The Toronto Raptors' Blueprint for the NBA's Best Defense

Toronto has a deep roster littered with athletic, long, switchable defenders. The perfect ingredients to concoct the best defense in the NBA.

It’s been a long and wild summer. I spent nine weeks exempt from the outside world while I coached basketball in the hills of northern New York state, returning to a universe where LeBron James is (finally) out of the East and Kawhi Leonard has morphed into a Raptor.

Other significant transactions occurred throughout the NBA, but Lebron's absence in the East followed by the appearance of Kawhi in Toronto are undoubtedly the most shocking.

Despite this, some things still never change. A fair amount of people are still lukewarm on Toronto and have already written them off as a finals contender - citing Boston's depth and Philadelphia's star power. If you have any friends who’ve made a statement relative to this, they’re not your friends.

Before Kawhi’s injuries (and the following scandal in San Antonio), the NBA had three players clearly cut at the top of the pyramid: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard. The second tier had the likes of Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, etc..

People are sleeping on Kawhi, which might just be evidence that he’s a perfect fit for Toronto. With Leonard at the helm, this Raptors team can dominate any given team on any given night. Not only that - by looking at the depth chart - this could be the best team in Raptors history, and certainly become the #1 defense in the NBA.

Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi could’ve (should’ve?) won MVP in the 2016-2017 season. He was putting up about 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists, while flirting heavily with the 50/40/90 club: 49%/38%/88%. This goes along with 1.8 steals a game and an argument for the best defender in the game. If he would've won it that year he'd have enjoyed a DPOY three-peat. 

To add to his season, he looked primed to single-handedly take down the Warriors in the Conference Finals, before Zaza literally stepped in, prompting a Warriors 25-point comeback and series sweep, sans Kawhi. 

That’s a helluva’ resume, and with a healthy dose of playoff experience (NBA Champion, 2013-14 Finals MVP), he’s the perfect candidate to lead this young core back into the promised land.

He can defend all five positions (yes, all five) and he can certainly carry an offense. With immense experience and a rejuvenated persona in a brand new city - away from the laser focus coverage of American media - Kawhi embodies the ideal idol for the Toronto Raptors.

P.S. If he’s not “back and better than ever," that's okay. Kawhi Leonard at 95% of his ability is still an MVP candidate.

OG Anunoby - The Apprentice

It’s quite exciting that OG Anunoby was drawing Kawhi comparisons last season. The best part? He actually played better in the playoffs. Cool, right? OG, as a 20-year-old, was tasked with guarding LeBron in the Cleveland series.

"But LeBron destroyed the Raptors!"

Yeah, he did, but go back and watch the tape - how did LeBron score? By switching onto less capable defenders. Rarely did he just go at Anunoby and score. Their offense involved a relentless series of pick-and-rolls that repeated until someone like DeMar DeRozan or CJ Miles had to reluctantly match-up one-on-one with the king.

OG is frustratingly underrated. It's easy to see why, as his rookie class is stacked to the brim with talent, but OG Anunoby is quietly the best defender in the class and he’ll continue to be so. With Kawhi to aid and mentor him on the defensive front lines, this will not be an easy team to score on.

Danny Green - The Dream Three-and-D Savant

Danny Green is the forgotten variable of the Raptors' summer. Not only is he an ex-member of an all-defensive team (2nd-team, 2017), he’s been hitting three-pointers at 39.6% since 2011-2012. That would’ve put him third on Toronto last season:

*at least 2 attempts per game*

Player 3PA (Per Game) 3P%;
Fred VanVleet 3.4 41.4%
Kyle Lowry 7.6 39.9%
DANNY GREEN *Since 2011 4.1 39.6%
OG Anunobt 2.7 37.1%
Delon Wright 2.2 36.6%
CJ Miles 6.5 36.1%
Serge Ibaka 3.9 36.0%
Norman Powell 2.7 28.5%

Unfortunately, Green hit an efficiency hump in 2015-16. He recovered, but his three-point percentage was down to 36.3% last season. Fortunately, this minor slump may be attributed to playing through a strained groin since December.

A fully healthy Danny Green makes for a formidable rotational piece who will help Toronto on both ends. He's a smart player, and like Kawhi, he brings an aura of “been there, done that” to the table.

Pascal Siakam - A Poor-Man's Draymond Green

Siakam might be the most exciting player on the Raptors. He’s long, energetic, athletic, and has an extreme motor. He gets at least one or two layups a game from just outworking the other team in transition.

His ceiling is so, so high, and I hope he knows that because there’s a really smart basketball player inside of him who is starting to emerge more often. In footage from NBA runs this summer (which is awesome, by the way), he’s been playing a touch of point forward.

