How the Raptors can fill their skill gaps this offseason
In the comment sections of a few of my offseason articles, there have been constant debates about what position the Raptors need to improve in the offseason. With this team, I think it misses the point.
Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes were essentially Fred VanVleet’s backup point guards last year, and the Raptors were actively trying to build on that, not move away from it. In a perfect world, they would like VanVleet to play the ball more, not less. Likewise, aside from Khem Birch, there really wasn’t a player who was much more likely to play or defend as a big than on the wing.
What we really need to focus on are skills, not positions. Traditionally, the center defends the post players and sets up the screens, while the point guard sets up the attack and acts as an attacking point defender. Those ties, while still largely strong, are becoming increasingly tenuous, and that tenuity is even more pronounced with the Raptors.
As a result, let’s focus on the skills, not the positions, the Raptors need to add this offseason, and the players they can target on their own roster, in free agency and in the draft, remembering that second-round picks aren’t likely to provide immediate help.
More Raptors offseason content: Primer | free agency goals | goal projects | Questions and answers about John Hollinger | mailbag, parts one and two | trade levels
1. Secondary game
Between VanVleet, Siakam and Barnes, the Raptors have three players, all playing a lot of minutes, who can create reasonably well for others. The hope, in fact, is that at least the two veterans play less than last year, not more. However, the main reason they played so much was that Nurse didn’t believe anyone outside of that group could sustain the offense if they were sitting out.
The Raptors had the lowest assist percentage in the league in 2021-22. This approach isn’t contrary to an effective offense, but the Raptors don’t have markers so effective in isolation that they can avoid ball moves. The half-court offense was poor in the regular season, and while the game naturally relates to the problem below it, having more builders is key to keeping defenses off balance.
Internal improvement candidates: just about everyone, but especially Barnes, OG Anunoby and Malachi Flynn
Goals of free agency: Malik Monk, Tyus Jones, Victor Oladipo, Delon Wright, Kyle Anderson
Goal projects: Dalen Terry, Wendell Moore Jr., Andrew Nembhard, Jean Montero
As mentioned above, a team’s play tends to be much better when players can hit semi-contested shots. The Raptors ranked 19th in catch-and-shoot 3 attempts per game and 15th in makes. They also ranked 24th in Pull Accuracy 3. Without VanVleet in the latter area, it was mostly non-threats.
If Siakam and Barnes are two of your main playmakers, you’ll need more spacing. Both can improve their handling, but they are players with a long wingspan who will only be able to keep their dribbling so tight against their body. If every lane of traffic is obscured by help defenders waiting to enter, the solution is to kick out the passes. If these guys can’t hit reliably, there will be more frustrating possessions, which will inevitably lead to more contested 2-point shots.
Internal improvement candidates: just about everyone, but especially Barnes, Siakam, Chris Boucher (if he’s back) and Justin Champagnie (ditto)
Goals of free agency: Monk, Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, Mo Bamba, Otto Porter Jr., Bryn Forbes
Goal projects: Moore, Christian Braun, Jalen Williams
3. Rim protection
The conversation about whether or not the Raptors should play such an aggressive, high-pressure defense has certainly grown tiresome over the past season. That takes a lot of energy, and given that the Raptors’ top players have logged more minutes than any other group in the league, it’s fair to wonder if that’s been too much for them.
The reality, however, is that the Raptors didn’t have an elite rim protector that would allow them to play a more conservative defense. Of the 200 players who defended at least 200 shots from within six feet of the rim last year, Precious Achiuwa ranked 18th, allowing a 54.7% success rate. After that? Fred VanVleet in 39th place. With all due respect to VanVleet’s ability to defend vertically, you would like a player with a little more size to be quoted in this metric. (Siakam was right behind him, to be fair, on a much larger sample.)
The Raptors are always going to move towards an aggressive plan, which means they should only devote so many resources to the matter. However, last year Barnes defended 499 shots from under six feet, comfortably the most on the team, and opponents shot nearly 60% on those attempts. He can improve, but if the Raptors could provide a change of pace option, that would be helpful.
Internal improvement candidates: Barnes, Anunoby, Dalano Banton
Goals of free agency: Isaiah Hartenstein, JaVale McGee, Mitchell Robinson, Bamba, Portis
Goal projects: Christian Koloko, Walker Kessler, Ismael Kamagate
4. Perimeter defense – especially on small guards
The more the Raptors can throw long, multi-position defenders on the ground, the happier Nick Nurse will be. Seems to be the trend in the league, so it makes sense.
However, there are still plenty of offenses that rely on the brilliance of smaller, quicker guards, and the Raptors have often struggled to defend those players well, especially once VanVleet was compromised by his back injury. knee. Tyrese Maxey’s playoff excellence only confirmed that. Length is a trait that can confuse these players, but so is lateral agility, and it seemed like the Raptors were lacking that at certain points last season.
Internal improvement candidates: Barnes, Flynn, Banton, Gary Trent Jr.
Goals of free agency: Gary Payton II, Jevon Carter, Wright, Oladipo, Cody Martin, Bruce Bowen, Austin Rivers
Goal projects: Mar Jon Beauchamp, Braun, Moore
(Photo by Nick Nurse and the Raptors: Cole Burston/Getty Images)