So, the Raptors are good. Very good. We know they are great at scoring, and average defensively. But what precisely do they do well on each end?
There is a common theory popularized by Dean Oliver that there are four factors to basketball success: scoring from the field, scoring from the line, offensive rebounding and taking care of the ball. Those apply on both ends. The common statistics used to represent each are as follows.
Scoring from the field: Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%). This is like regular field goal percentage (FG%, what percentage of field goal attempts are made), except adjusted for the extra value of a three pointer.
Scoring from the line: Free Throw Rate (FTr). Calculated as FTA/FGA — or how many free throw attempts the team gets for each field goal attempt they get.
Offensive rebounding: Offensive rebound rate (OREB%). This one is easy — how many of the available offensive boards does the team get?
Taking care of the ball: Turnover rate (TOV%). What percent of plays end with a turnover? The lower the better, here.
You can look at those for the team, and you can also look at the same numbers for the team’s opponents to judge the defensive performance. So, let’s do that.
Category | Value | Rank
eFG%: 53.4%, 4th
FTr: 0.303, 3rd
OREB%: 25.9%, 7th
TOV%: 12.4%, 3rd
As you can see, top-7 in each category, with very good scoring numbers and their top attribute is limiting turnovers. They are the only team in the league in the top 10 in each category (CLE is closest with all categories in the top 12).
Category | Value | Rank
eFG%: 50.9%, 20th
FTr: 0.278, 19th
OREB%: 25.7%, 26th
TOV%: 15.8%, 7th
With the Raptors’ mediocre defense, you can see the low ranks in several categories. Looking purely at the raw numbers, the Raptors have an advantages over their opponents in eFG% and FTr, if small ones, while they basically break even in offensive rebounding, something they could stand to improve. But the big standout is the number of turnovers each team is committing. Those percentages work out to roughly three fewer turnovers for the Raptors than their opponents, meaning three more shooting possessions.
This is a different approach than has been taken in the past by the Raptors. Last season, while the offensive turnovers were similarly limited, the defensive system did not prioritize forcing turnovers — they ranked 19th last season, instead generating top ten ranks in limiting free throws and defensive rebounding.
So, what are the Raptors doing that is leading to so many turnovers? They seem to have a more aggressive defensive system than last season, but how can we measure that?
Well, there is a new category of statistic on NBA.com, that they only started tracking last playoffs: hustle stats. These are stats that don’t show up in the box score, but can be indicative of teams that put in the effort on each end.
For example, on offense, screen assists are a tracked statistic that record how often a player sets a screen that leads directly to a bucket. As noted above, Valanciunas is one of the league leaders (8th) in this stat with 4.2 screen assists per game, and as you can imagine it is a key statistic for a team that has such a guard oriented offense. The team ranks third in the league in total screen assists, with 12.5 per game. That’s at least 25 points per game (could be more if there are threes in there) that come directly off a screen with no passes required after the action. That’s one way to generate a high efficiency, low turnover offense as noted above.
Back to the defense. Let’s start with what they aren’t doing well. Their total contested shots are pretty mediocre, ranking 13th in the league. That lines up with the mediocre opponent’s eFG% stat shown above. The team also does not really try for charges, ranking 19th in drawing offensive fouls this year.
What the team does, however, is to muck up the court whenever possible. They rank fifth in deflections on the season — players are getting their hands on passes and slowing down the opposition enough to create turnovers at a solid rate. Not only that, but once a loose ball is generated, the Raptors are among the best teams in the league at recovering them, ranking eighth in that regard.
It’s that sort of energy and hustle that is allowing the Raptors to keep their heads above water defensively in spite of their struggles to prevent efficient scoring or offensive rebounds. As ever, Kyle Lowry leads the charge for the team in effort, with the most deflections and the most recovered loose balls on the team, but other players are making their presence felt on that end as well — DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll and Terrence Ross round out the top ranks on the team in those two hustle categories.
If that energy can continue, and the team can find a way to tighten up the defensive glass, the Raptors could see their defensive numbers climb back up to the borderline top 10 (they rank 15th now, not far off) as they were last season. In the meantime, with the limited turnovers they commit themselves, their average defense is proving more than enough to let them beat teams handily with their incredible scoring ability.