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Cory Joseph left the Spurs and got even better

A lot of people thought the Raptors overpaid Cory Joseph this summer, but they saw his potential when others didn't.

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Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Taking a flawed player away from the Spurs' ecosystem is like rubbing salt into a wound. That's why DeJuan Blair sits at the end of the Wizards' bench, Tiago Splitter hasn't solved the Hawks' rebounding problem and Gary Neal is chucking away on his fifth team in two and a half years.

You can therefore understand why many scratched their heads when Toronto gave Cory Joseph a four-year, $30 million deal. Joseph was young, but he never solidified a consistent role in San Antonio. You rarely see the Spurs holding a role player back, so why guarantee that much cash?

Masai Ujiri bet otherwise, and he's been proven right. Joseph's combination of dogged defense and secondary playmaking has been a perfect fit for the surging Raptors. He's adapted his game to fit with both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, allowing the Raptors to stagger their minutes to prop up the rest of the bench.

Joseph cannot run an offense alone. His jumper is too inconsistent and he's more shifty than quick. But his handle is tight, his technique of running his man into screens is sound and he changes speeds just well enough to occasionally fool inattentive defenders.

That's enough to toss Joseph a piece of the playmaking pie, which means Lowry and DeRozan don't need to fill up on the whole thing. The Lowry/Joseph combination has been especially potent because Lowry has the freedom to deploy his slippery off-ball cutting game when Joseph has the ball. Toronto outscores opponents by more than 15 points per 100 possessions when Lowry and Joseph share the court.

Of course, Lowry could also pass off the playmaking burden last season when he played with Lou Williams or Greivis Vasquez. Offensively, those two were more than capable, though Joseph's willingness to defer to Lowry is noteworthy.

The major difference between Joseph and the players he replaced is on the other end. Whereas Williams and Vasquez couldn't defend a chair, Joseph is one of the league's toughest point guard stoppers. His niche in San Antonio was pressuring ball-handlers full court for short bursts. He isn't quite that aggressive in Toronto, but he still in opponents' faces.

Joseph's tenacity is important because of Toronto's defensive scheme change. The Raptors adopted a much more conservative approach to defending pick-and-rolls, with big men dropping back instead of hedging out to the ball. That strategy, while sensible, puts guards on an island to some degree because the help isn't always going to arrive quickly.

That's why it's important that Joseph is such a pest. He locks in to ball-handlers so hard that screeners don't have a lot of room to knock him off. A pick-and-roll dies if the screener can't even give his man separation from his primary defender.

In that way, Joseph short-circuits opponents' sets and makes them regroup. That's why the Raptors are more than nine points better defensively per 100 possessions with Joseph in the game.

That number is slightly skewed because Joseph often goes against second units, yet that dominance in those minutes fuels the Raptors' success. Toronto is battering opponents when they play four subs and either Lowry or DeRozan. Joseph's defense at the point of attack and his ability to play both guard spots on the other end are major reasons why.

Credit Ujiri and the Raptors for pulling off the improbable. They've taken a role player away from the Spurs and found a more important job for him.