The Toronto Raptors’ start to the 2020-21 NBA season has been bizarre. They sit at 7-10, but they’ve led by double-digits at some point during six of their losses. They collected two consecutive 1-point losses that both ended with potential game-winners from Pascal Siakam spilling out of the hoop. Perhaps strangest of all is that the Raptors’ failures can’t be explained by the two factors that seem most important in today’s NBA: defense and 3-point shooting.
Toronto’s defense has been worse than last season’s second-best unit, ranked as the 16th-best in the league entering Tuesday night’s games. There have been some single-game letdowns, but those aren’t enough to explain Toronto’s becoming a sub-.500 team. Defense does explain some of the Raptors’ woes, as Toronto enjoys the 14th-best defensive rating in losses and the seventh-best defensive rating in wins. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Neither can long-range shooting explain Toronto’s record, as the Raptors have connected on 37.5 percent of triples versus the league average of 36.5 percent. And the Raptors have created good looks. A greater share of their 3-point attempts this year have been open and wide-open compared to last year, and they’ve shot 38.5 percent on such shots versus 38.4 last year. Relative to their peers, they’ve been a better shooting team in losses than wins, shooting the seventh-highest percentage in the former and ninth-best in the latter.
Toronto is actually tied for the league lead in 3-point attempts per game. The last time a sub-.500 team led the league in 3-pointers attempted over a full season was in 2008-09, when Jamal Crawford threw up seven attempts per game for the woeful New York Knicks.
Shooting, like defense, does not fully explain Toronto’s serious yet mysterious drop in winning rate. So where have the Raptors gone wrong?
The Raptors have struggled with the most foundational element of offensive basketball: making short-range shots after driving to the hoop.
To some extent, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Last year, the Raptors managed to finish 53-19 despite finishing drives with the eighth-worst field-goal percentage in the league, at 45.6. This season has been even worse. Over their first six games, when they went 1-5, the Raptors passed out of 52.4 percent of drives while shooting only 36.4 percent on those attempts they did manage. Those are remarkable numbers: Since 2013-14, only four teams have shot below 40 percent on drives over a full season.
The Raptors’ drives have improved since that awful start, and they’re now shooting 42.7 percent on drives as a team. But they’re still on track for some historic markers, particularly when it comes to an aversion to shooting after driving. On the season, they’re passing out of 48.7 percent of drives, which would be the highest share in the seven full seasons for which we have data. Given that the past two Raptors’ squads own two of the top eight rates since 2013-14, it’s reasonable to expect this season’s trend to continue.
|Pass% on drives
Being unable to score directly out of drives is the makeup of bad offense, no matter how many triples you fling. Hot 3-point streaks can build leads — and to reiterate, the Raptors have held double-digit leads in six of their losses — but low-variance shots, like those taken around the rim, are required to hold leads. When the triples stop falling, the Raptors need to find a consistent source of offense, and drives have not delivered to start the season.
There are plenty of explanations for Toronto’s deplorable drives. Drivers have fumbled the ball, jumped away from contact and missed easy shots. Handles have been loose. But the problems extend beyond execution. The Raptors lost the bulk of their center rotation over the offseason, and their free-agent center additions, Aron Baynes and Alex Len, were clogging the paint on offense in the early going. As a result, those two own two of the three worst on-off offensive ratings on the team. To address those problems, the Raptors waived Len on Jan. 19 and took Baynes out of the rotation for three games earlier in the month before working him in more slowly in recent weeks. They have scored at an excellent rate in the half-court without Len or Baynes on the court.
The team’s difficulties — and also its recent upturn — have been best exemplified by the play of its reigning All-NBA Second Team member. And as Toronto has faced the causes of its attacking afflictions, Siakam’s play has improved.
Siakam was an effective driver for the majority of last season. In 2019-20, he shot a solid 44.2 percent on 10.0 drives per game. This season has been slightly better, shooting 49.1 percent on 11.5 drives per game. But Siakam’s success driving toward the rim has also correlated with whether Toronto wins or loses. His accuracy, more than anything else, has been the differentiator.
|Drives per game
Siakam has suffered driving difficulties before. During last year’s playoffs, he drove 10.2 times per game and shot only 37.3 percent. Siakam’s inability to finish at the rim was a key factor in Toronto’s second-round loss to the Boston Celtics. The Raptors posted a defensive rating of 106.4 in that series, only slightly worse than their regular-season mark of 104.7, but they couldn’t score enough to advance to the East Conference finals.
That issue carried over to this season.
Siakam’s troubles are starting to ease in fits and starts. He has a history as an efficient driver; it’s likely that the stretch from last year’s playoffs to the start of this season was just a slump, if a long one. And slumps eventually end.
In a Jan. 4 loss to the same Celtics who clamped him in the playoffs, Siakam managed to stabilize his play, scoring 22 points on solid efficiency. He followed that with excellent driving games against the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors. From Jan. 4 to 11, Siakam shot 52.2 percent on his drives. The Raptors may have gone 1-4 over that stretch, but they enjoyed a net rating of +3.1 when Siakam played. That mark was -16.6 over Toronto’s first five games, lowest on the team among players who played at least 10 minutes per game. In related news, Siakam shot 35.3 percent on drives during those first games.
That correlative trend between Siakam’s driving success and Toronto’s overall success has continued. Since Toronto’s loss on Jan. 11, the Raptors have gone 4-1 with a net rating of +9.0 when Siakam has played, and 1-1 without him. He has shot a scorching 61.5 percent on drives over that stretch, which is a top-15 mark leaguewide. And as Toronto has started winning, Siakam has actually experienced a downturn in his 3-point shooting, rather than a hot streak. Siakam has shot only 14.3 percent from deep since Jan. 11, advancing the case that it’s his driving success, not his shooting accuracy, that has lifted Toronto out of the basement of the league.
To be fair, trying to isolate three interrelated elements of basketball in defense, shooting and driving is like trying to look at your back in the mirror. They feed into each other. A successful drive means Toronto manipulates the defense, reaching the paint and opening space behind the arc for triples. And in turn, made shots allow the defense to set up and play in the half-court rather than in transition. As Toronto has started winning again, its defense, shooting and driving have improved together.
The on-court clouds that have darkened Toronto’s early season could be clearing. Without someone creating and finishing near the hoop, the Raptors don’t make sense on offense — no matter how many triples they launch at the rim. Siakam often fills that role, and as he’s improved, the Raptors have looked much more like their old selves. Wins have followed. Failing to convert the most efficient shot in basketball was Toronto’s failing to start the season, and it has become their redemption since.
The NBA may be a league defined by the 3-pointer, but the Raptors are proving that you have to master the drive before you can hope to win anywhere else.
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