Throughout their run of recent success, the Toronto Raptors have always been able to score. The Raps have won at least 48 games in every season since the 2013-14 campaign, and they have had a top-10 offense in each of those seasons as well; they ranked ninth (2013-14), third (2014-15), fifth (2015-16), and sixth (2016-17) in offensive efficiency during the four seasons prior to this year, and as of this writing they have the third-best offense in basketball. The two teams ahead of them (Warriors, Rockets) are in the midst of two of the 10 most-efficient scoring seasons since the ABA-NBA merger.
While a fifth straight season in the top 10 is indeed impressive (the only other NBA team with an active streak of five consecutive seasons with one of the 10 best offenses is the Clippers), the Raptors’ sheer scoring prowess is not the aspect of their offense has drawn the most attention this season. Instead, it’s been the shift in shot distribution and play selection, each the result of schematic changes Dwane Casey made to the offense last summer in an effort to get him team over the top. While they’d been experiencing great success during the regular season, Toronto’s offense had been coming to a crashing halt once the team got to the playoffs — especially over the last three years.
Over the summer, Casey and his staff tweaked the offense to ensure two things: 1) the Raptors would eschew some of their mid-range shots in favor of more shots at the rim and especially, more 3-pointers; and 2) the ball would flow more freely and not stick in the hands of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan quite as often. They’ve been successful on both fronts.
During the 2016-17 season, Toronto ranked 13th in the percentage of shot attempts that came from mid-range and just 21st in percentage of shots from 3-point land. This season, only four teams have hoisted a lower rate of mid-range shots and only four have attempted a greater rate 3s. They’ve shifted nearly 10 percent of their shot attempts out of the mid-range, moving most of them behind the arc.
Not only that, but the Raptors are playing around three possessions per game faster than they did a year ago, while also throwing around 18 more passes per 100 possessions. In other words, the ball is pinging around faster than it did before, allowing more players to get touches and thus be involved directly in the action. And whereas Lowry had the ball in his hands 18.3 percent of the time he was on the floor lasted season, per Second Spectrum data on NBA.com, that figure is down to just 15.8 percent this year. As a result, players like Jonas Valanciunas are working with the ball in their hands a bit more often. Valanciunas is averaging around eight more front-court touches per 36 minutes this season than he did a year ago, per the Second Spectrum data. Where he had the ball in his hands 5.1 percent of the time he was on the floor last season, that number has crept up to 6.6 percent this year.
“We were not focusing specially on the guards,” Valanciunas says of the offensive changes made over the summer. “We were focusing on everybody making more plays, more freedom to play for the five guys who’s on the court. If the center has the ball, Serge [Ibaka], whoever is having the ball, being able to make plays. That’s what we did. That’s why we’re so strong, because we have all our guys making plays. It’s not just the point guard making a play. So, we all handle the ball, and that gives us that special offense.”
And when Jonas had had the ball, he’s taken advantage whenever possible. Valanciunas might be averaging a career-low 22.6 minutes per game, but he’s packed more production into those minutes than ever before. His 19.9 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per-36 minutes are all career-best figures. His 22.7 percent usage rate and 62.7 true shooting percentage are the best marks of his career as well. Casey, for one, is not surprised that shifting the offense has benefited the big man as well as the perimeter players.
“He’s touching the ball far more than when we were calling his number in the post. He’s touching the basketball. He’s feeling the basketball. There’s something about having people touch it — it’s energy,” Casey says. “I think he’s more comfortable now. Before, I thought he was always fighting. ‘When am I gonna get my shot? When am I gonna get my touch?’ And all that. Now he’s touching the ball and the ball is moving through him regularly. And he’s finding his spots to score.”
The distribution of Valanciunas’ scoring opportunities has shifted a bit from a year ago, and he has benefited greatly from that shift. Post-ups accounted for 24 percent of Valanciunas’ plays last year, per Synergy Sports data on NBA.com, while plays as a roll man in pick-and-roll situations accounted for 20 percent of his plays. This season, the pick-and-roll has made up a greater share of his possessions, and even though he’s become slightly less efficient as a scorer in those scenarios, it’s been more than made up for by the fact that he is straight up crushing teams in the post.
