Patrick Patterson set the table for his transformative 2015-'16 season over the course of a few inconsequential seconds in the third quarter of a late November game. Against the same Cavs team that eventually disposed of the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, Patterson found himself switched on to LeBron James.
For the Patterson of previous seasons, such a match-up would have been frightening. His defense had always been sort of blah. It wasn't awful, or great, although you could argue it was a lot closer to the former. Patterson's main utility had always been to knock down his open threes and to try not to get roasted on defense by faster and stronger opponents.
But with this one play, thrown up against James and clearly over-matched in the speed and strength departments, Patterson unveiled a new skill that would become one of the tools most counted on by the Raptors as they rebuilt their defense from the abysmal rubble it had crumbled into during the 2014-'15 season.
This play was an eyebrow-raiser. On the switch, Patterson cut off James' angle with the help of the sideline, then deterred James from attempting a second run at the basket, ultimately forcing him into a heavily contested three-pointer -- the kind of shot you want James to take if you're a defense.
From that seed planted early in the season, Patterson grew into one of the best defenders on the league's 11th-best defense. His size and speed made him effective when switched on to smaller players -- so much in fact that Dwane Casey would just throw him out to guard the opposing team's most imposing wings from time to time.
Grooming him against the likes of Carmelo Anthony in the regular season paid off handsomely in the playoffs. After searching for years for a defender to shut down the annoying-as-hell Joe Johnson, Patterson ended up being the in-house solution the Raptors needed all along. He stepped up to slow down Johnson in the second round against the Heat when a hobbled DeMarre Carroll was getting punished.
When you add the stopper label to Patterson's above-average three point shooting at the four, you get one of the most quietly effective bench players in the league. He only received one third-place selection from Sixth Man of the Year voters, but if the award weren't so skewed toward's offensive gunners, Patterson's all-around game surely would have had him sniffing the top of the leader board.
Toronto's roster could see some overturn this summer, but Patterson's valuable skill-set and hilariously cheap contract should keep him in the fold barring some blockbuster trade that requires his salary for matching purposes. If he returns as expected, the only question that remains will be whether he remains in the pool of Sixth Man candidates, or slides into the starting lineup. Regardless of how he piles up his minutes next season, Raptors fans can expect Patterson will continue to provide the secondary contributions that any team can't become great without.
Regular Season: 79 Games (0 Starts) | 6.9 Points | 4.3 Rebounds | 1.2 Assists | 0.4 Blocks | 0.7 Steals | 41.4 FG% | 36.2 3FG% | 85.3 FT% | +9.3 NET Rating (Best on Team) | +10.1 ON/OFF Split (Best on Team) | +403 (Best on Team)
Playoffs: 20 Games (9 Starts) | 7.7 Points | 3.9 Rebounds | 1.2 Assists | 0.5 Blocks | 0.4 Steals | 40.4 FG% | 30.0 3FG% | 84.6 FT%
January 24th, 2016 vs. LA Clippers (112-94 Raptors Win)
Picking a "best game" for Patterson is tricky. His style of play doesn't lend itself well to eye-popping statistical outbreaks. Patterson's best games come when he's knocking down open threes, finding ways to make positive plays when attacking aggressive closeouts, holding his own on the glass and playing strong defense -- both on the ball and within the team's scheme. January 24th wasn't his most explosive offensive game, but it was a quintessential Patterson game: 10 points, six rebounds, three assists, one block and one steal on 4-of-8 shooting, including a tidy 2-of-5 from long range. His box score from this game is utterly unassuming, until you scroll to the right and see his eye-popping, season-best +31.
Obviously plus/minus isn't everything, but he, along with his usually running mates off the bench, were all +24 or better in this game. The starting five without Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll struggled mightily, and as they did all year, the bench led by Patterson's two-way play helped lift the Raptors to a win over an excellent Clippers team.
December 17th, 2015 @ Charlotte (109-99 Raptors Loss)
As important as Patterson's defense was to the Raptors this year, his three-point shooting was just as fundamental to the Raptors' success this year. When he was on, he propped up an offense-starved bench; when he was bricking, it usually spelled disaster.
On December 17th against the Hornets, Patterson's shot wasn't even in the neighbourhood of his target. On the back of an 0-of-7 night from three (1-of-8 overall), Patterson stumbled to just two points, three rebounds and three assists. This one was a rare blemish Patterson's steady 2015-'16 season.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Patterson is a weird case. He has certain strengths that are undeniable. For example ...
+ Patterson took the leap with his defense this season. As detailed above, he reached a point where he was able to stand up to bullying wing players and hold his ground. On top of that, his versatility gave Casey plenty of front court options to trot out. Patterson meshed well with both Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo, and even gave Toronto the ability to roll out some super-small lineups in which Patterson was the de facto centre. Simply put, Patterson's defensive strengths gave Toronto plenty of previously-missing luxuries this season.
+ He's a lethal pick-and-pop threat. Once he screens for the ball handler, he speedily gets into his catch position, and has excellent awareness of where he feet are - he almost never gets caught with a foot on the line for one of his threes.
+ Patterson is hyperactive away from the ball, always probing for a chance to set his next screen. If one pick fails, he'll quickly turn around and set another one for his ball-handler. When he's not the primary screener, Patterson is a master of sneakily backing in to pockets of open space on the three point line and waiting for a catch-and shoot opportunity.
+ On the whole, he's a reliable shooter that defenses have to account for -- he hit 36 percent of his three-pointers this year.
This is where the discussion gets muddled. When it comes to long-distance shooting, Patterson can be two-faced.
+ When Patterson's shot is falling, he launches threes with unabashed confidence, however ...
- When he has missed a few, or a defender is simply too far up in his grill, Patterson resorts to attacking closing defenders in hopes of achieving a blow-by. The problem is ...
- Patterson doesn't always have a plan when he's trying to get to the rim. Sometimes when he bursts into space past a slow-footed defender, Patterson looks like a kid reaching a never-before-seen level of a video game, and overthinks himself into a quick death.
+ Patterson began to weed out the awkward and clunky floaters that dogged hm on nearly every drive as the year progressed. He slowed things down and started to put up smooth floaters like this one:
+ As the Raptors got further into the playoffs, Patterson took it one step further: instead of running headlong into his defender, Patterson would improvise mini post-ups and back himself into prime scoring position. Even his offensive weaknesses became strengths by the end of the year. The next step: learning to facilitate off of his drives.
- His growth wasn't completely across-the-board in his sixth pro season. His rebounding remains the weak link in his game - his Rebound Percentage dropped from 11.6 in 2014-'15 to a career-low 9.7 this season. Part of that is probably thanks to the board-wiping centres he shared the floor with, but he can still get out-muscled by hulkier bigs.
Role Next Season
While Patterson will surely have a place on the team next year, his role won't be decided until Masai Ujiri's off-season work is complete. A lot has been made of Patterson's perceived struggles as a starter compared to when he comes off the bench, but the starting lineups he was featured in were fine -- it was more the gaping hole he left on the bench unit that crippled the Raptors.
If the Raptors want to move forward with Patterson as the starting four, they'll probably be okay. But Ujiri will need to add a player that can offer more than Jason Thompson, James Johnson or late-season Luis Scola to soak up those reserve minutes in the front court. As of right now, consider Patterson the favourite to join the Raptors four mainstays to open games next year, until further notice.
A GIF to Sum Up the Season
What did you make of Patrick Patterson's year?