It’s a different narrative for a defending NBA champion, trying to repeat without the team’s best player from a season ago.
With a lack of evidence that it can be done, most experts have written off the Raptors’ chances at reclaiming the Larry O.B. without a true superstar. The Detroit Pistons of the mid-2000s serve as the only real example in recent history of such a roster managing the feat, and Toronto’s playoff transformation from the previous five seasons to what transpired over the course of their 2019 post-season run showed the difference a player of Kawhi Leonard’s calibre can make.
Head coach Nick Nurse has already called on Pascal Siakam to challenge himself to become ‘The Man’ while Fred VanVleet has said he’s more than happy to make up for a sizeable chunk of the shot attempts that Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left up for grabs. OG Anunoby will be looking to rebound from a nightmare sophomore season while the organization will be eager to see if one of Stanley Johnson or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — if not both — can truly seize their opportunity at a fresh start.
This season very much has the look of figuring out what’s what and, as a result, the Raptors are faced with the expectations they only have of themselves. While the value of a post-season defense breaker like Kawhi and role playing championship whisperer like Green holds colossal value, there are aspects of the 2018-19 Raptors that can be carried over into 2019-20 to keep them competing at a high level.
The Raptors scored a league-best 1.19 points per transition possession and got out on the break at the third-most frequent rate in the league. It accounted for just under a quarter of their offense and Nick Nurse’s preferred style of play on the defensive end lends to this being a major success factor once again this season.
A big part of transition offense is creating fast break opportunities with great defense, and the Raptors — at their best last season — were organized chaos on that end of the floor: maniacally scrambling yet thoroughly recovering to suffocate opponents. They forced 15 percent of opponent’s possessions into turnovers during the regular season, good for ninth best, before ratcheting things up a notch in the playoffs to a second-best 16.1 percent, behind only an Indiana Pacers team that played four games.
Even when the Raptors didn’t get stops, they did a tremendous job of pushing the pace and throwing the ball ahead to teammates leaking out. Just over a fifth of their offense came within the first six seconds of the shot clock, a mark bettered by just four other teams. The Los Angeles Lakers showed last season that faster isn’t necessarily better, but the Raptors have the tools to make it work at a high clip.
This was a HUGE 5 pt swing in the game. GS has great ball movement and a wide open three for Cook, he misses it and the Raptors are able to break off it leading to a Siakam layup. If Cook makes the three it is a two point game, after the layup is back to seven pic.twitter.com/o32D83rVp0— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) May 31, 2019
Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors in transition scoring last season but Pascal Siakam’s five transition points per game were only a half-point behind the 2019 Finals MVP. Kyle Lowry’s pull-up three-point shooting is certainly an area where the Raptors could look for a boost after a down season last year, especially in the absence of Danny Green’s transition triples. After shooting a remarkable 41.2 percent on pull-up threes on 524 attempts in the two seasons prior, Lowry only made 50 of his 171 attempts (29.2 percent) last year. The two years where he was lights out, Lowry snatching rebounds and putting the defense on its heels before pulling up for a triple became a trademark. There was less of that with all the weapons he had at his disposal in 2018-19, so consistency in him looking for those opportunities once again could potentially bring back the success he’s had in the past.
Ultimately, Siakam holds the key to maximizing this aspect of Toronto’s offense as his ability to defend the perimeter and break ahead of the pack in general had been a tremendous asset to the team well before his breakout campaign. He’ll likely see most of his minutes at the four once again, but how he fares with his minutes at the three could be an X-factor in Toronto’s transition efficiency.
When he’s at the small forward position (something Nurse suggested he’s going to look at this season), it’s likely Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will fill the other two frontcourt positions, and so their ability to play big will be another important factor. They did so exceedingly well against the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs last year, and looking specifically at that matchup, the 76ers playing big with both Al Horford and Joel Embiid does lend to that being an option to go to once again.
There may be times where opponents don’t have enough shooting on the court to force the Raptors to scramble and so they can maximize the skill they have on the floor while being big. Gasol’s ability to operate as a playmaker and three-point shooter from the top of the arc can potentially change the calculus of how often Nurse decides to go big as his assertiveness from that region of the court can still allow the Raptors to play four-out with Ibaka inside.
Boston, Indiana, Brooklyn and Milwaukee are on the other end of the spectrum looking to play wing-ball more often than not, and that does theoretically lend towards more of what we saw last year in the form of Siakam at the four and one of Gasol or Ibaka at the five.
