The Raptors possess one of the most unique constructs of an effective NBA offense in terms of modern play styles. Most teams trend towards “pace and space” and play with one big man and one primary ball-handler who are surrounded by three wing players, all of whom can shoot. This ideal offense would be fast paced and it would produce something efficient.
The Raptors possess so little of those attributes and are still an incredibly effective offense, one which has ranked in the top 5 in offensive efficiency over the past 2 years, and top 10 over the past 3. During this time, they have always ranked in the bottom half of the league in terms of pace and have even managed to improve on the number of possessions a game each year, but continue to slide down the league rankings all the way to second last this season.
While the Raptors don’t have a high frequency of possessions which would be classified as “fast breaks” or “transition”, the possessions which are up-tempo in nature are effective and deliberate. The Raptors rank in the bottom 10 for frequency of transition plays, accounting for 11.5% of their possessions, yet they are the most efficient team in the league in transition, scoring 1.21 PPP1. Here are a variety of ways in which they both simply and effectively beat teams in transition, regardless of how sparingly it occurs.
A drag screen is essentially a pick and roll in (semi) transition. The goal is to get all of the effects of a regular pick and roll (allow the ball handler to gain an advantage, whether it be penetration or an open shot) but without any of the hassle of the defense being set. The Raptors’ primary ball-handlers, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, both excel at getting to the rim in a half-court setting, but allowing these two to get easier paths to the rim is crucial, especially considering some of the tight spacing due to personnel.
Simple miscommunications become more numerous when drag screens are used when compared to their traditional, half court counterpart.
Here, we can see the Bulls have the advantage in terms of players that are actually in the active half of the court.
Yet, when Valanciunas sets a drag screen for Lowry, Gibson acts as the big man defender that “showed” on the pick and roll, even though that is Gasol’s role. Gibson does a poor job of impeding Lowry’s progress while Rose recovers, and allows Lowry to continue his drive to the rim. Because Gasol wasn’t active defensively from the start, he doesn’t jump in at any point.
In that same photo, we can see where Gasol’s focus was (red arrow, following roll man) versus where he should’ve rotated to (white arrow, stopping Lowry drive to rim). If he were to have done so, Moore would’ve rotated from the weak side behind him and Lowry would have had to make a difficult baseline pass to DeRozan for three, a much more palatable shot for the Bulls than an uncontested layup.
The upside of this play is that it is bound to produce a ton of penetration, which naturally leads to help defenders collapsing in on the ball-handler. As a result, Raptors’ ball-handlers have become accustomed to dishing the rock to the roll man as well as properly spaced shooters.
Similar in nature to the regular Drag Screen, a Double Drag Screen is very effective in its own right. As you might have guessed, it is the same principal as a drag screen, except there are two screeners instead of the traditional one.
The advantage gained here can be assigned to a few factors. Firstly, when using an action that preys on the lack of preparation a defense, it is beneficial to have variance, even if it is nominal. Secondly, it pulls a second big man away from the paint/rim. If the big man doesn’t come out and defend, Patrick Patterson is bound to bomb away from deep. When the secondary big man does come away from the paint, it opens up driving lanes for the ball-handler, as well as the rolling screener, both of which have opportunities to finish at the rim.
Additionally, another benefit to using sets such as these is that it allows for easy transition into other actions, such as Wide Pindowns.
Here, Biyombo and Patterson set a Double Drag screen for Lowry and unfortunately, no advantage is gained. Biyombo quickly acknowledges this and goes into the next action by screening for DeRozan. On the catch, DeRozan uses Biyombo as a shield and punishes the defender for not trailing him on his hip and drains the jumper.
More traditionally, in transition a Wide Pindown is usually set for one of the Raptors’ wing players, such as DeRozan or Ross, as the primary action. In doing so, the big men act as screeners early on in the offense to try and catch a defender sleeping. The Raptors aim for the defender to stay on DeRozan’s hip as he drives to the hoop, though he is no stranger to taking a tough shot if an easier one isn’t immediately presented.
The Raptors also like to have their wings flow through and exchange sides of the court if a Pindown doesn’t work in their favour initially. Afterwards, DeRozan will typically have a Flare screen set and work off of any separation he can get.
Similarly to the Drag Screen, a Wide Pindown early on in the clock can gain penetration, leading to an inevitable breakdown of the defense and an open look for the big man who was originally a screener.
It is clear that the Raptors have found use in their methodical, early offensive sets. They are a slower team in nature, which works in their favour. They love to get to the line and exhaust every opportunity to find the perfect driving lane to get there. While that is their M.O. as an offense, they also make great use of finding easy buckets that provide them with similar shot distribution. It isn’t as bountiful in volume Golden State's transition offense, but it doesn’t need to be. An efficient easy look here-and-there is enough to grease the wheels and keep their methodical offense chugging along. The Raptors have found a nice balance in understanding their strength, which lies in their two best perimeter players, which can sometimes take time as they find their best look, while also attacking (relatively) early when the opportunity presents itself.
1:Data collected from NBA.comAccurate as of Sunday March 13th 2016