Raptors' rebounding woes an early season concern

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What’s the worth of a stop on the defensive end if you don’t close out the possession with a rebound?

Based on the first two games of the Toronto Raptors’ 2019-20 season, they seem intent on asking that question on a fairly consistent basis.

Through two games now, the defending NBA champions have forced 126 misses, while limiting the New Orleans Pelicans and Boston Celtics to 40.3 percent shooting. That’s very, very good defending. But here’s the flip side. Against the former, they allowed 16 offensive rebounds but only nine second-chance points. They won, in overtime. Facing the latter, 21 additional possessions were surrendered off misses but the Celtics picked up a point for each of those clanks and won.

Making the loss all the more bitter to swallow is the fact that the Raptors shot a blistering 50% from beyond the arc on 36 attempts, including five(!) triples from Pascal Siakam and another six from Kyle Lowry. Turnovers were a major issue as well, the Raptors had 23 of them and 10 via offensive fouls, but they have traditionally been a turnover-averse team in the Kyle Lowry era and as Siakam grows more comfortable with traps and double-teams, that stands to improve with time.

The rebounding figured to be a concern ever since Kawhi Leonard and — to a lesser extent — Danny Green departed and were replaced by Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who have played a combined total of five minutes through two games (the latter has been injured and inactive). Leonard has been an excellent rebounder over his career, and ranked in the 84th percentile of forwards in rebounding field goal misses. Green placed in a respectable 59th percentile for wings.

(Both stats are via Cleaning the Glass)

There was always going to be a gaping hole to fill in this regard, but with those two players firmly in the past, the Raptors have to look at ways they can address the issue in the short term.

Bring back the centre timeshare

Marc Gasol is struggling, he’s shot 1-for-9 inside the arc and 1-for-8 beyond it, gathered nine rebounds and not a single steal or block through two games. The reasons are perfectly valid. The Spaniard is turning 35 in three months and just had the longest playing stretch of his career and then likely celebrated more than he ever has before. Add it all up and it makes sense for him to still be in need of a recharge. He’ll be on the second night of a back-to-back Saturday night, too.

The Raptors employed an extremely effective timeshare at the centre position last year, juggling Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka initially, before easing Gasol into the rotation by bringing him off the bench after he was acquired from Memphis. Over the latter portion of the regular season and through the playoffs, Gasol established himself as the starting centre and Ibaka ably performed his duties off the bench. Does Nick Nurse feel like there’s no going back now?

Better rotations may have helped the Raptors on this night. In the second half, Ibaka checked into the game with five minutes remaining in the third quarter and Toronto leading 69-64. Gasol returned with 6:30 remaining in the fourth and the Raptors leading by three. He played alongside Ibaka for about 45 seconds, which was enough time for the Celtics to move ahead 99-98. Having played 11 straight minutes, Ibaka needed a breather and was replaced by Siakam.

There is every chance Gasol finds his game soon enough, but Ibaka has hit the ground running and absolutely would be worthy of being reinserted into the starting unit at least as long as it takes for Gasol to look comfortable in the thick of the action.

The Raptors have struggled to close out defensive possessions with a rebound. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)
The Raptors have struggled to close out defensive possessions with a rebound. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

In 51 starts last season, Ibaka averaged 16.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just over 29 minutes per game. Through two games off the bench this season, he’s contributed 13 points, 6.5 boards and 1.5 blocks in just over 25 minutes per outing. Beyond the stats, he has just looked far more lively that Gasol. Lowry has terrific chemistry with Ibaka in the pick-and-roll, while Gasol’s playmaking could help supplement the secondary rotations. Heck, going up against other bench players may even help him find his A-game quicker.

VanVleet’s starting spot shouldn’t be automatic

34 points in a season opener is a heck of a statement to make. So much so that Nurse made it seem as though the starting backcourt had been set in stone for at least the foreseeable future after stating in training camp that he expected the second guard position to remain “fluid.”

“At present, I don't see any reason to even look at it,” Nurse said after practice Thursday. “I don't know, I can't really get down the road until something comes up where I think I may need to make a move. Those guys are little but they both play about 6-5, so I don't know if there's any matchups that would cause us to make a move or anything.”

Fred VanVleet was terrific against the Pelicans, and while an ankle issue suffered late in that game may have hindered him from finding form against the Celtics, the size disparity was hard to ignore. Boasting a 6-foot-6 Jaylen Brown, a 6-foot-7 Gordon Hayward, and Jayson Tatum at 6-foot-8, one of VanVleet or Lowry was going to have to constantly play above their weight in the rebounding department. While Brown didn’t collect a single offensive rebound, Hayward and Tatum combined for six and Walker seemed to be the beneficiary of the Raptors trying to account for the bigger bodies and came up with three himself.

“The size problems come in rebounding, you know, some post defence but you usually can come up with another scheme to help 'em if you need to, there's switching back and double-teaming and all that kind of stuff,” Nurse said Thursday. “But I don't know, it's just him (VanVleet) getting used to being out there with a lot of size. I think he's made a bunch of adjustments to be able to handle it.”

The Celtics only figure to be more difficult to handle on the offensive glass once Enes Kanter returns, as he hasn’t finished below the 94th percentile among big men in offensive rebounding, per Cleaning the Glass.

VanVleet struggled mightily against the Philadelphia 76ers and their length in the playoffs last year and the Nets were among the better offensive rebounding teams last year, so Nurse should be wary of teams that present a size problem. On those occasions, why not keep the starting guard position alongside Lowry “fluid?”

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Nurse made the point after the season opener that there just seemed to be a lack of energy from the Raptors. He attributed it to being emotionally flat after the jubilation of a ring ceremony and the raising of a championship banner, but what if the players were just tired?

Sure, it’s early in the season and legs should be fresh, but having seven players eat up a significant majority of the minutes is unlikely to yield beneficial results in the long term. Asking Lowry and VanVleet to play big minutes and orchestrate the offence while also holding their own in the post against bigger opponents and then also contributing on the glass this early in the season isn’t a great trend.

Against the Celtics, the Raptors committed three turnovers and surrendered three offensive rebounds in the final minute-and-a-half. When they needed something extra with the game on the line, trailing by four, they just couldn’t find it.

Johnson saw five minutes of action in this one and struggled to contribute positively outside of a three-pointer with his first shot attempt. The question remains whether Hollis-Jefferson can provide a few decent minutes at either forward spot since he’s yet to return from a minor groin injury. Terence Davis seems locked into the eighth man role and has looked to be active on the glass while Norman Powell has also been a positive in that regard. Patrick McCaw is someone Nurse has suggested will figure into the rotation once he’s healthy and he seems the biggest candidate to spell Lowry and VanVleet.

The Raptors, frankly, defend far too well to be forced to do it more often than they need to. With the talent downgrade relative to last season, the margin for error is also that much thinner. Limiting teams to a low field goal percentage is one thing, taking advantage of it by running the ball back down their throats is entirely another.

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