Mediocrasaurs: The Raptors need to prove they’re legit

You wouldn’t know it from the stats, but the Raptors are one of the most compelling teams in the entire NBA.

The Raptors are currently seventh in the East. Their point differential is remarkably mediocre: +0.7 points per 100 possessions, equating to a 43-39 team. Yawn.

But the truth is deeper than that. This team has extreme strengths and weaknesses that make them intriguing to watch and study, and a young core (no starters are older than 27) means they still have room for improvement.

The Raptors are complete inverses of themselves on offense and defense. Offensively, they rarely turn it over and do great on the offensive glass, but they don’t shoot particularly well and never get to the free-throw line. 

Defensively, they force a ton of turnovers but do a horrible job rebounding, allow a high shooting percentage from the corners and at the rim, and foul the bejeezus out of opponents.

All of this is primarily due to the Raptors’ bizarre lineup configurations.

A unique starting lineup

The Team In The North has been about average in terms of games missed to injury, but unlike many other teams, they’ve had almost no taste at all of their preferred lineups. Their ideal starting five, featuring point guard Fred VanVleet, wing Gary Trent Jr., and forwards Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby, has only played together for 80 minutes all season. 

Everyone in this lineup can switch every position except VanVleet, who’s still an excellent guard defender. All five starters average between 15.1 and 21.3 points per game – one of the tightest spreads in the league. While they don’t have the one killer alpha scorer in the mode of LeBron or even DeMar DeRozan, any player is capable of carrying the load on a given night.

VanVleet’s playing excellent basketball for the Raptors and has easily been their best player this season. He’s increased his scoring every year in his six-season career, putting up 21.3 points, 6.7 assists, and 4.9 rebounds per game while making a strong bid for his first All-Star appearance. 

Freddy’s 41% shooting from deep on nine attempts per game is essential to a Raptors team with very few credible deep threats, and he can do it on catch-and-shoots or off-the-bounce. As the only real point guard in the rotation, his presence on the court is essential for the Raptors, as reflected by his 98th percentile on/off point differential; the Raptors are solid when he plays and are abysmal when he doesn’t.

Despite being built like a Kia Soul, FVV might be the best-conditioned player in the NBA. He possesses some of the quickest hands in the league, averaging 0.6 blocks (90% of which occur when VanVleet swipes down while a player is bringing the ball into a shooting motion) and 1.6 steals per game while standing just six feet tall in shoes. 

The other guard, Gary Trent Jr., has similarly disruptive instincts and led the league in steals for a spell. He rarely passes, defends like a rabid wolverine, and bombs from range with bone-deep confidence — a reasonable 36.9% on a high 7.3 threes per game, many of which are tightly contested. He’s 6’5” with a 6’9” wingspan that lets him guard several positions.

Pascal Siakam, or “Spicy P,” is right behind FVV at 20.4 points per game. He made an All-NBA team two years ago as a whirling, do-everything Swiss Army Knife but has evolved his game since then. With his three not falling this season, Siakam has focused more on getting teammates involved and is the second-best passer on the team. 

Rookie Scottie Barnes was a surprise selection at the fourth spot in the draft this year but has made an immediate impact. His shooting and passing have been better than the consensus expectation, and he brings some much-needed creative verve in the halfcourt. Raptors fans are already head-over-heels for the smiley rook.

Barnes seems likely to fight for Rookie of the Year with the Cavs’ Evan Mobley. He’s still not a great shooter overall, although he’s significantly better on the right side of the court from all areas. Like any rookie, he occasionally seems overwhelmed by the speed of the game.

OG Anunoby was supposed to take a leap this season, and to some degree, he has. While his shooting numbers are down, he’s demonstrated that he can handle a larger load on offense thanks to a tighter handle. He settles for some difficult mid-range shots, but they feel more like a player testing the boundaries of his game than someone taking bad shots. Anunoby’s shown some strong bully-ball post tendencies when given an opportunity.

Anunoby is also a borderline All-Defensive Team player. He has incredible lower-body strength that lets him battle with bigger centers but has the wingspan and enough quickness to keep up with speedier wings. 