Among the 44 players that have finished at least 100 possessions out of the post this season, Valanciunas leads them all in points per play. (He’s also 10th out of 52 such players in points per play as a roll man.) He’s shooting 58 percent on post-ups and drawing fouls 12 percent of the time as well. Cutting out some of the extraneous post-ups against like-sized defenders and working there only when he has an advantage has been a great benefit to his scoring efficiency, but so has his ability to let go of the ball when he doesn’t have a good shot down there.
“I’m not focusing on [my] low-post plays,” he says. “I’m just trying to get something where we can get matchups, where we get opportunities to not just score — efficiency is not just scoring. It’s making the right play. When you’re in the low post and they double-team you, then you can find an open teammate for a jumper. Stuff like that. We’re really active on offense. We get a lot of guys cutting so that helps.”
Casey also credits Valanciunas’ increased involvement offensively with inspiring his center’s improved defense. “He’s improved his pick-and-roll defense. We’ve been doing some things differently that has helped him,” Casey says. “He knows how to react. He knows how to read the speed of the play. And that’s where Jonas is. It just takes time.”
Valanciunas’ personal rim-protection numbers are slightly down, but you can see him moving better out there on the floor and his interior presence is notable when you look at how the shot distribution of Raptors opponents shifts when he’s on and off the floor. With Valanciunas in the game, Raptors opponents take 29 percent of their shots inside the restricted area. When he leaves the floor, that number shoots up to 36 percent. Correspondingly, their share of mid-range shots drops from 17 percent to 12 percent with Valanciunas out of the game.
Valanciunas knows he’s exactly fleet of foot, so he’s made an effort to always be in position early in order to make up for the fact that he’s not likely to get there if he’s behind on the play. “Quickness is good but knowing where you need to be at a certain moment; it doesn’t matter if you have slow feet, you’re still gonna be there … if you’re smart,” he says. “You can pick your spots. That’s what I’m trying to pick and know better. The right timing and the right place.”
Playing the majority (85 percent) of his minutes alongside Serge Ibaka, one of the NBA’s best help defenders, has given Valanciunas to confidence to get to that spot as early as possible, even if he sometimes ends up being wrong about where he should go. Knowing you have cover at all times is freeing, because you’re not quite as worried that your man will score if you move off your spot. One of the reasons help is so often late in the NBA is because players are worried nobody will have their back if they slide off their man. But if you know the next rotation is always coming, you don’t have to take that extra split-second to think about whether you should be moving into position.
“We’re big guys and we have each other’s back,” Valanciunas says. “If he goes out to help, he knows that I’m gonna cover his man. The same thing with me if I go block a shot or go vertical, I know he’s gonna dig down right there. He’s gonna rebound. The biggest problem about help is rebounding. You leave your big guy wide open for the rebound and guards, it’s hard to block them out. They’re such big guys, like Whiteside, Dwight Howard… But I know I have Serge behind me covering up the paint.”
Valanciunas may not be the franchise-changing center he was billed as ahead of his arrival in the NBA from Lithuania, but in fairness to him, the league has changed drastically since he was a prospect. Much more of the play takes place on the perimeter, and a center whose primary skill is interior scoring just isn’t as valuable given how the league has shifted.As recently as this time last year, it didn’t look like Jonas was long for Toronto. There was speculation seemingly every other day that the Raptors would look to trade him over the summer in an effort to modernize their team.
Instead, they’ve simply incorporated him into their more modern concepts, and to his credit, he has changed his game in order to fit the new reality. He’s slimmed down. He’s lighter on his feet. He’s much more aware of his surroundings when guarding in space. He’s using his post-ups as a vehicle for ball movement more often. He’s quickly stretching his range out beyond the 3-point line, thanks to incessant work with assistant coach Nick Nurse. And he’s once again a very valuable piece of the Eastern Conference’s best team.