Has the Raptors' Defence Improved This Off-Season?

The HQ wonders if despite the doom and gloom being thrown around this team, the Toronto Raptors have actually taken some baby steps forward this off-season at one end of the court...

Lately there hasn't been a lot to write about regarding the Toronto Raptors.

Well...not a lot of positive to write about....

Jose getting hurt, the team being pegged as a bottom-feeder, and on and on.

We're going to talk about the latter in detail this week, but it was a discussion with a fellow blogger, Ryan McNeil of Hoops Addict, late last week, that I wanted to use for the basis of today's post.

Ryan and I were going back and forth about the club's outlook and he worried that there wasn't a single area in which the team improved this off-season.  I argued that defensively perhaps the team had made some small steps forward, but in reality, this was simply based on the "on paper adjustments" that could be seen.

For instance one of the team's biggest defensive sieves, Hedo Turkoglu, was no longer with the club, while the Dinos added athleticism and shot blocking via the draft.  Even smaller moves, like replacing Patrick O'Bryant's non-existent presence on the glass with Joey Dorsey's rugged rebounding and man-to-man D.

The counter to this of course is that the team lost its best perimeter defender, Antoine Wright, and Chris Bosh, who although no Dwight Howard on his own, now takes his 9.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks a game on average to Miami.

So what's the truth here?  Are the Raptors better off on D thanks to their off-season moves, even by the smallest of measures?

Before a single game of the new season has been played, it's admittedly tough to do much analysis.  However by using the database over at the fantastic website, Basketballreference.com, as well as a few other sources, I put together a rudimentary view of what fans might expect.

First, I looked at a stat developed by metrics guru Dean Oliver entitled "Defensive Rating."  This stat looks at the "expected amount of points that an individual player will allow on defense over 100 possessions."  Therefore the lower the "Defensive Rating" for a player, the better.

For instance, one of the league's best defenders, Dwight Howard, had a mark of 95 last season.  To put that in perspective, other well-known defenders like Kevin Garnett and Anderson Varejao had marks of 101 and 102 last year respectively.

The Raptors' top defensive player last year according to this rating?

Reggie Evans with a mark of 107, followed by Amir Johnson, with a score of 110.

This seems to pass the proverbial sniff test as on the court as these two players provided many of the defensive attributes that seemed to make them top defensive options for the Raptors.

Neither score is that "good" relative to the rest of the league, but that makes sense too considering that Defensive Rating can be quite influenced by teammates.  As we saw last year, Toronto's best defenders still didn't look great thanks to their  teammates' less-than-average "stopper skills."

Therefore by totaling up Defensive Ratings for the players on this year's club and comparing the average mark to those on last year's incarnation of the Dinos, we should get an idea of whether or not on average the new group of players are "better" defenders.

On average, this appears to be the case.

Last year's club posted an average Defensive Rating of 112.3 while this  year's posted a mark of 110.8.

Not a huge leap, but a baby step one could argue.

As well, this year's club is missing the Defensive Ratings for its two draftees, Ed Davis and Solomon Alabi.  Alabi won't likely impact things too much as I don't expect him to see many minutes, however Davis should get at least 15 minutes a game in my estimation.  Regardless, I find it hard to believe that either Alabi or Davis would negatively impact the Defensive Ratings average.  Both tested out as above-average rebounders and shot-blockers during college (more on this in a minute), and both are quite mobile and showed excellent defensive intangibles in Division I play.

Yes, I realize this is the NBA now that we're talking about, but it's hard to think that Toronto would be better off defensively by not having either of them on the roster.

So, so far so good then.

Next up, I took a look at two metrics commonly associated with defense; rebounding and shot-blocking.

This was a bit easier than looking at players' Defensive Ratings simply because I could use the stats of Davis and Alabi from college here, thanks to some great extrapolations Draftexpress.com did pre-draft, to make comparisons.

These results came out in favour of this year's club as well.

Looking at the average rebounds per 36 minutes of this team versus last, this year's club improved from an average of 6.17 rebounds per 36 minutes, to 7.03.

