Offense was never going to come easy with Kyle Lowry sidelined. In the first two games of his absence, Toronto managed to score with some of the punch that resulted in historic levels of output earlier in the season; DeMar DeRozan offered a throwback to his ludicrous scoring run to open the season, and secondary contributions came from all corners of the court.
Those games against Boston and Portland illustrated the offensive upside the Raptors possess, even with its deadliest shooter on the mend. If the gears spin in perfect harmony, league-average or even good is attainable.
The last two games, however, have showcased the depths to which a Lowry-less attack can descend. If not for DeRozan out-hero balling Carmelo Anthony late on Monday on New York, the mood in Toronto would have reached full-blown depression in the wake of the Lowry news that afternoon. Threes were scarce, as were signs of life from anyone not named DeMar.
That last-second win delayed the need to consider what the Raptors offense might look like without its most deadly shooter ... at least for 45 hours or so. Wednesday's loss to Washington was the first in what could be many rude awakenings down the stretch as the Raptors adapt to life without the engine of their offense.
When Lowry is healthy and at his pull-up-three launching best, Toronto's offense is consistent, mature and comfortable in its own skin. It is by no means elaborate — it excels in large part because of the individual brilliance of Lowry and DeRozan — but it’s deadly when it hums. At what now feels like a distant time in the past, the 2016-17 Raptors boasted the most efficient offense in the history of the NBA.
Since Lowry's injury, we've seen the Raptors offense endure a reversion to adolescence. Identity is hard to come by when you haven't figured out your strengths and flaws -- the same goes for NBA offenses. Just four games in to their new reality, the Raptors are still in the process of establishing a working formula that accounts for the loss of Lowry.
Being down Lowry means Toronto is out its most prolific three point shooter and playmaker. In 57 games before the All-Star break, the Raptors hoisted up 1420 three-point tries as a team. Of those attempts, 444 were taken by Lowry himself with another 270 being set up by his passes -- that’s 50.2 percent of the team’s three-point tries coming as a direct result of Lowry’s wizardry.
Toronto can’t rely on his gravitational pull anymore; his self-created threes and ability to scramble defenders before darting passes to shooters are out of the repertoire for now. What’s left behind is a motion-averse offense with little shot creation and no secondary threat to ease DeRozan’s burden. Following the 105-96 loss to Washington on Wednesday in which the offense was rudderless until garbage time, Dwane Casey recognized the need to go back to the drawing board.
"Our staff, we've gotta come up with something to get us a rhythm offensively without Kyle in there.” said Casey. “We had three assists in the first half. That can't happen. Eleven for the whole game. The ball’s gotta move."
Through a combination of stagnation and missed open looks, the Raptors only mustered four assists in the opening three quarters. John Wall had four in the first quarter alone.
Casey stating that he’ll need to devise a new offensive strategy is one thing; accomplishing that with a shooting-starved roster featuring few natural playmakers is something else. Without Lowry, replicating the historic output of November and December simply won’t happen. But there are a few wrinkles Casey and offensive guru Nick Nurse might be able to introduce in order to squeeze some extra juice out of a DeRozan-centric offense.
DeRozan is the Raptors’ preeminent playmaker now. Cory Joseph’s name is in the point guard slot, but he’s primarily an attack-first guard; he’s curiously brutal at throwing post-entry passes, and tends to hunt layups on his journeys to the rim instead of open shooters on kick-outs. As a result, Toronto’s lone healthy All-Star has been tasked with initiating the Raptors’ attack with greater regularity in the last four games. Because he’s the team’s best ball-handler, opposing defenses can afford to trap DeRozan with all their might and dare him to defer to his less creative teammates.
This example from crunch-time in the Knicks game perfectly illustrates how a well-executed trap of DeRozan can behead the Raptors’ offense:
Courtney Lee won’t be there to bail the Raptors out with an ill-time foul every time the ball-movement stalls out from a trap. Finding ways to direct DeRozan away from traps is going to be crucial to keeping what ever flow the Raptors are capable of in tact.
Avoiding a dependence on side pick-and-rolls is one option. It wasn’t the case in the clip above, but DeRozan has called for many a screener in the last few games from the wings. In those instances, the sideline becomes a third defender choking off his space.
If DeRozan is going to run pick-and-roll from the sides, it’s essential that the screener be either Serge Ibaka or Patrick Patterson, and that they flare to the top of the arc to be a space-providing three-point threat.
Without that bit of reprieve, DeRozan stands the risk of getting caught up in the clutter of a rolling big, the sideline, and trapping defender’s arms.
