Raptors Report: Hot start shows value of culture, coaching, champion spirit

Hello and welcome to Raptors Report, where we will take in all that the team has done every month or so (depending on when there’s a bit of a break in the schedule) and look at key aspects of the team whether it be individual players, coaching, strategy or analytics in terms of what’s working, what isn’t and how they can look to improve.

It has been a month since the Toronto Raptors raised a championship banner to the rafters, placed those eye-popping championship rings on their fingers, and let out their final emotional release to do with a most memorable 2018-19 season.

In the time since, the Raptors have proven they’re going to be better than all right. While still going through growing pains and seeking answers to who can be what in the franchise’s new era, they’ve still managed to win at a high clip.

After 14 games, they’re sitting pretty at 10-4, good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference and 1.5 games out of first place. They are a perfect 6-0 at home and have been very competitive on the road.

How have they done it? Let’s dive right in.

3-and-D-and-T

Entering the season, Toronto did not figure to present as much of a threat from beyond the arc after finishing first in the league in 3-point percentage to finish 2018-19 following the acquisition of Marc Gasol in February. Danny Green was an incredible volume shooter, finishing first on the team in makes and second in attempts while finishing second in the entire league in percentage behind the Brooklyn Nets’ Joe Harris. Throw in Leonard’s 37.1% shooting and the duo accounted for almost a third of the Raptors’ 33.8 attempts per game last season.

When speaking with Nick Nurse before the season, while confident that the team could continue to create open looks, he did wonder out loud if they could maintain the efficiency.

“I think we’re still gonna be a pretty high volume 3-point shooting team,” Nurse said. “I think that the reason those percentages went up [last season] was there was a full second or there was just more open looks. We were creating more space, making an extra pass, whatever it was and I say that the look that you get is gonna raise the percentage or lower it.

“If we can create those same looks... I don’t know if we can, but that’s what we’re gonna try to do... and certainly with all our guys that are gonna be out there, they’re gonna be shooting them.”

Here we are — about a month into the season — and the Raptors are fourth in both shooting threes from the corner (43.3%) and above the break (38.9%) which puts them second in overall 3-point percentage (40%) behind... the Detroit Pistons. Volume is important when considering this, though, and so when you factor in that they shoot about six more 3-pointers a game than the Pistons, they are in fact the best in the league once again.

A team effort has been the main culprit, with all of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam elevating their respective games to alleviate any of the concerns coming in.

Out of the gate, the number that jumps off the page is Anunoby’s lights out shooting this year. That is highly unlikely to sustain itself, but it does speak volumes of the quality of his shot selection so far. The 22-year-old has attempted 108 shots this season, and precisely three of them have come in the mid-range. More like OG Anulytics, am I right?

While VanVleet and Siakam don’t necessarily have notably higher percentages, what’s important is the volume and where they’re shooting from. VanVleet has expanded his range which has helped open up the floor and his drive game, while Siakam is shooting threes from above the break quite well after largely being a corner shooter a year ago.

For the respective Mr. 99 and TD II hives, Matt Thomas and Terence Davis have also played their role, shooting a combined 29-of-56 (51.2%) from beyond the arc thus far.

Defence fuels offence, and the stifling length and versatility that the Raptors present has seen them concede a league-best 48.3 effective field goal percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. They get out on the break and push the pace with the best of them too, scoring 133.2 points per-100 transition possessions (1st in the league), and have the third-highest mark of 18% of possessions beginning in transition.

VanVleet has been a great driver of Toronto’s transition game, producing 1.17 points per on a team-high 64 possessions and Siakam is right behind him with 1.25 points per on 61 possessions. If it weren’t for his injury, though, Lowry would likely be the leader here once again, with a scorching 1.42 points per on 48 opportunities.

They were great in transition a year ago and that theme has continued this season.

Depth is walking through that door

This was arguably the biggest concern coming into the season. Toronto’s depth took a serious hit as a result of the championship-winning trades they made and, after reaping the rewards last year, it looked early on as though now would be the time to see the other side of that coin.

Over the past six games, though, the Raptors have got 39.2 bench points a night primarily out of Davis, Chris Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Thomas. This is a massive boon to the Raptors’ playoff hopes as Nurse now knows he has more leeway in terms of getting his starters some rest. And with Siakam and VanVleet having done the heavy lifting in the absence of Lowry and Ibaka, their returns over the next week or so should open the door for some time off the floor.

