Traces from the Toronto Raptors’ poor offense last season persists in the preseason.
Although the preseason doesn’t define how good a team will be in the regular season, it is a good time to evaluate a team’s weak points. For the Toronto Raptors, they continue to showcase the same weakness that has manifested them in the past, their halfcourt offense. An area they failed to find success in since the departure of their former superstar, Kawhi Leonard.
The Raptors did end their preseason with a 2-1 record; however, two of those wins were against a weaker team in the Charlotte Hornets. The real test was their lone loss against the Heat — a top 10 defensive team last season. The Heat’s astute defense made the Raptors’ lives difficult whenever they were looking to score in the halfcourt.
That is why the Raptors went out and acquired Chris Finch as their assistant coach in November. Head coach Nick Nurse praised Finch for his great offensive mindset and for what he has done on offense for his past teams as an assistant — the Rockets, Nuggets, and Pelicans.
Finch explains what he thinks an offense needs to be successful.
"“I think the game now is so fast and so fluid and I’ve been fortunate enough to always kinda want to play that way. So, to me, the most important thing right now is to be highly unpredictable,”"
The last time the Raptors were unpredictable on offense was when Kawhi Leonard was leading the charge. Kawhi did just about everything on offense for the Raptors: playmaking, shot-creating, and closing. Teams never knew what Kawhi was going to do because he was capable of doing everything you’d need of a star player. This is the type of unpredictability the Raptors have failed to replace since Kawhi’s departure, and one Chris Finch will be trying to fix.
Nurse has failed to create a good halfcourt offense since Kawhi left
The loss of Kawhi Leonard may not have reflected in their win-loss column, but it did in their halfcourt offense ranking. When Kawhi Leonard was on the team in the 2018-19 season, the Toronto Raptors ranked 8th in points per 100 plays in the halfcourt with 96.4. When Kawhi didn’t play (missed games due to load management or injury), that number dropped to 93.4 points per 100 plays; that would’ve ranked them at 19th that year.
After Kawhi left the Raptors for the Clippers, the Raptors ranked 15th in halfcourt points per 100 plays in the 2019-2020 season — second-lowest among teams who would make the playoffs.
With Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors had a very efficient three-level scorer (scoring from three, mid-range, and around the rim). His versatility on offense made it difficult for opposing teams to defend him. If Kawhi wasn’t initiating the offense, then the ball would go to him at the end of the shot clock where he would create something out of nothing.
As much as Nurse wants his team’s shots to come from either three or the rim, Nurse was comfortable with letting Kawhi take the shots he wanted. While role players were the ones to shoot the shots Nurse wanted. This would lead the Raptors to have efficiency and variability in their offense.
The Toronto Raptors have been too predictable on offense last season and now in the preseason
Every good offensive team has an identity on offense. The Bucks system, which ranked first in halfcourt points, is revolved around Giannis driving and kicking it out to open shooters. The Rockets system, which ranked fourth in halfcourt points, is centralized around maximizing Harden’s abilities. When the Raptors had Leonard, the offense was set up to facilitate Leonard’s job.
The current Raptors’ identity is centralized around Siakam’s capabilities (which we’ll get to later), but too often it doesn’t look good. Players are standing around the three-point line just waiting for a pass to come their way. There isn’t enough proactivity in the halfcourt and that’s something that has been missing since Kawhi left.
As great a coach Nick Nurse is, he was never able to create a good halfcourt offense without a superstar player yet. He runs a style that is very similar to the former D’Antoni led Rockets; where all shots are either taken behind the three-point line or around the rim. Although it is the most efficient basketball, it does result in having a very stagnant offense — which good defensive teams will take advantage of.
Let’s look at the Raptors’ three preseason games and their shot distribution.
- Game 1 vs Hornets: 52 threes, 30 shots in the paint
- Game 2 vs Hornets: 44 threes, 32 shots in the paint
- Game 3 vs Heat: 59 threes, 24 shots in the paint
The third game stands out the most. In the first quarter alone, only two shots were taken in the paint. Two shots. The Raptors are settling too much for threes and it reflects in their preseason halfcourt ranking; the Raptors are ranked 17th in the league.
Nurse wants to take the most efficient shot possible, but good defensive teams are going to take advantage of that predictability — like the Heat did in the third game. The Heat knows that Nurse runs a system where the mid-range is only a last resort shot. So the Heat decided to take their chances by clogging the paint and let them shoot as many threes as possible.
To be fair to Nurse and Finch, they haven’t had a long period of time to figure things out. The short off-season that was then followed by the brief training camp makes it hard to install a new system in place. But every new system starts around what their star player can do, and that’s what they did last season with Siakam; and what they’re going to do this season.
The first step in fixing that predictability is with Pascal Siakam
The only player on the Raptors who had the ability to carry the load as close as Kawhi did on offense was Pascal Siakam — to an extent. That’s why Nurse made Siakam the team’s first option on offense last season after Kawhi left. However, the problem with Siakam is that he isn’t as good a creator/playmaker or efficient as Kawhi was.
Kawhi Leonard shooting percentage with Raptors in 2018-2019:
- Rim: 68 percent
- Mid-range: 46 percent
- Three: 38 percent
Pascal Siakam shooting percentage in 2019-2020:
- Rim: 65 percent
- Mid-range: 34 percent
- Three: 36 percent
Aside from the mid-range, Siakam isn’t miles behind Kawhi. But that stat alone is enough for other teams to determine that he isn’t enough of a threat to draw attention outside of the paint. Teams would crowd the paint and let Siakam shoot which paid off more often than not (the Celtics playoffs series is a good example).
Since Siakam wasn’t a quick or good enough decision-maker/passer, opposing teams weren’t punished for leaving players open. This is the next step Siakam must make in his game and one new assistant coach Finch has alluded to already.
"“I think we can tweak some of our spacing rules. I think also finding new opportunities for the likes of Pascal [Siakam] to score, or put the ball in his hands to create opportunities for his teammates, a little more unpredictability there, maybe some misdirection.”"
Finch would also go on to compare Siakam to Brandon Ingram. A player who Finch helped perfect his offensive game by turning him into a three-level scorer and passer. With Siakam’s predictability being a thing that has hurt him and the Toronto Raptors in the past. The type of improvements we’ve seen Finch work with Ingram is the improvements we hope to see with Siakam.
This is the next big step in Siakam’s development and one that would help the Toronto Raptors’ halfcourt offense become less stale. Although we cannot realistically expect him to be Kawhi 2.0 on offense, taking that next leap under Finch will certainly help him and the Raptors be at least a shade of what they were in the 2018-2019 season.
As concerning as it can be to see their halfcourt offense be a weak point again, NBA teams didn’t have the usual time they have before the start of the season. Just like many teams in the league, the Raptors will be trying to implement a new system on offense during the beginning of the season. And that’ll be a system that’ll begin by demanding Siakam to do more in the halfcourt.