After suffering a third consecutive postseason defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Toronto Raptors decided a change was needed. The team moved on from head coach Dwane Casey shortly after their second round exit, even though he would later be named the 2017-2018 Coach of the Year.
Toronto promoted from within, naming former assistant coach Nick Nurse as their new head coach. Nurse is the mind behind the famous Raptors summer pickup games, where corner 3s were worth four points and midrange 2s were minus-1. His tactic worked, as Toronto took the third-most 3-point attempts per game in the league last season. This, in part, led to the Raptors ranking third in offensive rating, behind only the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.
The high marks didn't stop there. Toronto finished fifth in defensive rating and third in net rating. In fact, they were the only team in the league to finish in the top five of all three categories. They also finished with the second-best record in the league, the second-highest average point differential and second in FiveThirtyEight's ELO ratings, a measure of a team's overall strength compared to the rest of the NBA.
Still, it wasn't enough. For the second straight season, LeBron and the Cavs swept the Raptors in the second round of the playoffs. LeBron has historically dominated the Raptors, and Toronto is a cumulative 2-12 against Cleveland in the postseason the past three years.
Fortunately for the Raptors, their core has now outlasted LeBron's tenure in the Eastern Conference, as the 14-time All-Star decided to head west for Los Angeles this offseason. Toronto's biggest roadblock to the NBA Finals has left, and the team is now under new stewardship with Nurse. The question now is can they capitalize on the opportunity and compete for an NBA title.
Did the window close?
Public perception has the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers as the heavy favorites to win the LeBron James-less Eastern Conference next season. Both teams are viewed as having title odds in the same territory as the Rockets, the team that took the Warriors to a Game 7, and the Los Angeles Lakers, the team that now has LeBron.
Toronto lags far behind, grouped in with the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs, competitive teams that probably won't contend for a conference title or win the NBA Finals.
Startling NBA Championship odds from @LVSuperBook:- Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) July 3, 2018
Number of teams at 100-1 or worse: 21
That's probably selling the Raptors short. Toronto has finished in the top three of the Eastern Conference each of the last three seasons, and while a top three seed lines up with the third best title odds in the Eastern Conference, their distance from the top seed has never been as substantial as the current Vegas odds.
Toronto's sustained success should give them more equivalent odds to the Celtics and 76ers, but Boston is coming off of a season in which they went to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals without two of their three highest-paid players. Both players figure to be healthy for the start of the 2018-19 season, and continued progression from young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can be safely assumed. The Celtics also have Al Horford, who made All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive Second Team, as well as Brad Stevens, who finished third in Coach of the Year voting.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, has a trio of high lottery picks. While Markelle Fultz appeared in only 14 games as a rookie, Joel Embiid finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season and Ben Simmons beat out Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year. Surrounding them in the backcourt is a First-Team All-Defender in Robert Covington and one of the most lethal shooters on the planet in JJ Redick.
The hype and expectations for both teams are high. Loaded with a mix of young talent, experienced veterans and quality head coaches, Boston and Philadelphia are in a position to be major Eastern Conference players for years to come.
Toronto, however, might be able to jump ahead of both of them.
Matching up with the favourites
Let's start with the 76ers. The biggest thing we learned in the Boston-Philadelphia playoff series is that Embiid struggled on defence out on the perimeter. For all his wonderful talents, Embiid seems to not have the quite the level of lateral quickness needed to guard high pick-and-rolls at the highest level of competition.
For example, here is Embiid twice allowing a wide open Horford 3-point attempt on a pick-and-pop:
Here is another example, this time of Embiid unable to stay in front of Jayson Tatum after a switch, which results in a layup:
The Raptors have two facsimiles to Horford and Tatum in Serge Ibaka and DeMar DeRozan. If Embiid leaves Ibaka on a pick-and-roll, the 28-year-old is a threat to knock down 36.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s. If Embiid is switched onto DeRozan out near the 3-point line, one of the best high volume drivers in the NBA last season can use his athleticism to get past the 76ers big man off the dribble.
