Basketball Insiders continues its annual Fixing series by taking a look at teams around the league. So far, we have covered the Washington Wizards and Minnesota Timberwolves. Today, we’ll be looking at the Toronto Raptors, who are calling Tampa Bay home this season.
With the first three weeks of the 2020-21 NBA regular season in the books, teams are still trying to get a grasp on how all of their pieces fit together. While many teams have struggled out of the gate, the Raptors appear to be stuck in the mud.
It was less than two years ago that Toronto sat on top of the basketball world, capturing an NBA Finals championship over the Golden State Warriors. Everything seemed to be going their way, from their rookie head coach to Kawhi Leonard’s epic bounce around the rim against the Philadelphia 76ers. But it has all gone south – quite literally – since they entered the “bubble” in Orlando.
So, what have the Raptors done right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?
Not much has gone right for the Raptors this season, but they do have a few bright spots to acknowledge – and one of those is the emergence of Chris Boucher. The former Oregon Duck celebrated his 28th birthday on Monday and has played very well this season. He had a monster game against the San Antonio Spurs, scoring 22 points, with 10 rebounds and seven blocks. But those numbers don’t really tell the story of his value to this team.
The only positive lineups per 100 possessions for the Raptors are the ones with Boucher in it. He is an elite rim protector, a versatile defender and can knock down the occasional three-pointer. Boucher shines in the paint as opposing teams shoot 15.1 percent worse around the rim when he is on the floor.
Another aspect that seems to be working for Nick Nurse’s team is the culture and leadership they have displayed. Third quarters have been the Achilles’ heel for this team, but they don’t simply wave the white flag. They always fight and claw their way back late in games, which is a double-edged sword. Great that they have the resolve and effort to come back, but putting themselves in that situation and running out of gas in the final minutes has obviously hurt them.
Elsewhere, Fred VanVleet signed a four-year, $85 million contract this offseason. Often there can be some regression after a player cashes in on a new deal, but Steady Freddy has been shooting the ball very well this season. VanVleet’s scoring is up nearly five points per game while his overall field goal percentage is up about five percent as well. Beyond that, the guard is still shooting 40 percent from deep and finishing better at the rim, but it hasn’t translated to wins.
What Isn’t Working?
The list is long, but it begins with their defense. This has been the staple for Toronto in the last few seasons, however, currently, it is nonexistent. Through their first nine games, the Raptors rank 18th in defensive rating, 18th in offensive rating and are 18th in net rating. Last year, Toronto gave up the lowest three-point shooting percentage to their opponents; so far this campaign, teams are shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc against them. Even when teams miss shots, they can’t secure the rebound – worse, their leading rebounder in three of the first six games was either Kyle Lowry or VanVleet.
A large part of the rebounding problem eludes to arguably their biggest issue – the frontcourt. The losses of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have weighed heavy on this team. Their replacements, Aron Baynes and Alex Len, have been of little to no help. Baynes is a -18.3 in team point differential, which is easily the worst among their starters. Even more troubling, he has not been knocking down his open three-point shots, making just three of his 16 attempts.
Sliding Baynes to the second unit might not be the simple fix and, overall, their bench as a whole has been atrocious. Toronto is reluctant to count upon unproven players like Matt Thomas, Malachi Flynn, Stanley Johnson and Terence Davis to play larger roles. Norman Powell has not shown any progression and may still be out of shape. As a unit, they are also fouling too much and only the Wizards and Warriors have committed more fouls this season.
Offensively, the Raptors have struggled to create space in their transition game, a part of the game where they have traditionally thrived. Their half-court offense has been exposed, especially when Lowry is on the bench. Toronto’s points per 100 possessions is around 108 with Lowry on the floor but crumbles to just 81.4 with him off. VanVleet is a decent passer when it comes to finding the open man, but his inability to make pocket passes or lobs in the pick-and-roll has crippled their offense.
One final issue is the biggest elephant in the room: Pascal Siakam simply hasn’t been the same player since the league stoppage last March. After earning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and emerging as a key piece on a championship-winning team, Siakam has been a shell of himself lately. His shooting percentage dropped six percent in the playoffs and he was scoring six points less per game.
Many teams have put smaller defenders on Siakam to negate his quick speed advantages – but he needs to be more of a playmaker like Gasol was. This is especially true when Lowry is not on the floor. Getting him opportunities in transition, where he has always excelled, will be key for Toronto’s turnaround.
What Needs To Change?
If you listen closely, you can hear the echoes of Raptors fans calling for Nurse to start Boucher. He appears to be the flame that could ignite this team and get them out of their funk. They will need his production on offense and, more importantly, his defensive prowess as they enter a tough stretch in their schedule. Over their next eight games, they’ll face the Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks and have two games each against the Charlotte Hornets, Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers.
Their next five games are at home but that is a relative term considering their temporary home in Florida.
Another lineup change that Nurse could consider is to play more small ball. They are already a poor rebounding team, so playing OG Anunoby at the four and Siakam at the five might resurrect their transition game. Finding the right fit at small forward could be a real task, considering the lack of size they have already with Lowry and VanVleet at the guard positions. Still, if things don’t improve soon, this could be something worth trying.
Focus Area: Trades/Free Agents
It is extremely likely that this roster as currently constructed will not be the same roster by the end of the season, especially if their slide continues. The trade deadline looms on Mar. 25 and there are still some talented free agents looking for a home. If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that Masai Ujiri is not afraid to shake up the roster with a deal.
Would it be worthwhile to bring in a shooter like Kyle Korver to spread the floor? He is a solid veteran that knows his role and would fit in well with the Raptors’ culture. Another name to consider is Shabazz Napier. Of course, Nurse is used to working with smaller guards that excel in the right role. Having been a backup for most of his career, Napier would be a fantastic point guard off the bench with his speed and court vision generating offense.
If Toronto explores trade scenarios, there are a few names that come to mind. Patty Mills could be a low-cost option at backup point guard, should the Spurs be willing to let him go. Myles Turner’s name has been in trade talks for some time, but he’s currently swatting a league-leading four blocks per game. Nate Bjorkgren, the new head coach of the Pacers, used to be an assistant with the Raptors and may be keen on a deal that lands him some of his former players. A deal like that could improve their frontcourt if that is what they want to address.
If they want to infuse some offense and creative playmaking on their bench unit, the Raptors should make a call to the Pistons. Bringing in a guy like Derrick Rose makes almost too much sense, immediately elevating the second unit with scoring and shot creation – plus, Toronto probably wouldn’t have to give up any valuable assets. A deal involving Patrick McCaw, Davis and some second-round draft picks might suffice the rebuilding Pistons, who already have their point guard of the future in rookie Killian Hayes.
The Raptors haven’t missed the playoffs since 2013 – but they currently have a 2-8 record, tied with Detroit for the worst in the league. While it is not time to hit the panic button just yet, Toronto fans should be prepared to break the glass, in case of emergency.