VICTORIA, B.C. – A year ago, the Toronto Raptors defied the traditional NBA roster build when they assembled a group primarily made up of long and versatile forwards.
It worked in a lot of the ways you may have expected it to work. When dialed in, they could terrorize opposing teams on the defensive end, especially late in the season once they had enough time to learn and perfect Nick Nurse’s manic system. They forced turnovers at an impressive rate, scored more than almost any other club in transition, and crashed the offensive glass.
The drawbacks were just as predictable. They struggled to score in the half court and were among the league’s worst shooting teams. With a lack of interior size and physically, defensive rebounding was often an issue, and while there aren’t many elite centres left in the game, slowing those guys down also proved challenging.
You could count on at least one lengthy scoring drought per night, but still, with their hard play and unconventional lineups, the 2021-22 Raptors were almost always a fun team to watch.
Believe it or not, they might be even stranger this season.
Aside from adding second-round pick Christian Koloko – the first seven footer on their roster since Alex Len’s brief tenure came to an end in January of 2021 – they didn’t do much to address what most people would’ve considered to be their most pressing positional needs going into the summer. Otto Porter Jr., their biggest off-season signing, is 6-foot-8 with a nearly 7-foot-2 wingspan. Juancho Hernangomez is listed at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan.
Sound familiar? Yes, the Raptors have a type. Of the 13 players with guaranteed contracts in training camp, nine are between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9 in height and possess massive 7-foot-plus wingspans.
“There are definitely a lot of arms and legs flying around everywhere,” said one of the lone exceptions, 6-foot-1 point guard Fred VanVleet, following practice earlier this week. “It doesn’t look like much when they’re all standing next to each other, but when we’re flying up and down out there, when we’re playing another team, you can always tell they’re feeling the pressure we have out there.”
“We can’t get enough [length and versatility],” Precious Achiuwa joked. “It’s like we’re just out there looking for 6-8, 6-9 guys – hey, come on in! But that’s the vision. If you look around it’s basically just guys who are versatile, can play basketball, athletic, can run, jump, shoot, dribble, get to the basketball and play defence. We’re just trying to out-size and out-speed the other team at every position. I think that’s the goal and so far we’re looking good.”
After pushing the limits of position-less basketball, the Raptors have doubled down on their great experiment. Now the question is, can they continue to take advantage of its strengths while mitigating its inherent weaknesses?
The addition of Porter, a 40 per cent career three-point shooter, should help a Raptors team ranked 27th in effective field goal percentage last season – only a hair better than Orlando, Oklahoma City and Detroit, three of the four worst teams in the league. But given the veteran’s injury history and likely role coming off the bench, they’ll need at least a couple of their more prominent players to return with improved jumpers, namely Pascal Siakam, who hit 34 per cent of his threes last season, and Scottie Barnes, who shot 30 per cent as a rookie. It was a focus for them this summer and getting those guys closer to league average from deep – roughly 37 per cent – would go a long way in raising this team’s offensive ceiling.
Admittedly, Nurse’s team got away from his preferred shot spectrum last season. Only 37.5 per cent of the shot attempts came from beyond the arc, eighth-fewest in the league. They attempted the 11th-fewest shots at the rim and the fifth-most shots from mid-range, which is the antithesis of how most teams want to play these days. It’s also the style of play that Nurse felt fit the strengths of his roster, and while the same could be true this year, he is planning to emphasize more looks in the paint and, ideally, more trips to the free throw line, where they ranked 21st in attempts.
That they boasted a league average offence despite ranking towards the bottom of the NBA in almost every shooting category is a credit to their knack for creating extra possessions with their active defence and offensive rebounds, and then valuing those possessions by limiting turnovers.
The defensive end is where they excelled, especially over the final 25 games when they ranked second in the league, and that’s where they can be special again this season.
How Nurse chooses to manage his rotation, with so many similarly sized players, will be interesting. In the 21 games where VanVleet, Siakam, Barnes, O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. were all healthy last season, that was Nurse’s starting lineup.
He didn’t fully commit to that unit when asked about it earlier this week, insisting that there are a bunch of players on the roster who could start and health will be the determining factor. That’s not an unusual thing this early into training camp – keeping your options open and encouraging internal competition for those spots. Still, the expectation is that Nurse will opt to start his five-best players when they’re all available, as he did last year. The question is, should he?
In 345 minutes together, that group outscored the opposition by just 0.5 points per 100 possessions, essentially playing teams to a draw. You could certainly argue that Trent’s scoring ability might be better served coming off the bench, while Achiuwa would give the first unit its best chance at matching up with bigger and more physical teams. He more than held his own against Joel Embiid in the first-round playoff series with Philadelphia last May.
“When I’m guarding guys like [Embiid] I’m trying to use my speed against them,” said Achiuwa, who took steps forward as both a defender and as a shooter post all-star break. “I understand that I’m faster [and have] quicker hands, quicker feet.”
“Being able to guard all five positions comfortably, I have goals that I’m trying to accomplish, of course. I’m trying to be talked about as one of the guys in the all-NBA defence [conversation].”
Nurse wouldn’t rule it out, but he also doesn’t seem too concerned about matching up with those elite centres, even when they’re giving up size. Fortunately, there aren’t many Embiid or Nikola Jokic-types around.
“I know there’s the question of how are we going to stop Embiid or the big centres when you don’t have somebody that can bang with them,” Nurse said. “I don’t think it’s that big a problem because I think there are some answers to that within our roster the way it is and we’ve gotta work with it and come up with ways. So, there are answers.”
Assuming the starting lineup remains the same, what will the second unit look like? Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, Thaddeus Young and Porter would seem to be locks, with VanVleet, Siakam, Barnes or perhaps Malachi Flynn or Dalano Banton running the point. There’s no shortage of interchageability there either.
“I think you have to improve upon it,” Nurse said of last year’s playing style. “There were a lot of positives. If you want to nitpick and look at negatives, you’d say they had a hard time guarding all of the big, strong huge centres in the league but I didn’t think that was that much of a problem. I loved the style, loved our versatility.”
“Got to keep finding ways to get better with it. We’ve got a couple of ideas and a couple more should be coming as we see it unfold a little more.”