Last season the Toronto Raptors could score the ball. Their 104 points per game was fourth best in the Association. Their defense was better than it appeared as well, but all too often this team failed to secure the rebound. At 14.2 second chance points allowed, the Raptors were tied for third worst in the NBA. President and General Manager Masai Ujiri had seen enough and retooled his roster to aggressively rebound this upcoming season.
For a division winner, Toronto’s rebounding was pathetic and ranked 26th out of 30 teams and their failure to grab boards came mostly at the defensive end – Ouch! It should be a lot easier to secure a loose ball or rebound after the other team shoots and Toronto did claim 73.3 percent of the defensive boards, but in the NBA, that mark was only good for 25th place and that truly stinks.
Surprisingly, the Raptors rebounding woes didn’t emanate from the starting unit. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas pulled in 52.1 percent of the available boards when they played together. Individually these players rebounding rates (shown in parenthesis) totaled up to 54 percent with the guards Lowry (7.8) and DeRozan (7.6) doing a good job, center Valanciunas (19.1) among the league’s best, Johnson (13.3) well below average and Ross (6.2) doing little on the glass out of position at small forward pulling up the rear. The lineup was a bit of mishmash, but it worked from a rebounding perspective. Sliding in James Johnson (10.8) into this unit in place of Ross happened fairly often, but only bumped their rebounding rate from 52.1 to 52.9 percent. (stats source NBA.com and basketball-reference.com)
The preferred starting unit also had a positive points-differential while they were on the floor together of +2.6 and that sounds pretty good until one remembers the Raptors as a team were +3.1 points better than their opponents on average last year.
The dilemma faced by Head Coach Dwane Casey was his second unit didn’t rebound as well, but they dominated other teams’ second units in the extreme. Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams, James Johnson, Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough had a points-differential of +17.7, so even though they only collected 49.2 percent of the available rebounds, it hardly mattered. This group hustled and outperformed what might be expected individually as Vasquez (6.3) and Williams (4.3) are not good rebounding guards, Patterson (11.6) is a poor rebounding power forward and Hansbrough (14.4) was playing out of position at center.
When Ross replaced James Johnson in the second unit (again a common occurrence), the second unit with three poor rebounding guards in it saw their rebounding rate plummet to 46.5 percent, but they still maintained a +16.4 points differential. During the regular season, it was the Raptors reserves that often picked up the starters and carried this team to a win.
Unfortunately, as Toronto found out as they were being swept out of the playoffs, after the regular season ends your opponent’s second unit either doesn’t get to play much or they are pretty good and the Raptors got exposed. Toronto’s best five-man unit was Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Hansbrough and Valanciunas. They grabbed 0.88 rebounds per minute and had a points-differential of +5.5. Maybe Casey should have stuck with this lineup longer. His successful regular season second unit was both outscored (-5 points-differential) and hammered on the glass (0.4 rebounds per minute).
The four free agents Ujiri brought in to replace Vasquez, Williams, Amir Johnson and Hansbrough are all superior rebounders and while it should be obvious the improvements don’t add up in a straight line, the Raptors are going to rebound the heck out of the ball now.
In the starting unit:
SF (+3.5): DeMarre Carroll (9.7) replacing Ross (6.2)
PF (+4.2): Luis Scola (17.5) replacing Amir Johnson (13.3)
A starting unit that could already rebound well gets stronger, plus it should be better both offensively and defensively.
In the second unit:
PG (+1.2): Cory Joseph (7.5) replacing Vasquez (6.3)
SG (+1.9): Ross (6.2) replacing Williams (4.3)
C (+3.6): Bismack Biyombo (18) replacing Hansbrough (14.4)
If the second unit gels as well as last season’s group, their scoring punch may still drop, but their defense and rebounding will improve and if Ross can keep firing three-balls at the same rate as last year, the Raptors might not enough miss Williams’ scoring quite as much as one might think. At the very least, the three new guys expected to come off the bench should be able to grab more boards than their predecessors.
There have been concerned voices raised about Scola replacing Amir Johnson in the Raptors starting lineup. Unfortunately, Scola has played most of his NBA career in the Western Conference, but the Argentine big man has been a Team Canada killer over the years, so one might think he’d be a little better known in Toronto. Scola is a pro’s pro and a lot better scorer and rebounder than Johnson. The numbers prove what the eyes have seen.
The arrival of Carroll on the other hand leaves no one in any doubt that the Raptors starting unit just got a major boost on the boards, on defense and in scoring. This is a proven young veteran with All-Star type impact replacing a developing kid who is still figuring things out.
Taken as a whole, Ujiri’s changes to the Raptors rotation have made his team tougher and they should be expected to aggressively rebound this season.
In many ways comparing Carroll to Williams is the entire thrust of Ujiri’s summer moves. Ujiri wanted a tougher team, better rebounding and defense, a team that was more in tune with the strengths of his head coach.