The words “changing the culture” were big with the Toronto Raptors last season. While that nebulous phrase has many tentacles to it, head coach Dwane Casey’s translation started on the court and it was simple, “we’re gonna play defence.”
That portion of the culture change was complete success as Toronto finished amongst the NBA’s best in defensive field goal percentage. In fact, the Raptors in the top seven at season’s end and were the only team in the top 10 of that category not to make the post-season. The reason: the offense was sub-par. No truth to the rumour that when people asked Casey how his offence was doing he answered “he has a strained calf.”
But to Toronto’s credit their solid defence was also closely correlated with pace of play. Toronto played at the third slowest pace in the 2011-12 season — only the New Orleans Hornets and lowly Charlotte Bobcats scored few points than the Raptors — and consequently there were a limited number of possessions by the Raptors and their opponents.
In layman’s terms, if you slow the pace down and each team gets fewer possessions, large talent discrepancies can be minimized. It’s called taking the air out of the ball and it was a common practice back in the days of collegiate hoops before a shot clock mandated you had to shoot within an allotted time or give up the ball.
As the NBA goes, it means walking the ball, working the clock and unless there is an absolute breakaway for a dunk, or high percentage chance to score in a fast break situation, you play patiently with the ball to not turn it over while trying to get a decent look at the hoop. You might lose, but you won’t get blown out. In addition, it’s the kind of pace that can dictate the way both teams play.
“That style of play last year gave us a chance to be in games,” said Casey when addressing the media at the team’s training camp in Halifax. “I don’t like to play that way but we were shorthanded when Andrea (Bargnani) went out so one thing that helped us stay in the game was control tempo.”
If Team A is a disciplined, walk-it-up team and Team B is more prone to run the ball, and they are playing at Team A’s pace, Team B slows to value possession of the ball. Why, because you don’t run up the floor, jack up a shot then have to wait 22 seconds to get it back. If Team B can’t create turnovers to speed up the pace, it’s a different story. It’s what made the seven seconds or less Phoenix Suns of years gone by so unique. They were able to push the pace, get the other team to play that way and maintain that exciting mode of play consistently.
So now we hear Dwane Casey would like to run more this season with the caveat being he wants to maintain the team’s defensive identity. It can be done, but it could be difficult. It was a staple of great coaches of years past with great teams. I think of Larry Brown’s squads, and Pat Riley with the ever present phrase “the opportunity break” when his teams weren’t grinding you in the half-court. For those of you thinking, ‘wait a minute, wasn’t Riley a running guy with the Lakers?’ remember in Los Angeles, “Showtime” eventually gave way to “slow time.”
It takes a few things for this to happen. Initially, coaches have to get used to relinquishing a bit of the offensive control. It will also take time to develop the system and trust amongst players, while coaches must possibly deal with a few more miscues and turnovers. Casey is aware of all the potential pitfalls as he tries to upgrade the offensive output, but he understands last year’s system won’t get it done.
“We want to run the floor to try and get layups first,” remarked Casey.
If his guards are willing to push the ball with the pass and not the dribble and players such as Jonas Valanciunas, Quincy Acy and Amir Johnson are rewarded for running the floor, there will be easy scores and they will continue to run. If the ball doesn’t make its way up the court then it will be easy to fall into the trap of the walk-it-up pace of play.
The running game and broken floor situations where not all five defenders are back will also make it easier for the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields and Terrence Ross.
Keep an eye out for the Raptors new look running game. It’s easy to say, we want to run, but difficult to commit to it consistently.