The BioSteel Centre has become the laboratory for the Toronto Raptors' reinvention experiments. During the tail-end of practices that are open to media observation, one can find four rims occupied by shooters, a hat-tip to their designs on internal improvement from beyond the arc. In the far-right corner, a fifth and final hoop is dedicated to the harder, non-habitual challenge of the Raptors' "culture reset" that is playing out, for the most part, on the offensive end.
Lorenzo Brown stands at the top of the key and receives a pick from Jakob Poeltl, who catches the ball on the roll, and bulldozes into assistant coach Nick Nurse, who is trying to stave off the 7-foot center with two pads. Instead of trying to finish through contact, Poeltl fires a drive-and-kick pass to Alfonzo McKinnie, in the corner, who misses a three. After a few more reps, Lucas Nogueira takes Poeltl's place. After that, it's the much-maligned Jonas Valanciunas, who, after a couple tries, starts hitting McKinnie right in the pocket.
“On-time, on-target passes. It’s something I know guys ad nauseam get tired of us talking about it and emphasizing,” says head coach Dwane Casey. “But I'm a firm believer that you are what you emphasize.”
The Raptors’ plan to bring back largely the same personnel for the 2017-18 season yet introduce a modern, pass-happy, 3-point heavy offense was met with reasonable skepticism. It felt like a stilted mandate, the plan of a team that acknowledges the problem but can't muster a solution. If they wanted to change things, why re-sign Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to cap-killing deals, and retain Casey as coach?
So far, they've made it work. At 15-7, the Raptors run the NBA’s fourth-most efficient offense. After finishing second-to-last in the NBA last season in assist ratio — the percentage of a team’s baskets that are assisted — they’re now in the top five. Casey’s goal, in training camp, was to shoot 30 treys per game. They’re shooting 32. The Raptors have always been able to rack them up, but their attack this season is more well-balanced, and they hope, harder to solve in the playoffs. In that regard, they’re certainly less solvable, but they’re still squarely behind the Cavs in Celtics in the Eastern Conference pecking order.
The Raptors, in the end, represent high aspirations with middling results. That is the story of most of us, and most of us don't wallow and recede merely because even at our best, we couldn't be astrophysicists. We try, and sometimes fail, to be good friends, good family members, good employees. Professional sports, of course, veer toward more win-or-go home propositions. Yet the sense of dread that accompanies most good-but-not great teams is conspicuously absent in Toronto. It is hard, it turns out, for mediocrity to become the expressed persona of a team that is so dedicated to maximizing its abilities.
As the Raptors inch closer and closer to their collective best, it is painfully clear they are a cut below elite. Yet the organization is filled to the brim with people who, every day, are striving to be better teammates and coaches.
Whether or not the Raptors truly believe or don't believe they can win a championship is a question best left to psychics. But I can say this: Professional athletes are so defiant, so single-minded, that if the opponent was gravity, they'd fervently contend that it's still anybody's game in the middle of a free-fall. The Raptors, who ran into LeBron two playoffs in a row, know what it's like to fall.
When you're really up against it, self-belief gives way to self-reflection. The Raptors, who plodded around the court, and ran their actions through DeMar DeRozan, the NBA’s last standard-bearer for mid-range basketball, risked going extinct.
That DeMar's parting offseason admission was that the Raptors were toast without LeBron James, but still entered this season with a renewed ambition to re-tailor his game in order to better serve his teammates, is some kind of beautiful. A beautiful that will not veer into the transcendent but will, over time, pay the bills.
“As a competitor,” says DeMar, “you wanna do every and anything to win. Sometimes, that comes with balance.”
Casey, on the other hand, is on his own mission against instinct: biting his tongue, as the Raptors’ hodgepodge of young talent works through their early kinks.
There's Pascal Siakam, busting out overzealous spin moves, taking threes early in the shot clock, dribbling around the world like an oversized Fred VanVleet, bobbling behind-the-back passes in transition. There's Norman Powell, driving into traffic, angles and helpers be damned, while OG Anunoby, fishing for steals, gets back-cut by Courtney Lee again.
“I don't wanna limit myself to just be an energy guy or whatever it might be,” says Siakam. “I want to expand my game, and I'm a hard worker. I started playing basketball late, so I have a lot of things I have to learn.”
To allow reps for Anunoby, Poeltl, VanVleet, Siakam, Powell, and Nogueira, Toronto is employing a 12-man rotation that, at this juncture, isn't showing any signs of tightening. Nobody has a short leash. Everybody's allowed to mess up. After spending three seasons in a row sweating every regular-season loss, the Raptors are finally making like a playoff team and treating it like a breeding ground. Sometimes, you can't act like you've been there until you've actually, you know, been there.
The Raptors, as a result, employ one of the best second units — the best, if you ask CJ Miles — in the NBA. None of the Raptors young guns projects to be a star, but they have helped strike the near-impossible balance of winning now and building for the future.
The team had plenty of reasons not to make it work. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, career scorers, would have to shelve inborn habits. The shortened preseason hindered their ability to effectively implement a new system. The toughest stretch of their season came early, when the Raptors, in the absence of immediate results, would likely be most prone to reverting to old habits. They couldn't hit a shot for the first month of the season. DeRozan was overpassing. Lowry struggled to channel the appropriate moments for aggression.
“Training camp was tough because it was short. Trying to institute a new system, I thought, we're not there yet,” recalls Casey. “We really struggled in those exhibition games, and the first few games.”
Wax cynical if you must. But the Raptors persisted. And because of that, they managed to execute the blueprint for change that has left so many other franchise stars on the trading block and coaches unemployed. The task of real, appreciable change is often impossible at worst, and trying at best. The Raptors have done it, they’ve done it well, and they have no designs on reversion.
A Sideline Story
I am writing this, dear friends, to eat crow. Well, first, I have to tell on myself. There was a juncture of my life (read: the past year) where I was truly convinced that Andre Drummond just didn't like basketball. I wasn't the only one, and hey, there was evidence suggesting we were onto something. A tall dude without a lot of offensive skill who had his first and only All-Star season in a contract year and then proceeded to fall off dramatically in all manner of non-fantasy stats? It was fishy, to say the least.
It turns out that Drummond had it in him to give a shit. A lot of shits, actually. He spent the offseason doubling his free-throw accuracy, which has settled in at 62 percent, allowing his lumbering frame to attract attention down low without being hacked. That is, combined with an attitudinal shift, why he's averaging four assists per game this season — his career high, prior to that, was one. Even when he isn't being doubled, he's done an excellent job of finding cutters from the high post, when opponents try to cheat on pick and rolls. His defense has been a mixed bag. One-on-one, he can't stay in front of quicker guys and ends up in no man's land when he's matched up against spacier guys. But he's gotten better at shutting down traditional pick and rolls, especially with Stanley Johnson on the court, and he's flicked guards out of the restricted area with ease.
I don't know what the backstory is behind Drummond's resurgence (and Detroit's, for that matter). I'll leave that to Lee Jenkins. But what's clear to me now was that I was stereotyping a tall dude. It’s also a reminder that when things aren't right with a player, the explanation is often deeper than what's happening at the surface level.