Thoughts about Toronto's preseason, weighing the team's expectations relative to their overall performance.
Preseason has just come to an end, heralding a new NBA season to come. Over the course of the last few weeks, the Toronto Raptors played five preseason games, amounting to three wins and two losses.
Plenty could be gleaned from watching these games, especially reflecting back on them with key expectations in mind.
On media day, Dwane Casey spoke about Toronto's antiquated offensive gameplan. According to Dave Zarum, he said that the team will have to adapt to trends in the league or, hopefully not literally, die. Ever since then, analysts, commentators, and fans have been anticipating a revamped offense built on ball-movement and three-point shooting.
Additionally, given the departure of several important players this offseason, people have been expecting certain players to come back this year much improved. As is the tradition amongst Raptor fandom, speculation that DeMar DeRozan will return as a deadeye from beyond the arc remained a mainstay of offseason basketball gossip. CJ Miles was also reported as being a guy with in-the-gym range, and honestly, he hasn’t disappointed... more on that in a bit. On top of those expectations, there was plenty of talk about the backup point guard role, with some suggesting that Delon Wright or Fred VanVleet fill the gap that Cory Joseph left.
Basically, the Raptors went into the 2017 preseason with a lot of expectations placed on them, self-imposed or otherwise. Now that preseason is over, it's important to look back and explore whether Toronto has met the mountain of expectations towering over them.
Ball-Movement and Three-Point Shooting
Similar to the other 28 team’s in the NBA, the Raptors are trying to modernize their offense à la Golden State. They’re striving to diversify where they score, and how they score.
Over the last few seasons, the Raptors have earned a reputation as one of the worst passing teams in the league. They averaged just over 18 assists per game last season, a benchmark definitely in need of improvement. Also, the Raptors only averaged 24 three-point attempts per game, another mark that the team needs to improve should they want to stay relevant in the league.
Based on their overall preseason performance, the Raptors have shown a concerted effort to get better in both areas. Per Josh Lewenberg, the Raptors never topped 30 assists in a game last season, a mark which they've topped twice already in their short preseason. They've also significantly increased the amount of three-point shots they've taken. Through five preseason games, the Raptors averaged almost 42 attempts from distance per game... that's not a typo.
Even so, the measurable increase in passing and shots taken from beyond the arc is somewhat deceiving. The numbers aren't super indicative of Toronto's actual progress.
While the Raptors have done a better job at racking up assists, the ball hasn't been moving as naturally as it does in Boston or Golden State's offense. The offense has been running predominantly through Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, only instead of scoring, the duo have been looking to pass more frequently. They've both averaged five assists per game through Toronto's preseason contests. While Lowry and DeRozan are obviously effective players, the lack of legitimate ball-movement has allowed defenses to really key in on Toronto's main offensive weapons.
The lack of constant, natural ball-movement, where a team moves the ball with no agenda whatsoever, might have also been responsible for the major increase in three-point shots attempted. Toronto hasn't converted on many of their threes, having connected on only 30 percent. Watching the games, it seemed like an abundance of Raptor threes were being jacked up towards the end of the 24-second clock. Aside from Lowry and DeRozan, guys seemingly struggled to create their own shots, so they settled all too frequently for long three-pointers.
Take Toronto's matchup with the Portland Trailblazers as an example. In the second half of that game, they shot more threes than any other field goal attempt. In the fourth quarter, the team literally attempted only threes until the halfway mark, when Jakob Poeltl converted on a layup. There's no way that all those threes were good looks. They were shot because poor ball-movement forced guys who aren't necessarily good creators to chuck up bad shots at the end of possessions.
Heading into the regular season, the Raptors really have to start moving the basketball without an agenda. They need to pare down their dribbling and move the basketball more freely. Doing so should keep the defense on their toes, leading to much better looks from deep.
Thoughts on a few Key Players
Contrary to what fans had been hoping for, DeRozan doesn’t seem to have improved from beyond the arc. It's a very small sample but through five games, he’s only converted about 20 percent of this three-point attempts.
DeRozan did, however, improve another facet of his game that could go a long way in helping the Raptors. Even though the team moved the ball poorly as a unit, DeRozan showed off good court vision and crisp, purposeful passing. He's averaged five assists per game over the preseason and has looked the part of a secondary facilitator.
Check out the video below. DeRozan kept his head up on a lot of plays and found teammates in great position, whether it be Jonas Valanciunas rolling to the basket or Delon Wright cutting baseline.
If DeRozan is willing to sacrifice some of his shots, it could pay dividends for the team.
CJ Miles, for instance, is a guy who could really benefit from playing in a system with better ball movement.
CJ Miles has made a name for himself in the NBA as one of the premier three-point shooters, and so far he's lived up to that reputation. Miles has excelled coming off the bench in preseason basketball, providing some veteran leadership and instant offense. He went off against the Chicago Bulls, dropping an efficient 27 points in only about 20 minutes of play.
Miles will get consistent minutes in the sixth man position after a very solid preseason showing. It's safe to say that at this point in time, Miles has easily met expectations.
And he's not the only one on the Raptors to do so either.
Valanciunas also looked pretty good throughout the preseason. He flashed an ever-improving post-game, and he’s shown good ability to pass the ball quickly off the catch. There were instances in the preseason where Valanciunas looked, dare I say, Jokic-esque. Against the Los Angelas Clippers, Valanciunas dropped four assists, which doesn't sound like much until you realize that's a career mark for him.
Defensively, however, Valanciunas is still a work in progress. He doesn't have the foot speed to keep up with players on switches, and he consistently got burned when trying to close out on stretch forwards. This is an area that he'll have to continue working on heading into the regular season.
Guys coming off the bench mostly played to expectations. Nobody, with the exception of CJ Miles, really jumped out.
The pairing of Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet on the same line was pretty interesting though. People expected Wright to fill Cory Joseph's role as the backup point guard, however, he didn't look super confident running the offense. VanVleet looked much better in this respect, but his size made him a bit of a defensive liability. When Wright and VanVleet were paired together, they seemingly compensated for each other's weaknesses. Wright is the better defensive player given his frame and his quickness, VanVleet is the better offensive player given his ballhandling and shooting ability.
Coach Dwane Casey should consider pairing the two together more frequently in the regular season. Doing so might help with Toronto's depth issue on the wings.
Toronto's Overall Performance
Based on their preseason performance, the team has taken some legitimate steps to improvement. They've got the basis of a good offensive system based on ball-movement and three-point shooting in place, now they just have to refine it.
Further, individual players look as though they're ready to contribute in big ways. DeRozan looks more comfortable as a distributor. Miles oozed confidence in several preseason performances. Even JV took some steps in the preseason.