The best way to get Embiid out on the perimeter would be to use a closing five lineup of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, DeRozan, C.J. Miles and Ibaka. This isn't terribly different from the Raptors' closing lineup last season, as they utilized VanVleet and Lowry together, and it was very effective. This five man unit features five players that are all shooting threats, meaning Embiid has to come out of the paint. This results in more room for driving and attacking the rim, with the 76ers' best shot blocker being drug out into space.
As odd as it might seem for Toronto's offensive strategy to be attacking the guy that just finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, there are only so many creases opponents are going to give up at the highest level. Teams have to relentlessly attack those creases until the other team proves they can effectively stop them.
On the other side of the court, Toronto may have an advantage as well. The Raptors were rather adept at not allowing teams to shoot from distance last season, as they allowed the second-fewest opponent 3-point attempts per game. At present, given all the information we have at hand, both Simmons and Fultz project to be non-shooters. If Toronto doesn't have to stick to Simmons and Fultz like glue, this will allow the defence to pack the paint. Toronto was already stingy at the rim as a defence last season, sporting the second-best defensive field goal percentage on opponent shots in the restricted area. The ability to sag off shooters to crowd the lane will only help them in this regard.
When matched up with the Celtics, Toronto should look to emulate what the Warriors, Rockets and Cavaliers did last year in the Conference Finals or the Finals: continuously set a screen until they get the defender they want switched onto the ball handler. Against the Warriors, the Rockets tirelessly ran screen after screen until Steph Curry was left guarding the ball. The Cavaliers did the exact same thing in the NBA Finals, and the Warriors returned the favour by hunting Kevin Love. The Raptors should do this with Kyrie Irving as the target.
If Nurse wants to be more conventional about it, he could run small-big pick-and-rolls with the goal of getting Irving onto the big. Jonas Valanciunas or Jakob Poeltl would have such a size advantage against the five-time All-Star in the post that help would have to come from somewhere, opening up breaks in the defence elsewhere for the Raptors to get a quality shot attempt.
Defensively, if the Celtics' closing lineup next season is Irving, Gordon Hayward, Tatum, Brown and Horford, then there isn't a non-shooter to sag off. Due to this, the Raptors could look to defend Boston the same way they defended Houston last season.
On small-big pick-and-rolls, Toronto played aggressive conventional pick-and-roll defence, with a big (Valanciunas or Poeltl) slamming the pick while the point guard (Lowry or VanVleet) fought over the screen and got back into the play. Against Houston this can result in Clint Capela on the business end of some alley-oops, but Horford isn't the lob threat Capela is.
On pick-and-rolls not involving a big, Toronto switched everything across all positions. With so many talented offensive creators, this can help eliminate the chance of Irving, Hayward or Tatum sprinting downhill with the defender already in a disadvantageous position.
The end game
None of this will matter if the Raptors fail to address their second-biggest Achilles heel in the Lowry-DeRozan era.
For whatever reason, Toronto resorts to isolation offence at the end of a close game that typically stalls. The Raptors were 17th in net rating in clutch time last season, with a -3.4 mark. This statistic is only for last season, and a minuscule 161 minute sample size, but it is indicative of an issue that has plagued this team for the past several seasons.
This is why Toronto promoted Nurse. Something needs to change during these crunch time situations in order to reach - and possibly win - the Finals. Nurse is the architect that constructed the Raptors' new offence last season, so the franchise has entrusted him with leading this group to new heights.
Fixing the team's end of game woes is the key to surpassing Boston and Philadelphia. Nurse's success with the team may ultimately depend on if he can improve this particular area. In order to do so, Nurse may even look to the 76ers organization for his messaging.
No matter what offence Toronto has run over the years, when the score is close late in the game, the team instinctively bleeds the shot clock before looking to Lowry or DeRozan to create offence by their lonesome. If Nurse can preach to the team to continue playing the same brand of basketball in the last five minutes that they played in the first 43 minutes, the Raptors can claim the first Eastern Conference title in franchise history.
Whatever happens, it better work, because this is the opportunity Toronto has been waiting for.
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