TORONTO - Ten months after their previous general manager pulled the trigger on a franchise-altering trade, the Raptors are still searching for their identity offensively while working around the obstacles created by that roster shakeup.
On Jan. 30 Bryan Colangelo acquired Rudy Gay in a three-team trade, jettisoning Ed Davis and the expiring contract of starting point guard Jose Calderon. Since then, Toronto's most consistent area of weakness has been moving the ball.
It has been a focus for Dwane Casey's team early this season after spending most of training camp emphasizing defensive principles. The Raptor's coach has shouted it from the sidelines, preached it after games and drilled it in practice but still, sharing the ball appears to be an incurable allergy for this team, as its currently constructed.
"We're 30th in the league in assists, so we're trying to promote ball movement," Casey acknowledged after practice Tuesday afternoon. "It's something we've just got to stay on, harp on and try to do what fits our team."
TSN 1050's Josh Lewenberg and Duane Watson weigh in on the team's ailing offence and ongoing ball movement concerns in this week's 'Raptors Report' podcast.
Through 11 games, the Raptors are last in the NBA, averaging 16.5 assists per contest. Their offence has routinely looked stagnant, relying mostly on isolation sets and late-game hero ball. It's not necessarily for a lack of effort on the part of Casey and his coaching staff.
"We do it every day," point guard Kyle Lowry admitted. Ball movement has been a daily focus in practice. "We have drills where you don't shoot it before [there's] five passes, so it's nothing new," Casey has said.
The problem boils down to personnel, a team - built primarily by Colangelo - that was not designed to front a fluid NBA offence. Casey's challenge is essentially to teach old dogs - by league standards - new tricks.
"We want there to be movement," he said following Sunday's overtime loss to Portland, a game in which only three of his players recorded an assist. "We have our limitations from that standpoint but we want to move the ball. We've got to do a better job of that and that's where we've got to find ourselves offensively, in ball movement."
For the most part those limitations can be traced back to last season's trade and aren't likely to be corrected as easily as they were created.
In 45 games prior to the trade last year, Toronto ranked 10th in assists (22.7 per game) and was second among 30 teams in that category (25.1 per) during the 23 contests that Calderon started directly before he was moved. In 47 games since, the team is last in the Association averaging 19.2 assists. To put that in perspective, the Raptors recorded 20 or more assists in 22 of those 23 games Calderon started in succession. They've exceeded 19 dimes in just 19 of 47 games since, including one of 11 this season.
Calderon, one of the most reliable distributors in the league, was a player Casey trusted to run the pick and roll efficiently and with consistency. Replacing the long-time Raptors point guard - who may have bolted as a free agent during the summer anyway - continues to be a significant factor in the team's offensive identity crisis, but not the only factor.
It's fair to argue that Lowry is an upgrade over Calderon - in many areas of the game he has been - but there's no denying he's a very different point guard than his predecessor, one who is less renowned for his work in the pick and roll.
Then you add a high-volume scorer in Gay and pair him with a similar wing player in DeMar DeRozan. With Gay, the Raptors got what they paid for. He's led them in scoring, become the face of the franchise and has played the role of a closer, for better or for worse. He's also a player - like DeRozan - who takes a lot of shots, many of them outside the flow of a cohesive team offence. Simply put, they're iso players. That duo has accounted for 46 per cent of the team's field goal attempts, shooting a combined 39 per cent to begin the season.
Until Masai Ujiri takes his first stab at reconstructing this talented, albeit flawed roster, Casey has no choice but to work with the pieces he has. Therein lies the challenge.
"To turn a guy into Pete Maravich at this stage in their career is very difficult," Casey pointed out. "You've got to tailor your team according to your personnel and try to get movement out of that. A guy's DNA is who he is. We've got to tailor our offence to fit our players."
Toronto's best ball movement was achieved in the first half of its win over the Grizzlies in Memphis, also their most impressive outing; not a coincidence. In that game both Gay and DeRozan set the tone early by looking for their teammates. The Grizzlies put pressure on Toronto's top scorers but they both passed out of double teams with poise and found cutters on the weak side, a focus for Casey's club in practice Tuesday. Not surprisingly, whenever the Raptors have moved the ball good things have happened. They just haven't done it enough.
"Believe me there's not a selfish bone, I don't think, in our players' bodies," Casey said. "When the game starts guys will revert to what they do naturally, but what we've got to do is try to help them see their options, understand where their teammates are in certain sets and read it from there."
Casey knows his team. He knows their strengths and he accepts their weaknesses. Still, masking one with the other is easier said than done. Defence is the great equalizer. Even if the Raptors' offence can never function quite like Portland's - the team responsible for their most recent defeat - Casey knows they will remain competitive if they can defend with the ferocity of the Bulls, the team that handed them their previous loss.
As long as the current core remains intact, these roadblocks will continue to stand in their way. How well they work around them will determine their success.