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Op-Ed: Is the Raptors defensive system breaking down the players?

On the surface, it’s bewildering. However, the current (and future results) could have sadly been predicted. To understand fully why the Toronto Raptors are performing so poorly, we have to understand what we are seeing.

Educated bettors informed me before the playoffs that the two times that it was best to bet the under with the Raptors were when they had more than a days break between games and when they had an afternoon game. That made Game 1, an early afternoon match-up, a likely loss. It does not rationalize Game 2’s debacle. So, let’s start at the issues with the current Toronto Raptors from the top and work our way down.


You cannot explain the issues that Masai Ujiri faces as GM and President of the Toronto Raptors without understanding the mess that Bryan Colangelo left behind. Mr. Colangelo is praised for assembling the current starting lineup for the Raptors, but the rationale is flawed. Amir Johnson, Demar Derozan, Kyle Lowry, Terrance Ross and to a lesser extent Jonas Valanciunas were all brought to Toronto for one purpose: to hide the flaws of Andrea Bargnani.

There was never a plan to properly build a team around All-Star Chris Bosh. Chris played a single season with a real small forward. That year lead to an Atlantic Championship. The half season with Shawn Marion led to missing the playoffs by a single game. Bosh thrives when he plays beside a forward who is a threat to drive and has an outside shot. It allows him to post up, or find space in the mid range. Defensively, he likes to help the Center from off the ball and he needs a small forward who can slide to his man. If the team was ever built around Bosh, Amir would have started over Bargnani. Sonny Weems, and Joey Graham would not have started for multiple years during his time in Toronto.

When Bosh left, what remained was a team designed to hide Bargnani’s flaws. Amir was there to hide his lack of, and refusal to play team defense. Jose was a pass-first point guard who would do as he was told. Demar was brought in to improve the perimeter defense that fell apart because perimeter players had to double team any capable player that Andrea was guarding. Every time Colangelo tried to hide his flaws the team got worse. For instance, he had a solid coach in Sam Mitchell, who in countless interviews, has said that he wanted to bench Andrea. Until Dwane Casey, Sam was the best coach in Raptors history (with a far worse roster). Despite that, he was let go for a coach that would let Andrea play – Jay Triano.

Near the end, years too late, Colangelo finally brought in the small forward the Raptors never had – Rudy Gay. He hired a coach and gave him autonomy – that coach being Dwane Casey. When Mr. Colangelo was finally fired and suddenly the team began to improve, it was not a coincidence.

One of Colangelo’s biggest mistakes was allowing a young member of his managerial team, one of the few people who challenged him, to leave the organization. After becoming the executive of the year in Denver, that young executive returned to replace Colangelo as GM and President.

Mr. Ujiri has not put his stamp on the current roster. Instead, he has tried to fill holes. They lacked a bench, so he moved his most valuable player for a bench. He found suitors for Andrea Bargnani after fans had decided that he was no longer welcome. He kept Casey, but brought in respected assistants that have different expertise than Casey. But, this is still a team built by Colangelo. One of the saddest contracts is that of Landry Fields. In an attempt to get a small forward, and to push the Knicks out of the contest for Steve Nash’s last contract the Raptors offered Fields a ridiculous contract that handcuffed the Knicks, since Fields was a restricted free agent and until the Knicks could refuse to match the offer would impact their salary cap. They made this offer despite Landry having a broken shot. In the end, the Knicks did not match the offer and Steve Nash went to the Lakers.

The move was nothing less than idiotic. Why would a team, in a league where getting a single player in a draft can reverse fortunes, want a player with chronic health issues so much that they would overpay for a player with a broken shot? The fact that ownership thought this was a good idea, should shame the Toronto Raptors fan-base. The only logical rationale for bringing in Steve Nash would have been that both management and ownership decided that the team was so far away from being successful that they would appease fans by letting Nash have his retirement in Canada. For shame. Instead, the Raptors should have been buying their own developmental league team, like San Antonio, the Lakers, and others were doing.

More importantly, as Mr. Ujiri demonstrated, all they had to do to improve was trade Mr. Bargnani.

Masai has not been perfect. The Raptors still lack a starting small forward. No true starting small forward has played a full season for the Raptors since Jorge Garbojosa. The season Toronto won their first Atlantic Division title. Before Garbo? Vince. Before Vince? Toronto had bench players like Acy Earl and Tony Massenburg starting. Not filling this hole led to Toronto losing against the Nets in the 2014 playoffs as Joe Johnson out-sized his way, and bullied the Raptors. It’s also partly to blame for the current defensive woes.