In fact — even with Lowry and Ibaka out — Nurse has already shown his trust in the bench by staggering Siakam and VanVleet more often, usually in those stretches bridging the first and second quarters and third and fourth quarters. When asked about his thought process in those stretches, Nurse had this to offer the morning after the Hornets game.

“My thought process was, at the time last night, that there was a long game and a lot of game to play yet,” Nurse said. “They weren’t playing that great together but I kind of let them roll a couple of minutes longer. I was getting a little itchy over there — I was OK, the assistants were getting pretty itchy for me to do something — but I was trying to get that extended down there a little bit just so we could get to the second half and the fourth quarter and not come into the locker room every time and look down and see 22 minutes and 21 minutes and 20 minutes already in the first half of your main games. I thought they weathered it good and they are going to have to.

“I think you’ve seen a couple of games in a row now... I mean, at Dallas they were awesome in the first half and they weren’t so awesome in the second half. Last night they weren’t so awesome in the first half and they were in the second half. You kind of go through that with second units. We’ve been through it before here. Just trying to get them to ride the waves and play the ups and downs a little bit and stick with it.”

The Toronto Raptors are showing they've still got plenty left in the tank without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Still room to grow

The Raptors are a very good team. Most who follow the squad religiously anticipated this, but the question remains as to whether they can truly be a great team — a championship contender that can make it out of the East this season.

In order to do that, one of the things this monthly Raptors Report will track is a customized standings and statistics table that only looks at how teams have fared against other teams with a positive net rating (plus-NR). For this early edition, I’ve included the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder since — according to Cleaning the Glass — they’re both at a minus-0.3. For now, that’s close enough while I try to maximize this small sample size.

There are other caveats, like the Clippers having played just one of their 10 games with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Raptors benefitting from two games against the Magic, and the Pacers having played just four of their 14 games against teams with a positive net rating — one of them being the Magic. (Yeah, the Magic might just not be on this list next time, especially with Nikola Vucevic out).

Toronto has started the season a perfect 7-0 against teams with a negative net rating (minus-NR), but I think it is worth noting for future reference what’s happening when they play teams with a plus-NR, despite the fact that two of the losses have come in the absence of Lowry and Serge Ibaka.

(To reiterate, with the small sample size, this is something that is simply being flagged to follow going forward, rather than a ringing of the alarm bell).

In seven games against teams with a positive net rating thus far, the Raptors’ half-court offensive rating plummets from 103.2 points per-100 half-court possessions against minus-NR teams to 87.7. They’ve been unable to penetrate and get to the rim as much, often settling for the outside shot. They’re also forced to play 5-on-5 more often, as the better teams in the league take care of the ball and minimize the damage Toronto usually does with the best transition game in the league.

As evidenced during their championship run a year ago, a big part of executing in the half-court against the better teams is the difference between having a true, 1A superstar and not. This was always going to be part of the growth and maturation process for Siakam in his first season as ‘The Man,’ and the numbers show that it’s a work in progress.

The best playoff scorers are the ones who possess gravity everywhere on the floor, who have an offensive arsenal that operates like a Swiss Army knife. No matter what’s taken away, they’ve got another trick up their sleeve. Siakam has been able to get wherever he wants on the floor against the type of competition he likely won’t see in the post-season (although he might in the first round just because of what the East is), but the way in which teams have been able to contest him at the rim is worth being mindful of.

When matched up against the likes of Anthony Davis, Jonathan Isaac or Giannis Antetokounmpo, he has either struggled to attack them in the post or settled for tough, contested jumpers. What Toronto has done well in brief stretches is use Siakam in pick-and-roll scenarios where he’s either able to get the ball on the move or get himself switched onto a weaker defender. That’s an option that great teams are going to take away more often than not, so it will be interesting to see what Siakam and the Raptors are able to do against elite competition with a healthy roster.

Looking ahead

The 76ers come to town Monday and the first half of December includes fixtures against Utah, Miami, Houston, a trip to Philadelphia and a home date with the Clippers. That stretch should provide a better idea of what the Raptors are against strong competition.

So, I guess that’s what you can look forward to next report.

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