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Why the Raptors’ defense fell apart this season

A top-10 unit a year ago, Toronto’s defense has stumbled this season.

New York Knicks v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Amid a 2021-22 NBA regular season that saw various second-half surges, the Toronto Raptors’ late season run was among the finest. They went 25-11 and vaulted to the Eastern Conference’s No. 5 seed at 48-34. Over that span, they were fifth in defensive rating and eighth in net rating. On the year, they were 10th overall defensively and 10th in half-court defense, according to Cleaning The Glass. Their glut of rangy, switchable wings produced turnovers better than any other team and did enough to wall off the paint to hide their size deficiencies.

Despite a 4-2 first-round loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA playoffs, optimism seemed to pervade throughout Toronto under the belief that connectivity and an identity were shaped during that 36-game closing stretch. A full season of stalwarts in Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes understanding one another’s games would conceivably translate to success from the outset. Playing catchup after a rocky start wouldn’t be necessary.

Seven month later, the Raptors are 21-27 and tied with the Washington Wizards for 11th in the East. They’re two games behind the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls and five games behind the No. 6 Miami Heat. While hurdles persist offensively, the vision for this team was fielding a competent attack to balance a menacing defense. Unlike last year, that hasn’t manifested.

Toronto is 13th offensively (Siakam is a really good engine!) and 18th defensively, including 22nd in the half-court. It continues to pace the league in opposing turnover rate. But everything else has cratered and that’s glaringly apparent when takeaways aren’t secured. It allows the eighth-highest rim frequency (18th last year) and eighth-highest three-point frequency (ninth). It’s 22nd in opposing rim field goal percentage (22nd) and 28th in opposing three-point percentage (18th).

The only team conceding a worse effective field goal percentage is the San Antonio Spurs, which ranks last in defensive rating by over 1.5 points per 100 possessions. Outlier shooting luck isn’t significantly afflicting the Raptors either. According to Cleaning The Glass, their expected opposing effective goal percentage ranks 27th. The turnovers are insulating them from being bottom of the barrel. Avoid turnovers against this club and preferable shots are abundant.

Toronto’s team-building ethos is built upon big, mobile wings. The lone player on the roster taller than 6-foot-9 is 7-foot-1 rookie center Christian Koloko. The objective is to prevent teams from reaching the rim, often by way of steals or deflections and brazen help at the nail or from the strong-side corners. Such a style presents a tenuous margin for error at the point of attack and invites a bevy of triples (30th in opposing corner three-point rate two years running). It worked in 2021-22. It hasn’t this season.

Opponents are reaching the rim much more often. The difference between an open and closed driving lane is slim. Defense is not static or some sort of constantly reliable skill only influenced by each individual’s effort. Year-to-year performance should be considered similarly fickle to shooting variance. Toronto’s past two years illuminate that.

The Raptors are alarmingly disorganized for a team with eight holdovers from last season’s rotation. They’re routinely botching switches in a switch-heavy scheme, miscommunicating on ball-screens and losing weakside cutters. Low man help is spotty. Even in late January, they’re still regularly discombobulated. They look unfamiliar with each other.

The reason they lack cohesion is likely cyclical. Their scheme is predicated on gambling for steals and aggressive coverages to mitigate their interior issues. That thrusts them into scramble mode all the time. Running around like that and identifying requisite rotations on the fly is mentally and physically taxing. Physical and mental exhaustion breed mistakes and health concerns.

Toronto’s depth is also quite poor and head coach Nick Nurse plays his dudes a ton of minutes. Every starter is logging at least 32.9 minutes per game. Siakam, Anunoby and Fred VanVleet are playing 36.5 or more each night. That hectic gameplan, in conjunction with the minutes load, leads to injuries, which inserts different players into the rotation. When the lineups are constantly being shuffled around, it’s arduous to establish cohesion. Synergy is imperative for every defense, especially one like Toronto’s, and it’s simply not been there this year.