Pick-and-roll is of course an essential pillar of most NBA offenses, with the Raptors being no exception. But there might be something to the idea of simplifying things when DeRozan lugs the ball up the court. Rather than inviting double-teams by pulling up a pick-setter, DeRozan could just go to work in isolation a tad more with Lowry out of the lineup. Those types of ball-pounding plays draw ire from fans and onlookers, but DeRozan’s among the best players in the league at breaking down defenders one-on-one. So far this season, DeRozan is in the 82nd percentile of scorers in isolation, notching 1.03 points per possession per NBA.com. As the ball-handler in a screen-and-roll, his efficiency drops to just 0.95 points per play. The frequency with which he runs those play times is inversely related to how well he scores on them — he goes to work in 4.6 ISO plays a night as opposed to the 11.2 pick-and-rolls he executes with the ball in his hands.
Simply evening out that disparity might milk a trace of added efficiency out of DeRozan. Right now, anything helps.
DeRozan’s the centre of the Raptors’ offense now, but secondary scoring going to be paramount until Lowry returns. At times this year, Toronto’s back court has been so prolific that it could afford uneven role player performances. That’s not a luxury the team has anymore, and springing DeRozan’s supporting case free for open shots is going to be a necessity in the coming weeks.
Serge Ibaka stands to be the second option while Lowry sits. As the best high-volume three-point shooter in the lineup, it would be ideal if he’d embrace the gunner lifestyle that the guy he was traded for once did. Someone is going have to pick up the slack from long-distance, and Ibaka is the prime candidate for the job.
Ibaka has averaged 12.7 shots a game this year, 3.9 of which come from outside the arc. We’re already seeing signs that he’s embracing an increased offensive responsibility in his four games as a Raptor. Count me in for even more than the five threes and 14.5 shots he’s attempted since the trade. With a few extra made free throws, Ibaka would be flirting with 50/40/90 status. That’s a level of efficiency scarcely found on the roster. Whether it’s asking him to pick-and-pop, or feeding him in the post for the face-up jumper’s he seems so eager to take, featuring Ibaka for as many as 18-20 shots a night might be the easiest route to mitigating the math problem Lowry’s absence creates.
More scoring need to be mined from DeMarre Carroll as well. His shot has been uneven this season, but he’s an established near-40 percent shooter from deep when he’s right. That he’s only attempted 10 threes in the four games out of the All-Star break a problem that could have been predicted when Lowry went down.
Forty percent of Carroll’s 89 made threes this years have come off of Lowry passes, with 36 percent of his 254 attempts being set up by his star point guard. He was held without a single try from long range on Wednesday. That simply can’t happen for a team already bereft of shooters.
Off-ball action will need to replace Lowry’s discombobulating adventures into the paint. Carroll used to be able to stand stationary on the perimeter waiting for Lowry to exploit an over-eager help defender with a pass. Now, with the help-magnet sidelined, Carroll might have to work harder to get himself into space. Casey and Nurse need to put an emphasis of activity away from the ball — whether it’s through added screen actions, or something else — as they look to beef up the Raptors potency.
If open threes aren’t there to be had, there are other ways Carroll can go about imprinting himself upon the offense. One of the skills Carroll brought with him from Mike Budenholzer’s equal-opportunity system was a whip-smart knack for cutting to the basket. Early in his Raptors tenure, he’d do it a lot — find a soft spot in the defense, dart into it, catch a pass, and finish. He’s moving into prime scoring position off the ball less this year. Per NBA.com, he’s getting hit with passes on cuts just 0.6 times per game, but scoring at a tidy 1.30 points per possession rate when he does so. If he can find a way to replace his haphazard, brick-spawning drives to the rim with some intelligent Hawksian movement, perhaps he’ll be capable of more on the offensive end. It’s not easy to find cutting lanes when DeRozan is clearing his teammates out in isolation. Considering the help defense Toronto’s leading scorer attracts, though, Carroll should be able to capitalize on numbers mismatches more than once every other game.
Trimming the fat should be the M.O. of Casey and Nurse as they search for answers to Toronto’s scoring woes. Without Lowry, the Raptors can’t afford to engage in offensive sets with low likelihoods of success. Throwing away possessions isn’t something the Lowry-less Raptors are at the liberty to do, and relying on the players and sets that have proven successful in the past will be the way to an offense that can at least tread water.
Nothing about the next four-to-six weeks will be pretty — you probably cringed at the mere suggestion of more DeRozan isolation plays. But this is Toronto’s reality with its best player and catalyst out of the lineup. Trading attractiveness for effectiveness should join the deals for Ibaka and Tucker as the late-season moves that help to keep the Raptors afloat in these trying times.