Who are you, and what have you done with DeMar DeRozan?
The DeMar DeRozan we’ve all come to know and love over the years was defiant in his refusal to shoot 3-pointers. When you’re great at the elbows, and in the post, he’d state firmly, why just follow the trend and float to the 3-point line? Why not dominate where you are dominant? And as he made Olympic and All-Star teams, with him and fellow All-Star/Olympian Kyle Lowry playing the way they’ve played for years, why change?
And yet, last Thursday, there was DeRozan, in Philadelphia, ripping the nets from behind the arc like Klay Thompson.
DeRozan was 6-for-9 on 3s, en route to a career-high 45 points, in leading the Raptors past the 76ers. Toronto shot 35 3s, and did so with a host of guys hoisting—rookie O.G. Anunoby here, a Pascal Siakam there. Where the hell is Team Pick and Roll? And what is your demand for the safe return of my favorite iconoclast two guard?
“No ransom,” DeRozan said with a smile afterward. “Just pull it out when you need it.”
Make no mistake, though — this is all by design, part of the “culture reset” that GM Masai Ujiri insisted upon after the Raptors were clubbed by the Cavs in a four-game second-round sweep in last year’s playoffs, and that Coach Dwane Casey has implemented, seemingly seamlessly; after a middling start, Toronto has roared toward the top of the East standings. All the attention has been on the Celtics, but the Raptors are just a game behind them in the loss column, in second place in the East with a very favorable schedule in front of them.
And they’ve done it with an emphasis on ball movement and threes that has improved what was already a pretty potent offense.
Toronto was sixth in the league in Offensive Rating (109.8 points per 100 possessions) playing the old way, so it’s not like opposing defenses stuffed Lowry and DeRozan. But that was during the regular season. In the playoffs, teams with better defenses knew how to clog up the gears, take away Lowry’s driving lanes and make DeRozan inefficient.
Lowry’s scoring nosedived in the postseason, from 21.2 points per game in the 2015-16 regular season to 19.1 in that year’s playoffs, and from 22.4 last regular season to 15.8 in the playoffs. And DeRozan hasn’t shot better than 43 percent in any of his last four playoff runs.
The results were unsatisfactory: a Game 7 first-round playoff loss at home in 2014 to Brooklyn, with Paul Pierce blocking Lowry’s last-second shot, a first-round sweep at the hands of Washington the next year, with Pierce, by then with the Wizards, administering the coup de grace, a run to the conference finals in 2016 that ended with Cleveland pummeling the Raptors on their home floor by 26 in the final game and last year’s second-round sweepage by LeBron and Friends.
This year, though, the Raptors are using the regular season as playoff prep, making it harder for opponents to gameplan against them defensively by spreading the wealth around, with much of the largesse occurring behind the 3-point line.
Entering play Monday, Toronto was averaging 31.5 3-point attempts, sixth-highest in the league, after averaging 24.3 threes a year ago, 22nd-highest. And even though they shot a higher percentage on threes last year, (their .354 percentage this year is only 22nd-best in the league), that doesn’t matter. Ball movement matters.
As a result, Toronto’s moved up this year in Offensive Rating, to 110.6, per NBA.com/Stats, fourth in the league behind Golden State, Houston and Cleveland. And the Raptors have gone from 10th in the league last year in points per game (106.9) to fourth so far this year (111.3).
Lowry’s Usage Rate has dropped from 26.1 two years ago to 21.3. DeRozan’s is down from 34.3 last season to 30.1 so far this season. By contrast, Valanciunas’s rate has risen from 19.5 last season to 21 this season. And when the young guys are on the floor with the veterans, they’re firing away from deep.
Lowry was a hard sell when Casey and Ujiri came to him over the summer with the new plan — “I said, ‘let me see it first,’” Lowry said. But he and DeRozan are on board now. With its newfound firepower, Toronto has rallied from 17 or more down on the road three times already this season, including Thursday, when the Raptors came back from 22 down in the third.
“The 3-point game is helping us evolve, it’s spacing us out a lot more,” Lowry said. “I think it helps with everything — it helps us with spacing, pace, understanding where we all want to be on the floor. And it gives us the confidence to all do it. We all can shoot it without nobody bitching at you. No one cares who shoots the three. We want everybody to be successful.”
