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The Raptors are trying to maintain their defensive identity — but can it work?

While a title defense remains unlikely, Toronto is doubling down on their biggest post-season strength: their on-court defense.

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NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing can make up for losing an all-world talent like Kawhi Leonard. Especially not for a capped-out team who had to wait out the first week of free agency for their (former) star player’s decision.

The expected outcome for the Toronto Raptors is to be a middle-of-the-pack playoff team, one that team president Masai Ujiri will feel no guilt about weakening if he can find homes for his three largest expiring contracts: Kyle Lowry ($33.3m), Marc Gasol ($25.9m), and Serge Ibaka ($23.3m).

There are reasons to think all three will be plying their trade elsewhere by the deadline, but also reasons to believe they won’t. Blake Murphy of the The Athletic did a nice job breaking down the whys, but it comes down to a simple reason: all three players likely make more money than they provide on-court value. That means, to trade them the Raps may be forced to either attach assets, or, more likely, absorb multi-year contracts that would eat into future flexibility. That’s something Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster have little appetite for. (That didn’t stop us from examining some possible trade scenarios though.)

It’s possible the Raptors might just see two, or maybe all three of Gasol, Lowry and Ibaka on their roster heading into the 2020 playoffs. If so, Ujiri and Webster have decided to use this off-season to leverage the one undoubted strength their roster has to make a title defense —or, well, to make their opponents as uncomfortable as possible.

The Raptors enter 2019-20 as a team with a number of questions: Do they have enough ball handlers? Can enough players pressure the opponent’s rim in the half-court? Can they shoot enough? Can Pascal Siakam grow into a consistent late game closer?

The one question nobody is asking: Can the Raptors unleash holy hell against opposing offenses? The answer there is undoubtedly yes.

Doing it on Defense

Def. Rating Opp. Avg Rating Difference
Def. Rating Opp. Avg Rating Difference
Regular Season: 106.8 109.7 -2.9
Vs Orl: 95.8 108.2 -12.4
Vs Pha: 103.7 111.6 -7.9
Vs Mil: 106.3 113.5 -7.2
Vs GSW: 109.3 115 -5.7

Defenses routinely get tougher in the playoffs, but the average defensive rating in last year’s post-season was 108.8 — meaning that, on average, NBA offenses only lost about a point off their regular season totals.

As you can see, the Raptors easily, and comprehensively, outperformed that improvement. The Raptors defense, alongside Leonard’s individual brilliance and Kyle Lowry’s do-everything game were the continual constants that allowed Toronto to claim its first ever title.

By signing Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Ujiri and Webster have decided to double down on that strength. Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson are extremely unlikely to be key parts of even a slightly-above average offense, but both of them are big, intelligent and willing defenders. And both of them do it at the place of most importance in the modern NBA — on the wing.

Johnson is 6’7” with a 7-ft wingspan. Hollis-Jefferson is also 6’7” with a 7-2 wingspan. Defensive stats are messy and teammate dependent, but there is ample evidence that both are border-line elite defenders. Johnson has never posted a defensive rating worse than 105.2, with steal rates that are just shy of elite for a wing.

Hollis-Jefferson’s numbers, meanwhile, have been much more inconsistent, ranging from a high (bad) of 109.6 to a low (good) of 102.1, he’s also posted solid steal and block numbers in his career.

The problem is that while Hollis-Jefferson has enough off-the-bounce skills, and good enough cutting ability to post mediocre true shooting (TS%) numbers, Johnson has so far proven to be a complete and utter disaster on that end of the floor. He can’t shoot from anywhere, really, and his play-making is still mostly theoretical (although he was considered a decent play-maker for a wing out of college). Johnson is the sort of player opposing defenses ignore completely — and that’s in the regular season.

Still, you can see what the Raptors’ brain trust is doing here. Shooting and off-the-bounce creativity demand top-dollar — very good to excellent defense can be had for much less.

Any lineup combinations of Gasol-Ibaka-Siakam-OG Anunoby-Hollis-Jefferson-Johnson-Lowry-Fred VanVleet-Norman Powell are going to be nightmares for opponents on defense. The ability to switch almost every action with instinctual defenders at every position on the floor will give the Raps a clear identity: get stops, then run.

If either Johnson or Hollis-Jefferson can goose their shooting even to the low 30-percent range (no sure thing), then the Raps might have just enough offense in the half-court to keep one of them on the floor in the playoffs — or, against huge, but non-shooting teams like Philly, both for short spurts. Both players also have the reputation of being good transition defenders — an important factor for a Raptors team that’s likely going to miss more than their fair share of shots.

The other interesting thing here is to see how coach Nick Nurse reacts to this lineup. Nurse made his bones as an offensive genius who pushed pace-and-space to the far reaches in the then-D-League. But he built a pretty impeccable defense this past post-season too. Can Nurse find ways to squeeze more offense than you’d think out of this group? Does he secretly have a mad-scientist brain on defense that he’s about to unleash? If nothing else, you have to feel that his coach’s brain is going to relish the opportunity to solve for a totally different problem this year.

It’s likely not going to be pretty (on offense), but the Raptors seem to have created a clear identity for 2019-20 — and it’s one they can afford, monetarily, to pursue this year.

Now, both Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson could easily be flipped in a trade, and it’s still fair to wonder if Ujiri values any sort of playoff run at the cost of future assets, but if the Raptors do bring most, or all, of this veteran laden team to defend their title they won’t go out quietly. Instead, they’ll go out on their shield — likely with a good chunk of their opponent’s blood on their swords.