Team building in the NBA, like the solving of a Rubik’s Cube, can be split into its disparate elements. There are nine green squares and nine blue ones, just as there are specific team-wide skills like transition defence, shooting, or mid-range creation. But putting all the pieces together, in both scenarios, is the trick.
To win an NBA championship, a team can focus more on one area than on another, but nothing can be ignored entirely. All the squares have to fit together in the end.
Take the 2015 Golden State Warriors as an example. They were famously the best shooting team in basketball behind the unique talents of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but so too were those Warriors the best defensive team in basketball behind the versatility of Draymond Green.
Another example is the 2019 Toronto Raptors, whose half-court defence swallowed opponents whole. Yet the team was quietly an offensive juggernaut, too, with a top-five rating there equal to its defensive rating.
With the emergence of OG Anunoby into a premier wing stopper, this past season’s Raptors boasted the defence required to win it all, but the balance wasn’t there. The Raptors were, statistically, a better defensive team in 2019-20 than in 2018-19, both by league ranking and defensive rating. But with the departure of Kawhi Leonard, Toronto’s mid-range offence -- a vital ingredient in winning during the grind of playoff games -- cratered.
In fact, Toronto shot only 35.8 per cent from the mid-range this past season, third-worst in the league. Last year, it posted the third-best mark, at 43.5 per cent. That, perhaps more than any other single stat, encapsulates why the Raptors were unable to repeat as champions.
Leonard is a mid-range artist who balances quantity and accuracy as well as any player in the league, and the Raptors didn’t replace his genius. Toronto cruised without mid-range scoring in the regular season but in the playoffs, the Boston Celtics forced the Raptors away from their strengths, towards isolating against elite individual defenders. Few could consistently deliver and many possessions ended in ugly looks when multiple players failed to capitalize upon reaching the paint.
So how do the Raptors address that deficit? Here are a few ways they might do so.
First and foremost, the Raptors need to build from within. One possible player with room for improvement is Fred VanVleet.
An elite shooter and defender with a near-all-star campaign last season, VanVleet is on the verge of earning $20 million per year, or more. It’s likely that the Raptors pony up and equal or even surpass any bid for his services, particularly given ESPN reporter Zach Lowe’s report that it’s “unclear” if the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks would be interested in VanVleet at that price.
Assuming he does return to Toronto, for VanVleet to remain a value-positive asset while absorbing such a share of Toronto’s cap space, he needs to improve. And his scoring inside the arc is where that needs to happen. According to stats website Cleaning the Glass, VanVleet was an 18th-percentile finisher at the rim for his position this year and 11th-percentile scorer from the mid-range, yet he has solid touch and is one of the best high-volume distance shooters in the league.
If VanVleet could threaten opponents with a mid-range pull-up jumper or a six-to-eight foot floater, that would go a long way towards bending defences and opening further opportunities to showcase his strengths.
The idea would not be for VanVleet to replace his diet of long bombs, but rather to supplement them with other weapons so that when teams force him inside the arc, he could still create and maintain advantages. He’s shown some ability, but he needs to add more proclivity and consistency. These shots were available to him during the entire Celtics series.
Toronto could, of course, look outside the roster for added mid-range punch, and there are some juicy options available, even if none could offer the impact of Toronto’s 2018 trade for Leonard.
Fishing from the pool of free agents is always a tried and true method to address team weaknesses, even if the Raptors may only have the mid-level exception to dangle as bait. The approximate $9 million couldn’t land a big fish like Anthony Davis, but unrestricted Goran Dragic would go a long way towards addressing Toronto’s needs.
Dragic could command slightly more money than Toronto has to offer, but he’s 34 years old and missed the majority of his first-ever trip to the finals due to injury. He’s a possible candidate to accept less money in order to sign with a contender. If Toronto can lure him away from Miami, his strengths would help ameliorate the team’s weaknesses.
At six-foot-three, Dragic is big and strong for a lead guard, and he uses that strength like a left-handed Kyle Lowry. He tosses his body into opponents, destabilizing them before they have a chance to contest his bevy of pushes, flips, hooks, and runners. Opponents want you to take those shots in the playoffs, which is why Dragic was second on the Miami Heat in scoring in the post-season, at 19.1 points per game. That has been a theme of his career; Dragic has averaged more points every year but one in the playoffs as compared to the corresponding regular season.
When opponents force him inside the arc, he has the balance and touch to collapse the floor and score from inside the belly of the beast. The shots playoff defences force you to take are the ones at which Dragic specializes in.
And if Toronto doesn’t manage to lure Dragic, then perhaps the team could add some mid-range scoring the old-fashioned way: By drafting it.
That’s where Grant Riller could enter the picture.
One of the best guard scorers from a mid-major conference since Damian Lillard, Riller has quick-twitch dribbling ability, creative shot-making, and elite touch and shooting skills. Per Synergy Stats, he scored at an 84th-percentile rate in isolation and a 97th-percentile rate as a pick-and-roll handler. He has a pure jumper, a quick first step, and is a complex finisher around the rim. With a strong base, he creates acres of space with his step-back. Even as a rookie, he’ll be able to pick on switches.
Riller is supposed to slip in the draft because of his defensive limitations and because he’s already 24 years old, having spent five years at Charleston. However, his age means he’s as close to NBA-ready as a rookie can be; Toronto could use him immediately. If the Raptors get a chance to snatch him up, Riller would instantly become one of the team’s better mid-range scorers with the chance to grow into much more over time.
The trade market
If Toronto strikes out on free agency or the draft, then the team could improve its mid-range ability via trade. The options there would be even more difficult to snag, though.
Derrick Rose was an exceptional mid-range player last season, and he only has one year remaining on a cheap deal with the Detroit Pistons. He shot a Kawhi-like 46 per cent from the mid-range last year on a high volume of shots, so he would address the need. But he’ll likely come at the expense of at least a first-round pick, and it’s a question mark whether Toronto would even want to add a player whose reputation is tarnished by off-court baggage.
Other potential targets, like Tim Hardaway Jr. or Evan Fournier would cost even more on the trade market and would be similarly difficult to retain after the 2020-21 season. However, given the report that Danny Green and the 28th pick in the draft will land the Los Angeles Lakers Dennis Schroder, an accomplished mid-range creator, it’s possible that Toronto has the assets required for its own heist.
Every resource at Raptors’ disposal should be considered
Fixing a team’s weaknesses in the off-season is always a dicey proposition. Sometimes, as with an attempt to solve a Rubik’s Cube, teams end up twisted into worse binds than before. But Toronto’s front office has proven that it can navigate short-term goals with long-term flexibility and it must be mentioned here that it has long had its sights set on signing Giannis Antetokounmpo during the 2021 off-season.
But even if those dreams come true, Antetokounmpo isn’t yet a wizard in the mid-range. No matter what happens, Toronto will need more self-creation punch on the roster. Pascal Siakam is improving in that regard and OG Anunoby has shown some latent ability on which he can build, but adding Riller to the roster, for example, would help Toronto build for the future as well as the present. Toronto could thus address its only flaw in multiple ways, from inside and outside the roster.
Using multiple effective approaches is how you solve puzzles, whether rotating a Rubik’s Cube or molding an NBA roster into a championship core.