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The Raptors Don’t Need Bigs To Pound The Ball Inside

On March 26, the Toronto Raptors began a game against the Indiana Pacers by pounding the ball in the post. But they weren’t feeding a big man — though they roster two centers,1 both come off the bench when the team is at full strength. Instead, they were playing their own version of small ball: The ostensible small forward OG Anunoby used four possessions in the post, guarded by various Pacers,2 and the Raptors scored 8 points as a direct result. Per Second Spectrum, it was tied for the most points a non-center has created in the post in any first quarter this season.

Such success is far from unique for the Raptors.3 They don’t roster a 7-footer and so are often undersized at the center position, but they are oversized at both forward slots. The Raptors start 6-foot-7 Scottie Barnes, 6-foot-8 Pascal Siakam and 6-foot-7 Anunoby4 together when all three are healthy; each has a wingspan between 7-foot-2 and 7-foot-4, according to their NBA draft combine measurements. Since the 2016 draft, when the Raptors selected Siakam, only two non-bigs5 with wingspans longer than any of Siakam, Anunoby or Barnes have been drafted, and neither plays 20 minutes a game this season. Against most teams, at least one of Toronto’s forwards enjoys a length advantage over his defender. The Raptors’ small ball is not small.

The Raptors feature the fourth-worst half-court offense in the league by points per 100 plays.6 As they battle for home-court advantage in the playoffs, they need to find advantages wherever they can, and superior length in the post is a crucial source. The Raptors can even choose which of the three forwards has a mismatch on his defender; opposing defenders switch pick and rolls involving any combination of the three players approximately half the time, per Second Spectrum.

All three of Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes shoot over 68 percent at the rim. If defenders decline to double-team them in the post, each is capable of scoring, with Barnes especially skilled — ranking 13th in points per chance among players with at least 50 post-ups in single coverage, per Second Spectrum. If defenders clog the lane and alter their positioning to defend the shot, all three can find an open teammate: They each have assist rates above average for their positions. Siakam has drawn the 12th-most double teams in the post this season, though all three are in the top 50.

But however defenses react, to force a shot or a pass, Toronto often finds an advantage. Per Second Spectrum, the Raptors’ average half-court possession yields 0.940 points per chance, but each of the three forwards beats that average on either a shot attempt or a pass out of the post.

Post-ups aren’t just a half-court weapon used to initiate offense; they’re also shortcuts to points in transition. Toronto manipulates size advantages early in the clock; Siakam and Barnes especially run the floor and seal smaller players under the rim, finding easy post points in transition. Barnes leads the league in field goals attempted and points scored in the post in the first eight seconds of the shot clock, scoring 20 on 14 such shots.

A zero-pass possession isn’t always a bad thing for Toronto, which is last in the league in assist percentage. Siakam (fifth) and Barnes (ninth) also rank highly in farthest distance traveled on offense per game,7 making it difficult for opposing bigs to keep up with them. Partially as a result, the Raptors are fifth in the league in frequency of shots taken with between 12 and 24 seconds on the clock on possessions featuring a post-up, and they’re eighth in effective field-goal percentage on those shots. 

The three forwards have different pet moves — Siakam prefers a spin move, Barnes a left-handed hook8 and Anunoby a power backdown — but the upshot remains the same. Beyond the numbers that encapsulate the “output” of the three players’ post-ups, such as points per chance, there are similarities even in some of the “input” numbers that describe their aesthetics.

All three more frequently go left in the post than right. And per Basketball-Reference.com, both Barnes and Siakam are among the top 20 in hook shots attempted on the year; even their accuracies are comparable, with Barnes shooting 53.1 percent on hooks and Siakam 55.6. 

Perhaps because the three seem so interchangeable, the Raptors have not found their most offensive success with all of Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes playing together. Among lineup combinations with at least one of the three on the floor, Toronto’s offensive rating has been the lowest when all three share the court, according to PBP Stats. Post-ups may not offer cumulative benefits in an offensive possession, but they remain the team’s best option, as Toronto’s post-ups average more points per chance than isolations, pick and rolls or handoffs, per Second Spectrum. 

Every team initiates the majority of its offensive possessions through the pick and roll — the Raptors, too, especially in clutch time. But the Raptors don’t seem to reap the same benefits that other teams are finding. They’re the sixth-least-effective pick-and-roll team in the NBA, with lead guard Fred VanVleet ranking 21st in points per chance among 26 players who have run at least 1,500 pick and rolls. Since he injured his knee on Feb. 14 against the New Orleans Pelicans, he’s been even more limited with the ball in his hands. Nick Nurse and the Raptors had to find a different rabbit to pull from the hat. 

The Raptors’ process for creating offensive advantages is unique. No team starts as many similarly sized wings and asks them to spend so much time in the post. It’s impossible to say whether the Raptors turn to the post because it’s such an effective weapon or because their other offensive tools are relatively ineffective. Either way, the post represents another pillar in Toronto’s specialized approach to team building. 

The Raptors have found other unique advantages — they rank second in offensive rebounding percentage and second in transition frequency. But when they’re forced to play in the half court, post-ups have emerged as one of the best options. And with the slower-paced postseason looming, Toronto is going to need every half-court advantage it can find.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa.

  2. Oshae Brissett, Buddy Hield twice and Tyrese Haliburton.

  3. Pascal Siakam is tied for the most post points for a non-center in the fourth quarter of a single game, with seven on Dec. 31 against the Los Angeles Clippers.

  4. Listed heights of NBA players are notoriously untrustworthy, but we’re using the measurements on NBA.com.

  5. Keita Bates-Diop and Justin Jackson.

  6. Through games of April 3.

  7. Minimum 50 games played.

  8. The first basket of his career was an off-hand skyhook.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.

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