Players are enjoying a much needed break. It’s been just over a week since the Toronto Raptors were eliminated from the 2022 NBA playoffs and after putting in the work to make the season an unmitigated success, they’ve earned the right to put their feet up and relax for a little bit.
Soon enough, they will get to their off-season workout plans to get better. Scottie Barnes will look to keep his foot on the neck of growth, Fred VanVleet is going to get uncomfortable and think outside the box once his knee and hip flexor are fully rehabbed, and Pascal Siakam is going to get back in the lab with Rico Hines for his first fully healthy off-season since winning the championship.
Each player will have their individual goals for how they want to improve, but the most noticeable upgrades will be those that are made within the context of improvements the team needs most.
All season, Toronto was the carpenter with only a hammer at their disposal. If they could win the possession battle by feasting on offensive rebounds and turnovers, they won. If they didn’t, life became very difficult. Struggling to execute their halfcourt offence was a major theme as the Raptors ranked 26th with 91.3 points per 100 half-court possessions (Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix were the top three at just over 100 points each) and the only saving grace was that they played less half-court possessions than any team in the league and got out on the break more than anyone except Memphis.
Effective field goal percentage (eFG%) takes into consideration the value of a three-pointer being 1.5 times that of a two and the Raptors ranked 27th in that category primarily because they were 26th at shooting efficiency within four feet at 62.8 percent and 25th in non-corner threes at 33.5 percent. These were weaknesses Nick Nurse expected the team to have coming into the season and so they were still able to amass 48 wins because their counter strategy was executed by the players very effectively. As a collective, taking relatively less shots around the basket and non-corner threes happened because Toronto did not have the personnel to be better at those measures.
With a new team that was in transition and experimenting with a thoroughly unique style of play, Nurse knew he would have to be comfortable with the team stepping outside of his principles in this regard, just so he could learn as much about them to bring out their best in the future. The man who re-invented the Raptors’ offence with great success in 2017-18 had to let his ideal shot spectrum take a backseat this season as Toronto finished 25th in their offensive shot profile. They were 23rd in how often they shot at the rim (30.4%), 20th in three-pointers attempted (34.4%), and sixth in mid-range shooting frequency (35.1%)
“We probably look towards managing that now that we know what we have, managing that a little back closer to philosophically what we believe,” Nurse said of this season’s shot profile.
For context on what a Nurse offensive shot profile that more closely matches his philosophy looks like, search no further than the 2019-20 season when the Raptors finished third in shot profile efficiency by ranking third in frequency of shots at the rim (39%), sixth in three-point frequency (38.9%), and 29th in mid-range frequency at 22.1%. That’s a drastic difference from where the Raptors are right now.
How can Nurse get it closer to what he believes is optimal?
One of the biggest talking points of the season from an individual perspective was Siakam’s elevated playmaking. With all the attention he drew from opposing defences, he very frequently made the right reads to create good scoring opportunities for his teammates. The problem? The Raptors have only three knock-down volume shooters from deep on their roster in VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., and OG Anunoby, four if you include Precious Achiuwa’s final quarter of the season. If the ball wasn’t finding those players, it was a chance the opponent was more than happy to take. Throw in the fact that VanVleet only shot 29.1 percent from deep after the all-star break and Anunoby featured in six regular season games after the break and it only exacerbated the problem.
When looking at teams that are in the top 12 teams of the league in three-point shooting, they possess an average of six players who attempt at least four 3-pointers per game while shooting at a solid clip. Teams at the very top like Miami and Atlanta go seven or eight deep with the majority at 36 percent or better. Expecting the Raptors to get from where they were to tops in the league is unrealistic, but getting close to the Top 10 should be seen as something feasible.
This is where the individual summer work aligning with the team needs comes in. If Achiuwa can maintain or hover in the vicinity of what he did in his final 24 regular season games where he averaged four 3-point attempts per game while shooting 40 percent, then the Raptors are at four players they can rely on from deep when healthy. Even if the percentage drops a bit but he can maintain or up the volume, that’s a win.
Where does the fifth come from? It could very well be Chris Boucher if he is re-signed. The 29-year-old finished the season shooting 29.7 percent from deep and so much of it came down to his shooting from above the break. He shot an outstanding 46 percent on corner threes but only made 22 percent of his non-corner attempts. This could be considered an anomaly since he made 40 percent of his shots from above the break last season and 34 percent two seasons ago. If he can regain that stroke on non-corner attempts, he should look to get to that average of four attempts from deep after three attempts per game this season.
The sixth option or perhaps even more could come down to one of if not a combination of Siakam, Barnes, and how the Raptors use the mid-level exception. Siakam attempted just over three 3-pointers a game this season, his fewest since the championship season. In the 2019-20 season, he made 35.9 percent of his six attempts per game and in Tampa that number dropped to 29.7 percent on 4.4 attempts per game. So much of his success as a scorer this season came down to how much he focused on his bread and butter in and around the basket but in order to take his game and the team’s to an even higher level, showing his three-point shot needs to be respected — especially from above the break — could go a long way.
Barnes was challenged to do more of everything over the course of the season including expanding his range and for a stretch between November and December it looked as though it may be happening sooner than anyone could’ve hoped. By season’s end, for the many aspects of his game he did advance, the three-point shot was not one of them. He made 27.4 percent of his attempts after the all-star break in an elevated offensive role and was 2-for-12 from deep in four playoff games. There is a long way to go for Barnes to command gravity at the three-point line and it should be considered a bonus if he can get there.
In some ways, this does crystallize how important it is that the Raptors use the mid-level exception on a player who can help improve the spacing on the floor. Adding another long, athletic player with limited range shooting the ball would provide no real benefit to the roster, especially if Thad Young returns. In case you were wondering, Young shot 39.5 percent from deep on 1.7 attempts per game and that’s exactly it, despite the efficiency, he’s not going to be someone who commands defenders to extend out to him on the three-point line. Adding a consistent volume shooter should be a must in the off-season.
By virtue of improving the outside shooting, there should be a carryover effect to how well the Raptors can attack the rim as improved spacing will force teams out of packing the paint the way they did many a time this season and perhaps even dissuade opponents from turning to a zone defence as much as they did against Toronto. The Raptors don’t have an abundance of players who naturally create rim pressure and so the best path to opening up driving lanes may be by improving the spacing on the floor.
With the injuries to VanVleet and Anunoby significantly impacting the spacing on the floor after the all-star break, Achiuwa not being a three-point threat prior to the break and Boucher similarly as well, the Raptors never really got a true picture of what their spacing would look like with more than two or three volume shooters at best. It was going to be bad relative to the league regardless, but the gains that could be made through their work in the summer along with just being healthy could be more significant than we give credit for. That also shouldn’t take away from the need to bring someone in who adds to it as well.
Toronto’s next growth stage will primarily be about increasing their margin for error in finding ways to win. By focusing on shooting the ball better from the outside this off-season, it could put the Raptors on the inside track to the finish line they envision.