Friday, March 24 2023

As the start of the 2022-23 NBA season grows nearer, I’m taking a closer look at some of the most interesting teams in the NBA (to me, if not necessarily to anyone else). After stops in Denver, New Orleans, Minnesota and Memphis, we conclude our journey north of the border, where styles make fights.

The NBA has had “point forwards” initiating offense since the days of Rick Barry, Paul Pressey and Marques Johnson. “Small-ball” lineups featuring five perimeter players date all the way back to Red Auerbach’s Celtics; one member of those Boston teams, Don Nelson, would go on to popularize the practice in the 1980s and ’90s as the head coach of the Bucks and Warriors, years before “Seven Seconds or Less” and “We Believe” reintroduced the concept for the contemporary NBA. Units that could seamlessly swap defensive assignments at a moment’s notice came into vogue at the advent of Golden State’s dynastic era; now, switching on- and off-ball screens has become a staple of modern defenses.

All of which is to say: The Toronto Raptors are not, in and of themselves, revolutionary. We have seen the components of their particular composition in various forms and functions before. I’m also not positive they fit the technical definition of “the positional revolution,” as posited back in the Aughts by Nathaniel Friedman and the gang at FreeDarko — a structural sea change in which players erased the traditional borders and boundaries of basketball orthodoxy, assuming responsibilities based more on their skills than their size and the broader project of what their teams were trying to accomplish.

MONTREAL, CANADA - OCTOBER 14: Scottie Barnes #4 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball against Derrick White #9 of the Boston Celtics during the first half of a preseason NBA game at Centre Bell on October 14, 2022 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Toronto Raptors defeated the Boston Celtics 137-134 in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)MONTREAL, CANADA - OCTOBER 14: Scottie Barnes #4 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball against Derrick White #9 of the Boston Celtics during the first half of a preseason NBA game at Centre Bell on October 14, 2022 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Toronto Raptors defeated the Boston Celtics 137-134 in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Raptors fans are rightfully excited about Scottie Barnes. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

On one hand, the presence and primacy of Fred VanVleet seems to complicate the picture; what to make of a 6-foot, play-the-right-way organizer who sticks out like a sore thumb on a team replete with hyper-athletic 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-9 wings? On the other, VanVleet is hardly a traditional purist’s vision of what a point guard should be: He ranked third in the NBA last season in 3-pointers and fifth in 3-point attempts, with a nearly equal split between pull-up and catch-and-shoot tries. VanVleet spent large swaths of his floor time operating off the ball in a somewhat Stephian role, using the threat of his jumper to open up more space for other Raptors to create off the dribble. “From each according to his ability,” and all that.

If nothing else, though, the Raptors do seem to satisfy FD’s “bunch of do-it-all weirdos whose contributions shift from possession to possession” requirement. That doesn’t always make Toronto the prettiest watch in the world. It can, though, make the Raps a pretty delightful antidote for the stylistic sameness of a league full of teams trying to shoot only layups and threes while forcing only midrangers … and, when everything’s clicking, it can also make them pretty dangerous.

Pascal Siakam, his vibes and shoulder now fully recuperated from the dark night of the soul he experienced in South Florida, isn’t quite a LeBron or Giannis-level primary destroyer. He’s closer than you might think, though: 22-8-5 on .560 true shooting doesn’t exactly grow on trees, and it’s even rarer when you combine it with the ability to guard 1-through-5. VanVleet combines high-volume long-range marksmanship — only five players in NBA history have ever launched as often and as accurately as he did last season — with All-Defensive-Team-caliber work as a point-of-attack impediment, a lock-and-trail ace, and a steals-and-deflections magnet.

VanVleet made his first All-Star team last season; Siakam earned his second All-NBA nod. And yet neither is the Raptor that everyone’s most excited about.

It’s hard to remember now, but it came as a surprise to a lot of draft analysts that Toronto chose Scottie Barnes over Jalen Suggs with 2021’s fourth pick. But then Barnes entered the NBA and immediately started just sort of loping his way into 15 and 8 with a couple of assists and steals every night. And, just for fun, the rookie did it while guarding damn near everybody: Barnes ranked first out of 272 players to log at least 1,000 minutes last season in The BBall Index’s defensive versatility metric, dividing his defensive assignments almost perfectly evenly across the five positions.

Before long, it became clear (as if we needed more proof) that Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster, Nick Nurse and the rest of the Raptors’ braintrust knew exactly what they had in Barnes: a plug-and-play connector who could contribute enough to start, play major minutes for a playoff team, and win Rookie of the Year without dominating the ball. It also started to become clear that Barnes’s combination of size, touch and innate playmaking skill at such an early age could point toward a future where, hell, maybe he should dominate it.