Again, not a huge lift, but one none-the-less.

In terms of shot-blocking, there was hardly a change at all as the team went from 0.41 blocks per game with last year's roster, to 0.42 blocks per game for the coming season.

Nevertheless, it's an inch in the right direction and based on these three statistical breakdowns, it could be argued that Toronto if anything, has strengthened it's D this off-season.

Of course it's not that simple.

This is a bit of a "paint brush" method of looking at the numbers considering we've yet to see the team play, let alone determine if Bryan Colangelo is done moving the pieces around.  As well, it's great to average stats out over 36 or 40 minutes etc, however in reality not everyone plays that much, and as a result, certain numbers become inflated.

Take Joey Dorsey.

Sure his 12.5 rebounds per 36 minutes look great, but will he even play 3.6 minutes a match next year?

And while Ed Davis projects to block over a shot a game by my estimate (factoring in 15 minutes of action a match), is he ready to compete with the big boys of the NBA and have that sort of defensive impact right from the get go?

I think perhaps then the better way to look at things is by examining the off-season transactions from a defensive standpoint.  Chris Bosh averaged 10.8 rebounds last year per 36 minutes but we know Dorsey's 12.5 boards isn't going to replace that.  Dorsey simply isn't going to play those types of minutes or be effective enough offensively to be allowed to stay on the court for that length of time.

So keeping the other players constant we have:

IN:

-Solomon Alabi

-David Andersen

-Leandro Barbosa

-Ed Davis

-Joey Dorsey

-Linas Kleiza

-Julian Wright

OUT:

-Marco Belinelli

-Chris Bosh

-Rasho Nesterovic

-Patrick O'Bryant

-Hedo Turkoglu

-Antoine Wright

 

To me, Leandro is a slight upgrade on Marco defensively, Dorsey is a huge upgrade over O'Bryant, Kleiza is a slight defensive upgrade over Turk, and Wright vs. Wright is pretty much a wash.

That leaves Andersen and Nesterovic, where I give Rasho the nod, and Chris Bosh being replaced by Ed Davis and Solomon Alabi.

This is where I think it gets interesting.

There's no question in my mind that Bosh is a better defender than these two however both have the ability to become better overall defenders than CB4 down the road.

The problem is we're talking next season here, not 3 years from now.  

We've seen in the past how long it takes for big men to get accustomed to the NBA way of playing down low, so to me there's no trade-off between the rooks and CB4.  Factor in Bosh's offensive effectiveness, which negates some of his defensive miscues, and the spotlight shines even brighter.  Neither Alabi or Davis have the offensive skills right now to be able to supplant their errors on D.

That being said, all is not lost.

One could argue that with both Kleiza and Wright on board, both of whom can play and defend the 4 spot, some of Bosh's defensive abilities can be replaced.

As well, Amir Johnson, a nearly equal per-minute rebounder and superior shot-blocker, will be let loose, and should he stay out of foul trouble, will probably play some 4 thus helping to lessen the blow of Bosh's departure in terms of defence.

In fact, the way one could look at it is that the center position has remained relatively unchanged defensively, perhaps being upgraded a bit by the rookies, and if anything the small forward position minus Hedo and with the additions of Wright and Kleiza, has taken a step forward on D.  The point guard position has remained unchanged, and the shooting guard spot perhaps dips a bit minus Wright, who spent a good chunk of time there last year.

Add in another year of development for DeRozan and Weems, and hopefully better on-court chemistry between this young group in what for most is their second season together, and I could see Toronto taking a baby step forward on D this year.

Really, it's up to the Raptors' to replace what Chris Bosh gave this team defensively and while I don't think Bryan Colangelo has done quite enough in this department for the immediate future, I'm not foreseeing the gaping hole that many envision.

Will the team still be one of the worst in the league at getting stops?

I expect so.

However there are some solid pieces in place and now the onus is on Jay Triano and his staff to make the most of them, hopefully starting next season.

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