Blake Kennedy is a basketball coach and official with an appreciation for the burgeoning field of NBA statistical analysis. He has used those tools to inform fans as well as to consult other high school coaches in establishing statistical methods for their own programs. You can read more of his work at The Hoops Institute blog and he’s on Twitter @BorisDK1.
Dwane Casey must love a challenge. Taking over a young, losing team with obvious character flaws usually isn’t a first option for most coaches, but Casey embraced it. The challenges lie in identifying the few things he can reasonably hope to improve in one year with the biggest payoff going forward.
Going beyond platitudes such as “changing the culture” and “improving the defense”, there are three specific things upon which Dwane Casey should not only focus starting in training camp, but carry on all year. These three touchstones are things the team struggled at last year, and must start to improve now. These won’t stop the tank from rumbling on, but it will help build a foundation for later success.
The first area that Casey should focus on is the Raptors’ ability to contain the ball on the perimeter, starting in transition. The Raptors had significant technical and motivational issues in that regard, ranging from players not sprinting hard in their first three steps after the ball changes possession to the habit of Jose Calderon running away from the ball and forcing a big man to try to stop the ball outside the three-point arc. It is little surprise that last year the Raptors ranked 27 out of 30 NBA teams in the ratio of opponents’ free throw attempts to field goal attempts.
When you can’t contain the basketball, the result is straight-line drives and the result of those is usually a layup or a trip to the line. Casey has already started teaching the team to focus more on containing the basketball rather than over-extending yourself defensively by applying pressure you cannot manage, and this is a good first step. The impetus of this becomes doubly strong when it’s remembered that Andrea Bargnani is still at least partially responsible for protecting the painted area, no matter what position he’s playing.
The second area that needs to be a focus is the rebounding duties and execution of the wing players. Casey wants to implement a packline defense in order to provide predictable, early and easy help in guarding the basketball; this is absolutely what he should be doing, in my opinion. The catch for that style of defense is that when there is a situation where help needs to be applied to the basketball, that usually leads to a small-guarding-big mismatch on the weak side. It’s one thing to force a miss, but the possession isn’t over until the rebound is secured.
While it’s extremely difficult for players to hold their own on the backboards with players several inches taller and considerably stronger, the reality is that a huge amount of the chances for the defense’s success falls on the shoulders of DeMar DeRozan and the other wings. If they have the determination and the toughness to protect their own backboard, then the long-term prospects for this team defensively increase substantially.
The third area of focus for Casey has to be teaching basic ball screen fundamentals to his young perimeter players. Even more than teaching the defensive reads and how they communicate that, the basic footwork and attack has to be reinforced. This applies to DeRozan the most.
Simply put, DeRozan has never in his NBA career taken a diagonal set-up step opposite the angle of attack when he does receive a ball screen. The ballhandler must set the defender up to either bring him into the jersey of the screener or to attack opposite the screen when the defense forces the ball opposite the screen. That set-up step has to include a ball fake and has to be on a diagonal (and not completely opposite the intended direction) so the ballhandler can explode out of the set-up and into the attack. Just by adding this to his game, DeRozan could probably put himself in a situation to double his number of assists, let alone easier shots and more free throw attempts.
Little things become huge in the NBA. We’ve already seen Casey comment on how they’re working on these with Jerryd Bayless, but there needs to be reinforcement and definite success with him, DeRozan and James Johnson in this regard. If he can immerse himself in some John Wooden terminology, his players should leave practice every day with the maxim, “be quick, but don’t hurry” ringing in their ears.
It’s going to be a long season; we all know that. Casey should know that better than anybody. His real challenge is to effect permanent change on a team that really tends to quit on the basics of the game when things start to go badly. But if he can go into next summer seeing meaningful improvement in all these areas, then he will know that whatever the Raptors’ record indicates, this season will have been a success.