Siakam was one of the guys LeBron didn’t want to switch onto in last season's playoffs. When Anunoby was off, Pascal took the reins as his primary defender. He's a lively, hard-working forward who's overlooked from a basketball IQ standpoint. He'll be crucial for Toronto this year, and he'll be one of the key weapons in establishing the best defense in the NBA.

Kyle Lowry

Don’t think for a second that I forgot about the bulldog; Kyle Lowry. As we've seen for so long, he's a feisty defender who gets in the grill of his matchup and never plays with an ounce of fear on the defensive end.

He’s not a tall, long point guard - like a lot of the young guards coming in over the past few years - but his doggedness and savvy more than make up for it. He’s got a stocky strength to him with a low center of gravity, which helps him keep bigger guards from bullying him down low.

He doesn’t have the defensive switchability of a longer point guard (Dejounte Murray, Lonzo Ball, Frank Ntilikina, De’Aaron Fox, Ben Simmons, etc.), but he’s got the work ethic to slither his way around screens and the strength to shoulder his way through.

Lowry’s a true vocal leader, and although he’s not the best player on this team, he’ll continue to be the heartbeat. He's going to love playing with Kawhi Leonard, and I assume that feeling will be mutual.

The Others

I’m not in love with Ibaka, and despite his fun antics after a blocked shot, last season was a career-low for him in blocks-per-game (1.3) and block percentage (3.8%). He doesn’t have great switchability, but he can hold his own against most bigs and he’s got enough length to bother most shooters. I’ve never found him to be an overly savvy defender in one-on-one situations, but he’ll continue to give the crowd a pleasing thumbs-down at least once a game.

Valanciunas has grown on me over the past season, and especially during this pre-season. Since his debut in the NBA it’s been a roller-coaster of love/hate between him and I. Since he stopped flirting with three-pointers and asked them out on a date it’s been a pleasant change of pace. It helps that they’re falling at 40.5%.

Defensively, he’s a traditional slow-footed big. He’s got a decent, but not crazy wingspan. He’s got great strength and his hands are always up, but he doesn’t have a high, bouncy vertical. That being said, he works his butt off and everyone loves him. He's slowly gotten better at defending the pick-and-roll. He’s not the kind of center that will anchor your defense, per se, but he’s got the strength to fight other bigs off the block and suck up rebounds, and he’s only been getting better. To add, in today’s NBA you can have a great defense without needing a shot-blocking, sky-soaring behemoth at the back.

With Ibaka by his side to aid at the rim and a handful of ridiculously talented perimeter defenders on the arc, Valanciunas can patrol the paint and use his strength to keep almost anyone else on the outskirts of the key. He had flashes last year where he was completely locked in and really swung games with his motor and strength.

Fred VanVleet is like a mini-Lowry; small but strong, with a doggedness to his game. His length and height are below average, but he makes up for it in the same way that Lowry does. Whether it’s VanVleet and Lowry, VanVleet and Green, or VanVleet and Wright, there’s never fear that the back-court will get overpowered.

Delon Wright will be splitting backup time with Fred, and he brings a different element to the defensive side. He doesn’t have the low center of gravity and bulldog nature to his game, but he’s got length and versatility. His numbers have escalated in just about every way since his rookie year, and he was even up to 0.5 blocks per game last year. He’s not known as a lockdown defender, but he’s got the size, length, and ability to emerge as one.

Raptors fans are well aware of the struggles of Norman Powell.  Last season was rough. There's still hope he'll bounce back, and the Raptors surely hope that it’s this season. Norman made his first impact as a Raptor on the defensive end, and he can lay claim to some solid rotation minutes if he can start to make those impacts again. He’s a legitimate freak athlete, and every freak athlete can become a phenomenal defender.

CJ Miles and Greg Monroe are the two that I worry about, but that’s about it (which is pretty good, considering Nurse will be running a heavy 12-man rotation). Miles is not an awful defender, but he’s rounded out as average to sub-par. Greg Monroe is a classic low-post big but doesn't have the motor and length of Valanciunas. He’ll get hurt in the pick-and-roll, but Toronto has the prowess to cover for him. If he’s not getting his buckets on offense, he won't be on the court for very long.

The point is, Toronto's depth can make up for its limited liabilities. Plus, Nurse has the arsenal to run his own version of the defensive lineup of death…

Kyle Lowry/Fred VanVleet - Danny Green - Kawhi Leonard - OG Anunoby - Pascal Siakam/Serge Ibaka

With a deep, athletic roster - led by arguably the best defender in the NBA - Toronto has the perfect ingredients to concoct the best defense in the NBA.

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