Defence doesn’t win championships.
At least not on its own.
While the Toronto Raptors have honourably defended their title, they’ve done so largely on the back of a defence which has consistently proven to be one of the NBA’s best since the very beginning of the season.
Despite losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors have barely missed a beat on the defensive end as multiple players have valiantly put forth career years that should warrant All-Defence consideration. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol could each legitimately make an argument, which makes the Raptors perhaps the deepest team in recent memory.
They get it done with crisp rotations, constant communication, unwavering effort and brilliant schemes which our own Scott Rafferty expertly laid out earlier this season when showing how three rotations in seven seconds illustrates the Raptors at their best. There’s not a team in the league who more readily and stylistically embodies their namesake as the defending champs truly do move as a surgical, coordinated pack of Raptors that always seem to be on the same page.
Unfortunately, that likely won’t be good enough.
To win big in the NBA you need fireworks. You need pizzazz. You need to pack some seriously efficient punch. You can’t just bob and weave en route to hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Entering the restart in Orlando on July 30, the Raptors rank 12th in offensive efficiency. And while it’s certainly solid, recent NBA history suggests that solid offensive teams aren’t true title threats.
Each of the last 18 teams to reach the NBA Finals ranked inside the top 10 in offensive efficiency. To find the last team to buck that trend you have to go all the way back to 2010 when both the Los Angeles Lakers (11th) and Boston Celtics (15th) made it without top-10 units. And even those offences – led by Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce – rolled with considerably more ammunition than these Raptors and could certainly get buckets when called upon.
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Perhaps more concerning than the mere fact that the Raptors rank 12th is the manner in which they’ve gone about it.
Toronto has simply found a way the entire season.
Through the departure of two starters and through a multitude of injuries, they’ve had to scratch and claw for everything, which means finding ways to squeeze out every last ounce.
One of the ways this has manifested itself is in the open floor where the Raptors have been among the NBA’s most opportunistic teams the whole season. They rank first in the NBA in fastbreak points per game with Lowry and VanVleet actively searching for any and all opportunities to force the issue. The Raptors have four players – Siakam (5th), Lowry (T-8th), Norman Powell (T-8th) and VanVleet (14th) – that rank among the top 15 in fastbreak scoring. The only other team in the NBA with even two players who rank among the top 15 is the New Orleans Pelicans with Zion Williamson (6th) and Brandon Ingram (15th). VanVleet, who ranks fourth on the Raptors, would rank first on 19 other teams.
What happens when the game slows down and teams display more discipline in getting back on D to limit those precious opportunities? What happens when the intensity and focus pick up with players less prone to the mental lapses that lead to so many easy fastbreak chances?
That’s when the Raptors will need to execute in the half-court, something they’ve at times struggled to do all season.
There’s no shortage of times this tends to crop up.
Part of what has made Toronto’s rousing 2019-20 campaign has been the degree to which its succeeded by committee. The Raptors have relied on championship experience, a deep stable of shooters and an admirable next-man-up mentality which has all worked regular-season wonders and put them in the best possible chance to reach their peak. It’s one of the plethora of reasons why our Carlan Gay recently opined for Nick Nurse to handily take home the Coach of the Year.
The Raptors will not beat themselves and they’ll prove a tough out down in the Orlando bubble. But unlike the Western Conference where the Clippers look like every bit as much of a title threat as the top-seeded Lakers, these Raptors don’t appear to be on the same plane as the Bucks.
Perhaps the best thing going for the Raptors is the unprecedented degree of uncertainty at play with more variables than ever before. That alone increases the chances of a heavy favourite stumbling, which lends itself to the prepared and opportunistic bunch ready to seize upon any doors left cracked open.
Perhaps that’s just what the Raptors need to pull off the repeat.
Just don’t count on it.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.