The Raptors are no longer who we thought they were

Rewind to a time in December, when doubts over the Toronto Raptors as a contender were at a height.

Kyle Lowry played just seven games due to a bothersome back, scored just 11.3 points per game when he did suit up, and shot a miserable 22.4 per cent from three. January wasn’t much better, and the decline of a 33-year-old point guard who needed to be the second-best player on the team was staring the franchise in the face.

The acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were made with one sole purpose: to contend for an NBA title. The goal seemed realistic when Lowry came flying out of the gate averaging 15.6 points, 10.2 assists and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 36.2 per cent from three-point range over the first 22 games.

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As Leonard’s comfort level grew, though, Lowry’s waned. His spectacular individual performances only seemed to happen in the absence of the former Finals MVP, and so the concern over the inability of the two to coalesce their talents suggested this was a team that would have issues against the likes of Milwaukee or Boston.

To pin all the concerns of title contention back then would have been nearsighted, though.

Defensive rebounding became the Achilles heel of the team. Their switchability and flexibility in defending the perimeter often left them out in the cold when having to turn their heads to look out for which way the ball careened off the rim. The injury to Jonas Valanciunas accentuated those concerns.

Then, there was the team’s three-point shooting. As Lowry’s scoring production deteriorated and C.J. Miles continued to struggle, Green, Leonard and Fred VanVleet became the only dependable shooting threats. Combine that with how stagnant the offence became in Lowry’s absence, and it was no surprise to see them languishing at 25th in the league in three-point percentage (34.1 per cent).

How did that team back then become this team that has led the league in three-point percentage since the trade deadline, flipped its offensive and defensive rebounding numbers, and made Lowry’s scoring seem like gravy? Are those changes even real?

Here’s a dive into answering those questions:

Lowry’s scoring is gravy

Heading into this season, the expectation was that Siakam would be jockeying for the starting power forward position with OG Anunoby in much the same vein Ibaka did with Valanciunas - and initially with Gasol. And sure, making the role his was nice, but it’s not as if he was dramatically altering the Raptors’ ceiling over the first couple of months.

Shooting 32.4 per cent from three-point range through Dec. 28 was certainly an improvement for Siakam, but that number still wasn’t close to making him an outside threat you needed to respect at just two attempts per game. Since then, though, he’s upped his shooting to 39.3 per cent as well as his attempts to 3.2 a game. A big part of that development has been shooting the corner three (41.6 per cent), where 70 per cent of his three-point attempts come from.

Why the arbitrary Dec. 28 date? After a 20-4 start to the season, the Raptors endured their worst stretch winning just six of 13 games, the last of which was a 116-87 loss at the hands of the Orlando Magic on that date. Siakam, in particular, was challenged to improve his game after Jonathan Isaac held him to just four points on 1-for-8 shooting, struggling to cope with someone who had plenty of length and quickness to take away the Cameroonian’s biggest strengths.

Along with his uptick in shooting, Siakam has also consistently improved his ball-handling and 1-on-1 moves, most notably showing terrific dexterity to finish at the rim with a soft touch with either hand that has allowed him to use his spin move to go in either direction depending on which way his defender tries to force him. He has produced 0.97 points per isolation possession, which is just as many as LeBron James and Blake Griffin and just a tick behind Kyrie Irving (albeit on almost half the volume). Add to that the fact he’s become one of the league’s best transition scorers at 1.26 points per possession on high volume, and you get a pretty complete player who upped his scoring from 14.4 points per game through Dec. 28 to 19 per game over his final 44 contests.

When Siakam jokes about getting a raise because of the consistency with which he’s shown up and produced, there’s a lot of truth to it. As much as Gasol has added and the team has improved its outside shooting, Siakam’s scoring improvement and his ability to create his own shot has indeed decreased the need for Lowry to be a scorer on this team in order for it to reach its ceiling.

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam looks to pass during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 17, 2019, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam looks to pass during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 17, 2019, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Rebounding concerns have dissipated since the trade deadline

Entering trade deadline day, the Raptors were struggling to close out defensive possessions with a rebound. They ranked 24th in the league in allowing offensive rebounds at 27.2 per cent, per Cleaning the Glass, and a lot of the frustration stemmed from Toronto actually playing good defence.

A big part of the problem was that this was partly by design. The Raptors’ defensive schemes are built on creating transition opportunities by getting in passing lanes and engaging in scramble mode to contest as many shots as possible. They finished the season ranked second in deflections behind Oklahoma City, first in percentage of loose balls recovered defensively, and second in contested shots per game.

Another thing you try to do to create as many transition opportunities and easy baskets as possible on the other end is leak out after shot contests. The Raptors finished the year with the third-highest percentage of transitions possessions (20.2), and produced a league-best 1.19 points per transition opportunity. Think about all those touchdown passes from Lowry to Siakam, there’s a downside to that, too. When you’re that helter skelter on that end of the floor, it can often leave you in bad position to reward yourself with an offensive possession.