OG’s biggest weakness is that he still seems mechanical offensively. It’s clear that he’s thinking through things with every play: “Should I try a step-back here? What about an in-and-out dribble to a pull-up jumper?” He might be feeling the burden of the high expectations placed on him to start the season. 

There are also many redundant skills on the Raptors between OG, Siakam, and Scottie Barnes that can lead to occasional confusion about how to maximize each player’s talents. 

However, that hasn’t stopped Nick Nurse from playing all of his starters obscene minutes. Three (FVV, OG, and Barnes) are in the top ten for average minutes per game, and all five starters are in the top 40.

Nurse doesn’t have much choice. Toronto’s bench may be the least flexible and talented in the league.

Bench issues

The Raptors have decided to play their five best players on the court simultaneously, so they start four wings/forwards and one point guard. However, their top three reserves are all big men. It’s an unusual combination.

The first reserve, PF/C Precious Achiuwa, was the main return from the sign-and-trade of Kyle Lowry to the Heat in the offseason. He’s a basketball-dribbling bull in a china shop. Like most of the Raptors reserves, he tries really, really hard without much success to show for it. A small-ball center or non-stretch power forward who loves to pound the rock, Achiuwa’s decision-making has boggled the minds of Raptors fans all season.

Last year’s breakout center Chris Boucher spent much of this season in the doghouse before emerging recently with a string of solid games in the absence of several starters. He blocks a whole lot of opposing jumpers, which is cool, but he doesn’t bring anything offensively or on the defensive boards. 

Khem Birch is the most promising backup center as someone with a lower ceiling but a much higher floor than the other two. He’s steady defensively, sets a mean screen, and doesn’t do what he’s not supposed to do. He’s fine!

Backup point guards Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton are young, inconsistent players still learning the NBA game. Banton, in particular, is intriguing as a giant pterodactyl flying up and down the court, but he can’t hit a shot or stop turning it over.

Forward Yuta Watanabe has played reasonably well as the ninth man. He possesses the defensive versatility that the Raptors prize, and has shot well on low volume, but has maxed out his talent. Svi Mykhailiuk is, unfortunately, the backup shooter who’s forgotten how to shoot.

It will not surprise you to learn that the Raptors bench is last in the NBA in scoring and 3P% per game. Giving almost all your backup minutes to big men will do that.

Unrealized defensive potential

Defensively, the Raptors seem like they should be incredible. A bevy of long-limbed, try-hard, switchable defenders, plus a mean pitbull of a guard in VanVleet, should add up to an elite defense. 

And individually, many of their players can play the part. Siakam is good on that end, and OG Anunoby borders on elite. As a rookie, Barnes struggles some positionally, but he has a nose for the ball. Trent is physical and strong for his size.

Toronto ranks first in the league in forcing turnovers, and they have three players who rank in the top six for deflections per game in FVV, Gary Trent Jr., and Anunoby. Passing against these guys is a nightmare, like putt-putting through five windmills.

So they must be awesome on defense, right?

Instead, the Raptors are currently 20th in the league in defensive rating, according to Cleaning The Glass. Part of it is bad luck. Teams are shooting excellently from long mid-range and above-the-break threes, which is often due more to chance than anything inherent in a defense. 

The Raptors don’t have much rim protection in their starting lineup, and they play a ton of zone, which can lead to oodles of threes if an opponent has the shooters to make them pay.

But what marvelous zones they play! Nick Nurse and company come up with some of the most creative zones in the league, utilizing geometry and players in unorthodox ways. 

Look at the picture below. Just a few days ago, the Raptors ran a 2-3 zone against the Knicks with two backup bigs (Boucher and Achiuwa) at the free-throw line, where guards usually patrol, and their forwards at the bottom and in the corners (they weren’t playing any traditional guards):

Boucher and Achiuwa are quick big men whose length can bother opposing three-point shooters and ball-handlers, while the size of Toronto’s wings means they can easily function at the base of the 2-3…in theory.

In reality, despite all this clever scheming and all of the good individual defenders, something hasn’t totally clicked for the Raptors on that end. Botched defensive possessions here and there make me wonder if the Raptors are overthinking things at times. 

In addition, the second-best offensive rebounding team in the league is the second-worst at grabbing opponent misses, for the second year in a row. That’s part of the problem with having zero starting centers and zero players on the roster over 6’9” tall; there’s a lack of beef to eat up space and box out. 

