When Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger on an earth-shattering trade one Wednesday morning last July, there was a clear subtext behind the deal. It was all or nothing: The Raptors would hope, or perhaps need, to have their best season in franchise history and make the NBA Finals. If not, they would probably lose the grand prize that they’d won in the trade. You may have heard of him: Kawhi Leonard.
So, with about two and a half months remaining in the regular season – the only season for which Leonard is under contract – the Raptors would hope that their chemistry has developed and their playoff rotation is rounding into shape as the stretch run of the season approaches. After all, this is the first year since the 2013-14 season in which Toronto has had a major roster shakeup, and it’s the first year the team has played under head coach Nick Nurse. Previously, the Raptors had been led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan for a five-year run of playoff appearances and had been coached by Dwane Casey for each of those seasons.
Unfortunately for Toronto, though, the team is not performing quite as well as it hoped. While the Raptors are second in the East standings with a 38-16 record, they’re just 18-12 over the last two months after getting out to a hot start. It certainly doesn’t help that Lowry and Leonard have played together in just 28 of the team’s 54 contests and haven’t been in the lineup at the same time for more than five consecutive games.
As the season drags on, the team’s nagging issues that seemed solvable have lingered despite its excellent win-loss record. It’s like stir-fried cabbage: It looks great, but something doesn’t smell quite right.
Here’s a breakdown of the Raptors’ three most concerning issues, approximately two-thirds of the way through the NBA season. Some of these flags look redder than midwestern America on election night.
(Dis)honorable Mentions: Rebounding and Bench Woes
Rebounding has been an issue for Toronto all season. This was to be expected, as the team is small up front and has only one great rebounder in Jonas Valanciunas – a reserve. Valanciunas has missed nearly two months and will help fix the problem when he returns. Still, it’s a concern because of the Raptors’ general lack of size and Nurse’s reluctance to play Valanciunas in certain matchups. The frontcourt duo of Serge Ibaka and Valanciunas, which played nearly 1,500 minutes last season, has played just 13 minutes this year. The Raptors will just have to survive against bigger teams.
This space has already been used to cover two of Toronto’s other key reserves, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright. Many of the team’s beat writers have observed this already: VanVleet is far better when used off the ball as a shooter, while Wright is better running the offense, thus allowing VanVleet to spot up. The two have been misused all season, but the bench’s struggles have also been caused by poor 3-point shooting, which we’ll cover below. The Raptors should be encouraged by the imminent return of Valanciunas – their best bench player – and Nurse staggering the starters more often lately. As long as one of Lowry, Leonard and Pascal Siakam is on the floor at all times, the bench woes should be less of a problem in the postseason.
Now, for the main concerns.
3. Kawhi Leonard’s Tunnel Vision
This writer has pointed out before that the Raptors essentially run two offenses: the Leonard-led offense and the motion offense, the latter usually led by Lowry. This issue isn’t at the top of the list because Leonard is still effective as an isolation player. He ranks in the top 25 among all rotation players in true-shooting percentage.
However, his isolation play is still somewhat problematic because of its massive volume. While the Raptors’ crunch-time offense hasn’t been too bad statistically, the team resorts to isolation plays for Leonard far too often.
Raptors crunch time offense this season pic.twitter.com/kD3Eyp2xIx
— GlassHalfFultz (@pickuphoop) January 26, 2019
Many of their best end-of-game moments have come off ball movement: a catch-and-shoot jumper by Danny Green to win it in Orlando. Another one by Green off a pick-and-pop between Leonard and Ibaka. A transition play where every player touched the ball, leading to a go-ahead dunk for Ibaka. Leonard’s head-down, one-on-one attempts at heroics have been problematic down the stretch of games.
But lately, the crunch-time isolation play has leaked into the team’s offense throughout the rest of games. It’s not quite evident in the basic numbers. The team’s assists per game plummeted when Lowry missed eight of their 15 December games, but that number has been fine since then. However, the Raptors are just 23rd in the league in assist rate (assists per field goal made) for the season. Out of all the real contenders to make the Finals, Toronto is the only one in the bottom 10 of that category.
