This is part one of my three part series on the Toronto Raptors. In part one, I will break down the play of the four key guards in this team’s rotation: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Terence Davis II, and Matt Thomas. In part two, I will be dissecting the wing play: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Norman Powell. And in my final installment, part three will be an examination of the big men: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris Boucher.
Toronto is currently 16-8 overall and sports a league average offense and a top-5 defense. After losing the reigning Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and also one of the best 3-and-D players in the league in Danny Green, expectations for the 2019-20 Raptors weren’t very high. There were valid questions about how the offense would operate without a surefire go-to player, but Pascal Siakam (who I will discuss in part two) has alleviated those concerns. That has allowed everyone on this roster to take up similar roles to what they had last season without feeling like they have to force the issue.
Head Coach Nick Nurse had a tough decision to make in terms of the vacant starting shooting guard spot left by Green, and he opted to go with a multiple point guard look with Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet together in the backcourt. It’s worked incredibly well thus far. They are both excellent three-point shooters with incredible range. They are more than capable of hitting deep pull-up threes before the opponent even thinks they are in scoring position:
This makes them lethal in transition, as defenses have a huge area to cover:
Lowry is hitting 37% of his threes so far this season, while VanVleet is at 40%, per Cleaning the Glass. The versatility of their jumpshots allows them to play off the ball to great effect:
Lowry has been known throughout his career for his constant movement, and that hasn’t changed this season. Watch this play as he moves around so much that three different Celtics guard him on a single possession, which culminates in Lowry hitting a corner three:
Their unlimited range, combined with the ability to hit shots off the dribble, allows them to execute two-for-one situations better than just about any team in the league:
Opponents playing a conservative, drop-back scheme are at the Raptors mercy:
They know the best time to attack is when a defense isn’t fully set, and pushing the tempo often leads to positive results:
VanVleet is shooting just 51 percent at the rim this season – – which ranks him in the 20th percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass. This is a case where the stat doesn’t explain the whole story. He frequently attacks the rim in an attempt to open up offensive rebounding opportunities for his teammates:
Sometimes simply drawing the help defender and getting the ball up on the glass can be as good as a bucket. The other advantage to Lowry and VanVleet pushing the tempo is it convinces their teammates to run with them, because they know if they’re open, they will get the ball:
One of the things that stood out about the Raptors play last season during their championship run was their passing. Marc Gasol (who I will analyze in part 3) is one of the best passing bigs in the game. Lowry and VanVleet are also excellent passers – – watch these two plays in which the defense aggressively hedges the screen on the perimeter and they find a way to make the pass that breaks open the defense:
Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri gave Lowry a one-year, 31 million dollar extension to his contract before the season. Despite Lowry having only played 12 games due to a fractured left thumb, he’s playing at a high level in his age-33 season. He’s posting the second highest True Shooting percentage of his career (60.9%). That’s due in part to his three-point shooting, but also his effectiveness around the rim. Lowry is connecting on 59 percent of his shots at the basket – – which puts him in the 62nd percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass. That isn’t a great number, but considering his lack of verticality and top-end speed, it’s quite impressive:
He’s really good at using his body to keep shot blockers at bay:
Of course the other key challenge with playing multiple point guards is on the defensive end, but Lowry and VanVleet are so strong that their lack of size never hurts the team. They can switch, defend in the post, and know when to send help:
That possession is textbook execution. Lowry gets switched onto Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo, Lowry holds his ground on the block, VanVleet then expertly times his double team when his man, Kendrick Nunn, moves towards Siakam. That leads to the ball being aimlessly swung around the perimeter, eventually ending up in the hands of Justice Winslow, who tries to drive, but Lowry is right there to swipe at the ball and cause him to pick up his dribble.
VanVleet has shown he can still be an excellent defender with starters minutes. His minutes per game have jumped from 27.5 last year to over 36 this season, which ranks 6th in the league (teammates Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam are also in the top 5 in this stat). His hands are excellent – – keeping them high to limit passing lanes and reaching in on unsuspecting opponents:
He’s in the 90 percentile in steal percentage and the 88th percentile in foul percentage. So his gambles are calculated and precise. Like Lowry, he’s good at navigating screens:
Here, he expertly slithers past the initial screen, then executes the ice scheme to blow up the second screen attempt entirely:
The only thing VanVleet hasn’t adopted from Lowry yet is the charge taking, and if that ever happens, they may be indiscernible as players.
When Lowry went down with the thumb injury early in the season, the backup point guard spot was a huge question mark. But fortunately for Toronto, Masai Ujiri is terrific at his job. He found a diamond in the rough in undrafted rookie Terence Davis II. The six-foot-four guard out of Ole Miss has been a huge plus on both ends of the floor. He is a really good athlete that can get into the teeth of the defense and make plays:
He’s been reliable off the ball as a floor spacer as well, shooting 37 percent from three, per Cleaning the Glass:
He’s been a contributor on the defensive end as well, as the Raptors have given up 2.4 fewer points per 100 possessions while he’s been on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. His athleticism allows him to do things defensively that few guys his size can do. Watch here as he challenges Lebron at the rim and forces the miss:
Another fun bench piece has been Matt Thomas, who’s currently sidelined with a broken finger. Another rookie Ujiri found that no other team in the NBA had on their radar. Thomas lit it up from three in several seasons playing overseas, and that shooting touch has translated to the NBA game:
He’s shooting a ridiculous 56 percent from three. He’s only played in 12 games and a bit over 11 minutes per outing, but he’s getting up 6.9 attempts per 36 minutes, per Basketball Reference:
He’s shown the ability to be more than just a spot up shooter, occasionally attacking off the bounce:
Here he makes a pass that all great shooters should utilize. J.J. Redick has basically patented this over the years:
Part of the reason he isn’t getting more time is his defense. He lacks athleticism and he over-helps at times:
Despite the defensive struggles, the fact that Matt Thomas is not a regular rotation piece on this roster is a testament to the talent this team has in the backcourt.