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.
Note: This post was meant to go up on Wednesday, so the numbers will have changed slightly after Wednesday’s night’s game.
I can honestly say I didn’t see this coming.
Any favourable odds you want to imagine would not have been enough to persuade me, prior to this season, to put money on the notion that the Raptors would be the 28th ranked team in points / 100 possessions in the NBA after 13 games. There’s no way I would have taken that bet.
Yet, that’s exactly where they are. Not only are they generally inefficient offensively, but in every single one of the Four Factors they are just not getting the job done. They currently sit ranked 23rd in effective field goal percentage, 26th in turnover percentage, 24th in offensive rebounding percentage and 22nd in free throws / field goal attempts. In other words, they don’t do a single thing well.
Now, they weren’t great offensively last year; they ended up ranked 21st in points per 100 possessions. But they were better than this – much better than this. When you look at the individual players, all of them have taken a major hit in their personal efficiency except two: Jose Calderon (up 8 points per 100 possessions) and Andrea Bargnani (up 4 points per 100 possessions). Looking at individuals’ offensive ratings (Points Produced per 100 Individual Possessions), almost everybody has plummeted: Rasual Butler, down 34 points; James Johnson, down 23 points; Ed Davis, down 20 points; Amir Johnson, down 19 points; DeMar DeRozan, down 15 points; Leandro Barbosa, down 15 points. Usually, a swing by more than 6 points in a year is substantial; these are simply massive.
With everybody’s efficiency generally down, this begs the question as to why? What’s causing the entire team to free-fall offensively – especially when players have established track records as efficient players? I’m sure Dwane Casey would be coaching a much better team if he could have figured out an easy solution by now, but obviously since almost everybody on the team has taken a massive hit in their efficiency, there has to be
something on a general level that’s affecting everything and everybody.
It’s easy to point to DeRozan and Butler and point out that they’re wildly inefficient this year, and that it’s hurting the team; the larger question is why that should be the case when they have proven to be much more efficient throughout their careers? That “thing” is largely the result of playing at a slower pace combined with a lack of playmaking and poor preparation and execution.
The Raptors have fully abandoned any pretense of a transition attack this year. We’ll leave a discussion of the different varieties of transition attacks for another day.Their pace (possessions per 48 minutes) has dropped from 10th in the NBA last year, to 28th this year. No doubt this has been done for two reasons: to assist the team’s transition defense, and to increase the odds of winning for an under-talented team. Just like flipping a coin, it’s a lot easier to get disproportionately more tails than heads in 80 tries than it is 100 – except that the “coin” in this case is a successful result of a possession, and the probability of a successful result on both ends is less than 50 percent for the Raptors. Flipping the coin less means there are less chances of expected losing results coming to pass.
The downside is that this forces the Raptors to play against set defenses as opposed to scrambling defenses. These set defenses have done a good job scouting the Raptors so far; they are clogging the paint and denying the roll out of ball screens, and denying dribble penetration from the wings, especially from DeRozan. For a team like the Raptors which is devoid of an actual playmaker, this is devastating. No offense to Calderon, who has improved defensively and his offensive efficiency, but he has reduced his share of the offense to a six-year low: he’s only bearing 18.1% of the team’s possessions while he’s on the floor, weighted for assists. That’s an awfully small amount for a guy who has the ball in his hands so much. He’s not getting into the paint, he’s not looking to score out of ball screens and consequently the team becomes easy to guard.
Compounding the lack of playmaking from the point guard position is that the wing players really aren’t playmakers, either. DeRozan, as I’ve pointed out before, has major technical errors in his use of ball screens and lacks the speed and quickness to really be effective making plays one-on-one. He’s not a selfish player, but he’s not a gifted distributor and he certainly doesn’t make plays for his teammates. James Johnson has been so bad offensively that he should either be forced to issue a written apology to the fans every time he touches the ball, or a “censored” bar should appear over him on-screen when he does, and sadly the same applies to Kleiza and Butler. This makes it especially easy for defenses to focus on keeping contact on Amir Johnson and Ed Davis, so that their skill in scoring quickly off catches out of ball screen action has been almost entirely nullified.
Compounding this even further is the technical errors which continue to plague the Raptors in basic halfcourt action. Ballhandlers in ball screens do not look to attack the paint; as a result, they’re easy to guard. Most players are inefficient one-on-one in the post with the defense right behind them; this applies doubly, it seems, to Amir Johnson and Ed Davis. The amount of incorrect reads of screens in the course of a given game is mind-numbing. Defenders step out on cutters, and I have yet to see a back-cut this year. Defenders shoot the gap on the cutters; I have yet to see more than two fades this year.
In Monday’s game against Atlanta, the Raptors set a double-staggered screen for DeRozan. Not only is this the easiest screen series to guard, it requires the right personnel with perfect execution to be successful. In this instance, the Raptors set the top screen with Amir and the first screen with Davis; this is a disaster. The first screener should always be a smaller player because as the defense locks, trails and extends, the first screener must pop out to the three-point line to look for the open shot if it’s there, but the drive on the closer-out first. The top screener dives hard to the rim to force the first screener’s defender to stop him, leaving the first screener uncontested.
In this case, as the defense predictably extended the screen and denied DeRozan the ball, Amir Johnson tried to dive rim, but Ed Davis loped right into his path and cut that off himself. Three players were easily guarded by two, as a result. Six seconds elapsed from the shot clock and the offense had absolutely nothing to show for it. This kind of technical error cannot be commonplace if a team wants to succeed offensively at this level. Distressingly, it is.
Part of this can be chalked up to not having a training camp; part of the problem is that the Raptors are kind of reflecting the league’s general decline in offensive efficiency (due largely to effects from the lockout). But in a year where the Raptors need to see just exactly what they have in a lot of their players to plan for the future, they’re getting a very small hint just due to lack of preparation and a determination to put players in the least favourable circumstances.
Adversity builds character; I believe that. And the Raptors should get used to playing against better defenses, and succeeding against better defenses if they’re going to go forward. But they are going to have to be much better at executing what they’re trying to do. If the execution simply doesn’t start to improve, the Raptors are going to have to take a really hard look at pieces like DeRozan and Davis and ask themselves how far they can really expect to go in the future with them.