NBA trends: Why Raptors’ iso-heavy offence must ‘adapt or die’

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey isn't worried about the loss of experience this off-season, pointing to the progress made by a young Pascal Siakam last year.

“You have to adapt,” Dwane Casey said from his perch behind the podium at the Toronto Raptors media day on Monday, “or you die.”

That warning has been at the forefront since the Raptors were eliminated from the playoffs last spring. At his season-ending presser, team president Masai Ujiri stressed the need for a “culture change” in orde to catch up to NBA’s on-court trends, and Casey has spent his summer discussing the ways in which he and his team must evolve.

Whether or not Toronto’s offence will be able to heed that call remains the biggest on-court talking point heading into the 2017-18 season.

It’s about more than just finding ways to put points on the board. Last season, despite having a historically-low assist rate — their 18.5 assists per game was also a league-low, nearly half as many as Golden State — the Raptors still finished in the upper tier in offence. They were 10th in points per game (106.9), sixth in offensive rating (109.8), and tied for fifth in points-per-shot (1.27).

So it’s not like the Raptors weren’t able to generate scoring — what is being addressed heading into this season is how those points are being produced.

The task for the Raptors isn’t to be revolutionary, just not stuck in the past.

The Raptors offence the past few seasons has been well-suited to the roster but fairly archaic. Often they work to get the ball to a go-to player (read: DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry), or a hot hand, wait for said player to do something, and move on to plan B if things don’t work out.

“For the longest time in the NBA,” says Amin Elhassan, a former member of Steve Kerr’s front office staff on the Phoenix Suns and current ESPN analyst, “this is how offences were built.”

While that approach forces defenders to try to slow an opponents’ best players, creating an obvious physical strain on the defence, it also makes guarding a team fairly predictable.

“But,” says Elhassan, “it doesn’t create a mental strain, the amount of decision-making that, as a defender, I have to make.”

At it’s core, forcing defenders to think — or overthink — has been what’s made offences like the Warriors so dangerous. Now teams like the Raptors are working to catch up in order to exploit opponents in the same way.

It’s no secret that the NBA game has changed dramatically in recent years. The most obvious transformation has taken place behind the three-point line, where teams and players are emphasizing the long bomb more than ever. That’s almost old news at this point (though it’s something the Raptors are addressing, too. See: C.J. Miles). But when it comes to the next on-court trend league-wide the keyword is: ball-movement. In the model of Golden State, more offences will be geared around passing and finding open shooters.

Of course, every team isn’t equipped like the Warriors, who boast a deep roster loaded with good passers and active cutters, but the way they leave teams scrambling and second-guessing on defence should be a focal point in training camps across the NBA.

“The most devastating thing Golden State does is throw it to Draymond Green or Zaza Pachulia at the elbow, and then Steph Curry and Klay Thompson will screen for one another,” Elhassan explains. “One guy will pop, the other will flair or cut, whatever, there’s 100 different options for them. So as a defender I’m going through this constant motion of chasing a guy, thinking when a screen comes, ‘Are we switching this? Are we not? Am I staying home? Am I helping a little bit? Am I giving this guy too much space?’

“There’s so much going on, and they just do it again, and again, and again, and after a while as a defence you just start to mess up.”

Whether it’s finding cutters for easy layups — think unheralded rookie Patrick McCaw, who carved up the Cavaliers on numerous possessions in the Finals — or shooters waiting behind the arc, that emphasis on ball movement is surefire way to exploit defenders.

Having shooting threats on the floor at all position helps, too. It’s why newcomer Miles, one of the leagues top three-point shooters over the past few seasons, is a needed addition to a Raptors team that finished 21st in made threes last season.

Stretch bigs are critical to helping the modern-day offence thrive, too, and it makes Serge Ibaka a key figure in helping to make their “new” offence thrive. With his increasing ability to knock down a three — 39.8 per cent last season — defences have to, again, exercise their brain every time he sets a screen with the risk that he pops behind the line. The more the ball moves (and, with it, the players), the more questions the defence has to ask, and the more decisions need to be made in microseconds.

Of course, on a team with two clear-cut alphas on offence, no amount of planning and coaching can force the Raptors to evolve if DeRozan and Lowry don’t fully buy in. After all, an emphasis on ball movement and quicker decision making essentially means those two not holding the ball for as long during any given possession.

“What you’re saying to is basically, ‘You’re going to lose some points from not having the ball in your hands as much, but we’re going to make it up for you off of cuts,’” says Elhassan, citing the way the Heat utilized Dwyane Wade who, like DeRozan, didn’t have a reliable three-point shot in his repertoire during the LeBron James era in Miami. “They put [Wade] in the corner, and once the ball started to swing, Wade would cut. They called them ‘ghost cuts,’” he says.

“DeRozan has to be a ghost cutter, a guy who thinks, ‘I’m a threat even without the ball in my hands. You think I can’t shoot? You’re going to forget about me behind the three-point line and right when your head is turned, that’s when I’m going to cut, and because I’m a great finisher and I get to the free throw line, I’m going to make layups and keep my point production up despite less time with the ball.’”

It’s one thing to want to shoot more threes, and to improve ball movement and emphasize passing — things the Raptors brass have been preaching throughout the off-season — but Casey is aware of the strengths and limitations of his roster.

“You’re not going to turn players into something they’re not,” he said Monday. “DeMar DeRozan isn’t going to become Klay Thompson overnight. The tricky thing is … making adjustments and changes while also making sure you take advantage of the strengths of a player.”

And so here we are: The Raptors need to evolve or risk extinction. Their roster is talented, good enough to secure home-court advantage for the fourth straight season, but how far they go beyond that will, in part, hinge on their ability to adapt to change.

“Getting an offence that has ball movement is going to be our challenge,” Casey said.

But trying to do that with the same core that utilized last season’s stagnant, iso-heavy style won’t be easy.

That’s not to say it would be altogether unprecedented. Greg Poppovich and the Spurs have evolved countless times over the past two decades, finding new ways to score (and win) while employing the same key characters on the floor — but San Antonio is an exception, not the rule.

“A few years ago when I came here we talked ‘defence, defence, defence,’” said Casey. “We were ranked 30th and couldn’t be any lower.”

He helped turn the club around in that regard, but as the times are a-changing Casey and the Raptors are suddenly left singing a new tune: “We all have to adapt.”