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Toronto Raptors

How have the Toronto Raptors changed under Nick Nurse?

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Nick Nurse (NBA Getty Images)

The Toronto Raptors entered this season with a lot of questions, one of the biggest being how they would look under first-year head coach Nick Nurse.

While Nurse's time with the franchise will likely be judged based on the success the Raptors have in the playoffs, where they fell short time and time again under Dwane Casey, the returns to this point of the season are encouraging. In addition to being one of only four teams to have a top-10 offence and defence, they have almost the same record through 75 games than they did last season, an impressive feat considering the amount of roster turnover and injuries they've dealt with.

But how much have the Raptors actually changed under Nurse?

One of the many ways to answer that question is by looking at Play Type data to compare how they scored in previous seasons to this season, much like we did when looking at how Kawhi Leonard's game has changed with the Raptors.

You'll find 11 different play types on NBA.com, but let's focus on the four the Raptors are scoring the most frequently in this season.

The reason the 2016-17 season is also included is because Nurse was credited with changing the identity of the Raptors last season as an assistant coach. By putting the three seasons side-by-side, it's easier to see how the Raptors have evolved under Nurse's influence.

When looking at the graph, the biggest thing that jumps out is how much more the Raptors are scoring in transition. It's been a point of emphasis for Nurse, who told Holly MacKenzie of Raptors.com before the season that he's a believer in "getting the ball up the floor and trying to take advantage of transition opportunities."

Now a full-time starter, Pascal Siakam has benefitted the most from Nurse's "attacking style," as he ranks in the top-10 in total points scored in transition. He has been incredibly efficient in the open court, ranking in the 82nd percentile with an average of 1.28 points per possession, which is a better mark than LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo to name a few of the league's renowned transition scorers.

Leonard has also been a force in transition this season. Kyle Lowry less so as a scorer, but he's always looking to punish teams for missing shots and turning the ball over by pushing the pace, making him an ideal point guard to quarterback Nurse's offence.

With the three of them leading the way, the Raptors rank behind only the Sacramento Kings in transition scoring on the season. That's quite the difference from 2017-18, when they ranked 11th in transition scoring, and 2016-17, when they ranked 16th.

Another notable difference is how the Raptors are scoring in isolation and pick-and-roll, some of which has to do with the stylistic differences between Leonard and DeMar DeRozan.

Whereas DeRozan consistently ranks near the top of the league in pick-and-roll scoring, Leonard has never been the type of player to lean heavily on one particular play type. Pick-and-rolls are his preferred way of scoring, but it's his ability to score in so many different ways that makes him one of the best offensive players in the league.

However, Leonard is generating more of his offence in isolation this season than he ever has before. He alone has made the Raptors one of the league leaders in isolation scoring, a surprising turn of events considering the motivation behind the changes they made last season was to be less reliant on one-on-one scoring.

It'll be interesting to see if that becomes a problem in the playoffs again. As efficient as Leonard has been as an isolation scorer this season, the Raptors have been incredibly reliant on his shot creation late in games, perhaps too much so. According to NBA.com, his usage rate of 39.4 percent in crunch time is the sixth-highest mark in the league among players who have appeared in at least 20 games.

Marc Gasol should help in that regard, as he gives the Raptors someone else who can make plays when teams load up on Leonard in the postseason.

MORE: Should Gasol continue to start at centre?

Finally, the Raptors aren't scoring with the same frequency on spot-ups under Nurse as they were under Casey, but there are a couple of reasons why:

  1. CJ Miles wasn't able to build off of last season's success. Miles was one of the best spot-up scorers in the league last season, both in terms of productivity and efficiency. He struggled with his shot in the 40 games he played with the Raptors prior to the trade deadline, knocking down only 31.4 percent of his 3-point attempts.
  2. The Raptors aren't starting two bigs anymore. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas started at power forward and centre in Casey's last season as head coach. With Valanciunas being more of a traditional big man, it forced Ibaka to become more of a stretch four. This season, Nurse has started one big and brought the other off the bench. That better plays to Ibaka's strengths as a scorer, as he's being used far more in pick-and-rolls.

The latter might be the best move Nurse has made as head coach. Not only because it has turned Ibaka into the player the Raptors hoped he'd be when they signed him to a big extension, but because it's also paved the way for Siakam to have a breakout season.

We'll soon find out if that along with the other changes Nurse has made helps the Raptors exorcise their playoff demons.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs. All statistics are up to date as of March 28.

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