Defense was the Raptors’ Achilles heel last season. That was clear to anyone who took in a game. Their offense would always rack up points, but maintaining leads or mounting comebacks was always made difficult by their leaky 23rd-ranked defense.
It was a global problem without any one player particularly at fault, so head coach Dwane Casey bore the brunt of the blame. It was a bad look, anyway, for a bench boss who billed himself as “defense-first.” But in all fairness, the roster didn’t exactly feature many stoppers.
Casey isn’t totally blameless, either. The role of a coach (or anyone in management) is to get the most out of his players, and it became evident right away that the Raptors didn’t have the personnel to run Casey’s aggressive hedge-and-trap scheme, yet he stuck with it until the bitter end.
The perimeter players were too banged up and too overworked from carrying the offense to constantly battle back into the play after chasing over picks. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both struggled with injuries while the likes of Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez were too physically limited to play Casey’s defense.
Worse yet, the Raptors’ bigs didn’t have the wheels to make so many trips to the perimeter. Amir Johnson’s ankles were shot, Jonas Valanciunas is just too slow (and lacks intuition), and playing the speedy Patrick Patterson meant making a concession on the glass.
The Raptors also struggled on the wings. James Johnson made for a versatile defender who could bridge the gap between the perimeter and the interior, but he was a spacing nightmare on the wing, especially alongside DeRozan. That left Johnson nailed to the bench while DeRozan and a disengaged Terrence Ross grappled helplessly against bigger players on a nightly basis.
At the end of the day, it’s the players who are accountable for their performance. But Casey didn’t help his cause, either. It was a big problem and there was plenty of blame to go around.
For months, fans (including myself) clamored for Casey to switch to a conservative scheme. Stop pressing stretching the bigs out to the perimeter, and keep them closer to the basket. It seemed like an obvious solution for a team that struggled with containing penetration and defensive rebounding (25th in defensive rebounding percentage).
The obvious solution was ICE, a popular tactic deployed against the league’s staple play in the pick-and-roll. The general principles of ICE calls for guards to take away the middle while guiding his man towards the sideline, while the big drops back to shield the paint against the oncoming guard. The ultimate goal is to keep the play limited to one side of the floor in a 2-on-2 between the offense and defense.
The Raptors’ scheme was the polar opposite. The defense often allowed (and sometimes encouraged) teams to go towards the middle while pressing their bigs up in an effort to pressure ball-handlers.
Both strategies are valid, and in a league awakening to the value of shooting, blitzing might very well represent the way of the future. Certainly, the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks enjoyed plenty of success with siccing their legions of lengthy wings to rope off the perimeter.
But for now, ICE grades out as the better defense, at least on aggregate. NBA.com stat guru John Schuhmann did the legwork by studying all of the league’s pick-and-roll plays last season using SportVU data. He found that teams allowed 2.1 fewer points per 100 possessions (the difference between the 6th and 11th ranked defenses) when they kept pick-and-rolls to the side, rather than the middle.
The findings aren’t surprising. ICEing works because it turns the sideline into an extra defender. It forces guards to beat two guys to get to the basket, and it makes picking out shooters difficult with a 3-on-3 coverage outside of the pick-and-roll itself.
Given the findings, it’s no surprise to find a link between pick-and-roll coverage and defensive efficiency. The five teams that forced sideline most often all ranked in the top-10 in defensive efficiency.
Conversely, the five teams who allowed middle the most struggled on defense. All five teams listed below ranked in the bottom-10. Notice the Raptors’ place on that list.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Raptors opted for a grand-scale philosophical change with respect to their defense this offseason.
It started with Casey and general manager Masai Ujiri saying that they would change the scheme to make Valanciunas’s lack of speed more palatable, which was a subtle hint to anyone who cared to read between the lines.
Their intentions were made more obvious by the hiring of longtime Bulls assistant Andy Greer. He hails from the Tom Thibodeau school of hoarsely yelling “ICE, ICE, ICE” from the bench. Scroll up, scan the charts again, and note where Chicago ranked for a sign of what to expect from Greer.
The trend has carried over to the preseason. As usual, defense was the focus of training camp, but the promises have come true. Through three games (two were televised), the Raptors’ defensive alignment against pick-and-rolls have generally resembled ICE.
Take this play from the first quarter of the Raptors’ preseason opener against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The whole way through, Lowry steers Paul toward the sideline, while Valanciunas stands at the elbow to cut off penetration. Elsewhere, all three players are covered. As Paul steps inside the 3-point line, Valanciunas dutifully shuffles his feet deeper into the paint. Staying high jeopardizes a blow-by, and staying too deep gives up a wide-open shot. Valanciunas plays it perfectly and gets Paul to take a contested long two that missed.
