No one is going to mistake Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey as an offensive-minded coach. He is at his best and happiest preaching defense, but even Casey acknowledges his team has to score some points to win games.
During Casey’s first season in Toronto, the team was overtly in evaluation (tank) mode and he got to ignore the offensive end of the court almost entirely. Casey improved a defensively inept Raptors team that had given up 105.4 points per game the year before by 11.4 points to the 9th lowest points allowed in the league. Unfortunately, the Raptors scoring also dropped 8.4 points and next season’s training camp started out with more of an emphasis on offense.
Blame the Raptors 34 wins last season on bad luck, the referees, injuries, player turnover and an unbelievable 4-19 start to the season, but their scoring improved 6.5 points to 97.2 points per game. It was their defense that let them down as the team gave back 41 percent of what they had gained the year before.
Heading into training camp this time Casey is going to put the emphasis back on defense and his offense will look a lot like last seasons, except where it will look very different indeed.
“We are not going to change to dramatically offensively and defensively,” Casey said. “(But,) part of the offense that will change quite a bit, (Jonas Valanciunas) has developed into the type of player that we can go to on a consistent basis, far more than we did last year. He has done a good job this summer not only scoring out of the low post, but did a good job of reading defenses, understanding when to pass, when to score, when to attack. So I would say he is going to get a big portion of his offense run through him, around him and not only just score out of the low post, but to quarterback.”
Valanciunas was drafted to be a go-to offensive player and although Casey didn’t have the confidence in him to push this aspect of the young center’s game early last season, by the end of the year however, he was seeing the ball quite a bit. Valanciunas won the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in March scoring 11.4 points on 62 percent shooting, grabbing 7.3 rebounds and getting the free throw line 3 times per game. In April, Valanciunas bumped his scoring to 14.9 points and got to the free throw line 7.7 times per game.
NBA Summer league might just be Summer League, but Valanciunas won this year’s Summer League MVP in convincing fashion by dominating in the post as he polished the various moves in the paint that he had been using during the regular season. A beefed up Valanciunas was not challenged by the level of competition in July.
Valanciunas will be used to flatten out defenses by sending the ball inside and forcing defenders to decide between single coverage in the paint on a very mobile seven-footer with good hands and feet or sending a double-team and opening up passing opportunities to the Raptors cutters and jump shooters. Casey didn’t have this option when he arrived in Toronto, but it will be a staple next season.
However, when this season starts Valanciunas will only be 21-years-old and it isn’t realistic to solely put these kinds of burdens on a player in his second NBA season. Casey needs a veteran to carry the load. The Raptors picked up Rudy Gay at the end of January last season and the 26-year-old small forward was the team’s leading scorer with 19.5 points per game.
“[Gay] is one of our leaders,” Casey said. “Whether it is by example or by voice, he has to be that leader, so called veteran leader at the ripe old age of 27 (in August) and he agreed with that. He has to take us to that next step.”
Gay is taking the opportunity and the responsibility of being the Raptors leader seriously. He finally had eye surgery to fix his distance vision and at Casey’s request, he has put on about 13 pounds of muscle since the end of the season to enable him to better cope with pressure of being his team’s go-to-guy. Gay has been on working hard on his shooting and the upside should be a much improved shooter with a more durable physique next season.
“(Gay) says he sees a lot better, his depth perception (is better),” Casey said. “He is shooting the ball a lot better. I think some of that is because he is bigger and stronger physically. He has a better base, better legs. He is doing a heck of a job with his body and that will help his vision. I have had players in the past that have had this surgery and it has helped their vision, but overall conditioning is going to help him way more.”
Where the future belongs to Valanciunas, the present belongs to Gay. Gay had to insert himself into Casey’s schemes mid-season last year. This time, the offense will be built with Gay in mind.
In the past Casey has described his preferred offense has having enough three-point shooting to spread out defenses so his cutters and drivers would have room to operate. Last season the Raptors ranked 26th in the NBA for three-point shooting, but that abysmal statistic is about to change.
Out with the oft-injured mediocre three-point shooting big man Andrea Bargnani and in with forward Steve Novak and his 43.3 percent career three-point average. Novak really can bomb away from the outside. With the Knicks, Novak played just under 20 minutes per game, hoisted 4.7 three-point attempts per contest and connected on 44.5 percent of them. He was arguably the most effective three-point specialist in the league over the past two seasons.
“Adding a guy like Steve Novak to our team, who is one of the best three-point shooters in the world is going to help our offensive output,” Casey said.
A floor spreader such as Novak makes it harder for defenses to cheat off their man to clog the driving lanes for players like Gay, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. While Gay is also expected to improve on his career 34.3 percent three-point shooting, it’s the distance challenged DeMar DeRozan who is also showing signs of finally finding the range.
A suspect long range jump shot has plagued DeRozan throughout his young career as defenses tend to sag off of him and take away driving lanes. DeRozan has range out to just inside the three-point line, but beyond that, he is a career 23.9 percent shooter. At the end of last season, however, he shot 9-12 from deep over his final three games of the season which was equally unusual for the quantity as for the accuracy, maybe things are about to change.
“DeMar has improved on his three-point shooting,” Casey said. “That was one of his major emphasis this summer and spending time with him these past couple of weeks, he has really improved that. Now the challenge for DeMar is doing it when the popcorn is popping at 7 o’clock at night whether it is in New York or Milwaukee and make sure (he can) make those shots then. A big help for us is to have that three-point threat when you do have a low post guy like Jonas.”
Coach Casey has an offense and he may finally have the pieces he needs to implement it. A big man in the post who can both score and pass, the missing three-point shooters on the perimeter to spread the floor and his assortment players that can cut or drive by single coverage when the other two aspects of the offense are working. An offense build around a big man and three-point shooters that create opportunities for others doesn’t sound all that complicated and when your head coach is all about defense, straightforward shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.
You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors