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November 25, 2009
NBA Extremists
The All-O, No-D Toronto Raptors

by Kevin Pelton

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When Bryan Colangelo left the Phoenix Suns to become president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors during the 2005-06 season, there was an easy assumption that Colangelo was going to create :07 Seconds or Less North. It didn't happen. When the Raptors turned things around the following season, it was more with improvement on defense than on offense, and Toronto has never played at a fast pace since Colangelo's arrival. Yet in his fourth full year at the helm--and what I called in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 his first chance to put his full stamp on the Raptors, because of the departure of long-time head coach Sam Mitchell--Colangelo has put together a team that is in many ways more extreme than the Suns ever were.

It's been reported, most prominently by ESPN.com's John Hollinger (Insider only), that Toronto has posted the league's best Offensive Rating thus far, as well as its worst Defensive Rating. On its own, that's a mean feat, one accomplished just twice since the NBA-ABA merger and not in the last 25 years. (The Raptors' semi-dubious predecessors: the 1978-79 Houston Rockets and 1981-82 Denver Nuggets.) But saying the team merely has the best offense and worst defense in the league actually understates the magnitude of the kind of extremism we're seeing in Toronto. It's very early, but so far the Raptors have both the best offense and the worst defense since the merger, as measured by percentage above or below league average.

Team            Yr     ORtg   LgRtg   Adj
-----------------------------------------
TORONTO       09-10   117.6   107.4   9.5
Dallas        03-04   114.1   104.2   9.5
Phoenix       04-05   116.6   107.4   8.6
Dallas        01-02   114.0   105.8   7.8
Phoenix       06-07   116.1   108.1   7.4
Dallas        02-03   112.7   104.9   7.4
Sacramento    03-04   111.8   104.2   7.2

If nothing else, the Raptors have a pretty good shot at being the best offense that was not run by Steve Nash, a title currently held by the 2003-04 Sacramento Kings. Yet their defense has been even worse relative to the league.

Team            Yr     DRtg   LgRtg   Adj
-----------------------------------------
TORONTO       09-10   117.7   107.4  -9.6
L.A. Clippers 98-99   111.5   103.4  -7.8
Seattle       05-06   115.9   107.7  -7.6
Denver        98-99   111.2   103.4  -7.5
Orlando       03-04   112.0   104.2  -7.1
Dallas        92-93   117.2   109.4  -7.1

Needless to say, none of those other teams made the playoffs. In fact, three of the five changed coaches midseason. Only one of the five coaches made it all the way to the next year (the Clippers' Chris Ford).

If we add teams' percentages above or below league average on offense and defense, we essentially get their point differential. The Raptors have been outscored on the season, but just barely, as follows from the fact that they have been slightly worse on defense than they have been good on offense. If we instead subtract the adjusted Defensive Rating from the adjusted Offensive Rating, we get what I call a team's "bias"--the amount by which their offense is better than their defense. Here, Toronto is blowing away anything we've ever seen in the modern NBA.

Team            Yr     AdjO    AdjD   Bias
------------------------------------------
TORONTO       09-10     9.5    -9.6   19.1
Dallas        03-04     9.5    -4.3   13.8
Denver        81-82     7.2    -6.6   13.8
Seattle       05-06     3.8    -7.6   11.5
Dallas        01-02     7.8    -3.1   10.9
Milwaukee     02-03     5.5    -4.5   10.0

To the extent that there is a precedent for what the Raptors are doing this season, it's the early-decade Dallas Mavericks of Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Don Nelson. (It's not the Suns; in their most extreme season, 2004-05, Phoenix's bias was only 9.1.) Yet even those Dallas teams could be bothered to play defense every once in a while, ranking 24th in the league in Defensive Rating in 2001-02 and 26th in 2003-04.

If the Raptors' situation is truly a problem--there are worse things, after all, then playing near-.500 basketball, especially against a schedule that has been one of the league's 10 hardest in the early going--I'm not sure it is one that is easily fixed. The natural tendency is to believe that the route to success for an imbalanced team is to improve the weakness while maintaining the strength. Sometimes that works, as it did for the Mavericks under Avery Johnson, but it can also backfire as it did on the Suns a year ago.

In this case, it seems especially clear that the same things holding back Toronto's defense are responsible for the success of the offense. The Raptors have all the tools for success scoring the basketball, boasting shooters at virtually every position (the worst in the starting lineup might actually be the shooting guard, rookie DeMar DeRozan), a post-up threat in Chris Bosh, good passers in point guard Jose Calderon and small forward Hedo Turkoglu and the ability to run one of the league's most dangerous pick-and-rolls with either Calderon and Turkoglu on the ball, Bosh rolling and Andrea Bargnani spacing the floor.

Taking out the weak defenders in the starting lineup, especially Calderon and the poor-rebounding Bargnani, would mean sacrificing on offense. The trade-off doesn't seem to make sense for Toronto. Plus-minus numbers offer some confirmation for this notion. Though the starting five has struggled on defense, 82games.com indicates it has outscored opponents by about seven points per 100 possessions. Only one reserve in the Raptors' rotation has a substantially positive net plus-minus--guard Marco Belinelli, who is not exactly a defensive stopper.

Inevitably, coach Jay Triano must take some of the blame for a defense this weak no matter how bad the personnel. Still, the offense has exceeded expectations entering this season, which points in Triano's favor. While SCHOENE accurately predicted Toronto to be 29th in the league in Defensive Rating, the Raptors' offense was projected to be about average. Part of this discrepancy can be explained by the impact of Turkoglu's passing and Bargnani's shooting, which have helped their teammates, but no one anticipated Toronto to be one of the best offensive teams in NBA history. So it's not clear that a change on the sidelines would help either.

For the most part, I think the Raptors--at least for this season, beyond which everything is a question mark because of Bosh's impending free agency--are what they are. They are bound to regress toward average on both offense and defense because it is rare to play at such extremes at either end, let alone both of them at the same time. Still, most projections had Toronto around .500 (pessimistic SCHOENE being an exception) and that's more or less where the Raptors are now. It just turns out they are taking a more unique path to get there than anyone anticipated.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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