Since the trade deadline, the Raptors have vaulted to eighth-best in conceding offensive boards (24.3 per cent) — fourth-best when they get a chance to set their defence — without really foregoing any of their core principles. One can’t help but ask: Is this the Gasol effect or is there more to it?

We know that Gasol is positionally an excellent defender, and the telepathy between teammates that can take teams to another level is only enhanced when playing alongside the numerous high basketball IQ players on the Raptors, especially within the starting lineup. While Gasol hasn’t generally been a great individual rebounder over the course of his career (57th percentile), this has been a career-year on the defensive glass for Big Spain, finishing the season in the 80th percentile among big men.

When comparing what Ibaka and Valanciunas have done in the starting lineup versus Gasol, you can see there’s a difference as well. With the Spaniard at centre, the starting lineup collects approximately six percent more (77.1 per cent vs. 71.3 w/Ibaka vs. 71.1 w/Valanciunas) of the defensive rebounds available to them per NBA.com/stats. There is a decrease in offensive rebound percentage for the Raptors with Gasol as well, and that makes sense when you think about where the three centres primarily operate when in possession.

While Gasol can orchestrate an offence from the top of the arc or the elbows, Ibaka and Valanciunas primarily thrive on the inside and are in the mix for an offensive tap more frequently. It’s not often that Gasol is the last man back on defence. Considering the starting lineup -- barring foul trouble -- usually occupies about 24 of the 48 minutes and possibly more in the playoffs, that’s half the job done in terms of sparking an improvement.

If the starting five with Gasol can maintain what they’ve done, there’s reason to believe arguably Toronto’s biggest weakness has been addressed.

Toronto Raptors center Marc Gasol (33) passes the ball as Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) defends during first-half NBA basketball game action in Toronto, Friday, March 22, 2019. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Toronto Raptors center Marc Gasol (33) passes the ball as Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) defends during first-half NBA basketball game action in Toronto, Friday, March 22, 2019. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

Goodbye, three-point woes

Alright, there’s no doubt about this one. The Raptors have indeed put their three-point troubles aside, moving all the way from 23rd in the league in three-point shooting percentage at 34.5 per cent on 33.3 attempts per game on Feb. 7 at the trade deadline to sixth at season’s end by shooting 41 per cent on 35 attempts per game over their final 26 games. Yes, that is the highest percentage in the league since the deadline.

Is it reasonable to expect the Raptors to maintain their scorching shooting in the post-season? Probably not to that degree. The difference in the level of game planning and scouting is night and day compared to that of the regular season and so Toronto will undoubtedly have tougher looks to try and make the most of.

Looking across the NBA landscape, one would have to consider the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets as greater shooting threats. The Warriors are self explanatory with the Splash Brothers and Kevin Durant in tow while the Rockets — shoot a healthy 37.2 per cent on an absurd 47.3 attempts per game. Interestingly enough, the Magic have been one of the better outside shooting teams since their turnaround, so it should be a captivating battle between Nick Nurse and Steve Clifford to see how the two look to neutralize each other’s teams.

What is encouraging for the Raptors is the manner in which they’ve created looks since the acquisition of Gasol. The ball movement has often been pristine, there has been much more of a flow going through Leonard outside of crunch time situations, and certain guys heating up at the right time has helped, too.

Toronto has raised their assist percentage from 57.8 to 65.5 per cent after acquiring Gasol, and while that has helped create a couple more wide open looks a game, the expectation that everyone is going to touch the ball seems to have players more prepared to shoot. For example, with three-point looks when a defender is within 4-to-6 feet (11 attempts per game), the Raptors have improved from shooting 31 per cent before the deadline to 38.2 per cent after. Lowry is the most notable improved shooter in that range, going up from 27.7 per cent before Gasol to 32.2 per cent after. Of course, there’s every chance that has more to do with his back feeling better than the centre.

It’s hard to spell improvement without Siakam, but his progress has mainly been on wide open looks (defender not within six feet), where he has gone from 32.4 per cent pre-Gasol to 38.5 per cent after. With the Raptors presenting so many threats on the floor at any one time, expect playoff opponents to pick daring Siakam to shoot as their poison. If the improvement is real, Toronto will be all the more difficult to defend.

While the Raptors couldn’t land initial target and sharpshooter Nikola Mirotic at the deadline, it appears they may have done something even better by introducing Gasol to the mix. He is third on the team in assist percentage behind only Lowry and VanVleet, and the intangibles he provides far outweigh what shows up on the box score. Toronto now scores five more points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt than it did prior to the trade deadline, an area of the game that is a necessity for success when it matters most.

Gasol has made a significant impact on the Raptors on both ends of the floor, and while the overall offensive and defensive ratings of the team haven’t seen much of a change, the structure behind how the team goes about their business has clearly been altered in a manner that should be transferable to the playoffs. Factor in the relentless growth of Siakam around the pillars that are Lowry, Leonard and Green, and this is a team primed to make the deepest run in franchise history.

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