The defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors have started their season strong, posting a record of four wins and two defeats. However, this quick start may be masking some important weaknesses that need to be addressed if they truly want to compete in the Eastern Conference.
One of the keys to this early season success — and it is very early on — has been the Raps’ impressive success from beyond the arc despite losing their best three point shooter from a year ago in Danny Green. Last season he ranked second in the league in 3-point percentage, converting a remarkable 45.5 percent of his 435 attempts during the regular season. Despite this significant loss, Toronto has not skipped a beat from distance. They are attempting the sixth most shots from beyond the arc at a clip of 36.7 attempts per game. And they’re converting them at a solid 38.6 percent, which ranks them fourth league-wide.
This early success from beyond the arc is due mainly to Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. The trio is shooting more than half of the Raptors’ threes, converting at an above league average rate of 40.3 percent. This red-hot start to the season from deep may prove to be an unsustainable formula for the Raptors. Lowry, FVV and, in particular, Siakam are all shooting a career-high volume of threes per game. For Siakam, during the early stages of this season, he’s doubled his three attempts per game (5.5) from last season (2.7), converting on 42.4 percent — which leads the Raptors. It’s possible this holds up, but putting the burden on just three guys to produce such a heavy load from beyond the arc is troubling. Sure, Golden State could get away with it during the Kevin Durant era — but they had three of the best shooters of all time.
Another early season issue for the Raptors despite shooting well from deep is that Toronto ranks very low in total field goal attempts. In five of their first six games, they’ve been out-shot by their opponent with a differential of -56. That means on average, opponents take 9.3 shots more per game than the defending champions. Why is this happening? There are two main reasons: the high number of turnovers and poor rebounding of the ball. As a result Toronto is getting seriously outshot almost every game.
The elephant in the room for this season was always going to be how the defending champs could succeed without Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard? The answer is not a simple one as it’s not easy for a team to replace a superstar who dominated with 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. That led the Raptors to run an offense revolving around Kawhi in an iso-focused scheme. But Toronto can’t operate like that anymore without a Kawhi-type player. Siakam’s the closest they’ve got, but he’s different — at least so far.
By losing one of their most prominent ball handlers without adding a significant player to fill that void, it has placed much more pressure on Lowry and now starter VanVleet to take care of the ball-handling. Both guards are playing a career-highs in minutes per game. They are also turning the ball over more than ever, coughing it up 18.3 times per game, ranking them 25th in the league. Siakam has to shoulder part of the blame in regards to turnovers, averaging three a game. This year, these miscues are proving decisive, turning into almost guaranteed points for the opposition. Toronto’s 110 turnovers have been converted into 134 points by Raps’ opponents. Conversely, the Raps have only forced 92 turnovers, scoring 86 points off of them. This negative point differential from points off turnovers has really haunted Toronto, and if it continues to persist the team will struggle to emerge as a legitimate contender.
Another important stat that jumps off the page this season is the number of offensive rebounds the Raptors are conceding to their rivals — a staggering 13.0 per game, tops in the league, with a defensive rebounding percentage firmly in the middle of the pack at 16th in the league. Against Boston and Milwaukee, the Raptors were offensively outrebounded an alarming 31 to 12. Again, this is not the type of trend a team with championship aspirations should aim for.
A prime example of the cumulative impact of these two factors was in full display in Milwaukee during the first quarter of Saturday’s game. Toronto was down 36-17 after a disastrous first 15 minutes dominated by sloppy turnovers and multiple offensive boards by the home side. The Raps’ five turnovers directly fueled 10 Milwaukee points. The Bucks tacked on another five points from two offensive boards. As a result, Toronto was outscored 15 points to nil based on chances created by turnovers and offensive rebounds combined. This brand of basketball might work against mediocre opposition, but it certainly will not be a winning formula against the best in the East: Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
Luckily for Toronto, it is still very early in the season. If Masai Ujiri decides to stay put and make this team a legitimate contender again, he is likely two players short. Their current rotation is small with the starting five plus Serge Ibaka playing 1,168 minutes out of a possible 1,465 so far this season. This top-heavy approach to minutes played will be next to impossible to sustain for 82 games. Adding a couple of specific key contributors off the bench could help coach Nick Nurse balance the minutes much more evenly.
The first addition would be a veteran ball handler who can ideally hit the three. It isn’t crucial that this player be a shooter, but he must be capable of running the offense effectively while taking care of the ball. This would remove some of the physical and psychological burden from Lowry and FVV. Plus, it would allow Norman Powell to play his more natural role of slasher instead of being responsible for second unit ball handling.
So far it looks as though Toronto is turning to Patrick McCaw to fill this role, but he’s out indefinitely. The next two candidates are rookies Terence Davis, who could work given time, and Matt Thomas, who is better as an off-ball shooter. Ironically an ideal option would be a player like Delon Wright, part of last season’s Marc Gasol trade, though that ship has sailed. An Elfrid Payton-type player, who has averaged 6.5 assists throughout his career, might be a more realistic possibility.
The second addition to consider should be a reserve big man who can rebound. Much is being expected of Gasol and Ibaka on the boards. But with both veterans north of 30 years old, and with little support from the other reserve big men, undersized Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, that’s a big ask over a full season. Perhaps another veteran such as Dewayne Dedmon, who could be available in Sacramento, would be a nice fit. He’s averaged 6.0 rebounds throughout his career and is a solid defensive presence in the paint. He can also stretch the floor. Perhaps it’s pie-in-the-sky thinking, but the Raptors may want to kick the tires for players of Dedmon’s type if they’re serious about making another playoff push.
There is no reason to devalue Toronto’s positive start. However, it seems clear only a few weeks into the campaign that turnover and rebounding are major issues. The team needs depth help because the wafer rotation is thin. One injury to a starter could imperil the season dramatically — just look how serious that McCaw injury may turn out to be. With the type of role players the Raps need to reinforce their rotation, expect Masai to start working the phones in the months to come.