November 9, 2018, 5:11 pm
Welcome back Hoop Ballers to our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look at the early success of one of the most dominant teams in the league so far, the Raptors of Toronto, rostering six international players while being run by Nigerian-Born GM Masai Ujiri.
Entering this summer, the Raptors were coming off three seasons of 50-plus wins (and a franchise-record 59 in the 2017-18), only to again get embarrassed by LeBron James and the Cavs in the playoffs just like every single year in recent history. The team finally pulled the plug on Dwane Casey, was voted as the NBA’s coach of the year by both the association and his peers in the National Basketball Coaches Association.
Masai showed how great managers never hesitate to take a leap of faith and the Raptors ultimately decided on promoting assistant coach Nick Nurse to the head coach position. Nurse’s resume was nothing spectacular other than getting his first head coaching job when he was only 23 years old (at the time, the youngest college basketball head coach in the country) and making a name for himself in the D-League after spending 11 seasons coaching in Europe and the lowly British Basketball League (BBL).
When the Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard in July, Nurse was suddenly placed at the epicenter of many questions about the future of the organization, as although he engineered the team’s offensive resurgence last year he had never been a head coach at this level, while he was asked to deal with a very puzzling personality like Kawhi (who also happens to be a fun guy in case you forgot). After an 11-1 start, Uriji’s gamble looks brilliant and today I’m really not going bother you about the greatness of Kawhi, who looks like an MVP candidate already, but I will simply focus on the elements that Nurse has brought to this team, leading to the (re)emergence of international guys like Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas.
For starters, Nick Nurse thrives in the details but the big difference compared to old school Dino-coaches like Dwane Casey and Stan Van Gundy is that he is a system coach that adjusts his plan to the personnel and to the players’ strengths and not vise-versa. Let’s see how his philosophy has changed the tone for the Raptors, who already look like the clear favorite to come out of the East.
The Pillars of Success
Emphasis on More Threes
The Raptors spent this year’s training camp scrimmaging with a new set of rules where, at the urging of Nurse, 3-pointers made from the corner counted as four points. Moreover, any shot beyond the paint but inside the 3-point line was either worth zero points or, occasionally, it would result in a single point. As an assistant coach last season, Nurse set up similar drills in which corner threes counted for four points, other threes and layups were valued normally, and mid-range shots counted for minus one. The goal of the exercise was to emphasize efficient shot selection, and more specifically, to boost his team’s problematic 3-point approach that was somehow obsolete under Dwane Casey.
Smart teams know how to take advantage of corner triples as the distance shortens and the shot becomes ultra-efficient. 16 of the 18 times in NBA history where a team averaged 11 or more made 3-pointers per game for a season have occurred over just the last couple years, with the Rockets and the Warriors each accomplishing this three times in the last four years.
With Nurse giving the green light to all of his guys, the Raptors have bumped their 3-point attempts from 24.0 per game in 2016-17 to 33 in 2017-18, to currently 33.7 after 12 games, while making 11.7 of them. With the underrated addition of Danny Green, this team, on top of everything, has the personnel to play at a fast pace that enables plenty of scoring opportunities from behind the arc.
All the players on the roster practice their 3-pointers, and while they are not all expected to be above-average shooters this season, they are supposed to take open shots with confidence. Just take, for example, Anunoby, who is launching 3.7 triples per game (up to 2.7 from last year) while in 12 games he has taken only one (!) mid-range shot, a selection that Nurse freely allows only to Kawhi, Lowry, Ibaka and Valanciunas.
Two key stats that validate how the players have embraced Nick Nurse’s emphasis on threes this year:
The Raptors have attempted the third-most threes in the year so far (404), trailing only the Bucks (446) and the Rockets (419), while the Warriors stand at just 373 in 12 games.
The Raptors also lead the league, shooting 17.3 percent of their threes from the corners.
“My experience is, in this system, the ball naturally gravitates to your best scorers anyway,” Nurse said. “It does. It just finds them. And that’s just kind of what happens. I don’t really have any great scientific explanation for that”. The coach is right and basketball is really not rocket science but the “system” he refers to is one where his best players are able to take 3-pointers at all times from anywhere on the court.
No surprise that Danny Green, the best 3-point shooter on the team, is averaging a career-high 5.9 attempts from behind the arc. Look at how Kyle Lowry pushes his team to the break after a successful defensive possession as Danny Green launches an off-balance three just five seconds in the shot clock.
Attacking on Both Ends
Being aggressive on the offensive side of the ball simply means that players are constantly trying to attack the defense by taking shots early in the clock while also capitalizing on transition opportunities. “We want to always play with pace on offense. I believe in getting the ball up the floor and trying to take advantage of transition opportunities,” says Nurse. “Not just saying, ‘Hey we’re going to play fast,’ but having a system behind that.”
Under Nurse, the Raptors are putting in the extra effort to create buckets off of turnovers, averaging 8.7 steals per game (up from 7.6 last year) while being ranked fourth overall in fast break points, averaging 19.6 points (up from only 13.2 last year). Just look at the hustle from Serge Ibaka that leads to Kyle Lowry comfortably draining the triple from the top of the key.
