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Raptors' small-ball experiment this season will be must-watch

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The versatile "big wing" is frequently lauded as the ideal basketball player archetype. Six-foot-seven to six-foot-nine and capable of varied scoring, varied defensive abilities, and varied positional outlooks. This player provides their coaching staff with a multitude of options and ample creative license in the development of offensive plays and defensive schemes — the stuff basketball-brainiac dreams are made out of.

As championship seasons have gone by over the years, analysts have noted the present theme regarding successful teams being led by such players, and there has been a concerted effort throughout the NBA in the last half-decade or so to accumulate these guys, not only to bolster rosters, but to also defend the oppositional titans that fit the bill.

It was Celtics head coach Brad Stevens who summarized this stylistic change back in 2017, following the drafting of Jayson Tatum.

"I don’t have the five positions anymore," the coach stated. "It may be as simple as three positions now, where you're either a ball-handler, a wing or a big... It's really important. We've become more versatile as the years have gone on."

The last four championships are fitting examples, all of which featured the talents of the "two-way big wing" in Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The league’s natural response has been to develop defensive talents capable of stifling this player archetype, especially since not every organization will experience the opportunity to draft or persuade a unicorn to join their roster. A demigod may not fall into a front office’s lap, but there may be a way to challenge these stars who repeatedly challenge teams with the fluidity in their abilities...and it seems the Toronto Raptors may be hoarding the answer.

Like many players on the Raptors, OG Anunoby, left, and Pascal Siakam are known for their versatility. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Like many players on the Raptors, OG Anunoby, left, and Pascal Siakam are known for their versatility. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

The theory looks solid on paper: in order to defend these players, find other players with similar speed, athleticism and size to make life a little more difficult for them. But despite such theoretical soundness, there’s been some understandable hesitancy in going all-in with this game plan. The presence of star centres throughout the NBA creates a reluctance to discard traditional team structure. Who will defend the Joel Embiids and Nikola Jokics of the league if the court is chock-full of undersized bigs?

I believe it’s a matter of picking your poison. Teams opting to head down the road of “strategic revolution” will see getting bodied under the rim as the necessary evil after gaining the ability to switch every pick-and-roll executed on the court. And with coaching as comically (and refreshingly) experimental as Nick Nurse’s, the swarming, doubling, shading, and funnelling defensive schemes that will be born out of this season will be an endless wealth of comedic and analytical content.

So what do your 2021-22 “you must be this tall to play” Raptors look like? Well, they look like Precious Achiuwa, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Dalano Banton, Scottie Barnes, and Yuta Watanabe— just to name the players that fit the idealistic prototype most snuggly. The Raptors will execute this stylistic approach at a scale we’ve not yet seen in the NBA, and there’s no doubt other teams will be watching closely — considering it’s been an approach others are looking to skew towards soon anyways.

But what has allowed Toronto to go all-in with “small ball” basketball that emphasizes versatility above all else (with conviction we’ve not seen before) is an ecosystem of comfort and trust between ownership, the front office, and coaching staff.

With trust present throughout this chain of command, there’s a flow of communication and belief in expertise that becomes evident in team building. Ownership leaves the drafting process up to the front office experts (made hilariously evident by the then-shocking selection of Barnes with the fourth pick), and the front office trusts the input and opinion of its coaching staff.

Contracts for Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and Nick Nurse have been recently signed, a championship has been recently won, so why not test the effectiveness and sustainability of this style as a means to fast-track a rebuild and give the team an identity— rather than have it tank and stumble its way into one?

We’re all itching to see this basketball in practice, and Ujiri summed up the reasoning behind the Raptors’ modern approach most succinctly,

“We’re going to create our own direction," Ujiri said. "We don’t have to move in the way the league is moving. The NBA is such a copy-cat league.”

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