Photo Credit: Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports
One thing in sports that injuries and unexpected circumstances can do is force you to do things that are out of your comfort zone and try things that you may not have otherwise. In the case of the Toronto Raptors, it was to play big and abandon what had made them successful in previous years.
In the previous two seasons, the Raptors had played a traditional center for the majority of their lineups with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. They were the backbones of a defense that finished second in defensive rating in 2019-20 at 104.7. But with the loss of their two frontcourt stalwarts, the Raptors tried to fill the gap with Aron Baynes who, uh, did not pan out as well as the team or the player would have hoped.
So, with that in mind, the Raptors needed to find a new way to be successful. Nick Nurse is well-regarded as a very experimental coach with different schemes and isn’t one to shy away from trying something new. However, it has to be something he knows his players will be comfortable with and isn’t too far out of their skill set so as to be put in a position to fail. That’s why when he implemented a full small-ball starting lineup, fans were confident that they’d find success with it.
Playing small for the Raptors wasn’t an entirely new endeavor – they had toyed with it in spurts – but going to it as a full-time starting five was new. But fans didn’t get to see it last long as most of the starting five got wiped out due to COVID-19.
However, Nurse and the front office saw enough of it to lean all the way into it this offseason. The Raptors roster notably features no one taller than 6’9″ and there are eight players with that as their listed height on the team’s 20-man training camp roster. Even the guys who are expected to play in the “traditional” center spot, Khem Birch and Chris Boucher, are that height.
That means we’re going to see a ton of funky lineups full of guys no taller than 6’9″ and who are very athletic. So just how successful were the small-ball units last year for the Raptors? Well, per Cleaning the Glass, lineups with Pascal Siakam at center were a plus-5.5 net rating in 726 possessions. Their most used group was Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, and Siakam at 220 possessions and featured a +14.0 net rating. That’s pretty darn good!
The first game they went to that starting lineup was January 10th against the Golden State Warriors, a one-point loss. Despite that loss, though, the Raptors forced 15 Warriors turnovers, which is a staple of that small-ball unit and allows them to do what they do best, score in transition.
Even when the Warriors got a favourable matchup like Andrew Wiggins on Malachi Flynn, the Raptors are still able to swarm on Wiggins and get the steal. In a lineup like this, it allows the Raptors to go even further into their swarming defence, looking for steals, knocking balls loose, and going for deflections. Toronto has been one of the best teams at rotating when they double on the ball so that allows them to take more chances like that.
The games that stand out most in my mind are the back-to-back against the Milwaukee Bucks in the middle of February where they forced a total of 32 turnovers, including 21 on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, in two straight wins. Sure, the Bucks were missing Jrue Holiday for those games, but the Raptors were still able to put a ton of pressure on the Bucks’ two best players and really made them uncomfortable with their activity on defence.
The Raptors once again are able to swarm Middleton even after he gets a favourable matchup. Toronto knows that Middleton loves to shoot over the top of a smaller defender and doesn’t even let him get the chance against VanVleet. Siakam immediately recognizes the situation and they trap Middleton in the corner and get the steal.
The second game of that back-to-back was an even more impressive display of their small-ball defence really giving the Bucks problems without a true primary ball-handler like Holiday. They held the Bucks to 96 points, one of only four times the Bucks were held under 100 points that season.
The Raptors have optimized their roster for the way they believe can give them the best chance to win games this season. While everyone clamoured for the Raptors to add a true centre, they went the other way and leaned into what made them successful and helped them play at their best. Sure there will be times where it looks disjointed and they give up easy buckets to players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid simply because they don’t have anyone that size, but they will also create a lot of turnover by pressuring those big guys with double and triple teams.
There are no expectations on this Raptors team to win a championship or even compete for a high seed in the East. This year is about growth and experimenting with new skills for players, new schemes, and new lineups. The Raptors may not be the best team, but with a ton of length and athleticism flying around on the defensive end, they won’t be any fun to play against either.