Another issue has been Ujiri’s immaturity. To rile up the fan-base last year Ujiri cried out “F*** Brooklyn!” This year, his curse words were directed towards Washington’s Paul Pierce. Two things: the executive head of a team should show his players leadership and act like he’s been there before. Secondly, Paul Pierce is a wily vet who wanted the negative attention. Knowing that his star team mates could not handle the pressure that the Toronto fans dish out (since he played them the year before for Brooklyn), he drew the attention towards himself. The result? Even though John Wall has struggled, Bradley Beal has thrived. Masai assisted Pierce in getting the negative attention that he wanted.

I hope Masai is never fired, but his immaturity has cost the team money (two years in the playoffs and two fines), and he’s been manipulated by a veteran player. This team is the remnants of a team designed to hide Colangelo’s mistakes. Beyond the bench that Masai has traded for there’s no deep bench depth. Finally, because Colangelo refused to recognize the importance of purchasing a NBA developmental team when teams were available, the Raptors’ ability to develop it’s own players is limited.


Casey’s claim to fame as an NBA coach is the “Match-up Zone” defense that he developed while an assistant at Dallas. Zone defenses are relatively new to the NBA (Centers are still not allowed to stay in the key for more than 3 seconds at a time if they’re not defending a person), so creating a zone defense sophisticated enough to succeed in the NBA is difficult. However, for all the effort Dallas Maverick’s star Dirk Nowitzki puts in to the defensive side of the ball they still needed a way to hide his flaws, and a zone (where players only defend their allotted section of the court) was the best way. Casey took a defensive system from soccer, which allows a defense to change from man-to-man to zone defence and adapted it to basketball. His idea worked, and the Mavs won their only NBA title with him as an assistant. It’s also important to remember that Casey was an assistant for George Karl back when he was using a half court trap defense with the Seattle Supersonics.

What’s a trap defense? In a trap defense the person defending the ball handler tries to force the ball handler to the sideline, baseline, or preferably a corner. If they’re successful, another defender will be waiting. Using the out of bounds line as an additional defender, the ball handler is “trapped,” forced to pick up their dribble and pass the ball in a slow, high arching manner which is easy to steal. The most common trap defense is called a full-court press.

(Loud music)

What Karl developed with Casey and his assistants was essentially a half-court version of a full-court press.

In a lot of ways what the Raptors do is a combination of the two defensive systems. The Raptors use a blitzing defense. It’s similar to a trap, or press in that it forces the ball handler to be doubled. But instead of using out of bound lines as an additional defender it’s triggered when the ball handler penetrates the perimeter defense. Like a zone, the defenders off the ball have to react when the ball is passed out of the double. It’s a manic defense meant to create chaos for the opposing offence, as defenders are constantly rushing at them, rotating and running.

After trading Bargnani and Rudy Gay, Coach Casey likely looked at his roster and realized that his team lacked size at small forward, lacked solid man-to-man defenders, but had enough athletic players to make this frenetic defense work. The problem? It wears teams down. To his credit, Casey has tried changing assignments, but it’s too little to late. The Raptors are worn out, have been for half the season (if you look at their record since January), and need to use a different defense. Why did it succeed last year? Because it became their primary defense halfway through the season when Rudy Gay was traded.

To fully grasp why the Raptors are worn out, let’s look at the two defenses that Casey helped implement. First the Dallas Mavericks:

And now the Toronto Raptors:

The Mavericks defense minimizes movement, while the Raptors defense demands high activity for a whole game. It’s too much to expect out of an athlete for 82 games + the playoffs.

Sadly, Casey is slow to adjust. Yes, he was correct in selecting their present defensive system, but he failed to inject more zone, trap or man-to-man (all systems they used during preseason) when his team started playing fatigued. Furthermore, his proclivity to adjust slowly during games leads to opponents creating big leads before he calls timeouts and corrects mistakes. This tendency of Casey’s comes from being an assistant for the veteran laden Dallas teams that were capable of adjusting in game with little instruction. The Raptors, however, have few vets with deep playoff experience. If coaches like Gregg Popovich use timeouts to correct mistakes before runs with experienced teams like the Spurs shouldn’t Casey?

Furthermore, between games, Casey’s trepidation to make adjustments follows him. Mid season when Terrance Ross was struggling, it took him multiple games to move him to the bench. Almost instantly Ross was able to get his game sorted coming off the bench. His unwillingness to make the change sooner was part of a long list of reasons why January and February were abysmal months for the Raptors.

