Spacing, the final frontier for Raptors offence: Arthur
The new emphasis on passing and spreading the floor could help DeMar DeRozan’s mid-range game in particular.
|Report an Error|
Share via Email
We know the Toronto Raptors, or we think we do. Good team, best in franchise history, not great. They don’t pass a lot, even when they score. They struggle in the playoffs, even when they succeed. With the Raptors there are a range of possibilities, but it’s not too wide. It’s the blessing, and the curse, of the predictable upper-middle-class life. You can be comfortable, but you can’t reach too far.
But now the Raptors are trying to be something different. To become a passing team, a shooting team, one of those teams that taps into the mystical energy that comes from sharing a basketball. To be better. It’s a good idea, the right attempt, and it will run against all the instincts that made them this successful in the first place.
“I remember going to college, and college was the first reality for me,” says DeMar DeRozan, who might be the most interesting piece of the attempted transformation. “I was a star all through high school. I could do what I want with the ball, any time I want. I could shoot as many times, I could do practically anything, in a sense. In college, I felt a restriction, and . . . I didn’t understand it in college. And throughout my college career, I kept getting better and better . . . I felt more comfortable when I understood what the coach was teaching me, what he was teaching me. I figured it out. You put me anywhere, I’m going to figure it out, for myself and for everyone around me.
“I look at it as a new opportunity to find something in me that I didn’t know I had.”
DeRozan has improved his playmaking over the years — over the past six seasons his assist rate has doubled to about 20 per cent of the assists that happen with him on the floor — but then, the Raptors also threw the fourth-fewest passes of any team in the league last season, and finished last in assists, after finishing third-last in assists the year before.
Their top-10 offence has been defined by, and created by, Kyle Lowry and DeRozan. In that Eastern Conference final playoff run, they combined to take 45 per cent of the team’s shots. And it’s not like they’re surrounded by dead-eye shooters, experienced vets. How they played is what has made them big money. It’s what’s delivered their defining career success. How do stars learn to trust other players enough, over their own habits and instincts?
“It depends on the eliteness that we’re talking about, and what their true intentions are,” says veteran Raptors forward C.J. Miles. “I think when you get to a point with great guys who really want to win, if there’s something they need to change they’ll change it, because they really want to win. And then there’s some guys that are so stuck in their ways, it’s like, I’m too good for that. And there were only a few guys who were that good, that they didn’t have to change.”
Lowry and DeRozan say they know something has to change. The playoffs have always been a struggle for both players: Miles played against them in the first round for Indiana in 2016, and as he puts it, “It’s hard to play two-on-four, and two-on-five, because guys were disrespecting the other guys. And they understand that, too. They understand it was hard, and you can’t win like that.”
Miles points out that the new emphasis on spacing the floor and passing and shooting should benefit DeRozan’s polished mid-range game, because it will create space for him, options. “It’s contagious,” says Miles. “When the ball’s moving tonight, everyone’s touching the ball, we’ve all got a feel.”
But what happens when the hard games come? When they’re drowning, and instinct kicks in? How much can they change, and stay changed?
“Every year, you start out from scratch,” says coach Dwane Casey. “And that’s where we started this season in training camp with the fundamentals, the fundamentals of passing, simple fundamentals of passing the basketball. People probably saw that and said ah, that’s a high school team.”
“At the end of the day, we’re going to figure it out,” says DeRozan. “It’s me and Kyle’s team to figure it out and maximize it. And that’s what we need. We have moments like that where we have to depend on our teammates.
“Last four years, we were one way. We made it to the Eastern Conference final, but we struggled to get there. Two Game 7s. It was rough. To get to the second round last year and get swept, it forced you to understand it was time for a chance so we could go farther. You don’t want to go into the fifth season the exact same way.
“But now, having the experience in the league going into my ninth year, being able to see all forms of basketball, being able to play with the greatest players in the world . . . it’s so dramatic what everybody else makes it. For me it’s just a new book that I’m reading, trying to understand, that I’m going to master.”
Lowry has always been able to be a basketball chameleon; DeRozan has expanded past the limitations so many of us thought he had, over and over; Casey has presided over a re-creation of the offence that looked plausible in the pre-season. In this NBA, it can feel like there is a non-Golden State-division championship, and a non-LeBron Eastern crown. It can feel like what some parents tell their kids: Do your best, and don’t worry about anybody else.
Well, Lowry and DeRozan have become all-stars here, and become winners here. The Raptors matter as much as they ever have before. But they have run up against their own limitations, and now we find out if they can trust this moment of clarity to last. The question for Toronto this season will be how much bigger they can be than just themselves.