3 early-season trends that provide optimism for Raptors' offence

The Raptors are off to a middling 6-7 start, but a look under the hood provides reason for optimism.

The Toronto Raptors are 13 games into the 2023-24 season and have managed both promising wins and concerning losses on their way to a 6-7 record.

Getting adjusted to a new coach and a new offence has led to some understandable bumps and bruises. However, taking a look at some early-season trends, there may be some optimism for the Raptors’ offence moving forward.

*Note: All stats accurate as of Nov. 19

The Raptors' offence is showing signs of improvement. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)
The Raptors' offence is showing signs of improvement. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Guard scoring woes inside the arc

It’s no secret the Raptors came into this season with a short rotation of quality NBA guards, relying heavily on consistent performances from Dennis Schröder and Gary Trent Jr. to make up for the lack of an experienced backup guard on the team. Both have been finding their way early in the season.

Schröder is continuing to learn his new teammates and build chemistry, while Trent Jr. gets accustomed to a full-time bench role, learning to find his spots in a new offence. While both are relied upon to provide much-needed spacing to the Raptors’ half-court attack, it has been their play inside the arc that has served as an indicator for Toronto's overall success so far this season.

In wins, both guards are shooting around 60% from inside the arc, while shooting less than 34% in losses. The Raptors' offence makes use of the defensive attention their forwards and centres command when cutting and rolling to the rim to warp the defence and create advantages to score from. While one result of this is creating open 3s, another is the pockets and driving lanes that spring open in the painted area.

So why have Schröder and Trent Jr. struggled inside the arc? It appears to come down to inconsistent finishing and suboptimal decision making.

Let's look at some examples.

Here, the Raptors run a pick-and-roll with Jakob Poeltl setting a good screen to put Malcolm Brogdon behind the play. Poeltl then rolls hard to force Deandre Ayton to play the middle, where he's unable to commit to either Trent Jr. or Poeltl. Trent Jr. does a good job of getting Brogdon on his hip and creating the pocket of space he needs to get off his floater. This is solid process on offence and creates a good shot in the paint with a minimal contest. However, Trent Jr. has struggled to finish these, shooting just 24% (5-of-21) on non-restricted-area paint shots this season — far below the 49% he shot on these same looks last year.

On this next play, Schröder comes off a screen and draws the attention of Daniel Gafford in drop coverage, who slides over to protect against Schröder’s downhill speed. Poeltl rolls into the gap below the free-throw line and Deni Avdija steps into the paint to provide help in case of a pass to the roller. Schröder makes the decision to rise up for an elbow jumper with a strong contest from Tyus Jones. This is an example where Schröder could have made a better decision by setting up a pass to Poeltl in the gap, where he could then finish over top with a floater in an area of the floor where he has shot 51% over the past two seasons. Poeltl also could continue rolling, engaging Avdija as a help defender, leaving Jordan Poole to decide which of Scottie Barnes and Gradey Dick to leave open for 3.

It is still early in the season, so we should expect Trent Jr.’s finishing to regress back to his career averages, and the chemistry between Schröder and Poeltl to improve. However, early on, these have been trouble areas in the Raptors' losses.

Pascal the postman

Pascal Siakam struggled to start this season while finding his place in head coach Darko Rajakovic’s new offence. In doing so, Siakam was regularly playing off-ball, and struggled to find ways to get to his spots in the middle of the floor and the low block.

The Raptors have done a better job recently of finding Siakam in the post, where he has been absolutely feasting on mismatches this season, with his performances against the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics being among his best of the year.

Per Synergy, amongst players averaging at least two post-ups per game, Siakam is tied for third in the league at 1.24 points per possession, and gets to the free-throw line on 24% of his post-up looks. A key reason for this success has been the Raptors’ ability to find him early in the shot clock, and Siakam’s ability to make quick 0.5 offence decisions to attack off the catch, shoot over the top, or pass out of doubles to an open cutter or shooter.

Siakam is shooting 58% from inside the arc this season, which is his best mark since the 2018-19 campaign. It is not a surprise the Raptors are playing their best basketball on both ends during his minutes on the floor.

Scottie Barnes the primary ball-handler

One of the biggest questions entering this season was how Barnes would fare in the role of primary ball-handler as the Raptors began the post-Fred VanVleet era. Barnes has been tasked with leading inexperienced bench units and running a Raptors offence that incorporates more movement and passing. This naturally leads to the chance for more turnovers.

In October, the Raptors were ninth-worst in the league in turnovers. So far in the month of November, they are 13th, and a large part of that has been because of Barnes' growth. In the first five games of the season, Barnes managed a whopping 19 turnovers against his 27 assists, including a costly error late in the fourth quarter in a loss to the Chicago Bulls. Barnes took accountability in his post-game press conference and these past eight games have shown how quickly he has adapted, with 51 assists on just 13 turnovers — a near 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Through an uneven start, the growth areas are clear. The Raptors are finding their way through new teammates, new roles, and new coaching. How well they gel moving forward will dictate their success.