— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) December 5, 2023
This season, Anunoby’s usage and efficiency are almost identical to his 2020-21 and 2022-23 seasons.
Anunoby is tied for the league lead in corner threes made this season, and he’s hit 51.1 per cent of those attempts, an excellent mark. His 40 per cent overall mark on threes is hampered by a 30.2 per cent clip above the break, which is lower than we’d expect given how few of his attempts have been pull-ups. Still, the net is a career-best mark on threes, coupled with a career-best mark on mid-range jumpers. He’s also finishing at the rim at an above-average rate for a wing, as he always has. The only areas he’s really been struggling is the floater-range part of the paint, where he rarely shoots, and those wing threes. All told, his play-finishing ability is in line with what we’d expect given his career so far, give or take a bounce here and there.
In terms of how Anunoby is getting those shots, not a lot has changed there, either. Nearly 60 per cent of Anunoby’s used possessions come in transition or as a spot-up shooter, two areas he excels at. He’s been given slightly more pick-and-roll opportunities, and those have gone poorly, as they often have in the past. He’s driving and posting up a bit less and coming off screens a bit more, but this is largely the same offensive role Anunoby has played in the past.
This doesn’t mean nothing has changed. Players can improve in their roles without a major change in usage or efficiency because a player isn’t involved at the end of every possession. Setting a really good off-ball screen, cutting with authority to draw defensive attention, making the right pass that sets up the next pass, and several other things aren’t captured easily. The Raptors are better offensively when Anunoby is on the court (and remarkably better defensively), something that holds even when we control for linemates and look at narrower on-off impacts. Over a large enough sample, we’d expect those little things to show up at the team level, and the last few years suggest Anunoby is a slight positive on offence and a monstrous positive on defence.
The most measurable of those non-box-score offensive impacts are passing and cutting. As a team, the Raptors have been passing significantly more and significantly better under Rajakovic.
Based on data provided to Sportsnet, Anunoby’s passing profile hasn’t changed a tonne. When it comes to passing along the perimeter, passing from the paint to the perimeter and passing while attacking, Anunoby’s passing role is about the same as it was last season. Where he’s made a big jump, though, is finding another player once he’s already in the paint — Anunoby is threading more of those dump-off, lay-down, or cutter passes once he’s inside, and his turnover rate and those high-traffic dishes have decreased.
Said differently, Anunoby has not changed much with high-low or low-high passing, as a nature of where and why he gets the ball. He’s the back-cutter or the open shooter too often for too many low-high or high-low feeds, respectively. He is making the extra read once in an advantageous position, though, which is a good sign.
Anunoby is also cutting way more than in the past. The play-type table above shows how often Anunoby finishes a play as a cutter, but there are plenty of cuts that don’t immediately lead to a shot for the cutter. Anunoby is cutting nearly 40 per cent more often, something the Raptors are emphasizing.
(Team-wide, the results have been pretty poor, and that’s probably the single area they could make the most offensive growth as the season progresses. They’re not going to be able to just add better 3-point shooters, which is their biggest shortcoming. Doing a better job finishing these new opportunities Rajakovic’s approach is creating is within their control more than improving the personnel is.)
It is, admittedly, a bit disappointing to see Anunoby’s role stay more or less the same. The most notable statistical change is that Anunoby is relying on assists for his offence more often than before, especially on paint touches. That’s what the new system wants, so it’s hard to fault Anunoby, even if that note, coupled with a lack of progression in self-creation play types, is mildly discouraging. Most other changes in his profile are either small-sample noise or too small to change your overall Anunoby outlook, at least until he builds on them.
Mostly, Anunoby has been asked to be a slightly better version of the same Anunoby. That’s an incredibly valuable one who will be in high demand if he hits free agency. It just doesn’t give us much more of a window into if — and how — Anunoby could expand his offensive game if asked to.
And just like that, 25% of the season is already over!
Toronto has lost to a team poised to be in the lottery (Portland), only to follow that up with a win over a title contender (Milwaukee). They’ve fallen to a surprisingly good defense (Orlando) and defeated an overwhelmingly good offense (Indiana). The Raptors have lost a game where they were up 88-71 in the 4th quarter (Chicago)…..and won a game where they were down 88-71 in the 4th quarter (San Antonio)!
Only 5 players* have a lower field goal percentage (39.9%) than Gary Trent Jr. (minimum 300 minutes played and at least 19% usage rate). Jakob Poeltl leads the league in shooting with an incredible 72.9% field goal percentage.
*Ironically, one of those players is Fred VanVleet.
Scottie Barnes is currently making “the leap” towards superstardom. Only 3 players (Victor Wembanyama, Anthony Davis, and Brook Lopez) have more stocks (steals + blocks) than Scottie. With each passing game, Barnes’ confidence grows in every area. He’s averaging 2.0 made threes per game on 5.1 attempts (38.2%). During the championship season, Kawhi Leonard averaged 1.9 made threes per game on 5.0 attempts.
