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The Raptors Changed Their Whole Offense. Is It Good Enough To Beat LeBron?

After the Toronto Raptors were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Toronto team president Masai Ujiri was visibly frustrated at the end-of-year press conference. The 4-0 drubbing marked the second straight year that the Cavaliers ended the Raptors’ season — they lost to the Cavs in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals as well — and Ujiri was searching for answers for why his team came up short yet again. Since Ujiri rejoined the organization for the start of the 2013-14 season, the Raptors have accumulated the fifth-most regular-season wins of any team in the league, yet they have won just three playoff series.

“The one-on-one basketball we play, we have to question that,” Ujiri said of the Raptors’ offensive playing style. “We have to really look at it, look at the league and evaluate the way we play, and say, ‘Hey, is this working?’”

By the sound of Ujiri’s comments, one might have guessed that Toronto’s offense was to blame. But Ujiri’s team actually ranked sixth in offensive efficiency that year and fifth the year before. In fact, through December of last season, the Raptors had one of the best offensive ratings ever. This level of efficiency might have been enough in another era — but, with LeBron still in his prime and still in the East, Ujiri knew Toronto would have to change the way it scored. Ujiri’s words marked the beginning of an offseason in which he officially pushed the “culture reset” button.

So far this season, the Raptors have drastically changed the way they play on offense, reducing the number of inefficient midrange shots and their relentless reliance on the backcourt pairing of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.1 In short, they’re finally embracing the style of offense that the best NBA teams adopted years ago — namely, the pace-and-space style perfected by the Golden State Warriors. Toronto is now playing with more speed and shooting more from the outside.

The alterations have been so dramatic that a decline in efficiency could have been expected while the team came to grips with its new style — that the learning curve would be felt for at least a few months. But that hasn’t been the case; the Raptors have beaten all expectations in their transition. In fact, Toronto’s offense is scoring even more efficiently this year than it was last year.

Under head coach Dwane Casey, Toronto has traditionally played some of the league’s slowest-paced basketball. In the 2011-12 season (Casey’s first at the helm), the Raptors averaged 91.6 possessions per 48 minutes, third-fewest in the NBA,2 and also ranked third from the bottom in fast-break points per 100 possessions. Through 26 games this season, the Raptors rank 11th in pace with 97.9 possessions per 48 minutes. But it’s not just that the Raptors are playing at a faster pace. They’re sharing the ball more — DeRozan is averaging a career-high 5.2 assists per game — which is leading to a higher team assist ratio and easier shots. The only real decline from a year ago is Toronto’s three-point percentage, which currently stands at 35 percent.3

None of this would have been possible without the efforts of Toronto’s backups. After an offseason that saw the bench depleted with talent and experience — Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker, Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll were either traded or signed for another team in free agency — the Raptors somehow still have one of the deepest lineups in the game. Primarily through the draft and trades, Ujiri and his front office have quietly put together one of the best backup units in the league, and after two months of the season, the Raptors’ reserves rank No. 4 in net rating, which measures offensive and defensive efficiency, and are fifth in average minutes played per game.

While Norm Powell and rookie OG Anunoby have shared starting honors on the wing so far this season, a trio of sophomores has been the core of the bench’s success. Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam, selected with the ninth and 27th overall picks in the 2016 draft, respectively, have become one of the most promising reserve frontcourts. And after going undrafted in 2016, point guard Fred Van Vleet has played himself into the rotation and currently ranks eighth among all bench players in net rating.4 Ujiri’s ability to hit on multiple draft picks and develop the team’s young talent has become even more crucial in an era when the ballooning salary cap has handcuffed many teams in the quality of free agents they can sign. And Toronto may have its star bench unit intact for years to come: The Raptors are one of only three teams with at least five players 25 years old or younger to have played at least 10 games and averaged 15 minutes or more per game so far this season.5

All of the changes, and improvements, Toronto has made on offense this year might not mean a whole lot if it can’t beat the league’s elite. The Raptors went 10-15 during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons against teams with a CARMELO rating6 of 1600 or more, and they have started the 2018 season 1-3. Time will tell whether they’ve done enough to get over the proverbial hump — aka LeBron James — and make the NBA Finals. If they can’t do that, all the regular season wins will mean nothing — regardless of what style they play.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The pair had usage rates of 34.2 and 24.9 percent, respectively, while on the court last season.

  2. Ahead of only Orlando and New Orleans.

  3. Down from 36.3 percent last season.

  4. Among bench players with at least 15 minutes per game in at least 10 games.

  5. Charlotte and Sacramento each have six players.

  6. Career-Arc Regression Model Estimator with Local Optimization.

Daniel Levitt is a sports writer at FiveThirtyEight. He’s an alum of the University of Missouri.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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