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Transformed Raptors use Rudy Gay trade as launching pad to newfound success

Since trading Rudy Gay, the Raptors have improved on both sides of the ball. (Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images) Since trading Rudy Gay, the Raptors have improved on both sides of the ball. (Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)

The departure of Rudy Gay has opened up Toronto's offense in all the expected ways, albeit to a degree that few could have anticipated. Removing a high-volume shooter with so low a return as Gay would necessarily create opportunities for the remaining Raptors. But from that shift has come a legitimate scoring boon; working outside the limitations of a ball-dominant shooter has greased the wheels of the entire offense, and fostered an attack that's both more resilient to defensive pressure and more efficient overall. Toronto has nine wins in its last 12 games to show for it, and has taken on a fun and free quality to their offensive play not unlike what Memphis experienced after unloading Gay last season. There are some players, it seems, for whom team-wide stagnation is a shadowing quality.

Yet lost in the Raptors' recent surge are their other, less narrative-friendly improvements -- particularly those on the other side of the ball. It's easy to connect the dots between Gay's offensive style and the Raptors' more general struggles to score earlier this season; when a 39-percent shooter who attempted nearly 19 field goal attempts per game is removed from a basketball ecosystem, offensive changes are sure to be the first noticed. Toronto's offensive uplift, though, has thus far been surpassed by the team's defensive gains. Since completing the Gay trade, the Raps have locked down defensively, holding opponents to 4.4 fewer points per 100 possessions. Their new marks mimic that of a top-five defensive outfit, a stark improvement over the mediocrity in coverage that had become their standard.

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Gay is not a uniquely terrible defender, though he's often a disinterested one. Essentially the same criticisms of Gay's offensive game could be applied here: For a player with such length and ease of movement, he should be capable of far more. Instead, Gay floats. His ability to match up with difficult, athletic forwards made him genuinely useful on some nights, but ultimately Gay is unremarkable on that end, a problem considering that neither he nor DeMar DeRozan -- despite the latter's best efforts -- are fully qualified to guard first-option wing threats. Together in the context of Toronto's initial starting lineup, that contributed to some woeful team defense.

That group -- which also included Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, and Jonas Valanciunas -- was by far the most heavily used for the Raptors, as it took the floor for more than a quarter of the team's minutes at the time. It should be noted that not all of Toronto's troubles can be pinned to its issues on the wing; there were deeper problems in play, from Kyle Lowry's defensive impatience to Jonas Valanciunas' inexperience. Still, one can't help but wonder if the Raptors' sudden and dramatic improvement is in some way tied to the team's shifting dynamic. The change isn't visible solely in the numbers, but in Toronto's efforts. Lowry, on top of his star-level production in the pick-and-roll, has locked back in defensively. Second-year guard Terrence Ross has stepped into the starting lineup in Gay's stead, and has been genuinely irritating to opposing wing scorers. Johnson (who has benefitted offensively from Gay's departure as much as any Raptor) has continued his work as one of the league's best under-the-radar defenders, though with slightly less mess to clean up relative to the start of the season.

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There's an urgency and a commitment to the way Toronto has defended of late that extends to the team's bolstered bench. That could well be motivated by a desire to prove critics wrong, or out of perceived necessity with the team struggling and having traded away its most talented player. But we shouldn't in any way disregard the cyclical influence of offense and defense, two worlds that bleed into one another in more ways than commonly acknowledged. Volume shooters like Gay don't merely interrupt a team's offensive flow, but throw off its entire rhythm. It's for that reason that brutal offensive and defensive stretches often coincided for Toronto; there's something deflating about a single teammate attempting so many low-percentage shots without moving the ball around or working to create lane penetration. It lulls would-be cutters into standstill observers. It undercuts any potential momentum that might be generated in transitioning from play action to play action. It can stilt the team dynamic, creating separation between a go-to scorer's operations and all other team-driven endeavors. It saps the energy from even well-intending teammates, making every trip back down the court following a clanged jumper an uphill climb.

It's all connected, with the midcourt line merely a segue. That much is evident in Toronto's newfound fervor, which has since allowed the starters to bring the flow of their quick-hitting offense into their defensive coverage. The result? The new starting five has thus far bested opponents by 9 points per 100 possessions -- a complete reversal from the -8.9 margin with Gay in the mix. That is not an accident, and while sample size issues are clearly in play, there's reason to trust both the ball movement that now fuels the Raptors offense and the carryover into the team's defensive investment.

Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.

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