DeRozan and Lowry now know that they can bend the defense to them and get wide-open shots for guys that may not be used to taking big shots in big moments.
“It took us a while to get out of habits that were successful for us,” he said. “We still won 50-plus games with the way we was playing. But once we bought in, and understood how we could be better at it, you started to see the effects of it during the season. It took us a little while. Even preseason, we wasn’t there. First couple of games, we were still trying to figure it out. Now, you see it. We’re finding our rhythm. Guys understand where to be, how to move the ball, everything.”
The offensive improvement has not cost Toronto anything at the other end, either; the Raps continue to be a stout defensive unit under Casey, with a Defensive Rating at 101.8 entering play Monday, sixth-best in the Association. Toronto’s Net Rating of 8.8 trails only the Warriors (11.6) and Houston (10.0). That is despite having just one player in the Top 50 of ESPN.com’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
The Raptors have had too much playoff heartbreak, though, to believe they’ve arrived.
“This is the NBA,” Ujiri said last week. “When it’s going good, you look back, ‘cause something is coming. And when it’s going bad, our job is to manage. Our job is to figure it out.”
That was Ujiri’s and Casey’s joint task after another playoff flameout. It was not easy to look at change, considering how successful the Raptors have been in recent years: four years averaging 51 regular season victories, along with a conference finals appearance in 2016, represented the most successful patch in franchise history. The Raps have an incredible fan base (after Saturday’s win at Air Canada Centre over Philly, Toronto has the best home mark in the league, at 12-1), sell out their building regularly and are the only NBA outlet for an entire nation. It would have been easy to stay comfortable.
But Casey’s experiences in Dallas, with Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle, helped shape his view that a good team still had room to grow and improve. And Ujiri, as evidenced by his occasional outbursts during postseasons, is much more competitive and tightly wound than he comes across.
They knew that after giving Lowry a three-year, $100 million extension in July, and re-signing Serge Ibaka for three years and $65 million, there wasn’t going to be much money left to dive into free agency. Ujiri avoided luxury tax land by dumping DeMarre Carroll (along with a 2018 first-rounder) to Brooklyn, then moved Cory Joseph to Indiana in a sign-and-trade that brought veteran C.J. Miles to the Raptors for three years and $25 million. But that was pretty much it for player acquisition.
For the rest, Toronto needed, and needs, to continue developing its young group of players, most taken in the last four Drafts: center Jakob Poeltl (ninth pick overall, 2016) Siakam (27th overall, 2016), forward Bruno Caboclo (20th overall, 2014), guard Delon Wright (20th overall, 2015), and Anunoby, the 23rd pick last June.
Only wing Norman Powell, acquired from Milwaukee in 2015 along with the pick that became Anunoby, in exchange for Greivis Vasquez — a deal looking like a fairly big win for Toronto — center Bebe Nogueira (acquired in 2014 from Atlanta) and guard Fred VanVleet, an undrafted free agent signed in 2016, have come from outside of the Raptors’ organization.
That’s meant arm-in-arm work with Raptors 905, the team’s G League affiliate based in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, which won the G League championship last year under general manager Dan Tolzman and Jerry Stackhouse, the two-time NBA All-Star who was named G League Coach of the Year last season in his first year as a head coach.
Like almost all of the NBA/G League associations nowadays, Raptors 905 uses the same terminology as the parent club, and teaches the players in the same way as Casey and his coaches do, streamlining the development process further.
“The great thing about 905 is that our guys that went down there, they were with us most of the year, then they went down there at the end and played in the playoffs,” Casey said. “It really helped them … our young players play for us. It’s not like they’re at the 905 all year. It’s a good situation where they can go down. It’s a situation now where they have to agree to go down (as part of the new two-way contracts in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement). We can’t make them go down. Bruno’s down there because he wants to be there.”
Nogueira, Caboclo, Siakam, Powell, VanVleet and Wright have all spent extensive time going back and forth between Toronto and 905 the last two years. And all of them have subsequently gotten significant playing time with the Raptors in the last year. Powell started the first 12 games before going back to the bench, where most of the others comprise Toronto’s reserve unit.
They have to play.
“How do you develop the other guys around these guys?,” Ujiri said. “This is going to be the question.”
