Evaluating the Raptors Defense, Pt. 2: It’s Not All Bad But It’s Mostly Bad

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Talking about what exactly the Toronto Raptors are doing poorly on defense these days is a daunting task because there are just so many things that they need to improve and only so many words I’m willing to dedicate to the subject. Thankfully their defense has been a popular topic lately, allowing me to forego a lot of the set up for what I want to talk about by pointing to some very good work by Blake Murphy and William Lou, who make it very clear that something is rotten with the Raptors defense. If you haven’t already read those, read them. If you’re too lazy, here is the tl;dr version: opponents shoot a high percentage on their three pointers, the Raptors are not rotating or closing out effectively and it’s cause for concern but the team can definitely turn it around and get back to where they were in the first two months of the season.
The Raptors are definitely acknowledging that something has changed. Most recent Dwane Casey soundbites have been about the Raptors being “comfortable” and not playing hard enough on the defensive end. We’ve also seen the word “accountability” re-enter his vocabulary, a sure sign that he is aware that something is going wrong with the team because he started using the term a lot after the all-star break last year. The issue doesn’t seem to be “comfort” or the Raptors believing that they don’t need to put in effort on defense, if anything the opposite seems to be true: the Raptors are messing up on defense because they’re pressing too hard and are not able to play under control at the this speed.
William Lou is absolutely right that what we see on defense is the result of schematics and execution but how do we distinguish between the two? From the outside we can’t really tell if, for example, the Raptors collapse on penetration because that’s what Casey wants them to do or if they’re just wildly overreacting to dribble penetration. It’s not uncommon for the Raptors to give up open jumpers because they have 3-4 players collapsing to the rim on defense, leaving open shooters around the three point arc or foul line extended. We see it here from Terrence Ross:

…but it’s Terrence so it’s easy to think that it’s just a mistake and he wasn’t supposed to collapse to the rim. Then in a similar situation we see Raptors big men Bismack Biyombo and Patrick Patterson collapse, leaving Pau Gasol open:

It can be difficult to say exactly who is messing up here or even if anyone has broken from the plan. It seems like the Raptors would get a better outcome if Patterson picks up Gasol while DeRozan prevents a pass to Portis and Ross lingers be somewhere between the two shooters to close out, but who really knows if that’s what Coach Casey wants them to do? Given Casey’s background I think we can give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he doesn’t want most of the players running to the rim like that. The players are just scrambling.
The Raptors issues with execution extend well beyond their attempts to rotate and cut off dribble penetration. Here is a quick compilation of closeouts from a handful of recent Raptors games:

They seem to be closing out hard enough, they’re just not doing it effectively. They’re falling for pump fakes, they’re not checking their momentum and they’re letting defenders choose the middle or the baseline so the help has no idea what is coming.
We see something similar with the way the Raptors play off-ball defense:

They contest passes very hard which leaves them vulnerable to getting beat backdoor. A pass fake from the ball-handler or a body fake from the cutter is enough to send the Raptors defender flying away from the hoop to contest the pass, allowing an easy backdoor cut to the interior of the defense.
Occasionally we see this manifest in their pick and roll defense as well:

The defenders get a little over-aggressive and jump out high before the offensive players have committed to any action, leaving a wide open path to the paint.
This actually helps to explain why the Raptors opponents shoot such a high percentage from three. There are a lot of variables that go into explaining three point percentage and in any given game there is a lot of random chance at play but there is evidence suggesting that three pointers coming off of passes from the interior of the defense are made at a higher rate than three pointers off the dribble or from perimeter passes. It’s definitely not the entire reason the Raptors give up such a high percentage from behind the arc but it’s likely a contributing factor.
All of the errors we’re seeing in these clips seem to indicate the opposite of what Casey says in his soundbites: the Raptors are not complacent, their level of effort is actually outstripping their discipline and it’s causing them to make mistakes. This may be a function of having a coach like Casey, one whose fire and ability to motivate are unquestioned but may not be as proficient at teaching concepts and instilling discipline. At times the Raptors seem like a novice driver with the gas pedal floored. Most of the mistakes they make are commission, not omission, which is to say that their issue is more about what they are doing than what they’re not doing.
That brings us to a certain players tendency to gamble. DeRozan abandons the scheme almost as much as Lowry does, seeking out the big steal that can lead to the easy basket. That’s acceptable for a player with good instincts and a reasonable success rate but DeRozan has never been that player. Lowry has the instincts to pull that off which is why he’s been near the top of the league in steals per game all season and has consistently been above average in that  department for his career – he’s earned the freedom to make those gambles. DeRozan makes his gambles at inopportune times and his success rate is nowhere near Lowry’s and it leads to situations like these:

