Darko-Ball and the Leaning Tower of Toronto

The Raptors have a new coach and a new offensive system, but is it enough to fix something that may have already been broken?

In 1173, in a small town in central Italy, construction began on one of history’s most infamous landmarks: An eight-storey bell tower at the heart of the city’s cathedral complex. After completing the third of the tower’s eight storeys, it began to sink under its own weight. 

Nearly a century and a civil war later Italy’s best engineers returned to face the music of their uneven work. Completing the tower required a reframing of thought: instead of fixing the tilt, the engineers asked instead how they might build upon their shaky foundation.

They used counterweights to try and offset the tilt. They designed the arches on the opposite side to be longer than the others, in order to create more stability. Some of these tactics made the tilt stronger, but nearly two hundred years after construction began, the tower stood.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was never supposed to lean. It just did. 

Unfortunately for Masai Ujiri, he doesn’t have a century to build a solid foundation.

“I believe in these guys” says team President Masai Ujiri of the then 26-30 Toronto Raptors at a press conference following the 2023 trade deadline. The Raptors had once again swayed from public opinion and media speculation, acting as buyers in a trade market where they had been poised to be perhaps the deadline’s biggest seller. It wasn’t enough to save them from DeMar Derozan’s Bulls however, in a play-in game ultimately decided through missed free throws and the screeching karmic repercussions of a daughter’s love for her father. 

Now, says the Raptor fan, big changes must be on the way. In comes a new head coach in Darko Rajakovic, with a wildly differing approach to offense than years prior. The “0.5 Offense” emphasizes ball movement and quick decision-making. Rajakovic brought not only a new approach but an entirely new staff. The Raptors were cleaning house. 

Darko, however, inherits nearly the same roster that fans and media alike have criticized and deemed fit to demolish. This same roster whose prior head coach thought their best chance to win games meant never looking deep in the bench and isolating on offense as opposed to a more team-centric focus. The “0.5 Offense” couldn’t be further from not only what the team ran last year, but the strengths of the roster as a whole.

This is no small feat: To break old habits while simultaneously starting new ones. Yet this is what the Raptors ask of Darko.

Any observant Raptor fan could tell you a few things about Darko’s new system: more ball movement, more off-ball movement, and it damn sure hasn’t been pretty.

Darko-staffed teams have finished top ten in pace (estimate of possessions per game) every year of his coaching career excluding the Paul George/Westbrook Thunder year. Playing quicker (and averaging more possessions by proxy) can be crucial to winning games for teams who may struggle in a half-court setting. 

The Raptors struggled early to combine both an increase in movement-heavy sets along with an emphasis on playing and acting quickly in a half-court setting. The growing pains have been… painful, but don’t let the ugly possessions fool you either. There has been genuinely encouraging development on the offensive end. 

Here, the Raptors run Pistol with Dennis and Siakam. Dennis sets a back screen to get a quick layup off a basket cut for Siakam. The Spurs snuff it out, and the Raptors counter with a down screen for Dennis to get an open look. 

Along with an emphasis on movement has come an increase in touches for Scottie Barnes. As he continues to grow as a scorer, so too do the ways in which he can be used on and off the ball. The Raptors have run this Gut-DHO action for Scottie on a few occasions. Barnes comes off a pindown from Schroder and then receives a DHO from Poeltl. Jak seals the smaller defender when Collins switches onto Scottie and gets an easy layup. If the weakside help is too aggressive as a helper it’s an easy look for OG Anunoby (although I wouldn’t try my luck against Wembanyama on a closeout).

They run the same action against Philly. Tobias and Joel try to trap Scottie while Maxey tries to recover to the open shooter. Barnes doesn’t panic and makes the right pass over the top where he knows Jak can get it. 

Scottie has the chance to really thrive in an offensive system that prioritizes quick decision-making. In this clip from their come-from-behind victory against the Wizards, you can see Darko and Garrett Temple on the sidelines screaming for Boucher, who’s being guarded by Poole, to come up and set a ball screen for Scottie. Poole switches with Kuzma and Scottie immediately attacks and finishes through the contact. 

The emphasis on ball movement has been perhaps the most noticeable change from the season prior. Last season the Raptors were 25th in assist percentage, and despite the shaky play on offence, are ranked 2nd this season. The play of Dennis Schroder has certainly helped in this regard, but the roster has clearly bought into their new head coach and the unselfish play. In particular, when they’re running freestyle movement offense as opposed to static post-ups or isolations, the ball tends to swing around the court more often. The Raptors still have a ways to go when it comes to their ball movement; (they still have a hard time hitting their relocating shooters), but this feels like a massive step in the right direction. 

