With the All-Star break looming, the Raptors are second in the East in the midst of their best season in franchise history. Coming to the surprise of many, the Raps have built a new style of play that operates around essentially the same core of players from the 2016-17 season. It’s a change that’s turned heads around the league, and it’s owed in part to Toronto’s new dedication to the three-point shot.
Prior to recent success, the 3-ball was practically non-existent for the Raptors. They relied on isolation plays involving DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to create the bulk of the team’s shots. Yes, there was regular season success, but aside from a deep Eastern Conference run in 2016, the Raptors struggled to deal with opposing teams in the early rounds of the playoffs. Now, whether that’s to blame on the high usage rate of DeMar and Kyle, or the lack of consistency in the playoffs — the Raptors took a new step forward anyway.
“We’ve done what we’ve done so many times and it hasn’t worked,” said Masai Ujiri in an offseason interview. “That’s the simple answer. We can only try that so much and it just hasn’t worked.”
So that next step? The Raptors lost experienced role players, doubled down on their youth, and relied on the future of sport — analytics. As reported by Michael Grange of Sportsnet, the organization invested in Noahlytics, a system created by John Carter designed to analyze the quality of an individual player’s shot. In effect, it tries to emulate the perfect three point shot through evaluating the ball’s arc, and offer tweaking improvements for next time. It could prove to be an asset for the Raptors, after they ranked 13th in three-point percentage last season, and now sit 26th this season.
Despite that low shooting percentage from deep, the Raptors have acclimated faster than expected. They now sit fifth in the league in attempts from downtown, up from last year’s 24.3 to a respectable 31.9 this season. Much like the Noahlytics concept, it’s about process more than results here. Keep in mind the Raptors are attempting more long distance shots than most (they’re ranked sixth in the league in attempts per game), sinking 11.2 of them per game, 3.4 more threes than last year.
The numbers truly show in their effective field goal percentage (eFG%), a formula evaluating a team’s three point and two point success as a combined percentage. By this math, threes account for a higher percentage as they’re more challenging to make. According to Hollinger Team Statistics, the Raptors own a 53.1 effective field goal percentage, a franchise best since the league first introduced the concept.
And of course, the numbers also translate to the standings. The Raptors are 32-15 through 47 games, tied for their best record at this time in franchise history. With their ability to spread the floor and generate open threes, opposing teams struggle to cover their other potent offensive weapons — namely, the two-man offense of DeRozan and Lowry.
Of course it’s important to note that teams like Warriors and Cavaliers have been using the three ball already, coupled with off-ball movement and passing, to win titles. But the Raps have designed an innovation of their own, and are adapting to the modern game with what looked like a team that had hit its pinnacle in 2016. With the assistance of analytics and some new technology, the Raptors have found a way to push forward.
“We’ve always worked really hard at [our shooting]. But now we’re more organized with it and making it a little more accountable, getting some historical data and seeing what we can learn,” assistant coach Nick Nurse told Sportnet’s Michael Grange.
And with that, the Raptors have thrown mid-range shots out the window. Only 14.5 percent of their shots coming from mid range thus far in comparison to last years 21.1 percent. In addition to that, the Raptors’ three-pointers aren’t coming solely from the kick-out corner threes. They’re actually taking most (73.8%) of their threes from the above the break, executed through offensive fast break transitions and ball movement. And the team hasn’t been shy expressing their reciprocation of their newfound offense.
“The 3-point game is helping us evolve, it’s spacing us out a lot more,” Lowry told TNT’s David Aldridge. “I think it helps with everything — it helps us with spacing, pace, understanding where we all want to be on the floor. And it gives us the confidence to all do it. We all can shoot it without nobody bitching at you. No one cares who shoots the three. We want everybody to be successful.”
The Raptors may appear as a refurbished a team, but the doubts still remain. An organization notorious for its playoff collapses and late-in-game debacles leave more questions than answers. What do we know? The Cavaliers are dropping games and struggling with chemistry issues, while the Celtics seem to be back on earth after a scorching start. Supremacy in the East is still up in the air, but it feels like it might be the Raptors’ to lose. And with amounting pressure, all fingers are pointed towards the red and white to find consistency when it’s crunch time.
“To me, making the playoffs is nothing. That was back in the day,” Ujiri told the National Post. “Now we have to figure out how we can win in the playoffs. That’s the goal.”