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Quick Stat Hits: How NOT to Fix the Raptors' Defense

Problems with the Raptors' defense? Not this again...

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

If the title of this piece seems familiar, there may be a couple good reasons for that. In December, we asked what had happened to the Raptors' defense. In January, we had similar concerns. In February we gladly took a break from that to focus on the offensive problems, as the team suddenly had a top 10 defense again (yay!). Of course, March rolled around and we had to look once again at the defense.

Josh Lewenberg at TSN has an article up about James Johnson and Dwane Casey's issues with the way he plays defense. Here's a quick excerpt:

"James' strength is also his weakness," Casey said Sunday afternoon. "He feels like he can help on a lot of things [defensively] and gets himself in trouble. But I thought he played with a lot of discipline [Friday] and I thought that was one of the most important things."

"I made a lot of mental mistakes on defence," acknowledged Johnson. "Switching and trying to get back to the man I switched on. So, me and Coach had a talk about that today too, about switching and staying on that man instead of trying to help and over-help. Sometimes my greatest attribute can be my weakness too, because I always want to help somebody."

Dwane Casey seems to believe that Johnson's over-helping causes more issues than his overall defense solves.  And here's another tidbit from Lewenberg on that stay-at-home philosophy:

By design, Casey's Raptors teams have each ranked towards the bottom of the league in forcing turnovers. He often preaches discipline, communication and being in the right place at the right time. There's no room for heroes in his defensive schemes.

Let's consider that for a moment. Since the Rudy Gay trade in December 2013, here are the Raptors' league ranks, month by month, in defensive rating and turnovers forced.

Month | Defensive Rating (DRTG) Rank | Opp. Turnovers (TOV) Rank

Dec | 11th | 5th
Jan | 4th | 11th
Feb | 15th | 21st
Mar | 13th | 13th
Apr | 17th | 21st
Nov | 10th | 7th
Dec | 20th | 12th
Jan | 26th | 14th
Feb | 9th | 5th
Mar | 29th | 26th

See a pattern? In general, for Casey's Raptors over the past two seasons of relative success, the team's defensive performance has trended pretty closely to their ability to force turnovers. Plus, Lewenberg's suggestion that the team doesn't force turnovers seems erroneous - they are ranked 11th overall this year (thanks to two very strong months - the two where they were top 10 in defensive rating) and were 11th overall last year as well (again thanks to two strong months - the two where they were top 11 in defensive rating).

So, aggressive play leading to turnovers appears to the be key to Casey's defensive scheme being successful, rather than conservative play, as is being suggested by Lewenberg and Casey. Is this a matter of Casey simply not seeing what his defensive system is? It's controlled chaos - the scramble defense and small ball being the most obvious examples - and if you skew too close to control rather than chaos it's just a matter of screens and passes until the opposition breaks through.

Now, what changed in February this year that saw the Raptors' turnovers forced skyrocket to fifth overall, pulling their overall defense up with it to ninth? I have a theory, and I hope you all see it coming.

Some random statistical rankings for the team:

Best on-court DRTG: Tyler Hansbrough, James Johnson, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Lou Williams
Worst off-court DRTG: James Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson
Best defensive real plus-minus (RPM): James Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, Amir Johnson, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas
Best on-court turnovers forced rate: Tyler Hansbrough, James Johnson, Lou Williams, Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez

Month in which James Johnson received the most minutes: February (26.3 MPG, team DRTG ranking 9th)
Month in which James Johnson received the least minutes: March (14.3 MPG, team DRTG ranking 29th)

I focus on James Johnson in particular here since he has played a lot of minutes with both bench and starters, while Hansbrough is the anti-JV. By that I mean that he plays entirely against opposing benches, while JV only plays against opposing starters - note JV's Defensive RPM is top five on the team in spite of not showing up on the on-off splits - he plays exclusively against some seriously difficult competition.

So, here we are again, with obvious answers being obvious. But there's a larger concern to me, again from the TSN piece:

"We worked on drills today where he had to be disciplined, put him in situations," the coach said. "Because he's going to be guarding guys down the stretch and in the playoffs that are very lethal offensive players and if you make a mental mistake in those situations they'll make you pay. It's something we continue to work with him on, talk to him about and hopefully he gets better with it."

"That's the main focus right now," Johnson agreed. "It's hard for my teammates to be on the string with me when I'm running everywhere and then they're getting pulled back and forth with different guys. So, like I said, just gotta stick to the little things and stick to the basics. Hopefully everywhere gets to where they need to be and I stick to my principles."

So Casey appears to be preaching less mistakes (sure, sounds great) but also less "running around everywhere."  That's not so great.

I've focused on James Johnson here because he is the most obvious example (and currently inhabits the news cycle), but the same applies across the board. DeRozan, Ross, Lou, Lowry - these guys are at their best when gambling in passing lanes, causing chaos, and forcing multiple long passes that can be intercepted.

It seems to me Casey's defensive system and his attitude towards risk-taking are incompatible - without aggressive overplaying and over-helping, his system simply appears not to work. That's true for the bigs too - hard hedges, quick doubles, sagging into the paint to stop the drive (but staying high) - these are all things big men need to do to have success in Casey's system. It is part of why Jonas has had such trouble in it (and why he has done so well paired with JJ, who brings the chaos while JV anchors the paint).

Oh, and James? About that part of your quote in bold: judging by the trend, everyone getting to where they need to be isn't happening no matter what, so you may as well stick to what you are doing rather than the principles...

The numbers suggest it's been working pretty well.

(All stats from, except RPM from, and compiled March 30th, 2015.)