Another issue Darko has tried to address are the spacing concerns. The solution? Just shooting more threes. Scottie’s 3-point attempts per game have basically doubled, and Siakam’s are the highest they’ve been since his breakout year in the 18-19 season. The difference is not just having Siakam and Scottie shoot more, it’s having defenses treat them like shooters. 

The shots will come and go for Pascal, but ideally, if you treat Siakam like a shooter defences will have to adjust. In overtime against the Spurs, the Raptors run a play to get Siakam an open corner three. Pascal dives to the dunker spot before coming off a pin-in screen from Porter Jr. Schroeder and Jak run a decoy Pick and Roll at the top of the key to get Dennis headed towards the corner.

Earlier in the same game, Gradey generates rim pressure before quickly backing off the Spurs’ aggressive paint defense. With the shot clock winding down, Gradey makes an incredible pass to Scottie as Collins has not recovered from his help position. I think rookie or sophomore Scottie would take a mid-range jumper off the catch here, or maybe try for a quick shot at the rim. Instead, he quickly shuffles his feet behind the line, squares up and drops it. It’s been evident watching him this year that developing as a shooter behind the arc has been a main focus in his development. To see him react so quickly and confidently speaks not only to the mindset of Scottie thinking as a shooter but the confidence in his own ability to hit tough jumpers at a consistent level.

While these possessions show the idealized version of what “Darko-ball” can be for the Raptors, it would be foolish to expect results consistently early on. If you’ve watched all of Toronto’s games as I have you’ll know that each possession is not always filled with fluid passing and impactful off-ball movement. But what feels remarkably real is the intent behind the offense. Even when mistakes are made, it still feels as though the team is trying to play together now more than ever before. 

It’s a hard thing to ask of fans; to try and appreciate the process over the results. Particularly when your roster is split between two timelines: veterans in their prime and young talent still looking to develop and grow. But until this front office feels comfortable picking a direction, this is what we’re asked to do. Swallow the big pill, as hard as it may be to get down, and hope that you too can see the foundation being built.

During the Second World War, Sgt. Leon Weckstein and the 91st Infantry Division were stationed in Italy. He’s awoken in the middle of the night and is told that their intelligence unit had pinpointed a 185 ft tower as a potential vantage point for the Germans, who had been bombarding allied forces with rocket fire since they’d arrived. 

On his Colonel’s orders, Weckstein and a few others went in the dead of night to survey the tilted monument, with only a radio in hand. Inland gun batteries waited for the signal to strike the tower down. Three-quarters of a mile later, Weckstein watches the tower through a telescope.

He is enthralled by its beauty, forgetting momentarily the horrors of his own predicament. He snaps out of it, scanning desperately for an enemy. In a moment of anger at his own bewilderment, he grabs his radio to order the guns to fire, but he simply cannot say the words. German shells cracked overhead and it was too late to do anything but run, and still stands the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

In spite of all opportunities presented, Masai simply cannot bring himself to hit the big red button on this iteration of the Raptors.

There’s no one fits-all-sizes path to finding success in the NBA. It is rarely as easy as plugging one hole, trading for one guy, or hoping your freshly 20-year-old rookie (Happy Birthday, Gradey!) can solve your spacing problems. It also takes time. Which is frustrating for everyone involved. In particular with a team that is in as much flux as the Raptors are. Those who have been critical of Darko have been unsatisfied with the underutilization of Siakam and the offensive process as a whole. It’s hard to blame them, what Darko wants for this team is against its current nature. The skill sets required to unleash the full potential of Darko’s offensive system are not yet on the roster. 

The Raptors hired Darko to coach the current and future iteration of the Raptors. What we don’t know is how much continuity will remain between both iterations. What we do know is that the principles of Darko’s system will most likely remain throughout. The Raptors are still in a period of evaluation, which really means that Nurse’s iteration did not give this core the chance it deserved in Masai’s view. Good teams move the ball; therefore the Raptors will move the ball. Good teams shoot a lot of threes, therefore the Raptors will shoot a lot of threes. But all the movement in the world doesn’t guarantee a trophy in July, and treating Siakam like a shooter doesn’t mean a defense will either. 

Implementing a new system is one thing, but adding a new philosophy entirely is a lot to accomplish. The Raptors are trying to quit smoking and start each morning with a 5:00 AM hike. Your body would thank you for it eventually, but you might cough up a lung on the way. 

When Coach Nurse saw the Raptors’ tilted foundation, he tried to build the straightest tower he could on top of it. For Darko, at least for the meantime, he’s here to let it lean.

Thanks for reading, friends.