The restarted Raptors are still seeking to defend their 2019 NBA title. For our latest series, Things for the Rings, we’ll break down what each essential player on the team (and head coach Nick Nurse) can do to answer the major question on every fan’s mind: What does each Raptor need to do to make a Toronto repeat a reality?
First up, the key player in the Raptors’ rotation who didn’t have a part to play in last year’s championship run.
Thing for the Ring: Be 80 percent of Kawhi Leonard (on defense)
The Raptors had the second best defensive rating in the NBA when the season started, and with Marc Gasol in the lineup they were better at preventing points than the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks.
OG Anunoby has emerged as arguably the Raptors’ best individual defender, with multiple people with more basketball smarts than me talking about him earning All-Defense votes. The numbers back it up: among players who played at least 1,500 minutes, OG is one of seven who put up at least a two-percent steal and block percentage.
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Among players under 6’10”, Anunoby also put up the 15th best DBPM in the league — which measures how much better than average a player is on the defensive side of the court. He’s definitely an elite defensive wing.
If the Raptors are going to credibly defend their title, Anunoby is going to have to be that good, or likely better. And he’s going to have to do it against players like Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and, the biggie, Giannis Antetokounmpo. If Anunoby can’t harass players of that calibre into being less than their peak, the Raptors likely don’t have the offense needed to win.
Can He Do It?
Last season, Kawhi Leonard was the key piece when the Raptors ‘walled off’ Giannis. Leonard was strong enough to stand up to Antetokounmpo’s bully ball game, quick enough to stay in front of him, and savvy enough to give Giannis just enough space to always think about shooting, without giving him enough space to do it comfortably.
Kawhi also memorably tormented Ben Simmons to such a degree that the Sixers point guard posted a close to 1:1 assist to turnover ratio when guarded by Leonard. Fun times.
Can OG be that effective? Well, Anunoby measures up well in some ways to his predecessor, literally. He’s listed at 6’7”, 232 pounds with a 7’2” wingspan. Kawhi Leonard, we’re told, walks around at 6’7”, 225 pounds with a 7’3” wingspan. He has the strength and size to stay with a player like Giannis and other big wings of that type. Anunoby also has the disposition needed to keep laser focus for 30-plus minutes a night. That icy demeanour of his counts for a lot too.
It helps OG that defense will be his job. Even as Nick Nurse has said he wants to give Anunoby more time on the ball during the restart, OG will have limited responsibilities on that end, freeing up the majority of his energy to make his opponents’ lives hell.
Chances of It Happening: 6 out of 10
Anunoby is not the basketball savant Leonard is on defense. He doesn’t have Kawhi’s anticipation, and while OG’s hands are quick, they’re not at Leonard’s level. Still, few are, and Anunoby doesn’t need to be as good as Leonard for the Raptors to be good enough defensively.
This is where OG missing last year’s playoffs hurt. Anunoby has never played important minutes in a competitive series — neither of the Raps 2017-18 tilts were exactly nail-biters. (Though OG’s efforts in Game 3 against Cleveland will never be forgotten.) Will OG need time to figure out how to play at a consistent elite level in the post-season? Toronto probably doesn’t have the time for him to do that — especially if they slip from the number two seed.