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The Raptors Have Lost Their Swagger. Can They Get It Back?

Toronto is off to the NBA’s most disappointing start and it seems the rest of the league has figured out its All-Star forward. What can Nick Nurse do to right the ship?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s getting late early for the Raptors, who dropped to 1-5 with a blowout loss to the Celtics on Monday. Toronto has been the most disappointing team in the NBA so far. Its biggest problem has been the regression of Pascal Siakam, who’s coming off the first All-Star season of his career. His play began to dip in the bubble and has gotten worse since then. It has gone beyond just a slump at this point. The league has adjusted to Siakam, 2019’s Most Improved Player, and now he has to figure out how to adjust back. The Raptors’ season depends on it.

Siakam scored a season-high 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting on Monday, but the double-digit defeat still revealed many of the issues that have plagued him. He hasn’t been the same player since his disappointing performance in the Raptors’ second-round loss to the Celtics last postseason. Boston has the personnel to defend him, with multiple long and athletic wings who can suffocate him on the perimeter and still contest his shot once he gets inside. After seeing Jaylen Brown shut Siakam down in the playoffs, the rest of the NBA has started putting smaller defenders on Toronto’s 6-foot-9 forward. The result has been a significant drop in points (from 22.9 to 17.6 per game) and field goal percentage (45.3 to 40.7) from last season.

The difference is striking when you compare the lists of his most frequent defenders from this season to last. The latter features a lot of 6-foot-10 and taller players (Jonathan Isaac, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Al Horford, and Tristan Thompson) while the former is mostly players players 6-foot-7 and shorter (Rudy Gay, Keldon Johnson, Josh Hart, and Brown). Defenses have figured out that they don’t need to match up with Siakam’s size. The key is matching up with his speed.

The Celtics game was a perfect example of what happens when that plays out. The Raptors raced out to a 22-10 start largely because Boston started two traditional big men in Daniel Theis and Thompson. Siakam was cross-switched on defense multiple times with Thompson, who lost him on the perimeter and allowed him to get free for two open 3s. But things fell apart once the Celtics downsized and started playing Brown, Jayson Tatum, or Semi Ojeleye at the 4. There’s no obvious way for Siakam to attack those types of defenders. Beating them off the dribble requires a level of precision and touch that he doesn’t have, and he’s not a great post scorer:

Siakam is at his best when he can attack in space and use his combination of size and speed to get to the rim. He always has been great in transition. But he hasn’t gotten as many of those opportunities this season. Not only is he dealing with different types of defenders, he’s playing in different types of lineups. He was paired with a platoon of stretch 5s last season in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. That was the best of both worlds: The Raptors had one of the biggest frontcourts in the NBA while still possessing elite floor spacing. Their entire rotation was 3-and-D players, allowing them to punch above their weight despite losing Kawhi Leonard.

That is no longer the case, with Gasol and Ibaka replaced by Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher. Baynes has the worst net rating of any player in their rotation (minus-13.2 in 122 minutes) besides Siakam. He’s shooting 20 percent from 3 on 2.5 attempts per game this season, and doesn’t have the size or athleticism to be a threat at the rim. He needs to regain the shooting stroke he found in Phoenix last season. There have been too many sequences like this, in which the Celtics collapsed on Siakam and Baynes couldn’t punish them for it:

Boucher has given the Raptors some offensive pop, averaging 12.7 points per game on 51.9 percent shooting and 33.3 percent from 3 on 3.0 attempts. The problem is that he’s so slight (6-foot-9 and 200 pounds) that he gives them the defensive and rebounding issues of a smaller team without the offensive benefits of having another ball handler and playmaker on the floor. Toronto coach Nick Nurse dusted off journeyman center Alex Len for nine minutes on Monday, but that didn’t work, either.

Process of elimination leads to one remaining option: smaller lineups with Siakam and OG Anunoby at the 4 and 5. Nurse, for all his flexibility as a coach, has never liked playing that small. He waited until the Raptors were facing elimination in Game 6 against the Celtics before he tried it. But that adjustment was the key to forcing Game 7. Siakam (6-foot-9 and 230 pounds) and Anunoby (6-foot-7 and 232 pounds) could match up with Boston’s undersized centers on defense, and shifting them up a position would make them more dangerous on offense.

Toronto would be giving up a lot of size in that scenario, but that adjustment might jump-start an offense that is no. 28 in the NBA right now. Both Siakam and Anunoby are relatively limited scorers who need the game simplified as much as possible. They need to play in more space, with more shooting and playmaking around them. It’s the one move Nurse has left up his sleeve. He has played those lineups only 12 minutes this season, with six of those coming in the fourth quarter against Boston.

To be fair, there are clear downsides. Toronto doesn’t have much perimeter size to make up for going smaller up front. They start two point guards 6-foot-1 or shorter in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, and would be choosing between two undersized shooting guards in Norman Powell and Terence Davis at the 3, or the offensively limited Stanley Johnson (6-foot-6). Davis, who has not played much after an offseason arrest for assault, would have to seize a bigger role. He had his best game of the season against the Celtics—13 points on 4-of-8 shooting and three assists—with much of that production coming when the Raptors went small in the fourth.

But Toronto still only played Boston even in those minutes. The Raptors’ biggest problem was rebounding, with Robert Williams III repeatedly punishing their lack of size on the offensive glass:

After the game, Lowry was blunt about the Raptors’ issues. “We just need to get a little bit grittier, get a little bit tougher and a little bit nastier, and have a little bit of a swagger to us. Right now we have no swagger to us. We have nothing. There’s nothing to us. Teams are looking at us like, ‘All right, let’s go eat.’”

Nurse has to try something different. Going small won’t fix all their problems, but it looks like the best idea in a bad set of options. The Raptors’ schedule won’t get much easier over the next month. They will need more offense from Siakam, even if it comes at the expense of their defense. Defenses have changed how they guard him from last season. He no longer has the same matchup advantages, or the offensive structure that allowed him to thrive. Toronto needs to force the issue by downsizing and making defenses adjust to them.