Analyzing the Raptors Defense

After losses, Raptors fans bombard one another with cries to “Fire Casey” among other long lists of criticisms. The offense is predictable. The defense sucks. JV doesn’t get enough touches. He barely plays fourth quarters.
These things seem so simple, why aren’t they fixed? To answer that, we have to know what to fix.

DEFENSE

Casey is a defensive coach and has instituted a defense that has won a championship against the “Big 3” era Miami Heat as well as brought Toronto to top 10 defensive efficiency last season. He’s not an imbecile, so what gives?
Well at large, most teams have something to lean on. Where offenses have players that they depend on, the opposite side of the ball works similarly. You have your Roy Hibberts and Marc Gasols of the world, a large 7 footer that is smart enough to anchor a defense. What is so desirable about a player of this stature is that they are on the rare side of the NBA value spectrum. If every team in the league had a defensive anchor, they obviously wouldn’t be in such demand. It is a hard set of characteristic traits to come by, and understandably our loveable Lithuanian just isn’t that. At least not yet. Which is fine, he’s young and that could change.
But to understand our issues that fact has to be agreed upon. Because after that, you notice that the Raptors have very few “plus” defenders.

A recent Vantage Sports writer tweeted out that the Raptors rank 30th in Keep In Front percentage.

A statistic which measures the rate at which defenders are able to keep the offensive player in front of them. Keep in mind, Vantage Sports is a private stat keeping company that trains and employs its own staff to watch games and document many things, such as the previously mentioned Keep In Front percentage. This really syncs up well with notions Raptors fans have built up the entire year. Grievis, Lou, DeMar, Terrence, Kyle, all of them are our rotational perimeter defenders and let people blow by them on a regular basis and when you don’t have that one piece to lean on, defending is difficult. This is where Casey comes in.

PHILOSOPHY

The idea behind our defense actually makes sense. The sum of our parts is greater than any one individual. We accept the fact that we don’t really have that lockdown defender consistently (save JJ). It’s why when we close out, we give up the middle where other teams give the wings and baseline. Doing that would mean that the now open offensive player can be handled by one defender, instead of the slew of defenders able to help recover in the middle of the floor. It’s nice to think about, but without a defensive centerpiece it can lead to a lot of layups or open 3s after a collapsed defensive sequence.
Additionally, Grievis isn’t quick enough to recover after a pick and Lou doesn’t have the footwork to fight over a screen and not allow separation between his man.

To relieve that pressure when defending a PnR, our bigs (Amir, Patty, Tyler) have to do a little more work. They hedge on pick and rolls. Meaning that they leave their offensive player who is setting a pick and impede the progress being made by the ball handler.

That second where they are jutting out to stop the ball handler is when our on-ball defender is given the opportunity to recover on the ground they have lost and begin guarding their man again. While all of this is happening, a tertiary defender is guarding the roll man and their assignment.

The weak side wing defender (#4) is guarding between their man and the tertiary defenders assignment in the event of a pass going to the roll man leading them away from their assignment. 5th defender is doing the same for his man as well, but more so his man in the event of a quick pass out from the ball handler.

The big (Patty2) then goes back to the roll man, tertiary defender goes back to his man and the advantage gained by a pick and roll has been taken away.

What has been simply written out within a few sentences is much harder than it seems. It takes the awareness of all five defenders on the court to be in sync. To all be on a chain. If one part is broken, a layup has been given up. Someone has a lapse in judgment and an open 3 pointer has been allowed.
So philosophically it makes sense. Yes, we don’t have one defender to depend on, to funnel all the penetration too. To alleviate the pressure in another manner, we have decided that all five of the players on the court will be stronger than any one on its own. Can you blame that? It’s admirable. We found success in team play, and the defense exemplifies that. But personally I don’t think it’s practical. To what might seem to some as unorganized and frantic scrambling is actually organized chaos. That’s actually 82 games of organized chaos. It’s a lot of effort to sustain that for an entire regular season, to force that much pressure on Amir’s ankles, to make everyone pay attention night in and night out. From a philosophical perspective, it makes perfect sense, but realistically, the aggressive nature in which we defend doesn’t seem sustainable.

THE JONAS CONUNDRUM

For those who pay close attention, when I made mention of the Raptor big men, I named all rotational bigs except Jonas. That was not by mistake.
Jonas is a legit 7 footer. He is a bulky man and it is next to impossible to find a man of his sizeable to hedge with any sort of consistency. Deandre Jordan comes to mind, and I’m sure there are others, but it just isn’t demonstrated often. Mainly because it’s really hard. There is good reason that most teams play pick and rolls conservatively and ICE instead of hedge.

according to Vantage Sports, 5 teams drop back less than 60% of the time on pick and rolls, Raptors being one of them

It’s because so few big men, which are constantly defending pick and rolls might I remind you, are able to hedge with consistency. For a defense that is so dependent on consistency and cohesiveness, Jonas has rarely been asked to hedge. There are a few notable games throughout the year where the attempt was made, especially more at the beginning of the season.

A prime example being the 1st game against the Golden State Warriors on January 2nd. Here’s a quick look at the massacre that occurred when Jonas attempted to hedge on the Steph Curry-Mareese Speights pick and roll.

After Lowry pressured Steph into a tough catch along the sidelines, Steph regains balance and has Speights set a high screen for him, standard stuff.
How Jonas defends this pick and roll is what causes such disarray. Firstly, for a man of Jonas’ size, he is too far back to impede the speedy Curry. His right foot should be at the same point as Speights’ back foot.

