Since taking over as head coach, Nick Nurse has turned the Toronto Raptors into one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
According to NBA.com, the Raptors held opponents to 106.8 points per 100 possessions in Nurse's first season as head coach, a rate that put them behind only four teams - the Oklahoma City Thunder (106.5), Indiana Pacers (106.0), Utah Jazz (105.3) and Milwaukee Bucks (104.9) - for the best defensive rating in the league.
They've been even stingier this season. In giving up 104.9 points per 100 possessions, only the Bucks (101.6) have a better defensive rating than the Raptors.
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While neither of those marks were quite enough to put them at the top, New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick says there is one particular thing the Raptors do better than any other team in the league on that end of the floor. The Raptors came up on the latest episode of his podcast, "The JJ Redick Podcast," when Redick and The Ringer's Ryen Russillo were talking about how much the NBA has changed over the decades, the focus quickly turning to defence.
It prompted Redick to say the following about Toronto's rotations.
"Part of the thing with switching and getting back to your original matchup is people are too far away now," Redick said. "You're basically inviting playing in rotation, and playing in rotation in today's NBA is the one thing you don't want to do. It's the hardest thing to guard. Once you get scrambling, it's impossible.
"This is what makes Toronto so crazy to me. They did it last year, and obviously we played them seven games in the playoffs. They do that better than any team I've ever seen. Ever. It's like there's telepathy and they know where each guy is going to be at all times. Because it is random. Like, rotations - you're not getting swing, swing every single time. One guy may fake a pass and drive, and it's just like there's a guy there, there's a body there at all times with them.
"It's actually remarkable."
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It helps that the Raptors have a number of veterans on their roster who can defend multiple positions. According to data collected by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus and Patrick Miller of The BBall Index, Toronto has three of the most versatile defenders in the league this season in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. Beyond them, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell can defend both guard positions, as well as some forwards, while Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are both solid anchors at centre.
Together, they have the versatility and collective IQ to execute Nurse's scheme to perfection. Last season, it helped them win the first championship in franchise history. This season, it's helped them build the second-best defensive team in the league despite losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, two of the league's best defenders at their respective positions, in free agency for nothing in return.
How well they rotate isn't something that's easy to measure, but it becomes clear how in sync they are when watching them play.
Take this play from this season as an example:
I broke down the intricacies in an article already, but the TLDR version is that the Raptors move as one. Everyone has an eye on their defender and the ball. Every switch is done with purpose and at the perfect time. Everyone is in position to either help or close out on their assignment. And once the shot goes up, everyone crashes the glass to prevent the Philadelphia 76ers, who have a size advantage at every position, from getting a second chance opportunity.
As I wrote at the time: "It might look simple when broken down, but there aren't many teams whose rotations are as smart and crisp as Toronto's. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse deserves a lot of credit for that, not only for installing the system that he has, but for getting the most out of every player, from Lowry and Siakam at the top of the depth chart to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher further down."
It's even more impressive that the Raptors have been able to defend at the level they have this season considering the amount of games they've missed due to injury. They're a well oiled machine at this point, one that can hang with any team in the league because of how well they defend regardless of who is on the court.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.