CJ Miles figured he knew all about the Toronto Raptors. He’d gone up against DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry et al. regularly over the past five years since coming to the Eastern Conference from Utah. The 12-year veteran matched up against them in the playoffs in a seven-game series when he was with Indiana in 2015.
He’s read the scouting reports and helped put them into action: Force the ball out of the hands of the Raptors stars and watch their stagnant, iso-ball, regular-season worthy offense fall apart.
But since signing with the Raptors as a free agent? He’d been assured when signing with Toronto the Raptors were committed to changing their approach, but his security blanket was that as an elite spot-up shooter he could thrive alongside high-usage players anyway.
“Being a catch-and-shoot guy, if you’re in iso, I just find a place and plant my feet,” he said. “If it comes, you shoot it. If it doesn’t, then you get back. It’s not really that serious.”
Below: Check out Michael Grange’s Raptors season-opening video essay
But not only has Miles joined a new team this season, he’s arrived with a team that is determinedly trying to remake itself from the inside out. Feeling they’ve gone as far as DeRozan and Lowry alone can take them, they’re looking to break out of their self-imposed box, with Miles as a happy witness.
“It’s been the exact opposite. Everything that everybody said [about the Raptors] is the opposite of what we did in the pre-season,” said Miles. “We took 50 threes the other day. Everybody knows I’m happy with that. But I think everybody has bought into what we’re trying to do, even some guys who have had to change their game a little bit … [and] these guys are tremendously unselfish. They let me know from Day 1, ‘If you feel like you’re open, you make a noise, you whistle at me, I’m going to try and find you,’ and it’s been that way in practice and in the games.”
The culture has been reset. That’s evident. Watching the Raptors play in the pre-season has been like coming back from holidays and seeing the family dog reading books and the cat playing piano.
Less isolation or 1-on-1 basketball; more three three-point shooting; better ball movement and players cutting from all sides of the floor.
It’s hard to imagine a team looking more different than what the Raptors presented to the world in the pre-season and what they had on display a year ago.
The question is: will it hold?
When the Raptors tip-off against the Chicago Bulls on Thursday gunning to build on their run as the Eastern Conference’s most successful regular season team over the past four seasons — they have a conference-high 204 wins to prove it — with something more than a meek submission at the foot of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, the plan is to go about things differently.
Granted the NBA’s shortened pre-season doesn’t allow for large sample sizes and exhibition games with jumbled up lineups make the results even less representative.
But there is no doubt the Raptors are trying. They are really, really trying. You don’t go from averaging 24.3 three-point attempts a game (22nd in the NBA) one season to 43 a game — which would have led the league last year — in exhibition play six months later by accident.
And while the percentages weren’t great – their 32.6 per cent from deep in exhibition play would have been last in the league – the underlying numbers are staggering if you consider they’re being achieved without a new coaching staff and by a team that still will likely rise and fall on DeRozan and Lowry.
In the four pre-season games for which advanced statistics are available the Raptors averaged 105.5 possessions per game with 64.7 per cent of their field goals being assisted and a True Shooting Percentage (factoring free throws and three-pointers) of 61.9, compared with 97.1/47.2/56.1 in the regular season in ‘16-17. The Raptors were last in assisted field goals last year – consistent with their performance in most passing measures – and 22nd in pace of play to go along with their mid-pack, three-point shooting.
Put another way: No one team in the league – not the shot-happy Houston Rockets or the pass-happy San Antonio Spurs or the run-and-gun Golden State Warriors played as fast, passed as much or shot as deep as often a year ago as Toronto did in the pre-season.
For four games in October the Raptors played not like they’d undergone and culture reset, but like they’d been taken over by aliens from a modern basketball planet.
And if you’re looking for a bell-weather we probably need look no further than DeRozan, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer coming off the most productive season of his career, but who ran into a wall of post-season traps and double-teams that he and co-conspirator Lowry failed to navigate for the fourth straight year.
It’s almost like the organization looked at DeRozan, their leading scorer, and the NBA’s foremost taker and maker of contested mid-range twos – the least fashionable shot in the sport — and said they needed less of what he does best.
“This is a totally different rhythm for him. I understand that, we understand that as a coaching staff, but DeMar has been very receptive,” says Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “He understands he may have to sacrifice a little bit for the team and again, it’s going to make us better in the playoffs. It’s going to make us harder to guard, it’s going to build confidence in other guys other than he or Kyle to score and that’s been our Achilles heel the last few years in the playoffs.”
To his credit, DeRozan hasn’t taken the directive negatively and claims to like it so far, after averaging five assists in just 25 minutes a game over three pre-season starts.
“[It] definitely gets guys a lot of open shots and that’s definitely the great thing about it, especially with as much attention as I draw from posting up, handling the ball, coming off screens,” he says. “Kind of being out there moving at a quicker pace, finding guys, guys finding each other, playing off each other a little bit more.”
And in many ways the changes have been eased along by the presence of Miles, an elite three-point shooter who drags the defense with him wherever he goes and punishes them when they don’t keep up. He gives the Raptors a floor-spacer unlike the franchise has ever had.
How this will work when October turn to November and more importantly when April turns to May is all that matters, of course.
As DeRozan points out, established players and established teams are mostly just waiting for the lights to come on for real.
“You have no choice but to in a sense coast, kind of find your rhythm, get a little feel during pre-season because it’s pre-season,” he says. “You’re not going to play that much, you’re not going to play your regular style, you’re not going to shoot the same amount of shots, you’re not going to do everything you do in a real game.”
Which is probably why for the moment the world beyond The BioSteel Centre remains skeptical the Raptors have changed or even can.
DeRozan, for all his gaudy scoring, was ranked just the 36th-best player in the league in Sports Illustrated’s pre-season list of the NBA’s top-100 while ESPN had him 39th. He remains viewed as a flawed star – defensively suspect and a 28-per-cent three-point shooter to boot — and the Raptors as just another patsy for the Cavaliers and having lost ground in the eyes of many to the Boston Celtics (although losing prize free agent Gordon Hayward for the season after his gruesome opening night ankle injury might change the math a bit), Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference.
For Miles, the newcomer, it’s been a bit jarring. For years he would come to Toronto and prepare for a tough test against one of the best teams in the East. And now that he’s here he’s become a believer regarding his new team’s approach and potential.
But so far his enthusiasm hasn’t travelled.
“Like, last year, wasn’t the team … third in the East? Third in the East and now they don’t even say your name,” says Miles of the absence of pre-season hype around his new team. “Like, how does that happen? How does anybody write a story and not talk about a team that was third in the East last year?
“It’s a little disrespectful but that gives you some more fuel on the fire.”