After that, the problem that Jonas faces is that he is parallel horizontally to a much quicker player.

If he had been stationed higher at the start of the PnR, Curry wouldn’t even have the space to dribble out and would be forced into an escape pass. Instead, he is now running with a guard who has great quickness. A race JoVa won’t win most times.

Now, Jonas has completely failed to impede the progress of the ball handler.

Curry has killed all positive prospects hedging gives and now has the advantage. He has sealed Jonas who is now chasing on his heals. The breakdown has caused a driving player with 3 offensive weapons spaced well, to get into the lane with a roll man on his way against 3 defenders who are going to be picked apart.

Curry, an elite finisher, is now in the lane and has the opportunity to do whatever the defense gives him.

If Terrence Ross sticks to his man (40 Harrison Barnes), Steph has a layup. If Amir doesn’t dive into the lane and leave Draymond open, Steph will be met with even less resistance. Terrence and Amir both crash the paint in hopes of stopping the driving Curry, who now has Harrison Barnes open in the short corner and Draymond Green stationed above the break, ready to catch and shoot if the ball is swung his way.

Steph chooses the easy pass, gets Harrison Barnes an open look in the corner.

He misses, which is almost entirely irrelevant considering the Raptors defense just gave up an open corner three to a player who shoots 49.5% on such shots.

To be honest, Jonas doesn’t even fit all that well as a tertiary defender in our system, especially in todays NBA where you can have two stretch bigs on the floor at once. When Jonas is encountered with this, he stations himself in between both Mareese Speights (who had been killing Jonas from mid range all night) and a diving Draymond Green.

That is only effective in the Raptors defense if the two defensive assignments are relatively close to one another. Draymond is moving fast and Speights is too far away and Jonas just freezes. He’s way too scared to try and “tag” him on the roll to the rim and gives up an open layup. Terrence should’ve rotated over a bit quicker as well once noticing Jonas hadn’t, but Jonas needs to have the trust in his teammates (Amir) that they will pick up for him. If Jonas fulfilled his duties and switched over to the diving Draymond, Amir could’ve easily switched to Speights and the crisis would’ve been averted. He also needs the quickness to even make it over to Draymond and rotate effectively. Unfortunately (as I will touch on a bit more later), Jonas just doesn’t possess that quickness.

So as we have seen, it’s clear that Jonas is not cut out for the defensive principals that the other rotational bigs will follow, which means that Casey has to be realistic about Jonas. He allows him to sag on pick and rolls. We don’t ICE them as that would take awareness from the guard to know which big man is defending with him to prepare for that defensive execution, but Jonas does sag. Giving credit where credit is due, Jonas does as good of a job as he is physically able to most of the time.

He can’t meet ball handlers higher because he will be blown by. Even when he does sag back like this, he’s still absolutely frightened of getting burned.
Amir helps out by not allowing for Damian to pull Jonas away from the rim, but it’s just not enough for JoVa. He sags back as much as he can while still contesting the shot, but it’s just not enough for a vast majority of the time.
Another example of his fear of getting burned causing him to drop back way too far.

This is a drag screen, meaning an impromptu PnR is happening while the offense is still in (semi) transition, as well as the defense being off balance and just setting up, but Jonas just doesn’t play these well enough. Klay getting that sort of look is just poor play. Way too far back to make any sort of impact.

When Jonas does meet the ball handler higher up after a screen and roll, he just doesn’t have the quickness to deal with them one on one. Here you can see Jonas becoming very frustrated after Deron Williams gets in the lane and draws the foul.

Truthfully, Jonas had his hands in Deron’s midsection and was rightfully called for the foul, but the only reason he did this was to keep DWill in front of him, because he just doesn’t have the quickness to keep up with Deron.

He doesn’t have the advantage other 7 footers are given by having a guard sandwich the ball handler into a mid range shot, but that’s just another product of the square peg that is Jonas Valanciunas trying to fit in the round hole of the Raptors defense.

The issues presented here are plentiful. Having a 7 footer essentially switch onto a driving guard is not an effective way to defend pick and rolls. Additionally, it completely breaks the continuity of the defense, one which thrives on everyone being connected. Those are the present day issues, which are serious in themselves. They are why he can’t consistently fourth quarters. Agree with it if you want and disagree if that makes you happy as well, but it is not changing. It makes sense stylistically and from a player who doesn’t dominate on the other end enough to warrant the drop off in consistency defensively, it will continue to happen.

What’s more worrisome is what it means to bench Jonas.

He was drafted as a stringy, long, lean athletic big man.

He was incredibly agile, as seen here in his initial scouting video coming out of Lithuania. The FO/coaching staff asked him to gain weight and season after season he has done an absolutely admirable job at putting on weight and getting stronger. The insanity that lies in that is that him doing such a great job of what the FO/coaching staff has asked of him is the exact reason he can’t play fourth quarters. If he wasn’t so bulky, it could be possible for him to fit in defensively. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for him to hedge and recover, help scramble, ect… But because he has done such an admirable job in one spot, he is hurt in another.

If Jonas wasn’t the future of our franchise as it stands, this wouldn’t be such an issue. But he is and with a defense that has a hard time proving itself over long stretches of time with any consistency, it is hard to imagine a future in which we don’t eventually become more conservative. I could see that being a dividing issue amongst the decision makers. In a league that almost entirely favours a conservative style of defending pick and rolls, where your team seems to not excel at the opposing style and where it causes the future to be glued to the bench in crunch time, it’s hard to picture a future that Casey is allowed to continue to implement his defensive philosophies as they stand.

C.S. , FanJam Featured Writer

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