Speaking of the 2018-19 season, that was also the last time Pascal Siakam averaged less than 20 points per game. Spicy P is exactly at 20.0 points, as his numbers across the board have seen a decline while he passes the proverbial torch to Scottie. Siakam is averaging an abysmal 19.8% from three. That’s the lowest percentage, by a wide margin. Pascal’s the only player with a three-point field goal percentage under 20% while attempting at least 4 triples (or 3 triples) per game.
The entire season, to date, has been the embodiment of Thanos’ perfect balance meme. The Raptors are mid!
Patterson, Vasquez, and Salmons debuted for the Raptors on Dec. 13, playing key roles off the bench in a win over Philadelphia. Prior to the trade, Casey had been using a thin rotation. Suddenly, he had some depth to work with – one of the unexpected consequences of the trade.
Casey: “Our hopes were for Wiggins. He was a national treasure, and rightfully so. He was a great young player from Canada, so I understood that, but the group that came in had other ideas.”
Lowry: “We picked up four unbelievable players. You had a guy like John, who came in and was the vet; he was the closer. I lot of people don’t remember [that] John closed a lot of those games out for us [that season]. You picked up Chuck Hayes, who was also a vet, but he was my friend – we had a relationship going back to [our two seasons together in] Houston – so I knew what I was getting from Chuck as a leader, as a man. You had Patrick Patterson, a young guy, jump shooter, gave us spacing on the floor, more height, more toughness. And then Greivis, who gave us the f—ing swag. He gave us the ultimate f–k you swag – I’m going to dance; I’m going to shimmy.”
Casey: “After the first fainting spell that I had [when I heard about the trade], having a week with them and seeing how it all fit together, I became optimistic even though there weren’t great expectations. It was a perfect fit. So, after a couple of weeks I could sleep at night.”
With Ujiri and the front office still evaluating where to go from there, the team left for a four-game, eight-day road trip in late December. Even at the time, it felt like a make-or-break stretch. In the first game, they pulled out an overtime win over Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. A couple nights later, they went into Oklahoma City and upset Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the first-place Thunder. They would go 3-1 on the trip.
Hayes: “We were not expected to beat Dallas and we sure weren’t expected to beat OKC, but we went in there and John Salmons was like our Mr. Fourth Quarter. And I was thinking, man, we’ve got a chance, this might actually work.”
Lowry: “That’s when me and DeMar really sat down and were like, hey, what are we going to do? That was the conversation we had on the plane heading [to OKC]. We said we’ve gotta pick this s–t up and do something about it right now. And I think that was the first time where we both saw that want-to in each other’s eyes. No knock against Masai but we weren’t going to let him control our fate.”
DeRozan: “I remember having that conversation with Kyle, [saying] that there’s a good chance that when we get off this road trip, we could both be traded. Honestly, I was just like, man, f–k it, let’s just go balls out and try to win every single game until we get back to Toronto… The reality was Rudy Gay just got traded and there’s a possibility that all this is about to crumble. It kinda put that necessary pressure on us. That’s what drove us.”
Webster: “For that period of time after the Rudy deal it was still an evaluation period. I know at a certain point it was like this team is showing enough promise – Kyle was young, DeMar was young, [Jonas Valanciunas] was young, Terrence [Ross] was young, we still had [Johnson] under contract for one more year. So, I think there was enough in place where it was like, we can build off this. There was definitely a point during the season where they played so well that it was like, okay, we’re not going to change things up.”
A DYNAMIC DUO IN THE MAKING
With a win over Washington on Jan. 3, their ninth victory in 11 games, the Raptors climbed back above the .500 mark. The other unexpected consequence of the trade, and the most important for the short- and long-term success of the organization, was the emergence of Lowry and DeRozan. They blossomed individually as players and leaders, and together as a duo. Both enjoyed career years, with DeRozan making his first All-Star Game. As the season went on, their chemistry grew – on and off the court.
Lowry: “Early in Year 2 we still weren’t the DeMar and Kyle that everyone knows. We were cool but it wasn’t like who we are now, of course, because it took time. My first year there I didn’t really have a relationship with him at all. We didn’t talk much at all, besides on the court. And then going into that year we kinda had a little bit of familiarity with each other, but at the time, we were just teammates.”
DeRozan: “What’s crazy is there wasn’t a relationship. I didn’t have his [phone] number, we didn’t talk, we didn’t hang, we didn’t socialize, nothing. I really didn’t have any relationship with him at all the season before. And I think with so much happening when the trade [went down] that’s what brought us close, unknowingly. Just the competitive nature, the will to win – that’s what gave us the relationship and the bond that we have today.”
Casey: “Right, wrong, or indifferent, I think that Kyle’s friendship with Rudy [made for] a triangle there that just didn’t fit. And once Rudy left, I think it galvanized Kyle, DeMar, and the team. I think that situation brought them together. You could see it – the communication level, the friendship, hanging out with each other’s families. It really was beautiful to see.”
Lowry: “I think our mentality was the same but the way we went about it was perfect for what the organization needed at the time. I had to be me – feisty, fiery, got at people, and he was the quiet, calm, cool [guy]. It just meshed perfectly. It’s kind of cliché to say but it was like fire and ice. Not trying to be cool or anything but that’s literally how it was. It was like Kyle’s f—ing going to curse you out and DeMar’s going to be like, ‘Yo, good job.’”
