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Will Toronto's changes equate to success in the postseason?

Raptors hoping trio of new faces brings new identity -- and much more than victories in the regular season

POSTED: Nov 13, 2015 12:39 PM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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DeMarre Carroll played last year in Atlanta's system that leaned on ball movement, making him an ideal fit in Toronto.

— For some teams, it's hard to get too excited about early-season results. For the Toronto Raptors, it's hard to get too excited about anything that happens in the regular season.

Last season, the Raptors set a franchise record with 49 wins ... and promptly got swept by the Washington Wizards. It was the second straight year they won the Atlantic Division, won the most games in the team's history, and lost in the first round. The Raptors are in their 21st year of existence and have never won a best-of-7 playoff series.

Things went wrong on both ends of the floor in that series against the Wizards, but it was mainly a continuation of a dramatic drop-off on defense. The Raptors were a top-10 defensive team in 2013-14 and through Thanksgiving last year. But they ranked 26th after that and got torn apart by John Wall, Bradley Beal and the Wizards, who had not been a very good offensive team in the regular season.

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There were offensive issues as well. The Wizards took the Raptors' guards out of their comfort zone and forced others to make plays. The Raptors didn't have it in their DNA to move the ball and take advantage of the attention being paid to their guards, and their third-ranked offense scored just 95 points per 100 possessions in the series. After 82 games of ruling their division, it only took four in the playoffs for the team to realize that what it had was fool's gold.

"It was a dose of reality for us as a staff, for our players, and for everybody involved," head coach Dwane Casey told NBA.com in the summer.

General manager Masai Ujiri responded by making personnel changes. Gone are Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, Amir Johnson and Greivis Vasquez. In their places are DeMarre Carroll, Luis Scola and Cory Joseph.

We're still learning, still getting better.

– Raptors' DeMar DeRozan on new-look squad

Carroll and Joseph bring perimeter defense to Toronto, while new backup center Bismack Biyombo adds rim protection. And Carroll, Joseph and Scola have all been part of systems that flourish on ball movement. Carroll played on last year's Atlanta Hawks, who led the league in assist rate. Joseph spent four seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, who have put on offensive clinics over the last several years. And Scola is a longtime member of the Argentine National Team, the Spurs of FIBA.

Casey knew that changes need to go beyond personnel. The Raptors had to change the way they played, on both ends of the court.

Defensively, the Raptors have changed their scheme to keep the ball away from the middle of the floor. Last season, they allowed the highest percentage (by a wide margin) of side pick-and-rolls to get to the middle. This year, they're "icing" those side pick-and-rolls, a scheme that's backed up by the numbers. And Casey is most happy with what he's seen on that end of the floor through his team's first nine games.

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"It's ahead of our offense," Casey said of the defense Wednesday. "The [returning] guys came back with a focus and a willingness to play defense, to get in and grind it out. The new guys come in and help sell that philosophy."

The Raptors rank 11th in defensive efficiency through Thursday, suffering a setback by losing Carroll (sore foot) for the last few games. According to SportVU, they're allowing only 42 percent of side pick-and-rolls to go toward the middle, down from a league-high 68 percent last season.

Offensively, Casey wants his team to be more Spurs-ish. The Raptors are still going to let DeMar DeRozan go to work in the post and in isolation, but Casey wants them to be more adaptable offensively, so they can better take advantage of ball-denials and double-teams.

The Raptors have had their ups and downs offensively so far, but they're averaging 3.33 passes per possession, up from 2.96 last season, according to SportVU. They've passed the ball four or more times on 42 percent of their possessions, up from 34 percent last season.

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"We got some guys where it's not in their DNA," Casey said, "but they're doing a good job of buying in and trying to move the ball. I know, like everybody else, in late-game situations, we're going to get the ball where it needs to go. But we've added some quite a few movement sets into our offense to try to encourage ball movement, passing the ball."

The Raptors rank ninth in offensive efficiency through Thursday. Casey will be OK if they're not top five again, as long as the defense is better and as long as he sees the ball move.

"I'm convinced that this is the way you have to play," he said. "You got to have a system in place that promotes ball movement and man movement, where guys can't load up on you."

Time will tell if Casey is right, and if his team will continue to buy in. As long as they're healthy, the Raptors shouldn't have any issues making the playoffs again. But it's what they do when they get there that will validate or impugn the changes they've made. The postseason is five months away, but the work is being put in now.

"We're still learning, still getting better," DeRozan said. "It's nothing that's going to be seen in the first 10, 20 games. It's a process."

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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