The Toronto Raptors have evolved. A quarter of their way through the season they are firmly in the middle-of-the-pack by most passing measures, even better in some.
They rank fifth in the NBA in assists with 23.6. A year ago they ranked last with 18.5.
This doesn’t make them a great passing team, just a lot better than the one they’ve been in recent years which ranked last— or close to it— in number of assists and passes thrown, percentage of scores that were assisted, and number of passes that led to assisted baskets (the so-called hockey assist).
Looking through their line-up, there are some good news stories. Kyle Lowry remains their most reliable ball distributer— he’s averaging 10.6 assists per 100 possessions, just a fraction off a career-best mark— and understudy, Fred VanVleet, has been almost as more prolific, averaging 9.6. Meanwhile DeMar DeRozan is heading for a career-high in assists (4.9) and assist percentage (22.9), even as his usage rate drops. Pascal Siakam, the budding Swiss Army Knife of a power forward, is showing sides of his game that few knew he had, averaging a heathy 4.7 assists per 100 possessions, four times what he did last year.
But there are some gaps too. Big ones; about 28 feet worth.
According Basketball-Reference.com there are only 12 ‘bigs’ (players listed as forwards and centres) in the NBA who average 1.7 assists per 100 possessions or less this season, and four of them are on the Raptors— Jonas Valanciunas (1.7); Lucas Noguira (1.4); Jakob Poeltl (1.1) and Serge Ibaka (1.0).
No other team has more than two on their roster, and the Raptors are the only team in the league that starts two players who average less that two assists per 100.
Which brings into sharp focus their match-up with the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night, the first game of a four-game road trip.
In Marc Gasol the Grizzlies have one of the best passing big men in the game, and, who knows, he may even be available at some point this season.
Imagine how much better the Raptors passing game might be if they had, say, a player like Gasol— or Gasol himself— playing centre?
It will be a fun— or painful— sidebar to Friday night and hard to ignore whenever Ibaka holds the ball and the other nine players on the floor come to a standstill, or every time Valanciunas bulls his way through traffic as his teammates can simply watch. The contrast at the other end with Gasol is threading backdoor bounce passes to cutters left and right will be hard to ignore.
Clearly Toronto is managing, regardless. They depart for a trip through the lower reaches of the Western Conference on a four-game winning streak and in possession of the fourth-best offensive rating in the league, behind Golden State, Houston, and Cleveland.
Meanwhile the Grizzlies are struggling mightily, having lost 12 of their last 13 games, a slide that precipitated the firing of second-year head coach David Fizdale and sparkied rumours that the veteran-laden club, coming off their seventh straight playoff appearance, could be thinking rebuild.
A constant in their success over those years has been the presence of Gasol, who is the only big man in the game to average six assists per 100 possessions over the past six years. He assists on 22 per cent of the Grizzlies’ baskets this year which puts him right on par with DeRozan for the Raptors, and miles past the kind of contributions the likes of Valanciunas or Ibaka are able to make.
Combined with his more-than-respectable three-point shooting Gasol makes for one of the most challenging players Raptors head coach Dwane Casey needs to game plan for each season.
“Our bigs have to be able to go out to the three-point line and guard him,” said Casey on Thursday as the Raptors practiced before heading out on their trip. “If my memory serves me correctly, when we played them down there (last season) he knocked down three or four threes at the beginning of the game. Once we started going out, then he started driving [Gasol finished with a season-high 42 points]. He’s one of the best big men in the league, inside and outside.”
It’s a luxury the Raptors don’t have at the moment. There is some hope that Valanciunas or Poeltl could take on a larger playmaking role and extend their shooting range to create more spacing around DeRozan, Lowry and the rest of the Raptors primary ball-handlers in the not-so-distant future. Nogueira has some potential, too, but with every injury and his general unpredictability you wonder how much longer the club is willing to wait for his potential to be matched with consistency.
Ibaka? In his eighth season it’s hard to see him growing as a playmaker in any meaningful way. He’s in his seventh season he’s averaging 0.8 assists per game for his career.
As the fast-improving Siakam says, some things can be improved, but not by everybody:
“It’s ball-handling, being able to handle the ball,” he says of his own growth as a passer. “[But] you have to have it a little bit. You can still work on it and stuff, and then just reads and watching basketball and being familiar with the game. [But] Some people are just gifted passers.”
Gasol is one of them, and yes Casey would love to have more of what he has in his lineup.
“It’s huge. It’s very important,” he said of the advantage provided by a sharp-passing big man. “Basketball IQ is something you wish you could give to every young player, and that’s what he has. He [Gasol] didn’t start out the way he is now. He started out just like Jak [Poeltl] and JV did. He came back, he learned how to work out on the floor, to play out on the floor offensively, to pass the basketball, to understand what defences are doing to him, whether they’re double-teaming him or stunting. He’s mastered that craft.”
Could the Raptors have him? Conceivably. Friction between Gasol and Fizdale contributed to Fizdale being fired, so it seems that in the short-term Memphis will try to see if they can get back on track. But should they continue to stumble it would only makes sense to begin selling off veteran assets and Gasol, 33, would qualify. Who among the Raptors pool of young players would they be willing to include in any possible deal would be the issue.
But the payoff is fun to think about, as the Raptors would go from having some of the least-accomplished passing big men in the NBA to one of the best.