To bring it back to the coach, there is also a chance Casey may be referring to the Raptors transition defense or those moments when players seem to space out on defense when he’s referring to their effort level, but these don’t seem to issues with effort as much as they are concentration or competence. When multiple players close on the same shooter or a guy just fails to locate his man that’s not an issue with their effort, it’s an issue with their brain. Either way, it’s ugly to see:

The Raptors are getting back, they’re just not guarding anyone when they get there or multiple players are going to the same person. It’s one thing to give up transition points off a turnover or on in odd man situations but it’s not uncommon for the Raptors to fun back and outnumber the offensive players but give up a wide open outside shot or a dunk anyway.
Looking at how bad the defense has been recently makes one wonder what happened to that defense they were playing to start the season. Everything started out so well with new additions DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo seeming to change the culture of the team while the coaches implemented a new pick and roll scheme. They weren’t close to being one of the best defensive teams in the league on a nightly basis but they were good enough that they could suffer a poor offensive night and still win games comfortably against mediocre competition. It’s probably accurate to pin some of this on the absence of Carroll, if only because it increased the defensive responsibilities of DeMar DeRozan, who makes frequent appearances in these defensive lolight clips. but the issues go well beyond DeRozan’s shortcomings.
The ICE scheme still has the Raptors pick and roll defense looking solid for the season – according to Synergy they’re 4th in the NBA in points per possession allowed to pick and roll ball-handlers and while they’re last in points per possession when the roll man makes the catch they’re 10th in the percentage of possessions ending with the ball in the roll man hands. The ICE scheme is starting to show a few cracks though. The whole point of the scheme is keeping the ball handler down and to the sideline, keeping forcing him away from the screen which allows the defender to pressure him into the waiting help defender. The Raptors are late adopters of this defensive concept and the league was already starting to adjust by the time they introduced it, and two of the adjustments have been particularly effective against the Raptors defenders.
The first is having the ball handler snake into the middle of the floor, very similar to splitting when a big men tries to show or trap:

Here you can see Lillard shake off the pressure from Joseph while there’s still a gap between him and Biyombo, giving him the space he needs to potentially get inside. Patterson drops down to wall off the paint and gives Meyers Leonard a pretty clean look. That’s exactly the kind of thing that ICE defense is supposed to prevent. And just to show how difficult it is to separate scheme and execution, the issue here may be that Patterson over-helped. If Patterson were to trust Biyombo’s ability to pressure Lillard into a miss and stuck closer to Leonard the Blazers may not have gotten a clean look on that possession. We don’t really know if Patterson made a mistake or if Casey has the Raptors helping that aggressively by design.
The second adjustment is to have the screener switch sides after the guard has shifted his body up a bit to ICE the play:

Joseph sees Ed Davis and shifts a bit to get in a better position to take away the option of using the screen to the middle only to have Davis switch sides on him and screen him out of the play. No pressure from Joseph means that Lillard gets a shot a Biyombo in the open court and Biz is no match for the quicker guard.
Letting quick guards into the paint with ease is the main thing that plagued the Raptors defense last year. There were issues with closing out and help defense in general but having problems with those can only tank your defense if you have to help constantly – if you’re fairly strong at the point of attack issues with your help defense have less of an impact. The current iteration of the Raptors have to help constantly because things break down too frequently at the point of attack, and when they have to help the trust and communication don’t seem to be there so things go from bad to worse. Outside of the initial defense on the pick and roll there isn’t a lot to be satisfied with in their recent defensive play.

But that’s just how it stands now and we all know this team is capable of playing better defense because they did so to open the season and have done so for short stretches recently. If there’s a reason for optimism it comes from the fact that the Raptors defense was once rated significantly higher than this and the Raptors are due to get one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA back in the near future in small forward DeMarre Carroll. His return along with a couple of minor tweaks to the scheme and improved concentration and discipline should eliminate a lot of the mistakes featured here so the question is whether or not the Raptors coaching staff can settle this team down and make the adjustments necessary to get the team back on track.
Follow @raptorsrepublicFollow @duckshoeEvaluating the Raptors Defense, Pt. 2: It’s Not All Bad But It’s Mostly Bad originated on Raptors Republic: ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog.

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