The Toronto Raptors are mostly done their off-season shopping, but are they any different? Are they better?
The answer won’t be known at the very earliest until training camp, but more realistically until 20 or 30 games into the regular season when the seeds of whatever “culture reset” envisioned by president Masai Ujiri have occasion to bear fruit.
For now, there is time for optimism. On Tuesday afternoon, Ujiri introduced C.J. Miles, the one notable addition in an off-season that has been more about subtraction.
“With the way the league is going I think he’s one of the guys [we] zeroed in on. You pay attention to him because of his size, his shooting ability and he spreads the floor,” said Ujiri on why he made Miles a priority. “On paper he looks like a good fit for us but you never know how these things work out. On paper it’s one thing, but we have to get to the basketball court.”
Miles’ role will need to be significant if the Raptors are going to modernize their offensive approach, even a little. He came into the NBA as an 18-year-old in 2005, drafted by the Utah Jazz directly from Skyline High School for Architecture in Dallas, in the last year the league allowed teams to draft high-school players. Not surprisingly, he struggled to find a fit early in his career but eventually identified a niche as a spot-up, three-point marksman.
“It’s basically given me – I don’t want to say a new life but given me greater opportunities to be able to play this game,” said the 6-foot-6 Miles, who turned down a $4.8-million option on the last year of his deal with the Indiana Pacers in order to test free agency and was rewarded with a three-year deal worth a reported $25 million by the Raptors. “To be able to hone in on that has given me one of those things to make my niche on a team and be a weapon – a greater weapon on a team.”
Here’s betting Miles quickly becomes a fan favourite. He comes across wonderfully – confident yet self-deprecating is always a good combination and what seems a genuine enthusiasm for the “We the North” vibe that he experienced in the playoffs with the Pacers in 2015-16 will be welcomed too.
But knocking down shots will be most important of all.
He’s evolved as the league has evolved. In his first eight NBA seasons, Miles shot 32.9 per cent from three on 4.9 attempts per 36 minutes. In his last five years – split between Cleveland and Indiana – he’s shot 37.8 per cent from deep while tossing up on 8.6 attempts per 36 minutes. He’s proven adept finding space in the corner in particular – the shortest three-point shot and the one that gathers the most attention on the weak side of the defence. He’s converted 44.2 per cent of those chances over the past five seasons and 50.8 per cent last year, the second-best rate in the NBA behind Kyle Korver, and his 66 corner threes trailed only Klay Thompson’s 78.
Good company, in other words. He credits Mike Brown, his coach in Cleveland, with challenging him to make three-point shooting a bigger emphasis of his game and things have flowed from there.
“It’s maturity as far as how you approach the game and the way you are able to work on certain things,” Miles said. “And then there’s the freedom to be able to [shoot] at a higher level and having that challenge put in front of you as something you can add to the team.”
The challenge the Raptors are facing is plain. With the departures of Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker (free agency) and DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph (by trade) this past off-season, and Terrence Ross at the trade deadline last season, the players who made more than half of the Raptors’ 725 three-pointers in 2016-17 are no longer on the roster.
Miles will help but even if he knocks down 169 threes like he did last season – second only to Houston’s Eric Gordon among players who primarily came off the bench – will it be enough?
The NBA’s approach to offence has undergone a tidal change over the past three seasons. At the forefront, predictably, have been the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, with the Cavaliers coming on strong too.
Steve Shea, a mathematics professor at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, the author of Basketball Analytics and a consultant to various NBA players, agents and teams over the years, calls the transition “progressive offence” – an approach to scoring that emphasizes spacing, pace and ball movement.
In a recent blog post he aggregated measures of each of those elements – the percentage of shots that were either layups, free throws or threes; speed and quality of ball movement and team quickness in transition – and found the Raptors sorely lacking in all areas.
He tracked teams for the past three years and ranked them according what he calls their Modern Offensive Strategy Score or MOSS. Since 2014-15, the Raptors have ranked (out of 90 entries) 87th, 76th and 86th. The Warriors have ranked in the top three all three years.
In other words, just bolting on Miles won’t likely be enough for a team that takes too many shots in mid-range; doesn’t run enough for easy baskets and tends to hold on the ball too long before passing.
“With the Raptors, there are two contributing factors over the last several years,” said Shea in a telephone interview. “One is they don’t space with shooters to the extent that other teams have. They would play a traditional centre [Jonas Valanciunas] and Amir Johnson or Pascal Siakam at power forward … and couple that with them having one of the last remaining high usage guards that doesn’t stretch to the three-point line in [DeMar] DeRozan, who is sort of a dinosaur. …
“His average seconds per touch … is the largest such number for any player you wouldn’t consider a point guard,” said Shea. “The way he plays, he profiles as a superstar from the 90s, essentially, but looks a bit out of place in today’s game.”
These kinds of analysis are not new to the Raptors, and then there is the matter of DeRozan accounting for more than a quarter of the Raptors offence, between his scoring and his playmaking. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to improve or that knowing what the problem is means it’s as simple to solve as bringing in one proven three-point shooter.
Having his team playing faster and wider are qualities that Ujiri is looking to improve, but he’s realistic too.
“We’re going to try to [play differently] a little bit,” said Ujiri. “We’re not asking for a dramatic change, if that’s what anybody is looking for I don’t know if this [is] the team to watch for that. It’s not going to be a dramatic change. But we have to be conscious of the things we can do better, whether it’s moving the ball a little bit better or spacing the floor a little bit better.
“C.J. is a player who can space the floor better.”
Will the Raptors be better as a result? Different? That’s a lot to lay at the feet of Miles, even if he profiles as the type of role player the Raptors desperately need in their efforts to modernize – even incrementally – the way they play.
The answers are months away. For now, we’ll call it a place to start.