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How the midrange game is rejuvenating Toronto’s offense

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With the Raptors grinding out wins, they’ve lately rediscovered a bit of the court that isn’t used as much in the NBA these days: the midrange.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

To say the Toronto Raptors had a substandard start is an understatement. Despite even the quality of their defense, their unimaginative offense held them to a 2-8 start. Like most teams in the NBA now, coach Nick Nurse has his offense playing in a manner that avoids taking shots in the obscure area of basketball, the midrange. In fact, he made that crystal clear in his book: “The most crucial aspect of the shot spectrum is the shot I do not want you to take, the midrange jump shot.”

Nurse has stayed true to that quote since the day he took over as head coach in Toronto. Last season in 2019-20, the Raptors had the second least shots from midrange, and in 2018-19 they ranked 18th in the league. That jump mostly came about because Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Kawhi Leonard took more than 30 percent of their shots from the midrange.

This season is a bit more complex when it comes to their midrange shooting. On one hand, it seems like mixing in midrange shots has been part of the Raptors’ success, rejuvenating an offense that was flat to begin with. But Toronto is still among the bottom three in the frequency of midrange shots taken.

Still, that midrange number is increasing because of the flexibility Nurse has granted his top scorers — Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, and Norman Powell. The reason the Raptors still rank among the bottom three is that none of these players — besides Siakam, if you can believe that — were ever prolific from the midrange to begin with. VanVleet’s strengths are in his three-point shot, Powell is a slasher who gets 80 percent of his points from three or at the rim, and Lowry makes the most of his shots from three or driving to the rim as well.

Nonetheless, Toronto is taking more midrange jump shots so far. VanVleet already has more midrange shots than he had all last season — 138 attempts compared to 129. Siakam is reducing the number of threes he’s taking to take more midrange shots at a higher rate. Lowry and Powell have increased their midrange attempts by a modest six and four percent, respectively.

The Raptors started the season with an awful 2-8 record in the first three weeks of the season. But as the offense has opened up, Toronto’s record has improved:

  • In 2-8 start: Six games in which they shot less than 19 percent of their shots from midrange;
  • Record since (14-9 record): Only four games where they shot less than 19 percent of their shots from midrange

Additionally, the Raptors own an 8-4 record when they shoot at least 25 percent of their shots from midrange.

Now, I’m not at all suggesting that midrange is the key to winning, but it certainly is a component. It opens up more options for the Raptors, and perhaps helps Toronto’s top players find easier ways to get points. In that spirit, let’s look at the team’s top two scorers more closely, VanVleet and Siakam, and see how they’ve unlocked a new level to their game.

Fewer Threes, More Shots Inside the Arc for Siakam

I wrote a piece a couple weeks back about how Siakam has been playing the best basketball of his career. A large reason for that has been his effectiveness from the midrange. Below is the accuracy of his shots from the respective areas:

  • Long midrange (14 ft to 3pt line): 43 percent
  • Floater area (4-14 ft): 40 percent

There are two areas Siakam has improved on significantly from last season — he shot 35 percent and 34 percent from the floater and long midrange area, respectively, in 2019-20. Siakam is now taking these shots at the same rate he is going to the rim.

Remember January 29? It was probably just another cold day for most of us, but for Siakam, it’s an important date to remember. That was the day he shifted his play-style fully to his strengths this season. He played the Kings and exploded for 32 points and attempted only one three. Since then, Siakam has been taking fewer threes and playing the best basketball since the beginning of last season. Siakam went from averaging 18.1 points on a 44.1 field goal rate to averaging 23.4 points on 45.3 percent efficiency.

Coupled with more midrange shots, Siakam has been going to post-ups more often. And he’s been the best he’s every been from there, hanging around the league’s best in points per post possession (11th) and effective field goal rate (6th). Siakam’s face-up game on top of the key has also been solid and with players sagging off him to prepare for the drive. He is comfortable with launching a 16-footer — and I don’t know about you, but I too am comfortable when he shoots from there.

You know what else brings us comfort? VanVleet shooting threes. And yes, we can add the midrange to that list of comforting things.

VanVleet is More Confident With the Ball in His Hands

VanVleet is playing the best basketball of his career and is one of many Eastern Conference snubs for the All-Star game. Part of his great year is the willingness to take shots from anywhere on the court, an element that has brought his game to the next level.

How many times in the past did we wach VanVleet overdribbling and failing to produce anything positive? Far too many times — and a big part of that was because he didn’t even take a coup d’oeil at the rim. He was far too concerned with finding an opening at the rim or looking for an open shooter.

In 2019-20, only 17 percent of Fred VanVleet’s shots were in the midrange area, and made with not so great efficiency.

  • Long midrange (14 ft to 3pt line): 32 percent
  • Floater area (4-14 ft): 19 percent

The midrange was an afterthought for VanVleet, and it was a part of his game that had yet to evolve until this year. VanVleet shoots 27 percent of his shots from midrange now.

  • Long midrange (14 ft to 3pt line): 41 percent
  • Floater area (4-14 ft): 37 percent

Similar to Siakam, VanVleet has been a lot more open to the midrange shot. But unlike Siakam, VanVleet’s shot diet has altered the opposite way. He isn’t taking fewer threes, in fact, he has cut a large portion of his shots that were usually at the rim.

  • Frequency of shots at the rim in 2019-20: 38 percent
  • Frequency of shots at the rim 2020-21: 24 percent

A 14 percent change is no small amount. That’s a complete change in play-style and one that has worked for the better for VanVleet who hasn’t really improved around the rim. Instead of taking high-risk and high degree of difficulty lay-ups, VanVleet has found others ways to score from the midrange. And what’s more, the number of possessions where we see VanVleet dribble around the half-court to achieve nothing has also declined.

VanVleet’s openness to taking midrange jump shots has increased his decision-making profoundly when he has the ball in his hands. If he isn’t driving to kick-out (another skill he has improved dramatically this year), then he is ready to take an open midrange jump shot if the defender gives him space — or, yes, drive to the rim if the lane is open. In all, an area of neglect turned into an area of focus for a player that deserved an All-Star selection.

It is no surprise that Siakam, VanVleet, and even Norman Powell are having the years they are having. When Leonard, Gasol and Ibaka departed, it left the Raptors with huge holes in their offense — particularly inside the arc. They have done what they can to fill that void and replace that production by giving the team’s current players more room to score from.

Nick Nurse may not love the midrange but giving his top scorers the leeway to score from where they want has certainly brought life to what was a dire situation for the Raptors.