Here’s another example. The Clippers make an adjustment by countering ICE with a quick ball-reversal instead of playing the same pick-and-roll look with Jordan and Paul. The ball finds Wes Johnson on the other sideline, but DeRozan dutifully shifts his body between Johnson and the middle. The Clippers didn’t even end up moving into a pick-and-roll, but the Raptors were in position had they tried one.
This schematic change carried over to the Lakers game. On the play below, Lowry shades his former teammate Williams to the sideline. Williams dutifully tosses it out to Larry Nance Jr. for a ball-reversal and they try again with Jabari Brown on the other end of the floor. But Ross – like Lowry – slides over to force Brown sideline, and pressures him towards a help defender in Bismack Biyombo which yields a turnover after a poor pass.
Compare those plays to what the Raptors would do last season. Note how high Patterson hedges (also how behind Williams is on the play). That’s going to change this season.
ICEing pick-and-rolls will definitely yield more open midrange shots, but that’s preferable to consistently giving up penetration with no rim protection waiting at the basket. A roster of better defenders wouldn’t have to make the trade-off, but those are the rigid constructs of playing with Valanciunas and other poor defenders.
It’s important to note that ICE isn’t a catch-all defense. Different situations call for different coverages.
Try to ICE with Stephen Curry, for example, and he’s almost guaranteed to launch an open three. His release is too quick, his jumper is too lethal,
Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut’s screens are too dirty that if the big drops back, Curry has all the daylight he needs to launch the jumper.
Look at the first three by Curry (and then look at all the other ones). Carl Landry doesn’t step up and Curry effortlessly drains the trey.
Not being aggressive and trapping Curry is death. But so is a wide-open Draymond Green when Curry resets after a trap. That’s what makes the Warriors impossible to guard. They’ll kill you either way so how you wanna die?
ICE defenses also struggle with stretch-fours. Dropping bigs back to prevent penetration concedes the open jumpshot on the pick-and-pop. And while cutting off penetration is worth the price of an open long-two, an unguarded 3-pointer is far more costly.
Here’s an example from the Cleveland Cavaliers where Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love set up an easy shot against the Detroit Pistons. Reggie Jackson does a horrible job of pushing Irving sideline while Monroe is a good position to ICE. However, that leaves Love open for three (link to video).
It’s a simple concept, and I don’t mean to overcomplicate the point. It’s about playing the match-up. Different offenses demand different defensive counters, and there isn’t one holy grail in terms of defense. And even if the tactics are perfect, it’s still up to the players to execute. So the solution to the Raptors’ defense is not only to ICE, but to be more capable, more flexible, and more adaptive.
Again, it’s only been three preseason games, but the early returns are positive for the Raptors’ revamped defense.
First off, the Raptors added three excellent stoppers to the rotation. DeMarre Carroll is the big wing that the Raptors have lacked since Tracy freaking McGrady left in 2000. Carroll is not only a strong defender on the wing, but he also gives the Raptors a significant upgrade in toughness, rebounding, and versatility with his ability to check smallball fours. Bismack Biyombo is a strong rim protector that makes smart help defense rotations, is strong on the glass, can move his feet, and a very capable shot-blocker. Finally, Cory Joseph is a straight-up pest who will bother players to no end with his quick feet and dogged playing style.
The adaptability is there, too, in the early going. The Raptors are shifting their pick-and-roll coverage according to the match-ups on the floor, which wasn’t necessarily the case last season. They’re actually ICEing, which is already a strong start, but the team is also busting out hedges and traps when the situation calls for it.
Take this pick-and-roll involving Austin Rivers and Paul Pierce. Since Pierce is a deep threat, the Raptors blitz the pick-and-roll, much like how they did last season. Scola pressures Rivers while Joseph cuts off the swing back to Pierce at the 3-point line. Joseph then stays with a flustered Rivers before he tosses a terrible jump pass to Lance Stephenson, who was well-covered.
On another play involving the same four players, Scola managed to pick Rivers’s pocket with another aggressive trap before going coast-to-coast for the slowest dunk ever.
Compare that to how the Raptors covered Josh Smith as the roll man. Joseph and Biyombo combine to ICE Stephenson, before the reset goes to Smith. No one is near him, but that’s because he isn’t a threat to shoot. Smith promptly bricked the trey.
Again, it’s about more than ICE or any other scheme. It’s about having the right game plan for the match-up, and having enough talent on the roster to execute. Last season, the Raptors struggled on both accounts and they paid the price with a defunct defense. This season, well, it’s early, but they seem to be headed in the right direction.
Cover Photo Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports