Toronto lost its inbounding punch. Why?

The Raptors haven't been scoring on their SLOB and BLOB plays. Should we be worried?

You may remember the Toronto Raptors’ January 1, 2023 game against the Milwaukee Bucks for the Raptors’ offensive ineptness, scoring zero points for the first 6.5 minutes of the game. But there was one area in which Toronto actually scored brilliantly.

The Raptors scored 1.533 points per possession (ppp) on inbounding set plays, including sidelines out-of-bounds (SLOB) or baselines out-of-bounds (BLOB). That game ranked among the 20 most efficiency SLOB and BLOB games in the league that season, among the 281 games with at least 15 such inbounding plays. Toronto even scored five points in the last 30 seconds on SLOB plays, forcing overtime. 

Nick Nurse certainly had fantastic clipboard kung fu, but there were many reasons why the Raptors eventually moved on and hired Darko Rajakovic. And Rajakovic has done much to instill a new culture -- one replete with more cutting, ball movement, and joy.

But Rajakovic has not been nearly as successful as Nurse when it comes to the clipboard. It’s a small but meaningful part of coaching. Last year, the league average in points per possession on SLOB or BLOB plays was 1.104. Yet the Raptors had the highest points per possession in the league on such set plays, averaging 1.197 ppp. Given the difference between league average and Toronto’s output, Nurse’s success on “coaching” plays like SLOBs and BLOBs earned the Raptors an extra 68 points. 

To compare, this season, the Raptors have been much worse on such coaching plays. They’re currently ranked 27th on BLOB and SLOB ppp, averaging a pitiful 0.901. Keep in mind, the average half-court possession for Toronto is notching 1.007 ppp, which is 30th. So this is part of a larger problem for Toronto, if a more extreme version of it. Furthermore, Toronto’s half-court offense last year was just as problematic. Yet they were the best on inbounding set plays. That strength has faded under Rajakovic. 

While one might attribute Toronto’s lost SLOB and BLOB efficiency to the loss of a key player -- Fred VanVleet -- that isn’t supported by the numbers. While VanVleet was an inbounding specialist, frequently scurrying from a BLOB inbounds pass behind a hammer screen to the corner, receiving the ball, and launching  a triple, the Raptors were virtually identical in SLOB and BLOB efficiency with or without VanVleet on the court last year. 

Much of Toronto’s flawed scoring on inbounding set plays is a natural result of the early days for Rajakovic. He's a rookie head coach and hasn’t instituted his entire playbook yet -- unlike Nurse, who was well established last year. He is still implementing the foundational principles as opposed to the flourishes and tricks of inbounding plays. The film also shows many opportunities for Toronto on set plays simply resulting in ordinary offensive motion. Instead of using the unique passing opportunity to find an easy look, the Raptors have simply thrown the ball up top and gone into a high pick and roll. That’s okay! Every team does that sometimes, but it does mean the Raptors have ceded higher-value options in order to flow into their normal half-court offense, which has not been strong. 

At the same time, Toronto has run some scripted actions in some games, and they still haven’t been effective. Against the San Antonio Spurs, even though Toronto ran more complex scripted sets, it only managed 0.727 ppp. This came in a game in which Toronto’s half-court offense was actually solid, scoring above average not for Toronto but for league-wide half-court offense. Yet the BLOB and SLOB sets lagged behind. Much of this wasn’t Rajakovic’s fault -- the Raptors created great looks on a variety of plays, yet they just didn’t fall.