In the comment sections of a few of my offseason pieces, there have been steady debates about which position the Raptors need to improve in the offseason. With this team, I think that misses the point.
Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes were essentially the backup point guards to Fred VanVleet last year, and the Raptors were actively trying to lean into that, not pull away from it. In a perfect world, they would like VanVleet to play off the ball more, not less. Similarly, aside from Khem Birch, there really was no single player who was far more likely to play, or defend, as bigs rather than on the wing.
What we really need to focus on are skills, not positions. Traditionally, the center defends post players and sets screens, while the point guard sets up the offense and acts as a point-of-attack defender. Those links, while still largely strong, are becoming more and more tenuous, and that tenuousness is even more pronounced with the Raptors.
Accordingly, let’s focus on skills, not positions, that the Raptors need to add this offseason, and players they can target on their own roster, in free agency and in the draft, remembering that second-round picks are unlikely to provide immediate help.
More Raptors offseason content: primer | free agency targets | draft targets | John Hollinger Q&A | mailbag, parts one and two | third party trade
Between VanVleet, Siakam and Barnes, the Raptors have three players, all of whom play plenty of minutes, who can create reasonably well for others. The hope, actually, is that at least the two veterans play less than last year, not more. However, the foremost reason they played so much is because Nurse didn’t trust that anyone outside of that group could keep the offense ticking if they sat.
The Raptors had the lowest assist percentage in the league in 2021-22. That approach is not antithetical to an efficient offense, but the Raptors don’t have scorers who are so efficient in isolation that they can eschew ball movement. The half-court offense was bad in the regular season, and while playmaking is naturally tied to the issue below this one, having more creators is essential to keep defenses off balance.
Internal candidates for improvement: pretty much everybody, but especially Barnes, OG Anunoby and Malachi Flynn
Free agency targets: Malik Monk, Tyus Jones, Victor Oladipo, Delon Wright, Kyle Anderson
Draft targets: Dalen Terry, Wendell Moore Jr., Andrew Nembhard, Jean Montero
As mentioned above, a team’s playmaking tends to look a lot better when players can hit semi-contested shots. The Raptors ranked 19th in catch-and-shoot 3s attempted per game and 15th in makes. They also ranked 24th in pull-up 3 accuracy. Without VanVleet in the latter area, they were essentially non-threats.
If Siakam and Barnes are two of your primary playmakers, you are going to need more spacing. Both of them can improve their handling, but these are players with long wingspans who will only be able to keep their dribble so tight to their bodies. If every driving lane is obscured with help defenders waiting to reach in, the solution is to kick out passes. If those guys can’t reliably hit shots, there will be more frustrating possessions, which will inevitably lead to more contested 2-point shots.
Internal candidates for improvement: pretty much everybody, but especially Barnes, Siakam, Chris Boucher (if he’s back) and Justin Champagnie (ditto)
Free agency targets: Monk, Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, Mo Bamba, Otto Porter Jr., Bryn Forbes
Draft targets: Moore, Christian Braun, Jalen Williams
The conversation about whether or not the Raptors should play such an aggressive, pressure-heavy defense certainly became tiring as last season progressed. It requires a lot of energy, and given the Raptors’ best players logged more minutes than any other group in the league, it is fair to wonder if it asked too much of them.
The reality, though, is that the Raptors didn’t have an elite rim protector who would have allowed them to play a more conservative defense. Of the 200 players who defended at least 200 shots within six feet of the rim last year, Precious Achiuwa ranked 18th, allowing a 54.7 percent success rate. After that? Fred VanVleet at 39th. With all due respect to VanVleet’s ability to defend vertically, you would like a player with a bit more size being cited in this metric. (Siakam was just behind him, to be fair, on a far bigger sample.)
The Raptors are still going to skew toward an aggressive scheme, which means they should only be devoting so many resources to the issue. However, last year Barnes defended 499 shots within six feet, comfortably the most on the team, and opponents shot nearly 60 percent on those attempts. He can improve, but if the Raptors could throw out a change-of-pace option, it would be helpful.
Internal candidates for improvement: Barnes, Anunoby, Dalano Banton
Free agency targets: Isaiah Hartenstein, JaVale McGee, Mitchell Robinson, Bamba, Portis
Draft targets: Christian Koloko, Walker Kessler, Ismael Kamagate
4. Perimeter defense — particularly on smaller guards
The longer, multi-positional defenders the Raptors can throw on the floor, the happier Nick Nurse will be. That appears to be the way the league is trending, so it makes sense.
However, there are still plenty of offenses that depend on the brilliance of smaller, quicker guards, and the Raptors frequently struggled to defend those players well, especially once VanVleet became compromised by his knee injury. Tyrese Maxey’s excellence in the playoffs only confirmed that. Length is a trait that can disrupt those players, but so is lateral agility, and it felt like the Raptors lacked that at points last season.
Internal candidates for improvement: Barnes, Flynn, Banton, Gary Trent Jr.
Free agency targets: Gary Payton II, Jevon Carter, Wright, Oladipo, Cody Martin, Bruce Brown, Austin Rivers
Draft targets: MarJon Beauchamp, Braun, Moore
(Photo of Nick Nurse and the Raptors: Cole Burston/Getty Images)