When Nick Nurse took over as Raptors head coach, he stayed with league trends and guided the Raptors towards shooting 3-pointers at a high rate. As the ball swished through the net at a high rate, the wins skyrocketed for Toronto.
That said, there will be new personnel with the Raptors this season, players that can’t necessarily help maintain the high ceiling of a championship-calibre. Also, some of these players are not known as shooters. So then, what offensive scheme can Nurse and the Raptors do?
A Pick-and-Roll Revival
The bedrock of most NBA offenses is the pick-and-roll. To use one example, the Portland Trail Blazers use this play quite effectively. With their two guard combo in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and a big man passer in Jusuf Nurkić, they have shown a fantastic ability at getting open floaters, drives, and pops with just enough space to find success on the offensive end.
The Raptors employ players of similar nature to the Blazers. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Marc Gasol have similar skills and mind-sets (if maybe not the same physical tools). Moreover, Gasol has great vision as a passer. Yet last season, Lowry and VanVleet produced only in the 58 and 39 percentiles as pick and roll ball handlers, according to NBA.com/Stats. Meaning that about 41 percent of the eligible players performed better than Lowry and about 62 percent performed better than VanVleet, respectively. Using just this statistical reference then there’s only one discernible conclusion: That is ugly basketball.
But, of course, using just this statistic doesn’t tell the full story. We know there was another prolific player on the 2018-19 Raptors that garnered a lot more attention than Lowry or VanVleet.
Going backward into seasons prior to last year, Lowry showed an aptitude for success in a pick-and-roll scheme. In 2017-18, his percentile was 72.9 and in 2016-17 it neared the top at 95.1. If you negate Quinn Cook’s performance with the Mavericks in 2016-17, who only played five games in total for them, then Lowry landed in the top ten for his percentile and points per possession at 1.05. Even VanVleet realized a more respectable percentile at 58.1 during the 2017-18 season.
In short, the Raptors relied on the pick-and-roll with the ball in Lowry’s hands. Even in last season’s championship run, Toronto could count on having Serge Ibaka set the pick, and a player (usually Lowry) finding him in his sweet spot at the elbow. The play itself doesn’t derive awe-inspired disbelief from fans, but it was used frequently to quell shooting woes. Ibaka finished last year at 4.1 roll man possessions per game.
Another player that was heavily used in this format was Gasol with Memphis as he led the league with 5.1 roll man possessions per game over 53 games. Gasol’s pick-and-roll possessions diminished when he came to Toronto, likely because he wasn’t as much of a focal point in the offense and needed time to adjust to the stylistic differences over the back third of the season. With the availability of shots having opened up, Gasol and Ibaka should be primed to be more used. And why not? The scheme helped the Raptors reach a high playoff seed before.
Interestingly enough, Pascal Siakam also has a high percentile for the 2018-19 season at a gaudy 96.7. While the frequency of these plays only occurred at 0.8 possessions per game over 80 games, they produced a 1.12 point per possession. There are inklings of stones unturned in a pick-and-roll offense led by Siakam. With better ball-handling and passing vision, the Most Improved Player could expand his growth under this schematic change. This could be a more attainable goal for Siakam rather than spiking his 3-point attempts and hoping for a better percentage, which I discussed earlier in the offseason.
A Passing God: Marc Gasol
Gasol is an aging big man, one that is currently playing for his country in the FIBA World Cup, which may put some extra wear and tear on those old bones. Still, every year it seems we wait for Gasol to bow out as a game-changer and every year we are proven wrong. Of course, Gasol can’t escape Father Time nor the impending hangover of that chugged wine, but I have trouble believing this is the year he comes in washed up.
Because there are more opportunities now for Gasol to fit with the roster, and newfound offensive schemes, there’s a path for him to continue to be a strong passing big man in Toronto, which in turn could extend his career.
Over the course of the season, Gasol averaged 4.4 assists per game which equated to 11.2 points. Among big men sized 6’10” or greater, he placed fifth in terms of assists and points off of them, according to NBA.com/Stats. The players ranked ahead of him consisted of Ben Simmons, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Blake Griffin. Considering all four of those players had a high usage rate in the offense on their respective teams, Gasol quietly made a lot of noise in this aspect of the game.