In the meantime, how significant a jump Barnes made on the offensive end over the summer — as a ball-handler, as a 3-point shooter (just 30.1 percent from long distance, including 29 percent on catch-and-shoot looks), and as a source of easy points on the interior — figures to go a long way in determining whether a Raptors offense that finished 26th in half-court scoring efficiency will fare any better against set defenses this season. More bankable shooting alongside VanVleet and sniper Gary Trent Jr. (entering a pretty big contract year!) would help, after Toronto ranked 19th in 3-point makes and attempts last season. The Raps will hope for a healthy bounce-back from O.G. Anunoby, who had shot 39.5 percent from distance over the previous two seasons before a dip at higher volume in 2021-22. Free-agent addition Otto Porter Jr. — another perfect fit as a big, switchable wing (6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan) who shot 37 percent from deep in a rotation role for the champion Warriors — could provide a boost, too.

The most intriguing prospective helper of all? Third-year big Precious Achiuwa. A screen-and-dive threat who scuffled through his first half-season in Toronto after joining the team in the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade, Achiuwa shot 40.4 percent from 3-point land on more than three attempts per game after Feb. 1. If what Achiuwa showed as a shooter is for real — and there’s reason to believe it might be — he could carve out an even larger role in Toronto’s rotation as an explosive and eminently capable multipositional defender who can chip in as a rim runner in transition, as a screener (and maybe eventually a ball-handler?) in the pick-and-roll, as a spot-up threat who can draw opposing centers out of the pain, and as a catch-and-go driver who can beat a closeout, put the ball on the deck, and get to the cup, depending on what a possession demands.

The Raptors’ chaos-engine of a defense ranks among the NBA’s most difficult to dissect. That’s partly because they can sic wave upon wave of go-go-Gadget-armed grinders on you every possession. It’s also partly because of how comfortable Nurse is deploying all that length in all manner of coverage schemes: switch, drop, blitz and trap, hedge and recover, full-court pressure, matchup zones, you name it. But as effective as all that variety can be — 10th in points allowed per possession last season and tops in turnover creation, kickstarting a devastating transition attack — Toronto will need answers when the game slows down and tightens up, because when you’re 26th in shot frequency at the rim and 24th in free-throw rate, you’re not going to beat the kind of elite defenses you’re going to see come the postseason.

That search will require continued experimentation and greater creativity from Nurse. It could also require more patience; the coach has a tendency to just ride the players he trusts until their wheels fall off. He can’t expect to lean on Siakam and VanVleet for 38 minutes a night to keep the offense afloat, and then be surprised when they pick up injuries or run out of gas come April.

The Raptors have to find a way to get easier buckets, whether it comes in the form of Barnes and Achiuwa taking leaps, the Siakam-VanVleet-Anunoby trio staying healthier, another source of offense suddenly emerging (New movie star Juancho Hernangomez? Second-year point big Dalano Banton? Magisterial high-post playmaker Thaddeus Young? A trade target Toronto might nab with the full complement of first-round picks still at its disposal?) … or, ideally, some combination of all of the above. The good news: When you’ve already got a core as versatile as Siakam, VanVleet, Barnes and Anunoby, you don’t necessarily have to hunt for specific kinds of help; you can seize the most attractive opportunity available to you, and trust that one of the league’s smartest, most malleable collections of talent will reform itself to make space for and maximize the new arrival.

Whether that approach to roster-building, rotation management, game-planning, and problem-solving constitutes an upheaval of established norms or just plain evolution, I’m not really sure. What I do know, though, is that a Raptors team that rolls into town with its top guns healthy and fully operational is an opponent that nobody in the East really wants to deal with come springtime. I, on the other hand, would very much like to see it. The revolution may not be televised, but I’m down to watch whatever it is that these Raptors put on film.

Source: Yahoo Sports


NBA Eastern Conference guide: Nets, Bucks, Celtics, 76ers remain contenders


Bucks will be missing All-Star Khris Middleton in matchup vs. Sixers

Check Also

Pro Sports Media

Trending Now

Knicks Injury Tracker: Mitchell Robinson questionable vs. Magic with right knee contusion

Jan 4, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) reacts after being called for a foul during the second quarter against the San Antonio Spurs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports / © Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports Here is the latest news and possible return […]

Read More

Watch: Trea Turner’s game-winning grand slam vs. Venezuela in World Baseball Classic

Trea Turner hits game-winning grand slam vs. Venezuela in World Baseball Classic originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia The season hasn’t started yet, and already, Trea Turner has delivered one of the biggest swings of his life. Turner hit a 407-foot, game-winning grand slam in the top of the eighth inning Saturday night to push […]

Read More

CBS March Madness Bracket, Predictions, and Expert Picks

The CBS staff has released an interesting March Madness bracket, made predictions, and provided expert picks for the 2023 NCAA Tournament. Sports columnist Gary Parrish believes the National Championship will come down to No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 1 Houston at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. BetOnline odds and picks are featured below. The Best […]

Read More