, $90-plus million (U.S.) as a starting point sound? — and even a so-so year should get him a pretty good deal somewhere.
And since he’s only 24 years old, he’s got all kinds of time left to get two, three or maybe four more contracts. He doesn’t have a ton of security right now, but what he has is a place where he wants to be and a coach who will be more to his liking.
“Opting in was the best chance for my career, my family,” he said.
So now he’ll come off the bench. It’s the only logical role for him on this roster, and one he’s fine with, a point he made emphatically in that quick game-day chat.
“It’s not a thing to me,” he said, bending down a bit to get closer to the microphone for emphasis. “It’s a whole bunch of players in this league that can play in a starting lineup, that can come off the bench.
“I am able to play with any unit.”
He is assured that I’d make that point, now and in the future.
“Please do,” he said.
One thing Coach did mention last night was that he wasn’t necessarily married to this ten man rotation. Things could change, other players could earn minutes, etc. The 8-10 spots in this primary ten man rotation seem a little more flexible than the previous spots.
First up is Malachi Flynn. We all know the ups and downs Flynn has endured through his career so far. He was essentially not in Nick Nurse’s rotation over the past few years, despite being one of the only other “traditional” point guards on the roster apart from VanVleet. We saw extremely sporadic minutes from Malachi in the last two seasons — sometimes he’s be given the green light and other times he’d be sent in and quickly taken out. Seeing him the first half was rare. Obviously because of that his play was up and down as well.
Rajakovic seems to be keen to use him a little more. It seems to start the season he may relieve Dennis Schroder for minutes and be a mainstay in the lineups. The only question is whether he can use these increased minutes to his advantage. In last night’s game he was a team low -14 on the +/- scale and only scored three points. First game jitters or is this what to expect from a player whose development was basically thrown out the window for the first years of his career?
After him comes Jalen McDaniels — a little bit of a surprise to the lineup. It’s his first season with the team, which doesn’t say too much, to Darko everyone is new. He didn’t score last night and was a -3 on the night. A spot maybe expected to go to Otto Porter Jr over him, it’ll be interesting to see if McDaniels remains in the ten man rotation or is he ends up being one of those cusp-switch-up guys.
The last spot in the ten man rotation seemed to go to Gradey Dick. This seems to be a developmental minded decision — while Gradey Dick is definitely talented, he needs some reps to get him integrated into NBA basketball. He’s like a baby deer, wobbly and a little unsure but full of energy. The talent is surely there — the kid knocks down shot after shot in warm ups and practice. Hopefully with some reps, Gradey’s minutes can be more impactful to the team.