Gasol’s exemplary vision helps confuse defenses whether in post-up plays or pick-and-roll plays. With the ball being spread more equally, Gasol has the ability to lean into his passing game to create shots more often for other players. But, it will depend on other players finishing the passes that Gasol gives them. Can next year’s Raptors capitalize when given the opportunity?
The Raptors offense will likely go as Gasol’s assist rate goes; if he is below average then a reasonable conclusion will be that the Raptors aren’t hitting their open or semi-contested shots. If Gasol is achieving another respectable assist rate, then it’s safe to assume that the players are hitting the open shots gifted by Gasol and the Raptors’ offense is working.
This type of offense is in a new age, one in which the big men are opening lanes and helping produce more offense for the team as a whole. If Toronto cannot hit these open shots, then Gasol is capable of generating offense in the post by himself — but it’s a less efficient move for him, and it could limit his longevity in the short and long term. In order for Gasol to continue to age gracefully and for the Raptors to succeed, he must lean into his passing and outside shooting.
Sticking with the 3-Pointer
Of course, Nurse can’t abandon the three-point shot entirely, not in today’s NBA. Since it proved to be worthwhile just a season ago, there has to be a belief on the Raptors that the personnel can step up and produce a similar offense.
This would take leaps and bounds from the new additions to the roster. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been a subpar 3-point shooter over the course of his four-year career at 22.3 percent. In addition, neither Stanley Johnson or Cameron Payne strike fear into the hearts of opponents with a 29.3 and 33.1 three-point percent percentage, respectively. Unfortunately, I expect them to stay at the same relative level of years prior.
A potential diamond in the rough is Terence Davis. The guard spent four years at Ole Miss but went undrafted. The Raptors signed him to a two-year contract. With time, Davis could be one of those guards that we look back on and think, “How did this guy get overlooked?” Plus, he has a strong leader to guide him at his first NBA stop in Fred VanVleet, who also went undrafted. In Davis’ last year in college, he shot 37.1 percent from three, which is promising. But, with stiffer competition, growing pains should be expected for the rookie.
Beyond those new additions, could OG Anunoby, VanVleet, or Siakam bolster their 3-point attempts and keep their percentage high? And, will Nurse entrust them to do so at the start of the season? It seems that Nurse is ready to empower these guys to step up:
“I saw Fred [VanVleet] and Pascal the day after [Kawhi left],” Nurse says. “I told them, ‘There are 20-plus shots up for grabs.’ They both grabbed their right shoulders and said, ‘We’re ready.’” — Nick Nurse to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan
Nurse could also potentially entrust Gasol with more pick-and-pop 3-point opportunities or give a similar nod to Ibaka. Gasol certainly is capable and Ibaka is trustworthy in this regard. But, just simply relying on these two seems far-fetched for Toronto’s offense.
Additionally, by unifying the pick-and-roll and 3-point shots, Nurse could link the two to offer more open 3-pointers and off-setting the defense with a pick-and-roll set up. For example, take a look below:
Initially, the play is set up as a pick-and-roll between Delon Wright and Valanciunas with VanVleet offering a back screen to help. Instead, VanVleet cuts his screen short and flies out to the arc where he is wide open.
Essentially, Nurse is stuck between the future of NBA basketball, the 3-point barrage, and the steady play of the past two decades. Much like Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s, he is tasked with replacing offense and defense on cheap deals and developing a scheme that somehow is equivalent to having superstar personnel, which is undoubtedly a tall task. The play above, however, offers an example of just how Nurse can synthesize the two to create an equal opportunity offense.
Nurse helped renegotiate the offense under Dwane Casey and with DeMar DeRozan as the focal point, who was not a fantastic 3-point shooter himself. By using a pick-and-roll offense with a stellar passing big man, the Raptors may have their answer to the potential shooting woes. Likewise, the ability to be bullish on the defensive end can keep games close and avoid rim running battles.
In short, Nurse has a long way to go to recreate the offensive fire that was once ablaze in Toronto. But, with his creative basketball mind and tools that were at his fingertips all along, he can reignite the blaze with a single spark.
It will just look a whole lot different than last season.