Anunoby is a big piece of that future. (The Raptors also have high hopes for Poeltl, who has a good feel for the game and where to be; he’s currently shooting a crazy 67.1 percent from the floor, producing 7.1 points and 4.5 boards in a little more than 17 minutes a night off the bench.)
Anunoby was a projected Lottery pick before tearing his ACL last January, just 16 games into his sophomore season at Indiana. The Raptors targeted Anunoby after the injury, figuring he’d slide some, and maybe to them.
Once their Director of Sports Science, Alex McKechnie — legendary around the NBA for his Core-X training system, which he developed and used with the Lakers for a decade, along with pro hockey, volleyball and soccer players around the world — thought Anunoby would fully recover from the ACL tear, he planned a rehab program for him before the Draft that would have him ready for training camp.
“Masai gives me complete autonomy to do it,” McKechnie said. “I think therein lies the secret of good management. Obviously we’re going to go back and make sure we’re all together, but we say ‘this is what we’re doing, this the target, this is what we’ll do.”
After the Summer League in Vegas, in July, Anunoby went to Vancouver, to work with McKechnie in Vancouver.
“He had a total buy-in,” McKechnie said. “It was all due to him.”
They worked six days a week, starting at 8:30 after breakfast: manual therapy and strengthening programs, work on an underwater treadmill, which included conditioning sprints and side to side movements, weight training, constant strengthening and movement patterns, utilizing Core-X, plyometrics. They’d break for lunch at noon, and then spend a couple of hours on the court in the afternoon, with the work schedule based on what they’d accomplished in the morning.
Anunoby’s only time away from McKechnie was when he went to the Rookie Transition Program in August.
“Just worked as hard as I can every day,” Anunoby said, “worked on everything — strengthened my body, and I was also in the gym. A lot of underwater, and a lot of on-court, agility stuff. I wasn’t thinking about (being ready for opening night); I was just trying to get better.”
Anunoby has not been shy about hoisting — “we call him ‘Baby Ray,’” Lowry said, as in Allen. The rookie is shooting 46 percent behind the arc, a recurring bonus that makes his on-ball defense, a strength in college and very promising so far in the pros, all the more impactful.
“My first preseason game, I was hesitating on some shots,” Anunoby said. “And they said ‘shoot.’ Coach told me to shoot; stop pump-faking on shots and just shoot the ball … it lets me just play. You can just play. Stop thinking about the game and just go out there and having fun. Having their confidence is real nice.”
Even Valanciunas is getting in on the act. The Raptors have small-ball lineups with Ibaka at the five that they like, but the numbers point to their best lineups still being with Valanciunas in the middle. Except, he’s not in the middle as much any more. Like Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez and other former low-posters, the 25-year-old Valanciunas is, slowly, incorporating the three into his game.
Valanciunas took four threes, total, in his first five seasons in Toronto. This season, he’s already taken 11.
“I know, from my perspective, on defense, when you have a shooting big, it’s hard to get back when you’re playing pick and roll,” Valanciunas said. “So I’m using that as an advantage.”
But, none of this matters now, and Toronto knows it.
After completing a back-to-back sweep of the 76ers Saturday, Toronto is 10-1 in December. But the Raptors have had strong Decembers before. The test will come in April and May. Can Lowry and DeRozan keep the ball moving, or revert to their old, familiar ways? And can the young guys make shots under duress against better, more consistent defenses? Will they stick with it when things get tight?
It’s imperative for their hopes of a breakthrough that they try.
“Years ago, we (the Spurs) coached Robert Horry,” Sixers Coach Brett Brown said. “And if you really studied his percentages, it wasn’t like he was knock-down. But he had the reputation of being a shooter. That, all by itself, gave Tony (Parker) driving lanes, and gave Timmy (Duncan) space. And so I still think, even if you don’t have Steph Curry and (Kevin) Durant, I still think you have to shoot ‘em, and you have to space the court accordingly.”
The Raptors say their culture shift is permanent. The calendar will tell the truth.
“We can always go pick and roll,” Lowry said. “We always can go post-up. We always can go back to that. But let’s try some different things. Let’s do something different. We’re still going to DeMar DeRozan’s stuff. We’re still going to pick and roll Kyle Lowry. But now we have this.”
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