Offensive rebounding is about quickness, effort, and being opportunistic, while defensive rebounding requires size and/or disciplined box-out technique. Unfortunately, the Raptors often lack both. 

A dearth of continuity has much to do with it, however, and Toronto again is hoping that greater reps for the starting lineup will yield significant improvements here. Given the quality of the defenders in the starting lineup, there’s reasonable hope that an emphasis on boxing out and some better shooting luck could result in a borderline-elite defense as soon as this season.

Halfcourt struggles and second-chance points

The offensive outlook is murkier. Anyone canshoulder the load on a given night, but none are capable of doing so consistently. VanVleet works hard but is overtaxed as the #1 offensive engine. Most players are well-rounded, but nobody is great at any one thing (besides Freddy’s shooting). 

Their flow-style offense doesn’t have enough rhythm and too often grinds to a halt hunting ostensible mismatches. The problem is that the Raptors don’t have the players to excel in that style of play. They do much better when the ball pings around a little bit more:

Toronto runs less pick-and-roll than most teams, and their offense tends to stagnate. Frequently, it ends with OG or Siakam putting up a difficult contested mid-ranger. They still seem to be searching for a cohesive halfcourt identity:

The Raptors don’t have exceptional passers. Siakam and VanVleet are good for their position (though not great). Rookie Scottie Barnes has shown flashes of being a future point-forward. He can use some subtle head fakes to get defenders leaning the wrong way before dropping a dime, but he’s still just 20 years old and not ready to handle a large offensive burden yet. 

OG’s playmaking is the weakest part of his game, and none of the backups have shown much table-setting ability. The less said about Trent’s passing, the better; he’s a play finisher, not maker.

The Raptors are in the bottom ten in the league for passes made per game, assists, and potential assists. Part of this is due to the preponderance of transition opportunities they create, as an average fast-break usually has few passes compared to a halfcourt set. Still, you won’t see them running the sort of heady motion offense that the Warriors might use.

On the plus side, they get an unusual amount of points from offensive rebounding, where coach Nick Nurse has encouraged his bevy of long-armed players to attack the glass with a ferocity befitting the logo on their jerseys. A truly astonishing number of their possessions look like this:

Offensive rebounding is great, but it sure would be nice to make the first shot every once in a while.

The future

Toronto’s biggest short-term question mark going forward revolves around their defense’s ceiling. This team’s offense likely can’t be top-10 this year given the lack of a superstar offensive option. But if it can hover around average, and if the defense can be in the top-seven? That’s a playoff team that can win a round.

Frankly, that might be optimistic for this season. Transition opportunities dry up in the postseason, and the Raptors’ halfcourt offensive struggles will be exacerbated. 

Defensively, the Raptors have the goods to compete with almost anyone (and have done especially well flummoxing Joel Embiid in the case of a 76ers matchup), but they will likely capitulate to the superior star power of titans in Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and even Miami and Chicago.

Now that Toronto is mostly all healthy and available, the team’s performance over the next few weeks will go a long way towards deciding if they should be buyers, holders, or sellers at the trade deadline. 

Toronto has a surfeit of quality wings and backup big men, plus all their first-round draft picks, so some sort of consolidation trade for a bigger name could be possible. GM Masai Ujiri is always hunting upgrades and sniffing around for stars. 

Just the addition of a quality sixth-man scorer type (the role that fans hoped Toronto filled by trading for Goran Dragic, who has been a literal no-show) could go a long way towards improving this team.

It’s hard to predict the future for Toronto after this season. All five starters are under contract for next season, so we may well see a nearly identical team next year. 

With every key player 27 years old or younger, organic growth could turn a similar-looking team into a much more talented squad. Some combination of Siakam, OG, and Barnes may make another leap to raise the ceiling for this squad offensively. OG and Barnes’ emergence, in particular, will be key.

The Raptors won their championship in 2019 (man, it feels so much longer ago than that) by being very good for a long time and then striking at an opportunity (Kawhi) to become great. That could be the blueprint for this iteration, as well.

But even if nothing materializes, this is a young, fun team on the rise, and fans should enjoy the journey – even if the destination is still unknown.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.