Right now the Toronto Raptors are a bad basketball team, but it’s worse than that; the Raptors are a bad basketball team that, for the most part, are horrible to watch. That's right, in professional sports being bad and being fun to watch aren't always mutually exclusive. It’s possible to lose a lot of basketball games, while providing an aesthetically pleasing spectacle (on offense, at least) for the fans who shell out their hard-earned cash.
The Philadelphia 76ers are a bad basketball team, but they’re entertaining – they run, they move the ball, and they move without the ball, far more than the Raptors do. The Phoenix Suns will eventually become a bad basketball team this season, but they'll be a bad team that you'll still tune in to watch at times (if only for a dose of Eric Bledsoe). The same is true of the Orlando Magic, and to a lesser extent, the well-coached Boston Celtics.
But aside from the
masochistic long-suffering fan-base, and those who are paid to cover the NBA, not too many basketball lovers are going to tune in to watch this Raptors team. They're no one's League Pass darlings, and it's not just because they're losing basketball games.
The Raptors play a variety of losing basketball that's excruciating to watch. Despite possessing very gifted athletes, the team plays at the second slowest pace in the league (91.1 possessions per game), and the team's 'leaders' are adverse to moving the ball. The Raps are averaging the fewest assists per game in the NBA (16.5) and, per ESPN's NBA Team Stats, they have the lowest assist ratio in the league -- only 13% of the Raptors' possessions end with an assisted bucket.
A large part of this is down to the fact that much of the offense consists of Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan playing hero-ball. Dwane Casey is no offensive savant -- far from it -- but his personnel, those aforementioned overpriced wings, don't exactly help his reputation as the anti-Spoelstra.
Oh, and just for good measure, here are some more unattractive stats:
Both Gay and DeRozan currently rank among the NBA's top-10 in field-goal attempts per game – Gay is 3rd with 20 field-goal attempts per game, while DeRozan is 7th with 18.4. Both men are shooting more than Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James, Derrick Rose; and notorious ball-hoggers like DeMarcus Cousins and Monta Ellis. And it goes without saying that, while dominating the ball, they're not exactly lighting it up. DeRozan currently ranks 212th in the NBA in true-shooting percentage (49%), while Gay comes it at an even more abysmal 249th in true-shooting percentage (46%). And both players rank in the top-30 in usage rate (the number of possessions used by that player, per 40 minutes) – Gay ranks 4th, ahead of James, Durant, and Rose!
Again, it’s not just that the Raptors' inefficient wings are using up a copious amount of the team’s offensive possessions, and missing; it’s how they’re using those possessions that makes watching the Raptors so painful right now.
Missing corner 3s and open jump shots can be tolerated at times – some missed shots can written off as simply the result of going cold. But no, this isn't just missing shots, it's missing the wrong shots. It’s low-percentage, isolation basketball. It's trying to shoot out of double-teams (or in DeRozan’s case, in one instance during the Portland game, shooting while triple-teamed). It's taking up large amounts of the shot-clock with aimless dribbling, and stepping in from the 3-point line to shoot a 22-footer (the worst shot in the game).
It's an offensive style that grinds. An offensive style that makes you grind your teeth.
After the loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, Casey told TSN's Josh Lewenberg, "We definitely want there to be movement. We have our limitations from that standpoint, but we want to move the ball". Casey appears to acknowledge that the team has limitations from a personnel standpoint -- personnel like DeRozan and Gay, who have the talent, and the physical gifts, to do things like cut without the ball, pass, and play within a pick-n-roll, but simply choose not to.
Case in point: Against the Rockets Gay had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, but bricked a 22-foot jumper. We all killed Casey at the time, but he claimed, post-game, that there was a play drawn up. Gay just called an audible, so to speak. More than anything else it appears to be a mental block with these guys. They refuse to change their game even though there's no good reason why they can't.
If Masai Ujiri is seeing what we're seeing (and I'm sure he is) he's already working the phones, trying to con a desperate G.M. -- quite possibly a Chris Grant, or a Joe Dumars -- into taking DeRozan or Gay off his hands. What kind of value he's able to get back for either player remains to be seen, but it's unlikely to be a lottery pick, or a young player with a high ceiling. Those dreaming of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can keep dreaming.
It may come as a shock to some, but other G.M.s have access to Raptors game-tape too, and they can see what we can see. But Ujiri, particularly in the case of Gay, who's likely to opt-out at the end of the year, will want to get something back -- even if that something is only a 2nd round pick and a semi-skilled, cap-friendly, rotation player.
And if we take a moment to imagine the Raps without DeRozan or Gay -- preferably without both of them -- it's not hard to see a world in which the team instantly becomes more exciting to watch. A world in which Kyle Lowry runs the offense -- running a healthy dose of pick-n-rolls/pick-n-pops with Amir and Jonas -- while the likes of Steve Novak, Landry Fields, and Terrence Ross spot-up in the corners and move without the ball. The ball doesn't stick, players pass knowing there's a good chance they'll get the ball back; and plays are actually run for Jonas after the 1st quarter, accelerating his progression into a top NBA centre.
But unfortunately, just trading DeRozan and Gay comes with the risk -- a risk, if the intention is to tank -- that the Raptors might actually become a better basketball team without their high-usage wings. In the Raptors case, not only would they play a more exciting brand of basketball, but it might also become a case of addition by subtraction, production-wise. More high-percentage looks, and ball movement that actually shifts the opponent's defense could, shock horror!, result in a better, more efficient offense. The Raptors would still lose games without their wings, but probably not enough for Ujiri's liking. That's why, as Braedon Clark pointed out last week, in the event that Ujiri decides to pull the plug, it makes sense for Lowry to also be on the chopping block.
A team with Dwight Buycks or D.J. Augustin running proceedings, would probably look a lot like the current incarnation of the Utah Jazz, with John Lucas III at point-guard. In others words, REALLY bad. And I guess ultimately the ends would justify the means -- the Raptors would lose a lot of games and would get a high pick in next summer's loaded draft. But it's a shame that, as Raptors fans, we probably won't get to see a starting lineup of Lowry, Ross, Fields, Amir, and Jonas. It's a starting lineup that, like the current one, probably isn't good enough to transcend the NBA's no-man's land; but unlike the current starting 5, it would at least be fun to watch.
To steal a line from that LeBron/Nike ad campaign from a few years back: We are all witnesses. But, as it currently stands, we're witnesses to basketball that's both substantively and stylistically bad. And that makes losing all the more depressing.