The start of this season was a nightmare for the Raptors. They lost eight of their first 10 games, entered February with a below-average defense and saw their center position stumble from reliable strength to legitimate concern.
Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have been missed. Aron Baynes and (briefly) Alex Len have not been credible replacements. Incoming temporary patches like Stanley Johnson, Deandre’ Bembry and Yuta Watanabe have been up and down trying to find their role, and there’s been less certainty from night to night with their entire rotation. Compared with the last two years, when Nick Nurse leaned on his starting lineup more than any other coach (and had a ton of success doing so), Toronto’s starting five frequency has dropped all the way down to 22.
OG Anunoby was sidelined by a calf injury for 10 games earlier this month, and no Raptors were selected as All-Stars. (On a team with Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet was the most serious candidate, which is hopeful and worrisome at the exact same time.)
But after a Valentine’s Day loss in Minnesota against the worst team in the league, Toronto made a pivotal change to its starting five, one that may alter the trajectory of what just a few weeks ago seemed like a lost season. It’s only six games, so take what’s about to be written with a grain of salt, but since Nurse moved Baynes to the bench and opted to begin games “small” with an Anunoby- Siakam frontcourt, the Raptors are 4–2 with a top-tier defense.
Now, again, we’re dealing with a small sample size. Lowry missed four of those games with a thumb injury, and Chris Boucher replaced Anunoby in their rematch against the Timberwolves on Feb. 19. But with that new look, Toronto beat the Bucks (without Jrue Holiday) twice and split a double header against the Sixers.
After watching those games unfold it seemed like the Raptors might’ve unlocked the best version of themselves—switching, scrambling, wreaking havoc with devil-may-care aggression. In their win against Philly, they forced the Eastern Conference’s top team to play Ben Simmons at the five, something they rarely do. And it worked. With no rim protectors on the floor, Toronto bum-rushed the basket.
They also packed the paint, breaking cardinal rules (like Boucher helping off a capable shooter in the strongside corner) because they have enough length and closing speed to write their own.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors have already played Siakam well over twice as many possessions at the five this season compared with 2019–20. Those units are a problem. And, as a team that’s wanted to run ever since Nurse became their coach, they are feasting in transition. They have the personnel to excel this way, with an undersized backcourt that’s also the league’s least defensively vulnerable, Anunoby’s one-through-five versatility, Siakam’s relentless tenacity and several two-way wings who are increasingly comfortable in their respective roles.
We all know Lowry is one of the smartest defenders his position has ever seen, but when he turns into an angry badger the other team might as well punt the ball into the 29th row and get ready for the next possession.
Toronto’s offense is deadly, too, especially thanks to Norm Powell’s leap from bucket-getting sixth man to a criminally undermentioned all-around weapon. Before Wednesday night’s loss against the Heat, Powell was averaging 22 points with 52/45/94 shot splits over his previous dozen games. Last year, he shot a measly 22% from deep off the bounce. This year, flip a coin and the ball is going in. (Powell is the league’s most accurate pull-up three-point shooter, minimum 35 attempts.)
This isn’t to say Baynes has no place in Toronto. It’s more that his services are better used in specific spots, be it to battle a powerhouse like Joel Embiid or Domantas Sabonis, relieve some of the physical pressure Boucher can feel as a five off the bench or just come in and set some hard screens that detach Toronto’s frisky ballhandlers from their man. Baynes is solid. He’s also 34 years old and can make a half-court offense feel claustrophobic.
Having Anunoby makes the change so much easier. He started off on Embiid (with help from frequent double teams) when Toronto beat Philly, spent plenty of time on Giannis Antetokounmpo in both wins against the Bucks and guarded Bam Adebayo on Wednesday night. Another way to communicate Raptors’ small ball is “Siakam at the five,” but Anunoby might be the more accurate facsimile of a modern big man. More importantly, he’s the lynchpin that lets small ball work.
He’s rock solid with deceptive, cat-like quickness—an unfair combination. Watch how he helps on Furkan Korkmaz’s drive, leaps to Simmons, then pounces on Danny Green in the corner, all in about two seconds.
Or holds his ground against a rhino like Adebayo.
The Raptors are starting to peel away his inhibitions on offense, too. Anunoby is now being used as a dive man in the pick-and-roll more than ever before, which isn’t what you want to see if you play for/coach the other team, knowing a capable three-point shooter is one pass away.
Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins are two available bigs who at first blush make some sense in Toronto, but their obsolescence doesn’t really fit on a team that’s known for thinking outside the box. The Raptors should embrace their smaller groups. They were built for this to be their identity.
When lacking a traditional center the Raptors look like a team that’s shed its skin, chaos dancers who exploit their collective speed by forcing turnovers (they don’t just double the post, they ambush it) and blending the exact right amount of energy, discipline, resolve and skill in one recipe. “You’ve gotta fight sometimes when you’re undersized,” Nurse told reporters last week. “You’ve gotta fight a little harder.”
Nobody wants to see this team when they fight a little harder.
Small ball is not a lottery ticket. The Raptors won’t have quality rim protection on most nights, and their margin for error on the glass (where they rank 29th in defensive rebound rate) and against the three-point line is tiny. Adebayo gobbled up just about every Heat miss in Wednesday night’s loss, and to grind for 24 straight seconds with no traditional safety net can be exhausting, even more so during the back half of a compressed season. There are only so many times the human brain will let its body dart in and out of the paint.
The good news as it relates to the play above is that not every team has Giannis. The bad news is that going small by itself probably won’t be enough to turn the Raptors into a real championship threat. And the organization’s future remains murky thanks to Lowry’s and Powell’s looming explorations with unrestricted free agency.
Will the front office deal either one before the trade deadline? Will it stand pat or even try to upgrade what’s already there? Toronto has internal personnel questions it’ll need to answer over the next few weeks. But on the court, Nurse might have already discovered the most important one.