Both the front office and coaching staff are culpable. The roster is highly flawed and shallow. As a result, the rotation is thin and the defensive scheme is chaotic. Injuries occur. The problems compound. A disappointing 2022-23 arises. Every game, every possession, every interaction is mercurial.

The Raptors’ point-of-attack defense has also struggled mightily this season. Presumably due to various injuries, VanVleet’s lateral quickness and on-ball chops have regressed. Quite susceptible to blow-bys, he no longer resembles the All-Defensive Team-caliber guy of the prior few years. His intersection of fluid screen navigation, point-of-attack stoutness and feisty help at the nail were vital when he was healthy last season. His decline is a vital part of these warts.

Barnes is also regularly tasked with on-ball duties and is ill-equipped for them. Others, like Siakam and Gary Trent Jr., apply vigorous pressure hoping to snag takeaways or crowd an assignment’s handle, which spurs breakdowns. The demand to pick up ball-handlers full-court surely factors in as well. That’s both risky, particularly in this rim protection environment, and tiring.

They don’t have a backline enforcer to blot out errors, defend multiple guys at once and restore order to quell advantages. Breakdowns expand after they begin. Rarely are they extinguished. There is nobody inside to anchor everything and provide stability. Every team needs a custodian. The Raptors are missing one. Mayhem is the essence of their defense and it’s unsustainable.

When somebody turns the corner downhill, nothing will deter them or force the offense to reconsider its decision. Even if not every 7-footer is the same defensively, the sheer size, to wide-ranging degrees, will give folks pause. That doesn’t happen against Toronto because there’s an absence of intimidation.

Toronto’s poor rim protection is the undercurrent of its collective interior shortcomings. It’s 20th in defensive rebounding rate and 25th in opposing free throw rate. Offenses face little pushback venturing into the paint if they protect the ball. When they arrive, the Raptors resort to frantic help-side rotations, many of which conclude with free throws.

They can’t handle size capably, and Joel Embiid’s dominant first-round showing last spring emphasized that. There’s no scheme versatility, though they have played much more drop coverage this season. Just because the likes of Siakam, Anunoby, Barnes and Precious Achiuwa can toggle across individual matchups does not mean the entire defense is prepared for any stylistic matchup; none of them are full-time 5s, primary rim protectors or the anchor of an effective defensive rebounding group.

Versatility exists in multitudes conceptually. Toronto embodies it in certain aspects and completely eschews it in others. Its flexibility is limited because of its fondness for versatile wings. That archetype is valuable and practical, but any emphasis on a singular archetype, no matter how malleable, will breed an incomplete roster. The Raptors are a defense geared toward generating turnovers to fuel their transition. They can’t adapt to protect the paint or the arc when required. That’s rigidity.

Toronto doesn’t siphon off the rim or curtail three-point volume. When teams find those shots, they enjoy considerable profits from the highest-value spots on the floor. That’s a disastrous combination, almost regardless of how many turnovers a team plucks or forces.

A 13th-ranked offense can suffice — a 16th-ranked one did last year. The Heat (26-22), Milwaukee Bucks (30-17) and Los Angeles Clippers (25-24) are all 22nd or worse in offensive rating, while holding a top-six seed and record above .500. They each tout a top-10 defense as well, with Milwaukee (second) and Miami (fourth) placing among the top five. All of them start actual centers; Milwaukee and Miami are fairly versatile schematically, too. Those boxes are unchecked for Toronto.

Last season, the Raptors’ defense buoyed a middling offense and they won 48 games; even over that 25-11 sprint to the playoffs, the offense ranked 20th. The inverse isn’t viable for them, though. With poor shooting and ball-handling depth, the offensive ceiling is capped. The top-10 defense of 2021-22 relied on volatility that has since spiraled into a nightly frenzy.

There’s still nearly three months to sharpen the issues plaguing them, but it feels increasingly difficult to bank on that outcome. The roster construction and coaching do not afford this group much leeway on either end. It’s escaped them two years running now and sits at the heart of Toronto’s troubles.