“I place a lot of value on pace of the game, going after people, always be the aggressor and forcing the issue a little bit when we have the ball.” This philosophy similarly translates to the Raptors attacking the paint after the pick-and-roll instead of becoming too comfortable with long jumpers when their offense settles in the middle of the court. Who has been the biggest beneficiary of this approach you might ask? Serge Ibaka, of course, who has proven to be more active in the paint while finding success filling the lane as a modern center, whereas in the past couple years he seemed too often camp out on the perimeter instead. As the roll man, he naturally gravitates toward the basket, giving him multiple chances for layups, uncontested dunks and short jumpers, something that was clearly visible against the Lakers’ weak inside defense last week.
This has obviously been by design as a major point of emphasis from the Raptors’ coaching staff in the offseason has been to run Ibaka through drills in which he catches the ball at the 3-point line and works on blowing by his defender to either pull up in the paint, find open teammates or use the middle of the court as a runway to take off toward the rim. Look at LeBron James closing in too fast on Ibaka who immediately recognizes the opening in the paint and drives to the rim for the easy dunk.
Ibaka is hitting just 28.6 percent of his threes, a career-low, but he’s attempting almost half as many as last year (2.3. versus 3.9). He is also shooting a ridiculous 65.4 percent from inside the arc, where 81 percent of his shots are coming from (up from 62 percent last year).
Meanwhile, defensively, the activity level from everyone on the floor seems to be a click up compared to last year with the Raptors outrunning and outhustling opponents on every possession, something that was even apparent when they faced the Lakers (who were on the second leg off a back-to-back), embarrassing them in the first quarter by taking a 42-17 lead without Leonard in the lineup.
Positional Shift and Flexibility
Nurse believes that the secret to becoming a successful coach lies in making clear that each player’s ‘business’ is directly tied to them being shown a path to their best basketball selves. And that is accomplished by having a structure but also allowing creativity from all the positions on the floor. During his international career, Nurse converted isolation-leaning players into floor spacers and 3-point threats, looking to exploit potential mismatches on both sides of the floor. His overseas experience has paid dividends as his style is a perfect fit to the modern NBA era of positionless basketball.
The biggest change has obviously been Ibaka’s shift to playing full-time center, a move that has lifted the Raptors’ ceiling on both ends of the floor and has also put him in a better position to succeed. This adjustment has also liberated Jonas Valanciunas, allowing the Raptors to have two rim protectors with one on the floor at all times. And subsequently, by playing only one center at all times there is now more space around the basket to operate and a mandate to get the big man the ball in the paint or to shoot plenty of threes. It’s also no coincidence that Lyle Lowry has been having a career year, leading the NBA in assists with a career-high 11.3 per game, as the revamped offense gives him so many more options to feed the ball to his teammates. Here is Lowry recognizing the miscommunication between Deandre Ayton and Isiah Canaan as Valanciunas rolls to the basket for the open dunk.
By rotating his centers Nurse has proved to everyone how comfortable today’s teams can be with small-ball lineups that feature above-average passers, defenders and 3-point shot-makers. This has also solved the lack of depth at the center position after the departure of Jakob Poeltl, while allowing Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby to flourish as small-ball power forwards that enforce Nurse’s aggressive style all over the court.
Siakam entered the season as the starting power forward and while Nurse was wise to call the move matchup-dependent, the Cameroonian forward has been a revelation so far, forcing the coaching staff to commit to him full time. Siakam appears to have been given the green light by Nick Nurse to do almost anything he wants, from pushing the ball to rebounding to actively looking for his shot. The result has been him being constantly all over the floor, wreaking havoc on opponents with his length and activity while running for easy transition points. The Jazz tried to counter by playing their own small-ball lineup on Monday that featured Jae Crowder as the power forward, but look at how Siakam makes him look outmatched in another fastbreak opportunity that he creates from a deflection.
I emphasized last year that the only part of his game where he struggles is the 3-ball and he has been disappointing to say the least so far, shooting just 3-of-18, but I expect his confidence level to continue rising to the point where defenders are forced to drive him off the line so that he can drive to the basket instead with his quick first step.
Masai Ujiri and Daryl Morey seem to understand how it’s always preferable to swing for the fences and have a real chance at a championship rather than “building” for the future like so many teams do. The Rockets were just one win away from reaching the Finals last year and lost mainly because of an unfortunate injury that Chris Paul sustained in the Conference Finals. The Raptors have struck gold with the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and the promotion of Nick Nurse to head coaching duties and there are simply not many things that opponents can do in order to counter their play.
Other than Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, who are both returning top-10 value in 9-cat leagues, Serge Ibaka (ranked 37th), Jonas Valanciunas (ranked 52nd), Danny Green (ranked 54th) and Pascal Siakam (ranked 66th) have also exceeded their ADP, making managers who drafted them look very smart. And on a per-game basis the numbers really don’t come out as unsustainable while there is still plenty of room for improvement, so I would recommend buying all the Raptors stock you can afford in case you come up with the opportunity to do so. The sky is the limit for this collection of talent and as long as they remain healthy they will be cruising to another impressive regular season record.
I hope you enjoyed reading this week’s piece and please don’t hesitate to let us know about an international prospect that you would want to learn more about in the future. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of November 10th.