Trust is something most people associate with intimate relationships more than a basketball team’s ability to execute on the defensive end of the floor. But in both scenarios, it's an essential characteristic.
The Toronto Raptors have three of the best one-on-one defenders in the league when fully healthy and locked in in Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam (who has been a step slow coming off an extended injury absence). Plus, Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa are not far behind in their ability to stay in front of their man and/or recover at the rim when focused on their assignment.
Overall, the Raptors have a lot of good defensive players and an identity built around length and strength, but after starting the season with a top-10 defence and a five-game winning streak, the Raptors have lost five of their last six games in large part due to having the league’s worst defence over that stretch. They've allowed the most points per possession and the highest effective field-goal percentage in the league since their loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Nov. 5.
This disappointing stretch of basketball has proved that at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how many gifted individual defenders a team has if they can’t play together on a string, understanding each others’ tendencies and executing the system they’re being asked to play. And for a Raptors team that underwent a lot of changes this offseason and has been bitten by the injury bug early in the season, that lack of defensive chemistry and trust is hurting them.
One example: defensive rebounding. Unlike last season, the Raptors started the 2021-22 campaign with an emphasis on the glass. It came on both sides of the floor, with their league-leading offensive rebounding percentage of 33.5 continuing to help fuel an offence that wins the possession battle most nights and their defensive rebounding hovering around league average for most of the season, which was all you could really ask for given the lack of a seven-footer on the roster.
However, since Siakam returned to the rotation and the Raptors lost Achiuwa to right shoulder tendinitis shortly afterwards, they have played a lot of smaller lineups with neither Achiuwa or Khem Birch — the only two centres on the entire roster — on the floor. In their 134 minutes without either centre this season, the Raptors are grabbing just 63.9 percent of the defensive boards, a number that would fall well short of the Minnesota Timberwolves' 30th-ranked defensive rebounding rate of 67.1 percent.
That forces the Raptors to play more defensive possessions and give up more second-chance points, which is perhaps part of the reason the starters’ play has tapered off as the games go on. In fact, the Raptors are simply better defensively when Achiuwa or Birch is on the floor, with the team giving up 3.8 and 0.7 fewer points per 100 possessions, respectively.
The Raptors' new starting lineup of VanVleet-Gary Trent Jr.-Anunoby-Barnes-Siakam is not only rebounding poorly on both ends — hurting their ability to win the possession battle — they are also giving up the worst kinds of shots that a defence can: corner threes and looks at the rim.
Without a traditional rim protector and an unfamiliarity playing together as a five-man unit, the small-ball Raptors have been slow to rotate over and cover for their aggressive defensive scheme as they increasingly pressure star players and live with role players having their way against them. Twenty-one percent of opponent shots have come from the corners — a mark that would be by far the worst in NBA history. While that group has actually been blessed with some three-point shooting luck, with opponents shooting just 30.6 percent from three against them, that same lineup is allowing 27.1 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, where teams are shooting a blistering 70.8 percent.
“When you play good teams … it’s tough to consistently trap or have pressure,” Siakam said about the defence. “There are gonna be drives, and there is gonna be help (we need to provide). If other people are making shots, then all of a sudden, it looks like we’re playing bad defence. But the way we play dictates it. If we (use) ball pressure, a good player in the league is gonna drive [past] you, we’re gonna help and somebody’s gonna be open for a shot.
“We’ve got to contest it harder, probably. That’s what it is.”
That last point is crucial. As much as the Raptors' aggressive scheme (where they help off the corners to provide additional rim protection) and rotations (where Birch is still not playing with the starters) have been fairly criticized, a lot of defence comes down to razor-thin margins in the NBA. And for as much attention as one single blown coverage gets, there are at least five more plays where the Raptors are just a half-step slow to rotate to the rim or to contest a shot on the perimeter, ending in a bucket.
Here, for example, Dalano Banton leans one way instead of the other, halting his momentum as he stumbles and runs out to contest a three-point shot a step late.
The lack of chemistry and trust is evident when an off-ball defender pinches in to help when they should instead trust their teammates' ability to defend the action one-on-one, which takes understanding the capabilities of both the offensive and defensive players and making a split-second decision in real time, which Trent and Barnes both get wrong below.
“It’s a game plan, it’s who’s got the ball, it’s who’s spacing the floor, there’s a lot of factors flowing in there...” Nick Nurse said about the team’s aggressive style. “Usually, there is a team aspect to it of how much help you’re providing in your ability to pinch down a little and then if they do fire it back out, your ability to get back out and make the next play difficult as well.
“We saw in the last two games our team do it as good as we could possibly do it and not so good as we could possibly do it.”
That inconsistency is what has plagued the Raptors during this losing stretch, but it’s what you should expect from one of the youngest and least-experienced teams in the league. As good of individual defensive players some of these Raptors are, and as much as they tried to develop chemistry during the summer and training camp, rapport can take years to build, especially for a defence as aggressive and unpredictable as Nurse prefers his to be.
“Energy, effort, mindset, desire, willingness; all that stuff comes before really schemes or anything for this team,” Nurse said. “We just need to get a little bit more consistent on doing it nightly.”
“Even though we’re almost a quarter of the season [in], I still feel like we’ve got a lot of room to grow and we’ve got a lot of young guys who are still developing,” Birch said. “I just feel like we’ve gotta be patient and I think it’s gonna come soon.”
These are some of the growing pains that Masai Ujiri referenced ahead of this season, but winning while developing young talent requires that you play through some of these mistakes until you stop making them. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t simplify the defence if need be — perhaps going back to a less aggressive, one-on-one switch-heavy scheme — but right now, the Raptors need to focus on the game plan and execution on the defensive end, building up their chemistry and trust along the way.
The good thing is that the Raptors' offence is way ahead of schedule — with the 13th-best offensive rating in the league — and Siakam’s reintegration has been seamless on that end of the floor, adding another layer of unpredictability to their revamped offence. If the defence can ever catch up, the Raptors will be in good shape.
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