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The Raptors Are Trying to be at the Forefront of Defensive Innovation with Their Versatile Roster

The Toronto Raptors are trying to push the limits of roster construction with a more versatile roster than ever before
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There was a moment late in that 2020 playoff series against the Boston Celtics that the Toronto Raptors thought they found something special. They’d watched night after night as Kemba Walker ran pick-and-rolls right at Toronto’s two bigs, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, forcing the immobile bigs to either step up and switch or sag off in coverage. Walker generated 54 points on 46.2 offensive possessions in that series, per NBA Stats, and Raptors coach Nick Nurse had seen enough.

Early in the fourth quarter of Game 6, Toronto decided to go small. Ibaka checked out and in came OG Anunoby to join Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Pascal Siakam. On paper, this should have been a move for more offensive firepower. It was a lineup with the Raptors' most explosive offensive players. But instead, something else happened in the final minutes of the game, into overtime, and late in Game 7. That small-ball lineup smothered the Celtics. Boston’s deadly pick-and-rolls were useless against Toronto’s switchable and versatile lineup that held the Celtics to just 59 points in 68 possessions.

Bingo!

“After we played in the Bubble, one of the things we talked about was how small we played at the end there and the success we had with playing small,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said during his 2020-21 year-end press conference.

But for some reason, Ujiri seemed to forget all about the small-ball success when free agency rolled around in 2020. Instead of leaning in to the smaller, switchable lineups, he signed a pair of traditional bigs, Aron Baynes and Alex Len.

Whoops!

This year, the Raptors aren’t making that mistake again. They’re not just leaning in to versatility and switch-ability, they’re almost bubbling over with players between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-9. On opening night, 12 of their 17 players will be at least 6-foot-6 and they’ll be the only team in the NBA without a single player 6-foot-10 or taller.

This strategy isn’t entirely new in the NBA. The better part of the last decade was dominated by the Golden State Warriors who rode their small-ball, switchable, so-called “Death Lineup” with the 6-foot-6 Draymond Green at center to three NBA championships. Nobody, however, has ever pushed the limits of versatility quite as far as these Raptors are trying to.

“That’s the evolution of basketball,” said Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes who spent his college days at Florida State where the Seminoles are also at the forefront of this switch-everything defensive evolution. “Having those versatile players that can do everything and being able to pass, to finish, score, shoot the ball. It's the evolution of basketball. What it’s becoming.”

The Raptors under Nurse have traditionally been a unique team defensively. They’ve been hyper-aggressive, pressuring ball screens, double-teaming and blitzing superstars, and doing whatever they can to force turnovers. This year, they’re just revving that up even more.

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“First of all, we believe in ball pressure. We believe in trying to get into the basketball and we think that letting people handle the ball with freedom and ease is not something we want to do,” Nurse said on Raptors media day. “We want to try to be disruptive. As usual, I think that we will be.

“I think all the kind of same sized guys a lot of the times gives you a lot more switching to do and that goes along with switching to disrupt, not just switching to slide along, but switching to get in there and jar the ball loose and change patterns and cut offenses off and things like that. And I also think that all the length should enable us to play a lot more zone.”

Even veteran point guard Goran Dragic is amazed by what Toronto is trying to do this season. In his 12 years in the NBA, he said he’s never been on a team as athletic and physically gifted as this one.

“It’s definitely different. If you put Dalano [Banton] at the point guard, he's what, 6-9. That's a problem,” Dragic said Tuesday. “Then the two guard is OG, and then when Pascal gets back, you’ve got Precious [Achiuwa], Khem [Birch], and it's a lot of length.”

All that switching, however, should make things difficult on the group just under 6-foot-6. The Raptors are going to be asking their guards to step up and take on forwards much bigger than them. They’ll be asking the maybe 6-foot-1 VanVleet to hold his own against guys nearly a foot taller than him, at least until everyone can rotate. It’s a tall task for the not-so-tall VanVleet, but nothing he’s not already used to.

“I already play big so that’s not really an issue for me,” VanVleet said Tuesday. “I’m telling you, I don’t notice it. I’m so crazy in my head, everybody is the same height. It hurts me sometimes but for the most part, I don’t notice it. … To me, I learned how to play defense at an early age so it’s not really about how tall you are. How good are your feet are, how good are your instincts, and what’s in your chest?”

In this copycat league, the Raptors are trying to be the cats at the forefront of the change. They’re trying to look ahead to a future where defenses can actually hold their own against the brilliant offensive evolutions of the modern game. If they can do it, the NBA will be on notice and the copiers won’t be far behind.

Further Reading

Raptors Roster Rundown: what to expect from Toronto's final 17

OG Anunoby is poised to become the guy for the Raptors with Pascal Siakam out early

No matter what the Raptors decide, Sam Dekker is finally at ease