Toronto’s offense just doesn’t feel quite in sync. When Leonard gets the ball, everyone else freezes. Sure, there have been stretches when Siakam and OG Anunoby have made smart cuts to give Leonard passing lanes. Siakam and Leonard even developed a nice two-man chemistry when Lowry was out for an extended stretch.
Kawhi Leonard now has 17 assists to Pascal Siakam alone in the last 5 games. https://t.co/MoPoVSY9g6
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 13, 2019
But in general, the Leonard-led offense essentially becomes Leonard isolating with spot-up shooters around him. With everyone standing around, their value as anything but catch-and-shoot players disappears. The elephant in the room is that almost everyone around Leonard is shooting poorly, allowing defenses to collapse and send a ton of help at Leonard. When that happens, Leonard often forces the issue and hopes to draw a foul based on contact that he initiates. That strategy hasn’t panned out.
Over 69 percent of Leonard’s made field goals this season have been unassisted. Not counting his nine-game sample last season, that mark is easily the highest of his career. It’s not even close to being close. Even in the 2016-17 season, when Leonard averaged a career-high 25.5 points, only 52 percent of his shots were unassisted. That 69 percent mark doesn’t rival James Harden’s absurd level of shot creation, but it’s almost identical to LeBron James’ mark.
Leonard is not nearly the playmaker of other superstars and elite wing scorers like James, Giannis Antetokounmpo or even Kevin Durant. Leonard ranks just 84th in assist rate among rotation players, trailing high-usage centres like Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid (Antetokounmpo is 24th and Durant is 35th in that category.) Putting the ball in Leonard’s hands for longer should allow him to be more of a shot creator for others, but he’s just not very comfortable in that role.
Furthermore, Leonard’s efficiency decreases as his number of dribbles increases. The more he dribbles before a shot, the worse his effective-field-goal percentage is. That number is especially bad when he gets into long-winded isolations. His effective-field-goal percentage is just 45.5 percent on shots after seven-plus dribbles, compared to 55.3 percent or better on all other shots (That isn’t a small sample size, either – more than a quarter of Leonard’s shot attempts have come after seven-plus dribbles.)
It isn’t necessary to make Leonard create so many shots for himself from the wing. The Raptors have other playmakers and good ball-handlers who can run their motion-based offense and allow Leonard to finish possessions, rather than starting them.
2. Three-Point Shooting (and lack thereof)
One of the other main problems with the Leonard-led offense is that even if a theoretical Leonard-and-shooters system sounds nice, the latter part of that combination just hasn’t been there this season. Lowry, Ibaka, VanVleet, Wright, OG Anunoby and CJ Miles are all shooting significantly worse from distance this season than they did last year (Lowry’s shot has fallen off a cliff, but we’ll get to that below.)
Even Leonard has been a touch worse than his career average, possibly due to his increased volume of pull-up 3-pointers. He made just 30.7 percent of those shots during his last healthy season, but he attempted just 1.9 per game, compared to 2.6 this season. This year, he’s making 34 percent of those shots – a decent mark – but he’s taking more 3-pointers off the dribble than off the catch for the first time in his career. He shoots 42.4 percent, a much better mark, on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. Pull-up triples are difficult to master, and Leonard has often struggled to get his legs under him on those shots.
Danny Green has had a nice season, shooting over 40 percent from deep for the first time in four years. But he’s been the lone bright spot from the Raptors in that sense. Every other rotation player has struggled from beyond the arc, save for Norman Powell, who’s on the fringes of the rotation and doesn’t take many 3s anyway. Siakam has improved but is still unreliable, and teams will dare him to shoot 3s in the playoffs.
Somehow, Ibaka is having both the best midrange shooting season and the worst 3-point shooting one of his career. Miles was a nightmare until a brief rejuvenated stretch. Defenses will take their chances leaving Wright and Anunoby open, and those two haven’t burned anyone. VanVleet is still shooting well, but as stated earlier, he needs to be utilized more often as a catch-and-shoot threat off the ball.
With everyone shooting so poorly, it’s become harder for Leonard and Siakam to get to the rim, as teams don’t hesitate to help off Toronto’s periphery players. Valanciunas’ presence will help, as he’s the team’s best screen setter and will free up shooters a little more. That won’t be enough, though. It seems inevitable that Ujiri will bring in another shooter or two, either by trade or on the buyout market. (Wayne Ellington, Garrett Temple, and Wesley Matthews might be realistic targets.) If the team doesn’t add anyone new, it appears unlikely that Toronto’s role players will suddenly start making shots again. Come playoff time, that could be the Raptors’ undoing.