Disciplined but instinctual halfcourt defense
Toronto finished tied for second in halfcourt defense last year (with Indiana and Milwaukee and behind Utah), allowing 91.4 points per-100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. What made the Raptors so special in this area outside of the talent was the high collective IQ on the floor at all times.
Players who liked to trust their instincts and gamble from time to time had the freedom to do so because they had anchors like Ibaka and Gasol behind them, Lowry as the head of the snake, as well as tremendous trust and chemistry that when they would look to make a play out of natural reaction, defensive rotation after defensive rotation would follow in perfect sync.
In the play below, Giannis Antetokounmpo looks to back down Siakam while Malcolm Brogdon retreats from the paint to the right corner to ensure Leonard can’t offer help. No problem. It’s Gasol instead who goes hard enough at Giannis to force him to retreat and look for the man Gasol left — Brook Lopez — only to see that VanVleet has rotated over. That’s followed by Lowry and Leonard having their respective teammate’s backs before Hill is finally forced to settle for a contested, off-balance finish at the rim.
This was the key defensive possession from the Raptors. Giannis in the post, Gasol comes to double but watch the closeouts, rotations and help out of it. That's the key. FVV ends up helping on two drives. The communication, effort and awareness was huge. pic.twitter.com/T8akKDMLVZ— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 26, 2019
The Raptors also maximized their defensive potential by limiting transition opportunities for their opponent. Offensive rebounds were hardly a priority — they finished third from the bottom in the category — allowing themselves to have a set defense more often than not. That resulted in allowing the third-fewest transition opportunities off live rebounds, per Cleaning the Glass, as well as the fifth-best defensive efficiency off live rebounds at 110.6 points allowed per-100 possessions.
Taking care of the basketball and putting the ball in the basket at a high rate also played their part.
Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson are new players added to the mix who present defense as their primary strength and should get in line with Nurse’s principles fairly comfortably.
“I think with any good situation, winning situation, it's always a culture, so just get in line and do your job,” Johnson said. “I remember one of the first things that Fred said when we were at one of our first camps was, you know, we work here. So if I can go in and work, I can fit right in with everybody else. It's kind of a respect thing.”
Success without Kawhi
Not to be forgotten, Toronto went 17-5 in the absence of Leonard last season, and while a .773 win percentage is highly unlikely over the course of 82 games, it shows that the Raptors had no problem finding ways to win when load management was in effect. With Leonard gone, the Raptors should look more like the democratic offense that they deployed last season in his absence. This can have its holes in the playoffs, but should work to their advantage plenty during the regular season.
Naturally, there are the caveats that come with a smaller sample size but it’s understandable why Toronto needed to predicate ball movement in their superstar’s absence. With less quality isolation options available on this roster, the Raptors have no choice but to be greater as a whole than the sum of its parts, and they proved perfectly adept at doing so last season.
“I’m not sure sitting here last year any of us would’ve said, ‘OK, here’s our pecking order of scoring: It’s gonna be Kawhi, Pascal,’” Nurse said at Media Day. “I think even in the playoffs we had someone who was sitting here who was saying Pascal was only the third or fourth option. I think that one of our big successes a year ago, and you guys were all there to watch it, was so many huge impactful offensive moments from every single one of those guys: Fred, Kyle, Marc, Serge, Norm. There were moments where they all had monster nights in the playoffs.
“I don’t really know if I believe in a primary, secondary, tertiary scorer. We’ll just see how it all unfolds and move the ball and get everybody going. We want to play open and free.”
Raptors ball movement leading to two 3️⃣’s pic.twitter.com/hekIXTRgvL— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) June 14, 2019
An facet that will test the Raptors’ ball movement numbers will be the loss of three-point shooting. They famously finished tops in the league after the Gasol trade in three-point percentage last season but the natural shrinking of the court some of the personnel will bring could hinder the degree to which they’re able to rack up the assist totals.
Nurse also stated at training camp that one of his priorities has been to take away some of the pride that comes with being a starter in the league, providing ample opportunity for different players to step into the limelight. VanVleet, Powell, McCaw and even Anunoby could figure as the starting two-guard over the course of the season, and the confidence in knowing their touches and opportunities will come should overshadow the need to do too much.
Barring any further transactions before the trade deadline, this team has all it needs to be in the thick of the race for home court advantage. This is a team that won at least 48 games for five straight seasons before Kawhi’s arrival, and that winning residue should hold them in good stead this upcoming season.
More Raptors coverage from Yahoo Sports