What are the odds the Toronto Raptors are better defensively next season?

Toronto Raptors - Fred VanVleet (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Fred VanVleet (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Raptors won’t have either Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard next season. But what are the odds they’re a better defensive team?

Statistically speaking, the Toronto Raptors took a step back offensively last season. The team posted a lower offensive rating in both the regular season and during the playoffs. Of course, they were still towards the top of the league offensively. But the team did regress.

So how did they transform from second-round flame-outs to NBA Champions? Well, significant improvements on the defensive end of course. Toronto ranked 4th in defensive rating during the 2019 playoffs after finishing dead last the year before.

It’s easy to see why the Raptors improved defensively last season. The team’s only impactful of move of the offseason sent defensive liability DeMar DeRozan and average defender Jakob Poeltl out the door for quality options Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Toronto looked better on paper last season and then lived up to that billing.

But Leonard and Green are both gone now. And in them, Toronto lost two quality defenders. Green was nearly voted to an All-Defensive team last season, and while Kawhi is no longer the regular-season defender he once was, he was still giving a quality 30+ minutes of reliable play on that end.

Despite losing two key players, can the Toronto Raptors actually improve defensively in 2019-2020, at least during the regular season?

Replacing Danny Green’s and Kawhi Leonard’s minutes

Accounting for the 22 games Kawhi Leonard missed, the Raptors will be replacing approximately 52 minutes per game on the wings this season, 27 minutes per game for Danny Green and 25 for Kawhi.

While the rotation still is largely undecided, we have a good idea of who will be sliding into their place.

Norman Powell will likely move into the starting lineup and receive 8-10 additional minutes per game; the same goes for OG Anunoby. Fred VanVleet will receive an uptick in minutes, although perhaps not to the same degree (he was already fifth in minutes per game last season).

The remaining 25 minutes or so will be filled by a rotating cast of Patrick McCaw, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Matt Thomas. Training camp and the early part of the season will decide which of the four players will receive the majority of the time, but chances are it will fluctuate throughout the season.

At shooting guard, VanVleet and Powell are both manageable downgrades. VanVleet has physical limitations. Powell struggles as a help defender and doesn’t have the same defensive IQ. Both players are still competent defensively; they just aren’t Danny Green.

The Toronto Raptors third shooting guard will likely be Patrick McCaw or Matt Thomas. McCaw serves as another slight defensive downgrade to Danny Green. Thomas is like going from an Escalade to a 1999 Camry.

However, believe it or not, the Raptors might actually be able to take a step forward next regular season at the other wing position. Kawhi Leonard, for all his immense talents, was not the most impactful defensive player during the regular season last year. He wasn’t a sieve, like other offensive superstars (cough LeBron James cough), but he wasn’t a game-changer either.

Replacing Leonard’s minutes with Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and OG Anunoby, three incredible defenders. A trio that should actually improve the Raptors defense during the regular season. 

In fact, the area where Leonard’s impact might be missed the most will be the pressure he took off of Siakam and other Raptors offensively.

As the rest of the Raptors are forced to increase their offensive workload, they might find it harder to give the same defensive effort as last season. If they have to scale it back even a little bit next year, it could have a negative impact on the defense as a whole.

Toronto’s perimeter defense will take a step back with the departure of Green. And while the small forwards replacing Leonard should serve as a slight improvement defensively, the difference isn’t enough to make up for the loss at shooting guard.

Overall, the Raptors got a touch worse defensively on the perimeter this offseason.

A full year of Marc Gasol

So how can the Raptors make up that downgrade on the perimeter? By improving their interior defense, of course.  Toronto is hoping that Marc Gasol can serve as an upgrade to Jonas Valanciunas.

While JV had some limitations on the perimeter, he wasn’t a complete liability as many made him seem. He protected the rim incredibly well, was an impressive rebounder, and served as a brick wall on the low block. No, he couldn’t chase opponents out at the perimeter, but he could play his role.

Marc Gasol is an improvement on that. While the former Defensive Player of the Year isn’t the impact defender he used to be, last season he was still incredibly efficient. Gasol ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive PIPM (an on/off metric designed to measure overall impact), finishing between Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green, pretty good company to be with.

Gasol will be one year older next season, and one year slower defensively. But even if he takes a moderate step back, he still should be a reasonable upgrade over Valanciunas on the defensive end.

What are the odds?

So will a full year of Marc Gasol make up for the departure of Leonard and Green, at least during the regular season?

My early belief is no, particularly when you consider other minor factors such as year of aging from Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. The Raptors defense should still be good next season, but better feels like a stretch.

Final odds: 20-percent

dark. Next. What are the odds Kyle Lowry leads the NBA in assists

Unlike offense — which will almost certainly take a step back — it’s possible the Raptors are better defensively next season. Just don’t count on it.