The defensive struggle is real at the moment for the Raptors


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For the people in Toronto, across Canada and a handful of Americans who cheer for the Toronto Raptors, the fact they have put together 141 wins the past three years is good. In fact, by most accounts, it’s great.

After former general manager Bryan Colangelo traded for Rudy Gay, many thought the Raptors – along with Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry – would help them turn into the Eastern Conference threat they are now. No such thing happened, the chemistry was dubious and it led to Toronto hiring Masai Ujiri instead. While the Raptors began the 2013/14 season like the previous one had ended, the newly appointed GM made a trade that saved their season and almost made a second deal that would have led to Lowry being a New York Knick. Almost three years have passed and the Raptors now find themselves as Eastern Conference contenders despite back to back first round exits from the NBA playoffs.

The reason I decided to write about this now is because of the fact I myself admit I am pessimistic heading into this year’s playoffs. The Raptors currently have 44 victories and are on their way to surpass the 50 win mark for the first time in franchise history. They should also win their third straight division title which is nice.

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A few months ago I wrote on how the Raptors were different this year compared to before and a lot of that has to do with the players Ujiri brought in such as Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo and DeMarre Carroll in particular. The last and most expensive one of that group has been injured for most of this season despite Carroll being a very important piece. One would assume they haven’t missed a beat considering they currently sit second in the East only a few games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yes, the Raptors are better than last year’s version but there are some scary things happening here. First of all since the All-Star break the Raptors defensive efficiency has been near the bottom of the league after holding onto a spot in the top 10 for most of the season. Since the break the Raptors are 9-4. Not bad right? Well interestingly enough, two of their four losses have been against the Chicago Bulls who, get this, have won nine straight against Toronto. For whatever reason the Bulls dominate the Raptors in every sense of the word. This is concerning since the Bulls are fighting for a playoff spot at the moment and if they secure the 7th or 8th seed they would then play – and you guessed it – the Raptors. Yikes.

But let’s look a little further, shall we. The Raptors are distressingly bad defending against the three point shot. In fact they currently rank 29th in that area. If you want to compare it to past seasons you can, but I warn you it’s frightening and shocking to see the last time they put up a .376 percentage defending against the three was back in 2010 when they lost 60 games. That season Raptors opponents shot .375 from beyond the arc in 82 games played while the current Raptors are allowing opponents to shoot roughly the same per cent albeit with 17 games to go. Admittedly that stat is the only one that pops out as the Raptors have been quite good otherwise but it’s still important to make note of.

What’s more troubling is taking a look at who the Raptors might face in the playoffs. The Bulls we already touched on and that would be the nightmare of all match ups but let’s look elsewhere. Realistically, Toronto shouldn’t finish any lower than third place which means they’ll face either the sixth, seventh or eighth seed if they win the Conference. Teams floating around those few spots are the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets, and the aforementioned Bulls. Of those four teams, three of them currently have a better defensive efficiency than Toronto with Indiana at 3rd best, Charlotte 9th and Chicago at 10th best. The Raptors are currently in 13th with Detroit one spot behind them at 14th. Keep in mind Toronto hovered in the top 10 all season until recently while these teams have improved. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte has been one of the hottest teams in the NBA while both Indiana and Detroit continue to fight for a playoff spot. The Bulls meanwhile have been decimated with injuries all year to most of their key players and have still owned Toronto so imagine them healthy. Actually don’t, I want you all to sleep tonight.

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If you dig even deeper you’ll see that most of the teams around 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th in the East have been playing more efficient basketball (specifically on defence) than the Raptors as of late. Referring to the graph above me you’ll see the drastic change of Toronto’s defensive play the past few weeks. (BPI) is a measure of team strength developed by the ESPN Analytics team. BPI is meant to be the best predictor of a team’s performance for the rest of the season. It represents how many points above or below average a team is and accounts for game-by-game efficiency, strength of schedule, pace, days of rest, game location and preseason expectations. With this in mind, look at Toronto compared to teams I mentioned and others around the league. Toronto’s BPI team DEF is one of the few that are negative with a significant drop off compared to earlier in the year. Their offence and their offensive pace (which remains one of the best in the league thanks to Lowry and DeRozan) isn’t the issue here as is evident above. Every current East team in a playoff spot have better overall defensive numbers than Toronto in the past few weeks which in itself is a reason to be concerned; especially considering one of the teams they could face have all been better. Of the teams who are below average on offence but elite on the defensive side – specifically Boston, Indiana, Atlanta and of course the San Antonio Spurs – they are all in a playoff spot and have maintained their consistency on the defensive side. Obviously having an efficient offence and an above average defence is what every team and organization strive for, but if you look at the best team in the NBA aka the Spurs, you’ll see they’re getting both terrific defensive production along with a fluid offence. With the rare exception of Golden State’s insane offensive efficiency, the Spurs are currently the NBA’s best team as they’re tremendous on both sides of the ball.

One may argue defence isn’t everything but the reason I brought up the three point % stat is because of how quickly the league is turning into a three friendly game. This is evident as 2015/16 has seen the highest amount of three’s attempted per game at 23.8 (in fact it’s gone up every year since 2007). Of all the teams I mentioned that the Raptors could draw in the first round, none post below average defence against the three as both Indiana and Chicago are in the top 10 while Charlotte and Detroit rank 13th and 16th, respectively. One could also counter against this point by saying you don’t need a great defence to win games as long as you’re scoring points. This is true, and that same person may use the Warriors or the Oklahoma City Thunder as prime examples (highest offensive BPI with below average DEF) but I don’t think I need to remind you that those two teams have three of the best players in the NBA in Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook along with a very fluid and deep offensive attack with Golden State possessing one of the best three point shooting teams in NBA history. Point is, if Toronto wants to compete they have to find a defensive middle ground while maintaining their offensive pace. Right now, they aren’t doing that and if that trend continues, don’t expect them to challenge the Cavaliers let alone make it out of the first round.

So how can the Raptors fix this and where do they go from here? Well I don’t need to remind you that they have done this before, as recently as last year in fact, when they dropped off considerably down the stretch which led to them getting swept by Washington in four games. A lot of people will stress that this year’s current version of the Raptors is better and I too would be one to agree but at the same time I would counter that with the points and stats I explained in this article. Sure the Raptors have a different group – specifically defence first guys – and yes when Carroll gets back and is healthy he could be a major boost in that area but the fact of the matter is Toronto is trending in a negative direction right now specifically on the defensive side. If they want to escape the first round and remain threats they have to get better defending against the three and they need to be more consistent closing out games (which has been a fluent problem all year long). If they can do this, the Raptors will be able to fight off most opponents as they proved when all things were clicking earlier in the year. If they fail to do so however, any of the good teams who secure spots in the playoffs will give the Raptors a run for their money and if that happens for the third year in a row they, us and we will all be looking for answers despite most of them coming in the form of defence.