As NBA player movement cools down, fans begin to look at virtually completed rosters and wonder where their team fits in. It’s no different for Raptors fans, who are looking at a young roster they feel might be in the hunt for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

While much of the talk likely centers around how many games this team can win (I’d peg them at around 35 right now, but will make an official prediction in October) and how many wins would be needed to make the playoffs in the East (likely 40-to-42), my measuring stick revolves around one major question: Can this team, as presently constructed, finish in the top-10 in defensive efficiency?

The answer to that question could hold the key to either the franchise’s first playoff berth in five years, or the longest post-season drought in franchise history.

By allowing 101.5 points per 100 possessions last season, Toronto jumped from 30th in the NBA in defensive efficiency in 2010-11 (the 110 points Toronto allowed per 100 possessions in 2010 and 2011 ranks among the worst defences in NBA history) all the way to 12th in 2011-12, and that was with a defensively underwhelming roster.

So what can Dwane Casey do with the team he’s been given for the 2012-2013 season?

Kyle Lowry is one of the better defensive point guards in the Association. Landry Fields, regardless of his oversized contract and offensive limitations, is an effective defender. Jonas Valanciunas’ propensity to pick up fouls might lead to Toronto conceding a few extra free throws, which would negatively effect the team’s defence, but the big man’s rim protection cannot be denied. Quincy Acy and Terrence Ross are two of the more defensively capable rookies from the 2012 draft class.

Sure, Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson were solid defensively (though Johnson’s blocks overrated his actual defensive effectiveness), but add it all up, and it’s tough to argue against the fact that on paper, the Raptors improved defensively at every position.

Other teams outside of the top-10 in defensive efficiency last season also improved at that end of the floor this summer, specifically the Lakers, the Nuggets, the Hornets and the Warriors, but with their own defensive additions and a full year under Casey, the Raptors have given themselves a fighting chance to compete for a spot in that top-third of defensive measurement.

And that’s huge, because despite a perceived increase in importance on the offensive end, defence is still the name of the game. In fact, in the last 10 years, while an impressive 86 per cent of top-10 offences made the playoffs, a staggering 91 per cent of teams who finished in the top-10 (or tied for 10th) in defensive efficiency qualified for the post-season, and that number jumps to 94 per cent over the last five years (47 out of 50).

Taking the last three seasons into account, only one team has managed to miss the playoffs despite finishing with a top-10 defence (the 2010-11 Bucks).

Here’s the breakdown:

Season Number of Top-10 Defences That Made Playoffs
2002-03  11* (out of 12)
2003-04  9* (out of 11)
2004-05  10
2005-06  7
2006-07  10* (out of 11)
2007-08  9
2008-09  9
2009-10  10
2010-11  9
2011-12  10

*Note: In seasons marked with an asterisk, there was a tie for 10th place in defensive efficiency, so 11-12 teams actually finished with ‘top-10′ mark*

Under Kevin O’Neill, the Raptors were actually one of two top-11 teams that missed the playoffs in 2004, but by and large, the equation holds true – A top-10 defence is a playoff caliber basketball team in the NBA, and that has to resonate with the defensively aware Casey just months removed from finishing two spots outside of that range.

We’ll all eventually project win totals, individual statistics and award possibilities, and we’ll probably continue to discuss Jonas Valanciunas’ arrival, Kyle Lowry’s impact and Andrea Bargnani’s health. But if we want to be talking playoff basketball in April, the talk in October should be about improving by at least a couple of spots defensively.

Building a top-10 offensive team might be seen as more entertaining (personally, I find winning entertaining) and it will give you a good chance to win. But find a way to build a top-10 defence, which is more realistic for this Raptors squad anyway, and the rest just seems to take care of itself.

Comments (14)

  1. I was happy to see the Raptors make major defensive improvements in the offseason. Lowry, Fields, Ross, Acy are all going to help on the defensive end.

    I have the Raptors finishing 40-42 and getting the 8th seed.

  2. It is gonna be close. 8th or 9th have the highest probability in my book.

    Where did the idea for this story come from?

    • Literally just from having a conversation with a coworker at theScore. I was talking about how good I thought this roster could be defensively under Casey, and brought up the defensive efficiency rankings from last season. Noticed that all 11 teams ahead of the Raptors made the playoffs, and then went through the last 10 seasons’ rankings to find the correlation. And I agree with your prediction. Right now, I’d have the Raps in the 8-10/11 range in the East.