In Casey’s defense, Ross is not a starting small forward. But Casey has few options at the position. On a small portion of NBA teams Ross would be a starting shooting guard. Most, he would be the first guard off the bench. Casey does not have a starting small forward to use on the roster. When Ross went to the bench, he was replaced by point guard Greivis Vasquez. A starting calibre player who comes off the bench for the Raptors. It wasn’t until the team was desperate, that the only capable small forward on the roster, James Johnson, was put in the starting rotation. Why? Because as he currently stands, James Johnson is a high quality bench player in the NBA, but not a starter. Many people think it’s because of the spacing issue on offence. Starting Johnson would force Patterson, a three-point shooting big into the starting lineup. That would in turn force the best defensive power forward on the team, Amir Johnson to the bench. But, the Raptors use so many double screens on offence (primarily out of horns sets) that they could create the space needed to penetrate multiple ways. The issue is that James Johnson breaks assignments defensively to correct other players’ mistakes. On offence, he often acts instead of reacting to what the defense in front of him offers. Those are not the characteristics of an NBA starting small forward.

The Raptors needed a starting small forward and what Masai Ujiri provided for his coach this last off-season was an excellent defensive small forward who is years away from being a starter. That doesn’t help this iteration of the Toronto Raptors. More importantly, there’s no Paul Pierce in this roster. Where’s the veteran player who can still play solid minutes, and has a firm grasp of the mental side of the game? The closest the Raptors have to Paul Pierce is Chuck Hayes. Look at the rosters of any championship team. They’re littered with 30+ year old players who can still play. Miami had Ray Allen and Udonis Haslem. Dallas had Jason Terry, Peja and Caron Butler. In comparison, the Raptors are a team of children.

Some fans complain about the offence. The Raptors are a top 10 offence. There’s nothing wrong with the offence, but for clarity purposes let’s breakdown what they do. The Raptors run two primary sets: Isolation, and horns.

Isolation is basic. If the offensive ball handler sets up on the left side of the perimeter their teammates set up on the right. If they’re on the right, teammates set up on the left. Top of the key? Teammates set up on the baseline. This allows the ball handler to challenge their defender one on one. This is used against man defenses when there is a significant advantage for the ball handler. The Raptors use this set more than most teams with a top 10 offensive rank. With Vasquez, Lou Williams, Kyle Lowry and Derozan able to take advantage of this set, why wouldn’t they?

Horns sets are run when both interior players set up in the high post. Most NBA teams use a version of horns. There’s nothing wrong with it. The issue is a roster that requires the use of a brutally exhausting defensive system to succeed.

Sadly for Coach Casey, he will likely be the scapegoat for the Toronto Raptors end of season collapse if they fail to reach the second round of the playoffs. Ujiri will have a second opportunity this off-season to find a starting small forward. Hopefully, he will not draft another Bruno Caboclo – the green, uber athletic rookie he selected last year who appears to have a low basketball IQ. That wouldn’t be an issue if the Raptors had their own developmental system that included a D-League team. However, it is unlikely they will have one before Bruno is ineligible to learn in the developmental league (Players can only be sent to the NBA D-League for the first 3 years of their careers). That will mean paying for a second contract on potential for a player who may be two contracts away from having any value.

The quickest resolution starts with trading Terrance Ross – when Demar was injured he had his chance to demonstrate his potential and failed. He’s been invisible both playoffs he’s been in. He’s still a young talent, he has skills and value. It would also involve trading Bruno to a team that has a NBA development team and a proper program to develop him. Sadly, Amir Johnson appears to be on the down slope of his career. If they can’t negotiate a suitable contract for him to come off the bench he should be let go. Finally, Fields’ horrible contract should not be renewed.

Moving Fields, Ross, Caboclo, maybe Amir, and likely this year’s draft pick would allow the team to bring in a veteran starting small forward (through trade or free agency) that would allow the head coach to use a less taxing defensive structure. It would also give them the space to add 2-4 true veteran players with playoff experience and pedigree.

That’s the quickest path for the Toronto Raptors to succeed. The longer path involves keeping coach Casey, and Ross. Developing Caboclo, even though the Raptors lack a minor league affiliate, and hoping that draft picks develop into players before the back court of Lowry and Derozan begin to age, or move on. In short, President Masai Ujiri’s future in Toronto likely will be decided by the moves he makes as soon as the Raptors off-season begins. Hopefully, they turn things around and he gets a brief reprieve from these tough decisions.

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