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Finally healthy, Toronto Raptors look to rediscover small ball identity

Photo credit: Kim Clement, Associated Press (2020)

To say the Raptors have been difficult to watch for the last three weeks would be an understatement.

Down half the roster, including three of their starters, due to health and safety protocols, the Raptors have dropped six in a row, including another loss to former coach Dwane Casey’s Detroit Pistons and have now fallen to 17-24 on the year.

During that time period, they have looked completely out of sorts on the defensive end without Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, their top three defenders. They looked rusty since returning, but this was expected; they hadn’t played in three weeks and it will take some time to get back into game shape.

Still, seeing the Raptors’ starting five whole once again is a sight for sore eyes. They were on a roll too, before a COVID-19 outbreak wiped out half the roster and nearly the entire coaching staff, going 14-7 after their first ten games in which they started 2-8.

More importantly, head coach Nick Nurse had finally begun to figure out the identity of this team and the rotations he needed to unlock who the Raptors want and need to be in order to succeed. With the team slowly getting itself back together, Nurse can continue to work on these schemes and lineups that made the Raptors so successful.

The Raptors have been at their best when they’ve played smaller and faster lineups this season. Particularly, the unit of VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, Kyle Lowry, and Norman Powell has been one of their most successful lineups this year. This group boasts a plus-11.1 net rating in 51 minutes played together, the highest net rating of any lineup that has played 50 or more minutes for the Raptors this season.

In fact, of any Raptors five-man lineup that has played 30 minutes or more this season, each of the top five by net rating have come with either Siakam or Chris Boucher playing centre, including a jaw-dropping plus-45.9 for the lineup of VanVleet-Powell-Anunoby-Siakam-Boucher. However, it’s only a 31 minute sample.

The numbers all point to the Raptors playing better when they run with smaller, faster lineups. The team is in a bit of a transition year, handing the keys over to the new core, and for Nurse, this year has been spent trying to find out how to best optimize their success in the long run. This may very well be the key to playing winning basketball going forward, assuming the core of VanVleet, Siakam, and Anunoby stays intact.

There are many reasons why these lineups work so well, and we’re going to dive deep into a few of the reasons why the Raptors are successful when going smaller:

Pace and Space

Despite the team overall being middle-of-the-pack in pace, those small lineups would all rank somewhere in the top ten individually. This was by design of Chris Finch, who recently departed to become head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Their 19.2% transition play frequency, which ranks them third in the league, is actually lower than last year but their efficiency has gone up from 125.3 points per play to 129.6 this season. Playing a style that heavily favours long-range shooting has become more common since the emergence of the Warriors in 2015, and the Raptors have been running motion offence since Nick Nurse took over as coach in 2018, so this shift is a logical one.

This is also why the Raptors’ smaller lineups tend to work better. Siakam in particular has been one of the league’s better transition players and thrives in a fast-paced environment due to his impressive speed and athleticism. Not only that, but with the smaller lineups the Raptors run, they have five of their best shooters out on the court at the same time, meaning that if they take more threes, they’ll naturally make more as well.

Because the lineup also has at least four ballhandlers at all times, they’re able to move the ball and generate clean looks as well. The Raptors heavily utilize drive-and-kicks and ball swings, whirling the ball around the court until they get a good enough shot, or until two defenders collapse on the same player and someone is left open. Powell, specifically, is one of the league’s best catch-and-shoot guys, ranked 12th in the NBA in spot-up scoring.

Now that the Raptors have most of their rotation back, playing with one of Siakam or Boucher at the five is simply optimizing the team’s strengths for how they want to play. This adds an element of speed and unpredictability to the Raptors’ offence and allows Nick Nurse to be creative with his plays. The Raptors have clearly discovered how they need to play on the offensive side of the ball with their new core, and it should give them a clearer inclination of not only how they need to play going forward, but also for Bobby Webster how they need to build the rest of the roster.

Speedy, Pesky, Switch-y Defence

When one thinks of VanVleet, Anunoby, and Siakam, the first thing that comes to mind is that they play differently at all different sizes. Yet, there is one common denominator between the three of them, and this drives their defensive success together: they are all strong on-ball defenders.

In our player spotlight of VanVleet earlier this season, one of the main points has been how strong of a defender he has become. He is the catalyst for what the Raptors want to be defensively, which is a strong on-ball defensive team that can force turnovers and leak out the other way for easy points.

VanVleet is still top ten in steals per game and top three in deflections per game.

As a team, the Raptors are third in the league in points off turnovers, they rank fourth in deflections, third in defensive loose balls recovered, and they are top five in both steals and blocks. Simply put, they are at their best when they apply strong on-ball pressure and contest the ballhandler tightly, and if they aren’t getting the steal, they draw the defender into the help where a blocker is ready to meet them.

These lineups work well typically because there are strong defenders on the ball at positions one through five. VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, and Lowry are all versatile defenders, able to play up or down almost any position.

If the Raptors are going to play a more uptempo offensive style, the most important component of that is generating transition and fast break opportunities.

It’s part of why Nurse missed his big three so much while they were out; during their six-game losing streak, the Raptors have allowed a porous 121.7 points per game. They are at the heart of what the Raptors are trying to accomplish, and when you’re missing your three strongest on-ball defenders, the scheme just doesn’t work. Now that the roster is back and whole, they will need to rediscover their defensive identity and use that as the launching point for the rest of their schematics.

Role Definition

Teams work better when roles are defined and everyone is set up for success. When it comes to the Raptors, this is an especially important factor of why their smaller starters work this year, because it slots everyone into the right role to do what they do best.

Part of what makes this lineup so successful is that there is a little bit of everything, and nobody is stepping on each other’s toes. There are four ballhandlers in this lineup alone and if Anunoby continues to improve his handles, there will be a fifth.

Because all five players are capable of hitting threes, the opposing big is usually dragged out to the perimeter, opening the lane for Siakam and Powell. If the big stays in the paint to help, the Raptors go to a drive-and-kick and swing the ball until they get a clean look. This lineup works well because everyone’s strengths are complemented and it gives the Raptors their most talented players all together.

Conversely, it has somehow also stabilized their bench when they’ve been able to run these lineups. By far one of the biggest factors in Siakam’s turnaround after a sluggish start is the fact that Nurse has been able to separate him and Aron Baynes, who do not work together. Siakam and Baynes have posted a minus-3.9 net rating in 471 minutes played together.

Baynes had a rocky start to his Raptors career, but he’s been playing in a role that hasn’t been ideal for him. He has benefited quite a bit coming off the bench alongside Boucher, posting a plus-10.7 net rating in 104 minutes together.

The eye test backs this up, as their styles of play mesh well. Boucher is a bouncy and mobile defender who can play out at the perimeter, and Baynes is a big body to bully down in the paint. The issue with Siakam and Baynes together is that they occupy the same areas of the court offensively, and Siakam’s drive game is negated when Baynes is clogging the area, giving him less room to operate. Both offensively and defensively, Boucher and Baynes live on different areas of the court, and it has given the bench a boost having the two of them work so well together.

Now that the Raptors are starting to look whole again, they will need to rediscover the identity that made them work so well. Not only is it important for them to grow now, but it’s how they will win in the future if they continue with their core as is.

As Bobby Webster evaluates the team ahead of the trade deadline, he will have to keep this in mind when deciding which players to trade or acquire. There are lots of questions surrounding this team for the remainder of the season, but the outlook is positive. Even if it doesn’t come together this season, the Raptors have a way forward for the long run.

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