The Toronto Raptors are having one of the most demanding NBA seasons in its rich history. Because of the new health and safety regulations that the league introduced thanks to the global pandemic, the Raptors are forced to play in Florida in order to reduce travelling and avoid the international barriers to travel. For the Canadian team, this season will resemble the bubble experience as they are away from their real home court for the entirety of the season. The same environment has produced similar struggles. Toronto started the season with a 2-8 record and have worked hard to come back into a playoff spot after that. The team looks completely different from the one of last year, as Gasol and Ibaka have left the team this offseason. That is reflected in the rebounding numbers which are the main reason for the Raptors’ struggles this season. Rebounding is one of the main factors in basketball as it secures possessions and gives more second chance possessions. The underwhelming start Tompa Bay’s new team has had could be considered as a direct result of their low rebounding this season.
Last year, the Raptors were a pretty solid rebounding team, ranking 11th in total rebounds per game. Ibaka and Gasol were patrolling the paint during the whole season, eliminating opposing centers from getting second chance points. While Gasol wasn’t grabbing the rebounds himself, he is the master of defensive positioning with good box outs, allowing the rest of the team to get easy boards. Siakam, Anunoby and Lowry all had career seasons in the rebounding category last year. Ibaka also had a career high season in rebounds per game, and intimidated opponents with his long arms in the paint. Both off them are highly missed this season as Boucher and Baynes haven’t been so successful when it comes to rebounding. The Raptors are the worst rebounding team in the league with only 41,9 rebounds per game which led to their terrible start. Considering they have to face many dominant big players in the Eastern Conference, this is worrying for Toronto who is still able to fight for the East this year. Just look at how easy it is for Embiid to get an offensive rebound here:
Siakam and VanFleet get caught ball watching and don’t focus on boxing out Joel, however hard that task is. Then, Baynes recovers but he is too small to contest an easy layup. This is something that has happened over and over during the course of this season. Raptors are in the upper half of the league when it comes to offensive rebounds allowed.
However, as of late Toronto is surging. Nick Nurse inserted Boucher into the starting line-up and it has worked wonders in the last two weeks. The Raptors have had the 5th highest defensive rating during this period, and it is thanks to Chris Boucher and Stanley Johnson. The zone is one of the favorite defensive approaches by Nike Nurse and putting Johnson in the middle gives them a lot more flexibility on that end. These two guys are very effective on defense. Boucher ranks 5th in the league in blocks per game while Johnson is a big wing who can defend multiple assignments. Anunoby has also had a great season so far and keeps improving, while Norman Powell is one of the most underrated players in the league. The defensive success has been evident. It is just weird that they are having so much of it while being the worst rebounding team in the NBA.
Good rebounding teams are always good at boxing out their opponents. Raptors’ struggles could be the result of the zone defense that they have been playing. It is difficult to figure out boxing out when you are in the zone, because you are not guarding the player, you guard space. That’s why good communication is key, and it is exactly why Gasol was such a crucial part of Toronto’s success. I’m sure it was difficult for Baynes and Boucher to quite adopt this responsibility and be the anchors of this innovative defense. Boucher is well equipped to fit into an Ibaka role for Nurse, but he needs to be given repetition to get experience of what it means to man the defense. Nick Nurse has experimented with playing Siakam at center which means that Toronto’s big men are still getting used to his system. It is remarkable that the Raptors are so good on defense that they make up rebounding by getting blocks and steals. Toronto Raptors are 2nd in steals and 5th in blocks per game. What if the rebounds are not coming because of them forcing too many turnovers? Although this approach has been very popular with Golden State’s dominance, many have failed to adapt properly, so time will tell if Toronto is on the good side of history. Small ball revolution in Tampa. Appropriate for a movie title.