How the Toronto Raptors Have Reinvented Their Offense

The Raptors have shifted from being one of the slowest, most methodical offenses in the NBA to a more modern pace-and-space style. Are they better off for it?

After an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Playoffs, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri vowed that his team would undergo a "culture reset."

Many speculated that such a blunt statement most surely meant the exodus of All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, who was entering unrestricted free agency at the time, and some even called for a complete teardown of a team that simply didn't seem built to contend with LeBron James and his seven straight NBA Finals appearances.

The Dinos did have a lot of turnover this summer, with major bench pieces like Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker, Cory Joseph, and DeMarre Carroll all leaving by way of trade or free agency, but they did re-up starters Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. As much as things looked different coming into this season from a depth standpoint, the team construction at the top signalled more of the same.

What the Raptors are left with is basically the same starting five as last year (with the exception of Norman Powell replacing Carroll at small forward) and a bunch of young guys stepping into bigger roles.

While those changes (or lack thereof, depending on how you look at it) would suggest stagnation or even a potential step back for Toronto, so far in 2017-18, things seem to be working out just fine.

They currently sit at an unexciting 4-3, but two of their three losses came at the hands of Western Conference powerhouses the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs (and both those games were close), and they have the fourth-best nERD rating in the entire Association and the top mark in the Eastern Conference at 68.8. (nERD is numberFire's in-house efficiency metric. For more information, check out our glossary.)

Their record and similar starting five might say it's the same old Raptors, but the numbers suggest that Ujiri's proposed culture reset actually took place, and it's happened on the offensive end.

While the rest of the NBA has been placing more and more value on pace and spacing on offense in recent years, the Raptors have been an old-school, isolation-heavy, slow as molasses, grind-it-out with drives, free throws, and midrange shots kind of team.

As far as the drives and free throws are concerned, that hasn't really changed:

Category 2016-17 Average 2016-17 Rank 2017-18 Average 2017-18 Rank
Points on drives per game 24.2 1st 28.4 2nd
FTA per 100 possessions 26.0 5th 24.3 9th
FT% 79.6% 8th 80.6% 5th

The Raptors remain one of the most proficient driving teams in the NBA, while continuing to rank in the top-third of the Association in both free throws attempted per 100 possessions and accuracy from the charity stripe.

Where things have changed -- and changed significantly -- is, well, everywhere else:

Category 2016-17 Average 2016-17 Rank 2017-18 Average 2017-18 Rank
Pace 94.7 24th 100.0 12th
Isolation frequency 8.5% 6th 7.1% 18th
Isolation points per possession 0.98 2nd 0.80 21st
Assists per 100 possessions 19.4 30th 22.9 11th
Passes per game 274.7 27th 301.0 15th

Anyone who's watched the Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan iteration of the Raptors knows them as a slow-paced team that relies heavily on isolation plays and doesn't pass the ball a whole lot. To wit, the team has ranked in the bottom-third of the league in both assists per game and pace for each of the last four seasons.

This year, however, the Raptors have shifted gears. This is the first time in the team's 23 seasons of existence that they have averaged 100 or more possessions per 48 minutes (which is how pace is measured) -- a full 5.3 more than just last year's mark of 94.7 (which was their previous franchise high, if you can believe it).

And not only has the pace increased, so has the ball movement. The Raptors placed dead last in assists per 100 possessions last year at 19.4 and their 274.7 passes per game ranked them 27th in that category. This year, they rank in the top-half of the league in both assists per 100 possessions (22.9, 11th) and passes per game (301.0, 15th).

As far as isolation goes, they rely on it a lot less in 2017-18. Last year, they resorted to isolation more than all but five teams in the NBA, and now currently rank 18th in the league in frequency of their possessions ending in isolation.

That's a seismic stylistic shift.

And the cherry on the sundae is their abandonment of the midrange:

Category 2016-17 Average 2016-17 Rank 2017-18 Average 2017-18 Rank
% of FGA from 0-3 feet 25.4% 27th 30.0% 9th
% of FGA in the midrange 15.3% 13th 5.9% 28th
% of FGA from 3-point range 28.9% 22nd 37.3% 4th

The Raptors have gone from ranking in the bottom-third of the league in both percentage of shot attempts taken directly at the rim and from three-point range, to the top-10 in each. Meanwhile, they've gone from ranking 13th in the percentage of their attempts that come from the midrange to 28th, dropping from 15.3% to a mere 5.9%.

One of the driving philosophies most associated with the concept of analytics in hoops is the idea that midrange shots are highly inefficient and should be avoided, since players hit them at a lower percentage than other two-point shots taken closer to the tin, and stepping back just a few short feet makes your shot worth a whole extra point.

We see this principle at play most with hyper-efficient offenses like the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, and now, all of a sudden, the Toronto Raptors -- possibly the last team anyone would've expected to adopt this particular school of thought.

Now, let's see if the suddenly modern Raptors can sustain this new style of play and if it makes any difference when it comes to making LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers less of a lock to come out of the Eastern Conference this time around.