Scottie Barnes, who’s been the focal point from the get-go this season, echoed the sentiment.
“We’ve got a lot of unselfish players on this team,” Barnes said. “A lot of players that’s willing to make an extra pass, play for your teammates. So you can just see that on the floor. We get a lot of assists every night. We’re willing to pass the ball. We have a lot of unselfish guys and we know we’re going to have to play together to win.”
That’s all great. But here’s the problem: Playing less hero ball hasn’t necessarily translated into better results. Rajakovic’s pass-heavy offensive system ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency heading into Tuesday, down from 13th at the conclusion of last season. A year ago, the Raptors were 11-9 through 20 games. This year, they’re 9-11. That’s not a reason to dial 911, but it’s not exactly a loud announcement of some miraculous turnaround.
Fair enough. A new coach, a new system, a new point guard — it was bound to take some time to coalesce. Recent returns suggest Toronto’s early trouble with turnovers is beginning to wane.
If there’s still time to change minds, though, it’s running short. The NBA trade deadline looms a little more than two months in the distance. So, if the first 20 games didn’t present a definitive picture of what this team can be, the next 20 figure to provide a better foundation on which to base long-looming franchise decisions regarding impending free agents Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr.
“I think the next 20 games are going to show who we really are,” Schröder said. “It’s 20 games in, the next 20 games are going to be really important for the team, the organization. Everybody’s just got to chip in to win, to sacrifice for each other. And if we do that, we’ll be able to beat a lot of good teams.”
The Raptors have already beaten some upper-echelon competition: Phoenix and Dallas and Milwaukee. As much as Rajakovic credited his players for buying into the ball-sharing company line en route to those signature moments, Schröder threw the praise the other way, suggesting it’s the coaching staff that deserves credit for the franchise’s transformation via ball movement.
“We’ve got a system, how we want to play, and we got a great group of guys, high-character guys, who follow the game plan and the system,” said Schröder. “I think it’s always great when everybody’s touching it, everybody’s moving it. I think it’s unselfishness.
Evolution comes slowly in the NBA.
Just take Fred VanVleet’s stats from last season with the Toronto Raptors for example. VanVleet was — statistically speaking — a below-average three-point shooter last season. He shot 34.2% from behind the arc, the worst mark of his career, and yet teams rarely adjusted their game plan against the former All-Star point guard. If VanVleet caught the ball on the perimeter, opposing teams treated him like the shooter he’d always been, closing out hard, and daring him to pass up the shot.
The reverse has largely been true for Scottie Barnes this season.
Despite his 38.2% three-point stroke this year, teams have been slow to adjust. Approximately 60% of his three-pointers have been categorized as “wide open” by the NBA’s tracking data, a number that’s stayed fairly constant since last season.
Anecdotally, Barnes said he hasn’t noticed much of a difference in the way he’s defended despite his improved numbers.
But if those three-point stats persist, the league is going to have to evolve.
He’s taking more three-pointers than ever before and his willingness to let it fly should require teams to adjust their defensive schemes. Teams can no longer pack the paint daring him to shoot if they know he can make those shots at an above-average rate.
“He’s starting to use more shot fakes now on closeouts and drive more,” Raptors coach Darko Rajaković said Tuesday. “It’s still in development, but there is a feel that definitely they are trying to guard him differently right now.”
For a coach, though, it’s tough to react to any small sample size.
On one hand, you don’t want to let that struggling sharpshooter break out against you despite the kind of numbers someone like VanVleet put up last year. Just because a player is shooting in the low 30 percent from three-point range doesn’t mean he’s going to continue that if his career numbers are significantly higher, Rajaković said.
Conversely, if you’re playing someone like Barnes, teams have to weigh the pros and cons of defending him like a shooter.
“It comes down to preference and, of course, there is an adjustment there as well,” Rajaković said. “Let’s guard this, that’s the game plan but if they knock down a couple of shots, let’s adjust in the game as well.”
This week: 22
Last week: 22
Dennis Schroder summed up the state of the Raptors on Tuesday when he told reporters in Toronto, “The next 20 games are going to show who we really are. The next 20 games are going to be really important to the team.” For a group that needs to choose a direction, and is already sitting outside of the play-in mix in the East, this felt like an admission that the Raptors need to start improving or changes could be coming. — Bontemps
This week: 20
Last week: 22
1st Q: +0.5 net rating | Ranked 14th
2nd Q: -6.3 net rating | Ranked 23rd
3rd Q: -5.1 net rating | Ranked 25th
4th Q: +4.5 net rating | Ranked ninth
Clutch: +13.2 net rating | Ranked 10th | 10 games (5-5)
Takeaway: How do we eliminate the middle of the game to benefit the Raptors? Closing out the second quarter and then coming out of halftime has been a rough stretch for Toronto. I’m not quite sure how you fix that either. Is that just problems with a new coach making those adjustments? Is the team losing focus? Are the rotations off to finish out the half? Regardless, this is a good fourth-quarter team. Scottie Barnes (126 points, ranking 10th; 53.6 percent shooting) is a monster in the fourth.