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Darko Rajakovic might be (slowly) building a brilliant offense

Darko Rajakovic has built a very impressive offense. Now what?

To the French, all must have seemed lost in February of 1916. The Germans started shelling French lines in Verdun, hoping to knock the French out of the First World War (or, the Second Franco-Prussian War). The French were almost completely unprepared, having exhausted their forces in the counter-attacks of the year prior. Many of their biggest defensive guns in forts behind the lines weren't loaded. Then after initial bombardments came almost 100 flamethrowers. The Germans took ground quickly.

But their goal was to tempt counterattack against artillery positions, and the butchery would force the French to sue for peace. Initially, it worked. Not the diplomatic goals. But the destructive ones. The war was perhaps the nadir of the war from the Allies' perspective. There were no tactical objectives, so what was the point?

The Toronto Raptors had their nadir very early on this season. The 2022-23 season saw Toronto play some of its worst offense in decades, relative to the league, as the Raptors finished 25th in first-chance halfcourt efficiency. And yet early on in 2023-24, the Raptors would have begged to have that efficiency back. They averaged 94.5 points per 100 first-chance halfcourt plays in 2022-23, and to start 2023-24, three of Toronto's first four games failed to crack 75 points per 100 first-chance halfcourt play. What was the point would have been a fair question in reference to Toronto's offense. Toronto didn't know how low it could sink. Until, suddenly, it stopped sinking.

The French eventually reversed the battle of Verdun, held on, and turned the German position into the same miserable attrition as they themselves faced. So too have the Raptors.

But in many ways, the Raptors aren't just turning things around. They might secretly uprooted the foundations of those leaky early games and actually built an enviable offense. Darko Rajakovic's vision is finally being implemented, albeit with some concessions to his actual roster. The results certainly aren't burning the league down, but they're improving. And the process is much better than the results.

It is important not to assign qualitative measurements to simply descriptive numbers. Passes, for example, aren't always a good thing in the NBA. Sure, it's good to pass. But you can overpass, and sometimes the best offenses pass little and the worst too much. Last year, for example, the Raptors actually finished eighth in passes made per game, at 292.0. That's neither good nor bad; they were just below two Finals teams, and just ahead of two teams that accomplished nothing on the season. This year, the Raptors are third in passes per game, throwing 16 more they did last year. Again: that's descriptive, not qualitative.

But some passes are more valuable than others. For example, north-south passes, either interior or attacking passes into the paint, or kickout passes from the paint to shooters, are higher value than others. And that's where Toronto's passing truly shines. Last year, Toronto finished sixth in interior, attacking, or kickout passes, at 58 per game, according to Second Spectrum. This season, Toronto is first by a mile at 73. If you're doing the math at home, that means almost all the passes Toronto added from last year to this are meaty, advantage-creating ones. The number of high-value passes is staggering; in fact, Toronto is averaging the fifth-most such passes per 100 possessions of any team in a single season since 2013-14, when Second Spectrum's database begins. Tight-window passes are becoming something of a signature for this team. (For better or for worse.)

Those passes are lifeblood to Toronto's offense. The Raptors don't have a ton of players who can reach the rim with the dribble (they are once again a bottom-10 team in efficiency on possessions featuring a drive), so they just do it by passing. And such passes create scoring opportunities, which means assists. Against the Phoenix Suns, Dennis Schroder finished with 12 assists, largely because he's a master of using his almost unmatched speed to create passes within the tight confines of the paint.