Culture Change +1: The 2017-18 Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors’ off-season appeared to have been a disappointment in September. Re-signing Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry were good moves; however, these are aging veterans getting huge contracts. With the These moves stopped them from signing any big name free agents, which looked to hold the Raptors in a state of limbo. However, the disappointment has changed into optimism.
The Raptors have undergone a culture change internally, which has led to this change in weather. The architect of the Raptors’ recent success, Masai Ujiri, saw the potential of young guards Fred Van Vleet and Delon Wright. Accordingly, he traded Cory Joseph for cap space to sign C.J. Miles in mid-July, who gave the Raptors some much needed scoring and a greater ability to stretch the floor. Comfortable beyond the arc, Miles has given the Raptors’ offense a new weapon. The Miles move also signaled a change in the Raptors game-plan and their offense.
After the moves by Ujiri, Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey has retooled the Raptors and created a new system for the offense; turning it into one which emphasizes ball movement and encourages their players to shoot for three. Furthermore Casey’s offense has seen the Raptors play more of an up-tempo style, resulting in an increase in pace, from 94.7 in the previous season to 98.3. In doing so, Casey has dug into his depth and bench, which has resulted in an uptick of usage for young players. On paper, the Raptors offensive rating has only improved slightly from last season’s rating (112.3 to 113.5). However, when looking at their assist and three point statistics it becomes apparent where the Raptors have improved. Last season the Raptors ranked dead-last in assists per-game, their offense was static and often relied on isolation. Much of their prior offense did not engage all five players, and made it easier to defend. Team basketball is especially important come the playoffs, in past years the Raptors have been exposed in the playoffs, due to their previous isolation-heavy offense.
This year, the Raptors rank 21st in assists per game, going from 18.5 assists per game to 22.8. The improvement in assists comes largely from their spacing and ball movement. They also have no fear to shoot from three; while last season they shot 24.3 3-pointers per game, this year they have skyrocketed to 32.1. While their 3-point percentage is down from 36.3% to 35.1%, their effective field-goal percentage is up from 51.7% to 53.8%, good enough for 6th in the NBA. This has been Casey’s greatest year in Toronto because of his ability to create an effective team-oriented offense, especially with his use of the second unit and young talent.
Van Vleet and Wright have seen an uptick in minutes and production, and have been a key players in the Raptors Van Vleet’s net rating of 9.9 is 12th best in the NBA, yet is not even the best on the team. Rookie OG Anunoby has the 2nd best net rating in the league (14.4), and the 3rd best offensive rating (115.5). While these numbers are a bit skewed from Anunoby’s small sample size (21.3 minutes per game), the rookie has exceeded all expectations thus far. A perfect fit for the Raptors tough defensive style, he is the perfect two-way starter. Anunoby’s movement and effort on defense may even be more impressive, as he has the ability to lockdown the NBA’s best as a rookie. The rugged Raptors have continued to defend well, but to get players to embrace their new offensive culture, the Raptors needed their best player to buy in.
DeMar DeRozan is a different animal this year, and has been the leader for this Raptors offense. DeRozan’s scoring has dropped from 27.3 points per game to 25.3, but his efficiency, three pointers, and playmaking have all improved. DeRozan is averaging a career-high 5.0 assists per game, and has an effective field goal percentage of 51.8%, also a career-high. An obstacle for the Raptors superstar has been his inability to shoot from three, however, with hard work and an increased volume, DeRozan’s 3-point shooting has improved. He is shooting 3.1 three-pointers a game, which is an increase of 1.4 attempts compared to last season. Additionally, he is knocking down a higher percentage of threes. DeRozan is sporting a career-best 37% 3-point shooting percentage, a huge improvement compared to his 26.6% last season. As DeRozan continues to improve and gain confidence from the 3-point line, the Raptors will become even more potent offensively.
The Raptors are a good basketball team, but they are not great. But, with one move, they can make the jump from good to great. In particular, the Raptors’ frontcourt could be better. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas are not a scary combination; but, the addition of Marc Gasol would see the Raptors become contenders. The Memphis Grizzlies have had a disaster of a season thus far, and are unlikely to make the NBA playoffs. With the season awash, the Grizzlies have discussed moving Gasol. While nothing is imminent, the Raptors have an opportunity to get an NBA all-star. Gasol is potent from three, a former defensive player of the year, an elite rebounder, and an above-average passer. He is a great fit for the Raptors, as he provides rough and tough defense while spreading the floor and moving the ball offensively. This culture change is still in its infancy. It would be solidified and accelerated by acquiring Gasol.
To add, you must subtract. It seems straightforward for the Raptors to subtract from the position they are adding at, which would mean trading Jonas Valanciunas. The Lithuanian, while highly regarded by the Raptors, has never risen to the heights the team had hoped for. His role has been in question for some time, and the new playing style the Raptors have adopted makes JV stand out as a sore spot. Now JV alone would not be enough but, with a first-round selection and a couple of secondary picks, this deal could get done. A comparable deal would be the DeMarcus Cousins deal between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings from a year ago. Gasol’s price would be lower though, as he is an older player and is not as valued as Cousins.
The Raptors have a rare opportunity and need to get this deal done. Players like Gasol are rarely available, let alone on a contract that is not expiring. Gasol’s contract matches the team’s ideal timeline, as DeRozan is in his prime and Lowry and Ibaka will likely only have 2-3 quality years left as starters. Grabbing Gasol is a calculated risk, which would most likely not require parting with valuable assets, outside of JV. The culture change has started well, but it is not fully complete. It needs one more piece: Marc Gasol.