Five Things I Dig and Don’t Dig About the Toronto Raptors

This week in Five Things, Nigel Nicholas debuts the things he Digs and Don't Dig. We talk pick and roll problems, ups + downs, culture, and more.

It’s a Five Things takeover!

Nigel Nicholas and I will be sharing Five Things duties moving forward. This week, NN – no, not the famous actor from Murdoch Mysteries – will be leading the show with a contribution from Adon for some sweet sugar and spice and something nice.

Stay tuned for every Friday.



Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed are of myself, Nigel Nicholas. Adon should take no blame for anything I wrote. [Unleashing your brain to the world, might be enough for blame, NN]

First, thank you to Adon for handing me this column and giving free rein (within parameters) to speak my mind. While I cannot emulate [Adon word] his lyrical prose and vivid metaphors, I will try to provide some semblance of insight.

An epitome of a roller coaster, this last week.

The heart-breaking three-point loss to the Celtics, followed by a dismantling of the Pistons, followed by a young Magic team romping, and, finally, a face-saving one-point win over a spritely Indiana Pacers.

We fans were left to simmer in an emotional cauldron this week. More highs and lows than a daily dose of Mountain Dew. It’s not even a quarter of the season yet.

Lets roll.

I Don’t Dig

…how frustrating this team can be!

We glimpse what could be a very good team in one game only to be transgressed the next. The troika of Siakam, Barnes, and Anunoby is probably the best threesome this team has ever had. A third-team all-NBA, a former Rookie of the Year and a second team All-Defensive team member are riches any team would envy. Yet, the Raptors sit in tenth place below .500.

What the Hell?

I Dig

…this team’s resilience!

Everytime I succumb to the misery of this team, they strike my love chord. The stomp of the Bucks after three straight losses and the nail-biting win over the Pacers after a demoralizing loss to the Magic the night before, both reinvigorated hope.

Hope that something is percolating. Hope that, perhaps, this team has fight in them yet.

I Dig

…the culture new coach, Darko Rajaković, is manifesting.

I love the positivity and general cohesion this team exudes. Yes, I get that vibes are meaningless and record is everything, but you gotta start somewhere.

Darko came to Toronto facing a [rumoured] toxic locker room riddled with in-fighting and disgruntlement. He, immediately, set out to quash the enmity – no easy thing to do – and just may have.

Culture is an intangible, immeasurable thing. But also tantamount to an organization’s future sustainable success. Darko’s big smiles and many hugs seems to be putting Toronto on the right track.

I Don’t Dig

…some of Darko’s X’s + O’s and line-ups.

The idea of Jakob or Precious as passing hubs are suspect. I understand they’re to alleviate some of the team’s spacing issues but Jakob as a hub is a stretch. Precious, just has me pulling my hair [what hair, Nigel?] out. Achiuwa is tied for fourth in team usage – far too high.

Darko’s rotations have been…interesting. We have to appreciate he’s, simultaneously, focusing on player development while also experimenting with how players work together and who fits with whom. It can be hard to watch.

I Dig

…Darko is playing for the future.

Darko is giving players short-term leniency in hopes of long-term development. Nick Nurse was unwavering in absolute success – no matter the cost. If that meant overplaying his starters so be it. If that meant late-game fatigue, injury risk, anemic bench. So be it.

Winning the game each night was the only thing that mattered to the other NN. But we saw that mindset unsustainable over the course of a season and into playoffs. Darko’s taking a new, risky, approach that will hopefully pay off.

Quick Digs and Don’ts:

I Dig Pascal’s leadership. He seems more engaged, and encouraging and always looking to sacrifice his own game to further others.

I Don’t Dig Pascal’s occasional complacency. He is still this team’s best player and must assert himself accordingly.

I Dig the resurrection of Malachi Flynn. While he still has his flaws, he is more consistent thanks to Darko’s aforementioned confidence in his players.

I Don’t Dig the performance of the bench. Apart from Boucher and Otto Porter Jr., we have no one go-to guy in the second unit. It used to be Gary Trent Jr…



Pick + Roll Problems

Fundamentally, successful defences have to do one of two things well.

Limit opponent success from three. Or, restrict opponent success at the rim.

Minnesota, the top-rated defence, stifles both. Teams are held to a league-low three-point percentage and 6th lowest at-rim percentage.

Less privileged defences pick and choose – where they can.

Orlando, the 3rd best defence, is 20th in opponent three-point percentage, 5th at-rim.

Conversely, Houston [Yes! Houston!], the 4th best defence, is 2nd in opponent three-point percentage, 20th at-rim.

Then, there’s Toronto.

After a shellacking in Orlando and an epic Boonta Eve Classic in Indiana, Toronto slipped to 12th in defence: 16th in opponent three-point percentage and 27th in at-rim percentage.

Both are worrisome. Particularly, because teams are getting to the rim (18th) and shooting the three (13th) at decent frequencies. (Though, as Blake Murphy of Sportsnet, wrote, the Raptors give up the 11th fewest corner threes, a number lower than any of their past five season).

Opponents’ at-rim success is most vexing. The aggressive trapping, stealing (12th this year), deflecting (18th) Raptors of yore are no more. They’ve receded to a more conservative defence relying on the stout Jakob Pöltl and rangy Pascal, O.G., and Scottie. One would think opponents would be able to attack less. Toronto allows more at-rim shots per 100 possessions this year than last.

A part of the problem lies in the pick and roll. In isolation, hand-offs, transition, and defensive rebounding, the Raptors are fine – allowing at-worst league average success in those actions at the rim. Makes sense. That’s where O.G. Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, and Pascal Siakam are likeliest involved.

In the pick and roll, where teams can escape the triumvirate of length, opposing ballhandlers score the 8th most points at the rim. Where Dennis Schröder and Jakob Pöltl are primed for exposure.

Interestingly, both lead the team in at-rim opponent points allowed. In the pick and rolls, specifically, they’re more vulnerable.

Two weeks back, I wrote about Dennis Schröder’s ability to sneak past screens. He’s a shapeless ghoul haunting ballhandlers. Teams still hunt him. When they get a switch, apparition Dennis becomes chicken liver Dennis. He allows one of the worst field goal percentages in the league from six feet or less.

Yes, Dennis falls here. Jonathan Isaac’s unimpacted by Dennis grounded or upright. An easy lay-in.

The greater trouble has been with Jakob Pöltl. When he drops back in screens, Pöltl can challenge attackers to a game of chicken using his footwork and savvy to ward off penetration. Caught in space, he’s more bare.

It seems coach Darko Rajaković, is wanting Pöltl a bit higher and less in drop – especially for pull-up specialists. The extra step has left Pöltl flat-footed against surmounting attacks.

In the switch with a handoff to Jayson Tatum, Pöltl steps up to meet Jayson flat of the screen. Ciao! You’ll see similar challenges in the following clips whether it’s a flat switch, trap, show and retreat, or even semi-drop.

Against Indiana, a third subsequent possession in a row had Toppin finishing at the rim. A fourth in a row got Jak switched on Hali for a pull-up three.

First, I know, it’s Indiana. Second, it’s Tyrese Haliburton. Their shooting and Hali’s keen ability to find guys makes guarding this action nigh impossible. Still, they spammed it eyeing Toronto’s vulnerability.

Ultimately, defensive failures are a collective responsibility. It is not Dennis and Jak alone responsible for opponents thriving at-rim. And, in several of these possessions, discombobulations elsewhere contribute to the failures.

Nonetheless, pick and rolls, particularly with Pöltl, are a weak spot in an otherwise competent defence. One explanation for Toronto’s poor at-rim defence thus far. Something for the Raptors to monitor moving forward.