The Toronto Raptors have flaws, but the defense is foundational

On Toronto's elite output on the defensive end.

Anakin Skywalker was powerful and kind and had a whole lot of midi-chlorians, but he was also reckless and impatient — as Qui-Gon Jinn loved to remind him. But that impatience ended up winning him a pod race for his freedom and the love of his life, besides. (With a weird age gap.)

The Toronto Raptors, too, seem to have plenty of issues. Through five games in 2023-24, the Raptors have had only one less game scoring fewer than 0.75 points per chance in the half-court than they did in all of last season. (Three this season and four last season.) And last season, it’s not like Toronto’s half-court offense was particularly threatening.

But alongside those clear and visible negatives, the Raptors have loudly proclaimed themselves one of the best teams in the league on the other side of the court; Toronto’s defense has been every bit as good as the offense has been bad.

It’s hard to say what will matter more in the long run. But the offense has been talked to death already (including by me). It improved dramatically against the Milwaukee Bucks, which you can read about here. But let’s focus on the consistent positives so far.

Toronto has the ninth-ranked defense in the league despite regressing from forcing the most turnovers in the league, every year for the past three years, to middle of the pack this season. Yet in losing that top-end, they’ve reduced gambling and ended up solidifying the core, foundational components of their defense. It’s so early that the numbers are sure to change, but it’s clear that the team’s priorities on the defensive end have shifted.

“To a certain degree, a missed shot if you secure a rebound is almost, almost like a turnover,” said Rajakovic after the game. “And I think that we have amazing size. Just playing against this team over the years, it’s not easy to get a shot off against this size and I think if we make teams miss shots and reactive, I also think there are strategies and ways that we can get better with our defense to provide us even more steals. But I think that it’s a fair assessment to say that we want to create more missed shots.

Last year, Toronto perhaps intentionally conceded open corner triples to opponents as the cost of forcing extra turnovers and scoring easier points in transition. They sacrificed the solid bones of a house in exchange for the flashy frills. As a result, even though they employed a host of brilliant defenders, they were 29th in forcing actual misses from opponents — allowing a huge effective field-goal percentage to opponents of 56.9.

This season, Toronto has limited opponents to an effective-field goal percentage more than 10 percentage points lower, at 46.8. (This is a continuation of the end of last season, after the Raptors acquired Jakob Poeltl.) That more than makes up for the lack of turnovers the team is forcing. The defensive rebounding had been a problem until huge improvement against Milwaukee, but when opponents just can’t hit shots, just that goes a long way to being elite on the defensive end. That Toronto sits in ninth at the moment is more due to other teams having huge outlier defensive games; if the Raptors continue to play defense like this, you can expect them to finish as a top-five defense.

The solidity has started at the rim. Poeltl has been fantastic at annihilating opposing attempts there. When he doesn’t block the shot, he’s still forcing misses, as one of five players contesting both 8 shots per game from within six feet and holding opponents to 8 percentage points below expected on those shots. Again: It’s a small sample size, but he has a history of being elite at defending the rim, and there’s no reason to expect that shouldn’t continue. He’s been fantastic at using his body to meet opponents on the ground and slow their momentum before contesting at the rim. Or tracking opponents as the blind-side helper. He recorded four blocks against Milwaukee, looking like a regular ol’ Marc Gasol against a driving Antetokounmpo.

Poeltl hasn’t been the only one dominating on that end. Scottie Barnes is averaging 2.4 blocks per game and O.G. Anunoby 1.0, with both of them providing early and massive nail help, able both to drop to help at the rim or swallow shooters a pass away. Barnes’ three blocked triples so far this year leads the league in early days. Pascal Siakam has been incredibly engaged, moving his feet above the arc to contain anyone after a switch. Dennis Schroder has been unbelievably sticky, staying in front of anyone and forcing early pickups — giving Poeltl and Barnes so many easier opportunities for blocks. Add that all together, and Toronto has been the second-best team in the league defending the pick and roll, according to Second Spectrum. They haven’t switched nearly as much as they did last year, preferring instead to drop their center and chase over with the ballhandler defender, yet they’ve allowed the second-lowest points per chance in the league when switching. Again: Early days, and numbers will change, but less-variable numbers like frequency, as opposed to shooting numbers, do at least reveal Toronto’s priorities and schematic choices.

And everyone has been playing on a string. The help has been early, and players have known ahead of time where each other will rotate to. That wasn’t always the case last season, particularly before Toronto plopped Poeltl into their centerless defense last year. Opponents are taking far fewer shots at the rim than they did last year and far more from the midrange. Togetherness matters most on the defensive end. The talent has always been there, but it’s finally unlocked in a way it hasn’t been for this core.

Against the Bucks, Anunoby multiple times faced down Giannis Antetokounmpo in single coverage on a drive to the rim, stripping him of the ball. Barnes got in on the fun doing the same in the third quarter when the Bucks were making a run. Antetokounmpo and Lillard combined for 31 points against Toronto; that could well be the lowest total for the two all season. That’s mountainous success.

The defense will win this team a whole lot of games, even if the offense is just passable. Maybe not 50, and maybe not even 41 like last year, but Toronto should win a fair number of ugly, in-the-mud, 98-91 games that look like recordings from 1996. That’s what happened in the season opener. But Toronto hasn’t had a single poor defensive game yet this season; the process was fantastic against the Philadelphia 76ers, even if the Sixers hit a whole bunch of shots. Could last year’s Raptors claim a five-game streak of elite defensive execution throughout the entire year? This year’s team has done it in the first five games of the season.

As a result, the Raptors are going to find themselves in a whole lot of games. If triples drop, they’ll blow some teams out. But even when they’re firing up bricks, they should still be within a hot streak from the lead. That’s what happens when you are the best defense in the league; you have a foundation upon which to build the house. Sure, there are problems. But the vision for success is there as long as Toronto can find ways to fix its issues. There is time yet for that, perhaps.

Sure, Anakin Skywalker’s recklessness and impatience ended up dooming him for a long, long time, resulting in countless deaths. But there was plenty of good stuff there for a bit. That’s where the Raptors stand now. In Episode 1: The Raptors Menace. The team is as brilliant on one end as it is incapable on the other. No team is as binary as Toronto has been, and it means the possible outcomes could not be more diverse.

Does that mean the team is going to be the savior, the one who brings balance to the force? Or Darth Vader? Time will tell.