1. Kyle Lowry’s Apparent Decline
On a January 16 episode of the Lowe Post podcast, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz described Kyle Lowry’s impact as follows:
“I don’t know if there’s a player whose day-to-day production is more divorced from that effect, that positive effect, than Lowry. It simply doesn’t even matter the extent to which he’s producing raw numbers on a given night, in a given week, on a given streak. He is so essential to their success. And again, it belies any of the statistics.”
Lowry’s value has never been about the numbers. Since the Raptors first became a playoff team in the 2013-14 season, Lowry has been their leader and most important player. He’s always taken charges, defended well and moved the ball. He’s controlled the tempo and made everyone else on the floor feel comfortable offensively. He’s made timely plays, from offensive rebounds – for a 6-foot-tall point guard, no less – to huge shots.
During the first quarter of this season, Lowry did all that and more. He averaged more than 15 points and a would-be career-high 10 assists per game over the first 23 contests of the season, shooting worse than his usual standards but still above average at 35.8 percent from downtown. But after sitting out on December 1 with a back injury, Lowry hasn’t been the same since. He slumped in a big way, scoring just 15 points combined in his next four December games. After a brief recovery with two elite performances, Lowry then missed nine of the next 10 games due to that lingering back problem. Since returning in early January, he hasn’t been the same player.
Lowry has shot below 35 percent from the field and below 31 percent on threes since his return. While Arnovitz is right that the stats don’t tell the whole story for Lowry, the eye test hasn’t been kind to him either over the past month. He’s been extremely passive, giving up open looks and often just standing in the corner for full possessions after throwing the ball to Leonard. He’s not doing most of the things that make him a special player – the things that don’t show up in the box score.
(And of course, while this column was being written, Lowry was ruled out for Sunday’s game due to back soreness. This issue hangs over the team.)
With Lowry playing like this, the Raptors almost certainly aren’t going anywhere in the postseason. He’s simply irreplaceable for this team, as he always has been. Toronto can make a trade before Thursday’s deadline, and it might. But if Lowry isn’t quite right, it doesn’t matter what kind of shooter or playmaker they bring in, barring an All-Star-caliber player.
The team desperately needs Lowry to rediscover his shot. If he does, it will open up a lot for Leonard. It may fix both problems outlined above.
For one thing, Lowry’s shooting would give the Raptors three above-average 3-point shooters in their starting lineup – him, Green and Leonard – in addition to Ibaka’s midrange excellence, Siakam’s solid mark from the corners and VanVleet’s catch-and-shoot ability off the bench. A major issue for Toronto has been that Lowry and a center are a part of each of the team’s best lineups, so with Lowry shooting so putridly from deep, its difficult to put together a unit with good spacing. With Lowry out of the lineup on Sunday, the Raptors’ starters actually had more spacing with VanVleet in his place. That made it easier for Leonard to drive and post up, with more reluctant help defenders.
Lowry becoming an elite – or at least above average – 3-point shooter again would make a tremendous difference.
In addition to the increased spacing, Lowry’s shot would also free up the rest of his game, allowing him to take back some of the scoring burden from Leonard. While his number of shot attempts hasn’t dropped off much from the beginning of the season, it’s impossible to watch a Raptors game without noticing Lowry’s passivity. Whether it’s due to his back acting up or some other issue, Lowry hasn’t been himself.
The Raptors need him to be more aggressive. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean shooting more; it could just be that Lowry needs to make himself a threat, to look for his shot whenever it’s there. He should continue to be the excellent facilitator that he’s been for most of this season (though even that aspect of his game somewhat faltered in January).
Leonard might be the beautiful sunroof that shines light on this team, but Lowry is the engine. Without him, it’s all just for show. Lowry returning to his old form wouldn’t fix everything, but it’s the closest thing to a single, all-encompassing solution for Toronto. The Raptors had better hope he bounces back, and that his back injury isn’t as crippling as it currently seems to be. The fate of the franchise might depend on it.
All stats are accurate before games played on Feb. 4, 2019.