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The Raptors and the future of defense in the NBA

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Defense in the NBA continues to evolve. Toronto’s new and improving personnel should help the Raptors thrive.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

In the ever-evolving extravaganza that is the NBA, the only constant is change. With league wide scoring eclipsing 106 points per game (PPG) last season for the first time since 1990-91, many NBA fans believe that defending — like scoring from the post — is becoming a lost art. After all, Golden State and Houston, two of the NBA’s top teams, asserted their dominance by outscoring opponents, primarily using a relentless barrage of three-point shooting. The teams both ranked top-4 in PPG a season ago, and were first and second respectively the season prior.

The Warriors and Rockets are seen as leaders in recent offensive trends (small-ball to space the floor, the elimination of mid-range jump shots, higher volume three-point shooting), brought on by advanced analytics. While their willingness to be at the forefront of change from an offensive standpoint has been widely publicized, they’ve been making equally drastic changes in the way they defend — specifically, the way the defend pick-and-rolls.

In Chris Herring’s piece for FiveThirtyEight, The Warriors And Rockets Have Reinvented Modern NBA Defense. Yes, Defense, he explains Houston defended a screen-and-roll by switching on 1,406 possession chances during the (2017-18) regular season, while Golden State orchestrated 1,075 switches of its own, according to data from Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats. These teams — which more than doubled the switch totals compiled by 20 other squads — were outliers.” It could be said that the offensive progressiveness of these two teams has actually helped conceal their defensive ingenuity.

In a league where a greater number players than ever before can effectively shoot the basketball — with more range than players in the 90s could even dream of — it feels like there is more space on the floor that needs to be covered. In today’s NBA, switching on a screen as opposed to fighting through one is the difference between forcing an extra pass and leaving wide-open three-point attempt. Previously, teams were reluctant to switch in fear of creating mismatches that would benefit the offensive team. As evidenced by Oklahoma City and Cleveland’s defensive approach against Golden State in the 2016 playoffs however, these defensive mismatches can be tolerated if it means limiting ball movement and open shots.

Sam Roditti of ISportsWeb wrote about this tactic in Defensive Switching, the Future of NBA Defense. “The Thunder and the Cavaliers were able to find a defensive strategy that countered the Warriors’ small ball strategy and might be a recipe for other teams to defend small ball lineups,” writes Roditti. “Their defensive strategy included switching everything and blanketing the Warriors shooters’ thereby forcing them to beat the Cavs off the dribble”.

Roditti goes on to add: “Even though this strategy created a lot of mismatches that favored the Warriors, it took them away from their ball movement offense and forced them to go to a more one-on-one based offense and to try to take advantage of mismatches.” Roditti is a big believer that an offense that relies on isolations is a recipe for disaster. “Even if it results in Stephen Curry vs. Kevin Love 20 times a game. This style of offense has proven to be less efficient,” he says. As a result of this defensive game planning, the Thunder were able to take three games from Golden State, and the Cavaliers defeated the Warriors in seven games for their first NBA Championship in 2016.

If high-volume switching is the future of defending in the NBA, why aren’t more teams riding the wave? The answer is simple: few teams are blessed with an abundance of similarly sized, high-level defenders the way Houston and Golden State are. Houston’s ability to switch depended on key personnel including P.J. Tucker, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah A Moute and Clint Capela, all of whom can hold their own against a bigger pivot, or a quicker guard. Golden State’s so-called Death Lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green poses a similar issue for opponents. With the exception of Curry, the members of this lineup range from 6’6” to 6’9” in height, and from roughly 210 lbs to 240 lbs in weight. Combined with quick foot-speed and a longer than average wingspan (at over seven feet), this dynamic defensive quartet was disruptive all season long. The Warriors ranked second in turnovers forced per 100 switches with 2.4, behind only — you guessed it — Houston.

You’re probably wondering where the Toronto Raptors fit into all of this. The simple answer is, they don’t — yet. However, with the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and the subtraction of DeMar DeRozan, they just might. I was able to draw some comparisons between the most dominant defensive lineups commissioned by coaches Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni a season ago, and a potential switch-friendly lineup for Nick Nurse’s Raptors. A unit of Green, Leonard, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam with either Kyle Lowry or Delon Wright at point guard would closely resemble Golden State’s death lineup. Green, Leonard, Anunoby, and Siakam — like the Warriors’ foursome, range between 6’6” and 6’9” in height. Their weights range from 215 lbs and 235 lbs, and their average wingspan is approximately 7’2”, with only Danny Green slipping below seven feet.

Not only are these athletes similar in build, they are among the league’s best individual defensive talents. Here’s OG Anunoby being a proverbial thorn in the side of last year’s MVP.

Siakam guards out in space as well as any ‘big’ in the league right now. His lateral quickness and high defensive motor make him an incredibly unique challenge to attack.

And we can’t forget about the new kids on the block (pun only slightly intended). Here’s a pretty decent sample of how Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green can pose problems for even the game’s best players.

Siakam, Anunoby, Green and Leonard all recorded negative DIFF%’s last year (according to NBA.com), which means players shot below their average when facing off against them. The former Spurs players have made a habit of doing so throughout their careers. On top of that, all three of Toronto’s perspective point guards in such a lineup (Lowry, Wright, and Fred VanVleet), also all managed to hold opponents to lower field goal percentages than their usual. With this defensive presence and versatility, Toronto will be able to switch freely and frequently, defending the three point arc against the most progressive offenses in the game, forcing isolations with less than ideal matchups.

With a progressive minded coach and ideal personnel, the Raptors are poised to improve on their already top-5 defensive rating from a season ago. Perhaps, Toronto’s defense will be what propels Canada’s team to its first ever NBA Finals appearance.