If you ever played high school basketball you probably remember your coaching yelling at you or one of your teammates to get in the paint and grab a rebound. At the very least your coach probably just wanted some effort on the offensive glass. Well these days, some NBA teams have asked for exactly the opposite of that from their players and it’s become an issue for the Toronto Raptors this season.
Since the hiring of head coach Nick Nurse in 2018, the Raptors have been one of the NBA’s best transition teams. Their defence is predicated on forcing turnovers, getting stops, and then immediately getting out in transition to generate offence.
In 2018-19 the Raptors got out in transition on 34.2% of their live-ball defensive rebounds and generated an NBA leading 2.7 points per 100 transition possessions off live-ball defensive rebounds, according to Cleaning the Glass. The following season, in 2019-20, the Raptors once again generated an NBA best 1.9 points per 100 transition possession off live-ball defensive rebounds, per Cleaning the Glass.
This season, however, the Raptors’ transition offence has taken a massive step back. While they’re still generating transition opportunities on 33.9% of their live-ball defensive rebounds — the third-most in the NBA — they’re only creating 1 point per 100 transition possession off those plays, the 18th best in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass.
The problem for the Raptors is twofold. For one, teams have figured out Toronto’s gameplan and adapted. On Saturday night the Atlanta Hawks — one of the NBA’s best offensive rebounding teams — almost completely abandoned the offensive glass.
The Hawks didn’t miss very many shots on Saturday, shooting 56.8% from the floor and 52.8% from 3-point range, but when they did, they repeatedly vacated the offensive zone and immediately started getting back to set up their defence.
While scoring wasn’t necessarily the problem for the Raptors who scored 121 points, their transition offence was dreadful against Atlanta. Toronto tried to get going in transition on 45.8% of their live-ball defensive reboundings and actually cost themselves 1.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Essentially, their effort to score quickly off live-ball defensive rebounds was detrimental to the team’s performance.
Then there’s the other part of the equation: finishing. The Raptors have struggled mightily to finish their transition opportunities this season. They rank 30th in the NBA in FG% at the rim in transition, per Cleaning the Glass. Their 63.5% shooting at the rim in transition isn’t just bad, it’s dreadful. It’s almost 3.5 points worse than the Detroit Pistons who ranks 29th in the league, shooting 66.9% at the rim in transition, according to Cleaning the Glass.
“It seemed like every time we were there to get right back [in the game], we blew a layup at the rim. Some of those were in transition as well,” Nurse said of Saturday night’s loss to the Hawks. “Make good hard drives and they looked like good shots, too, they were just rolling off.”
While some of it might just be bad luck, it can’t all be unlucky bounces.
“We’ve just gotta be stronger, we’ve gotta run wider and harder and finish better at the rim and get to the rim first instead of looking for the kick-out 3s,” Fred VanVleet said. “So it’s something that we’ve gotta continue to get better at.”
Over the past couple of seasons, the Raptors have been able to paper over their half-court issues thanks to an elite transition offence. But if their transition offence isn’t quite up to snuff this season, Toronto might have to adapt or risk falling into the rut that plagued them to start the year.