What’s Next for Toronto Raptors Without Kawhi Leonard?
The news was devastating to the Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard was heading home to Los Angeles.
As their dreams of a repeat championship disappear, the focus must shift onto what the organization can do to replace its Finals MVP. The team’s salary situation dictates either a complete blowup of the roster or replacing Leonard with someone close to a minimum deal.
The Raptors may select the former as the summer drags on, but we have to assume the latter given their signing of former No. 8 pick Stanley Johnson from the New Orleans Pelicans and the rarity of completely detonating a current champ. (The 1998 Chicago Bulls are the last good example of this, but that included Michael Jordan’s retirement and a front office seemingly hellbent on hitting reset.)
Leonard was a great piece on both ends and the offensive focal point Toronto had long craved. Their scheme wasn’t just built around him, though. This was a team that had a true identity, a difficult-to-stop intensity, and the ability to impose its will on a game.
Nobody runs more after getting scored on than the Toronto Raptors.
Conventional wisdom tells us that scoring is harder to do against an established, set defense. The numbers back that up: According to Inpredictable.com, every NBA team was more efficient on offense after a turnover than yielding a made basket. And all but three (the New Orleans Pelicans, Charlotte Hornets and Dallas Mavericks) were better after securing a defensive rebound.
The eye test and analytics communities come together within this conventional wisdom, agreeing that the best way to run a high-profile offense is to avoid going against a set defense as frequently as possible.
The Raptors ran frequently after giving up a bucket to make those trends possible. The rationale is quite simple: beat the opposition down the floor and attack them before they get set up. Thus, the possession feels more like transition than a half-court set. Combining both playoff and regular seasons, the Raptors scored 1.14 points per possession (PPP) after a defensive board, and 1.29 PPP in transition, both top-ten rates.
Nick Nurse and his staff weaponized this concept against all teams they faced, and it helped propel them to their first NBA Championship.
Whatever a coaching staff chooses to do with their team, they need the personnel to appropriately accomplish the task.
Credit Masai Ujiri for assembling a roster with multiple ball handlers across nearly every position, fluid athletes that run the floor, high-IQ players and length that allows them to cover ground. Those traits lend themselves to up-tempo basketball and a relentless attack, which is what the Raptors became under Nurse.
It was a far cry from the slow-down, pragmatic half-court sets invoked by Dwane Casey for the DeMar DeRozan era.
Nurse was also able to slide under the radar with his team’s pace by being much more methodical with how they attacked in the half-court.
The idea behind the rampant running after a make has less to do with forcing a quick shot and more to do with scrambling a defense’s ideal matchups. The Raptors were only fifteenth in pace despite their penchant to run and their defensive aptitude which led to stops.
That’s because running does not always have to lead to quick shots.
Forcing mismatches early in the clock allowed the Raptors to play methodically and tactically for the rest of the possession. Their quick actions and ability to run created great scoring mismatches for guys like Pascal Siakam and Leonard, who are both able to operate from the perimeter and from the post.
They run, and the Raptors throw over the top to them, in a way that punishes defenses that are not one-hundred percent prepared to sprint back:
The mismatches were not always for Leonard or Siakam, however.
Often times, Kyle Lowry will end up with a big on him, which is also a blatant advantage for Toronto. By placing that much early pressure on the rim, defenses do not have the luxury of selecting their matchups. One mismatch is enough for the Raptors to exploit.
Because they take their time and don’t rush to take a quick shot, the Raptors strung together some beautiful possessions where they decelerated from fast to slow and surgically picked apart the defense:
Nurse’s teams didn’t get to this point by pure effort and chaos.
Everything begins with awareness and willingness to act quickly. As a former mentor and successful college head coach once told me, “transition is won in the first three steps”.
The Raptors buy into this same concept, turning a made basket into transition by busting out hard. Their wings run without the ball, and Lowry is a maestro at leaking out to the free throw line for elongated inbounds. He’ll catch on the move and without dribbling fire a pass ahead to the wing.
Now-former Raptor Danny Green is always hustling to get the ball out of the hoop and inbound it—even scrambling to hurry the referee after dead ball turnovers. Marc Gasol has perfected the pseudo-illegal inbound where he releases the pass before his feet touch the ground.
Lowry is particularly important and versatile here. When he is the outlet man and fulfilling the traditional point guard role, he must decide between advancing it to a wing who’s running their wide lanes or dribbling up himself. Lowry is a unique threat for a point guard with his bowling ball-like physique.
He can play with his back to the basket against smaller point guards or push the pace and get penetration to the blocks before five seconds come off the clock. Once there, Lowry is a great passer while reading the chaotic cutters:
Lowry attacking off the bounce is not the primary mode of ingress for the Raptors offense, however. After all, a pass is faster than dribbling up the floor.
That’s why Lowry loves to zip passes up the sideline. He’ll turn and fire forty-foot darts to Siakam, leading them into an early one-on-one opportunity. Lowry often looks like a relay man in baseball during a play at the plate. His frozen ropes help advance the ball faster than long outlet passes from Gasol.