      • Did you look at the offensive efficiency rankings of the 11 teams ahead of the Raptors, just for shits and giggles and to see how far the Raptors offense has to go, relatively speaking?

  3. Fascinating stats… and definitely good motivators for training camp… but I just don’t see 3 rookies being meaningful contributors to a top-10 defence. Talk to me next season or maybe even the season after that. But next season? I bascially expect a repeat of last season.

    • I get why you wouldn’t expect rookies to make a big defensive impact, but Valanciunas’ presence will beef up Toronto’s rim protection. Quincy Acy is an underrated defender who can help on the glass as well, and Terrence Ross is known for working his ass off on the defensive end. I don’t think those three guys are going to be the main reason for a defensive improvement (that’s on Lowry and Fields, too), but you won’t find many rookies that are as defensively competent as the three the Raps have coming in. As mentioned, the one thing that might negatively effect the Raptors’ D is if Valanciunas gets in constant foul trouble and gives up too many free throw attempts.

  4. Wow, didn’t realize the elite defense/playoff correlation was that direct.

    Interesting piece.

  5. Defense is only good when a team can hit its shots at the other end of the court. In the case of the Raptors, they could not. that’s why they finished with 23 wins despite having one of the top 10 defenses in the leagyue. The same occured to the Denver Nuggets the season before last. So does defense really win games?

    • Yes, Yes it does. That is why those stats showed that teams with the top defenses correlated to playoff appearances. So high defensive ability, completely isolated from the offense, is almost a guarantee of the playoffs and therefore winnings games. Of course there was an exception or two and the stats noted that, but it proved defense was by far a more reliable corollary for playoff appearances (which are determined by wins) then offense.

      Yes, a lot of those top defensive teams had average-above average offenses, but defense was the more common and stronger connection to playoff appearances.

    • If you’ve watched any basketball, especially at the pro level, I don’t understand how you can seriously ask the question “does defence really win games?” I think what you meant was OFFENCE is only good when a team is hitting its’ shots. One of the reasons a great defence usually beats a great offence is because great defence is more dependent on a solid system than it is on the talent level of the players, where as a great offence almost always needs at least one star player to carry the system. Look at the Raptors’ roster last season – It didn’t feature many good defensive players, but Casey developed a system that worked and the players bought in. If the Raptors had the 12th-best offence and a shitty defence last season instead of the opposite, they probably win something like 13 games instead of 23.

      Lastly, a good defence is much more resilient than a good offence because of the aforementioned reliability on system instead of talent. If you’re a team that relies on offence, you don’t usually survive major injuries (ie- the 2009-10 Raptors without Bosh). A good defensive team might suffer a bit without its’ best players, but the team can still play competitive ball (ie- the Bulls of the last two years).

  6. Why just look at top-10 defenses? Last year, all the top-10 offenses also made the playoffs, too.

    Not too surprising, really … 16 out of 30 teams make the playoffs, so the chances are a top-10 offensive or defensive team will make it. You would have to be really imbalanced to miss out.

    • I did. As I wrote in the piece, a good offence also gives you a good chance to win, (86% over 10 years compared to 91% for defences. The advantage for defences has grown slightly over last five years and last three years) but a top-10 defence is statistically more effective than a top offence. Also, as I mentioned near the bottom, building a top-10 defence with this Raptors roster is much more realistic than building a top-10 offence, so while improving offensively is obviously a concern, climbing into the elite level of defensive teams should be the realistic goal for this season.

      • I think I did not explain myself very well. My point was that your analysis is based an a basic misunderstanding of statistics. It’s the difference between offense and defense that wins. A top-10 defense with a terrible offense means little. It’s fools gold.

        Last season, Boston may have had a terrible offense, but it had the best defense in the league, not just a top-10 defense. That’s quite a difference, and I think the Raptors are a long way away from having a best defense in the league. We’d just be 2010 Milwaukee II.

        So, my issue is that your thesis is statistically close to meaningless. I understand and appreciate the sentiment. But getting 4 points better at defense means little if the offense gets 5 points worse.

        Anyhow, it’s always fun checking out your articles and this blog. It’s my main source for Raptors stuff (especially in the dreary off-season). I just think you are off a bit on your use of stats on this one.

    • In other news, reading the whole peice before criticizing the writer allows readers to escape looking like a fool 91% of the time.

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