Siakam is particularly fantastic at running the floor to force those early post-ups, and this will become a staple with Leonard gone. Newly arrived Stanley Johnson never caught on with the Detroit Pistons or the Pelicans, but he’s an athletic forward who may benefit from Toronto’s dynamic attack.
Siakam and Lowry have especially developed meaningful chemistry, and the former is able to bully his way to a layup early in the clock:
Siakam emerged as a legitimate top option to run an offense through. He needs other scorers and shooters to flank him, but his unique blend of length and ball handling are a difficult cover.
He conceivably could become the new alpha in Toronto.
The chemistry between he and Lowry doesn’t end with switching in transition, however. If Siakam does not force a cross-match or get an easy layup, the Raptors clear that entire side of the floor and let Lowry follow the ball.
If the defense is somehow able to align correctly and attain correct matchups, Lowry is ready to throw a wrench in that plan. He sets a ball screen for Siakam, hoping to either force a switch or start an action far too low to be successful when hedging:
All these actions start with the ball getting inside the three-point line in the first four seconds of the possession. Now the Raptors can exploit whatever advantage they gain without having to hurry. Even if the immediate sprint does not create an opportunity, the trailing screen from Lowry will.
The next layer of their early break comes from kickouts when Siakam is not able to score. The Raptors space appropriately around him, with standard 4-around-1 looks. Any perimeter reversal flows directly into a ball screen from a trailing center like Gasol or Serge Ibaka. They’ll ping the ball around the perimeter against a shrunk defense, forcing a few quick closeouts from help defenders digging down on the post.
Ping-pong-like ball movement makes guarding a ball screen rather difficult, and Gasol’s passing may be his greatest remaining attribute:
There are times where the Raptors’ impulse to run will lead to an imbalanced floor, however.
Two wings, like Siakam and Green, would leak out on the same side. Siakam or Leonard would then be unable to steamroll their way to the hoop, as two bodies stand in the way.
Nurse has a plan for that. He turns to a guard-to-guard alley ball screen, similar to some facets of the “21” series frequent in today’s game. 21, or Pistol, is unique and difficult to guard due to the angle of the guard-to-guard action.
This serves two purposes for the Raptors. First, it gets the second offensive player elevated and out of the way of the clear rim attack. Second, it can be another mechanism for getting a switch to occur. This is of incredible importance to whoever is getting the opponent’s best perimeter defender.
Freeing said Raptor of that burden will allow him to operate in space, as it so frequently did for Kawhi:
NBA coaches are not oblivious to the Raptors’ tendencies to push the ball, and certainly not to the preference of Siakam to operate with his back to the basket.
He is too skilled to defend one-on-one down low, and the rational response is to double him out of necessity. When that occurs, especially early in the clock, defenses have to collapse so low that trailing shooters can be successful. The Raptors have so many snipers, even with Green and Leonard’s departures.
Lowry, Siakam, Gasol, Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, a healthy OG Anunoby and Norman Powell will all need to keep firing and hitting at effective rates, but there remains a lot of attractive options to work with.
Opponents did try to thwart Toronto’s transition style by denying the inbound pass and utilizing one player as a full-court defender. During the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers, Jimmy Butler drew this assignment, jamming Lowry so inbounds would be stunted.
In instances where the rest of the roster runs the wings and just Lowry was back, this was effective at stopping their momentum. The Milwaukee Bucks did the same, deploying Eric Bledsoe in this role.
But the success of a one-man full-court press hinges on that player’s ability to recognize the action and squash the inbound before it occurs. In those games where the defense was popped up, the Raptors would bring a second handler back for the inbound, simply bypassing Lowry.
The downside to such a strategy is noteworthy: If the Raptors are able to get momentum in the open court, there are fewer defenders back to prevent transition.
At the heart of this strategy is a simple premise: Giving yourself more transition-like opportunities increases the expected offensive output since it’s more efficient than half-court sets. But it’s implementation requires rules, practice and buy-in from the players. The strategy was effective, it was simple and it was difficult to stop.
And whenever it was slowed or stopped, Kawhi Leonard was able to bail the team out in isolation or by simply being the superstar that he is. That is where Toronto will miss him the most, and that is where the offense will need to change.
So too is the fact that Leonard is the most destructive defensive force in the game, which obviously helped to set up the running system so much via turnovers, stops and defensive rebounds.
Thus, on the one hand, one cannot overstate how much Toronto will truly miss Leonard from a scheme standpoint. On the other, this is still a playoff-caliber team with reasonable upside because the pace, system and parts remain repeatable.
Perhaps we will see more teams copy this style in the future. And perhaps the Raptors can find success running this way without Leonard. They’ll get Anunoby back and have just signed Johnson,—two intriguing wings built in the same athletic mold.
They’ll struggle to score if you can slow them down, but if the Raptors want to make up for their downward-trending half-court offense, they can always do what they do best:
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of June 29, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.